“I Have No Right To Change This Qur’an” – Lessons From Muslim History, Lessons From Black History

وَإِذا تُتلىٰ عَلَيهِم آياتُنا بَيِّناتٍ ۙ قالَ الَّذينَ لا يَرجونَ لِقاءَنَا ائتِ بِقُرآنٍ غَيرِ هٰذا أَو بَدِّلهُ ۚ قُل ما يَكونُ لي أَن أُبَدِّلَهُ مِن تِلقاءِ نَفسي ۖ إِن أَتَّبِعُ إِلّا ما يوحىٰ إِلَيَّ ۖ إِنّي أَخافُ إِن عَصَيتُ رَبّي عَذابَ يَومٍ عَظيمٍ

“When Our Clear Signs are recited to them, those who do not expect to meet Us say, ‘Bring a Qur’an other than this one or change it.’ Say: ‘It is not for me to change it of my own accord. I follow nothing except what is revealed to me. I fear, were I to disobey my Lord, the punishment of a Dreadful Day’.”Qur’an 10: 15

“Afro-Christianity served as a means of asserting African American humanity and agency within the dehumanizing confines of slavery. In fact, Afro-Christianity has at times meant all things to a wide number of thoughtful scholars, especially as a tool to dismantle the arguments of Ulrich B. Phillips and Stanley M. Elkins. To Herskovitz and Sobel, Afro-Christianity demonstrates the vitality of African traditions despite the racist, conformist pressures of American society. For Lawrence W. Levine and Charles W. Joyner, slave Christians reveal the triumph of African American cultural creativity over the stagnating influences of forced labor and physical deprivation. Finally, Eugene D. Genovese and John W. Blassingame use Afro-Christianity to assert the slaves’ sense of community and personal resistance against the onslaught of white oppression.”

Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870 by Daniel L. Fountain

Muslims in America – What Comes After Resistance?

The American Muslim community is currently embroiled in a struggle against the injustices being perpetrated by the Trump administration. As to whether these actions are truly injust or simply a matter of selective outrage, fueled by a model minority narrative, remains to be seen. But one question which hovers over American Muslims is what is their fate, post-resistance?

In reading Daniel L. Fountain’s Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870, one is inspired to, drawing upon the religious history of black folks in America, ask the question: will American Muslims adopt the world-views, mores, and religion[s] of their “masters”? By this I mean to compare the history of African Americans and their conversion to Christianity to American Muslims and their future conversion to liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism. In order to make this inquiry clear we must look at why and how Africans and their progeny converted to Christianity.

Anecdotal historical accounts of African religious life in antebellum America feeds us a narrative in which African slaves and their progeny converted to Christianity during their tenure as slaves. From this perspective we are left with the assumption that Christianity played a major role in the lives of slaves. However, recent scholarship gives a more convincing insight into the reality that Christianity did not come to play a significant role in the majority of African American lives until after emancipation. According to Fountain (amongst others),

“more than 60 percent of the slaves surveyed indicated that they were not Christians while enslaved (emphasis mine)1.”

My point being here is to challenge the notion that Christianity was a form of slave resistance. Instead, I argue that, since Christianity did not gain significant ground amongst African Americans until post-emancipation, it was more a means of assimilation than resistance. Fountain quotes nineteenth century physician and all around social agitator, Thomas Low Nichol, as saying,

“[t]he Southern people are eminently religious, and their negroes follow their example (emphasis mine)2.”

Whereas in the nineteenth century, the religion of America — and those who stood in position to impart “freedom” to slaves — was Christianity, the religions of America today are increasingly liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism, and thus, my concern is, will American Muslims embrace the religions of those who stand ready yet again to impart “freedom” to American Muslims? While some have balked at the heavy-handed tone in a recent article penned to American Muslim activists, I am equally concerned about the temptation for American Muslims to go down the same road as their previous American brethren did. In fact, as Fountain argues, it was,

“the expectation and delivery of freedom [being] the leading factor for African American conversion to Christianity3.”

The question remains: have the descendants of African slaves gained freedom and have their expectations been met? Many would argue that true freedom, the ability for self-determination, has not arrived yet. And likewise, in light of liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism (what I will term here as scientism), can these philosophies fulfill their promises to American Muslims4? For it is precisely the same gambit, the same offer, and the same temptation, I see American Muslims engaged in both in terms of embracing liberalism and the like, but also in an articulation of Islam that is pitched as resistance, and nothing more. If, quoting Fountain again, “under slavery, Christianity … did not meet most slaves’ needs … most did not convert”5 then what of an Islam that does not meet Muslims needs, particularly as Americans? It is here I believe most of the hard work needs to be done and thus should be the primary focus of scholars, for it is also the reason why so many Muslims, particularly the youth, look for truth-claims (even false ones) elsewhere6.

Resources 

1. Fountain, Daniel L. Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Pg. ix.

2. Ibid., 7.

3. Ibid., 5.

4. Jay Tolson, in the Fall 2016 edition of The Hedgehog Review, writes, “scientists began to wonder uneasily about whether scientific progress was compatible with scientific truth”. Tolson, Jay. “From the Editor”. The Hedgehog Review. http://iasc-culture.org/THR/index.php.

5. Fountain, 5.

6. Manley, Marc. “Between Political Theories and Truth-Claims: American Muslims and Liberalism”. Marc Manley – Imam At Large. www.marcmanley.com, 21 Jan. 2017.

Keepin’ It One Hunned – Thoughts on Muslims, Race and Morality

On a recent trip to Nashville where I was asked to speak on Muslims and social justice at Vanderbilt University, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the local Muslims in Nashville. The following is an informal conversation between myself and “brother Todd” on a variety of topics. This is part one of a two-part conversation.

“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

*Warning: the material covered here is adult content. Young people should listen with their parents.


[Direct download]

This post is part of the Keepin’ It One Hunned series.

Paying the Price For Our Lack of Vision

I’ve been resisting writing and posting during Ramadan but I opted to put out one small post. I pray everyone’s Ramadan is rewarding, redeeming, and fulfilling.

One of the most memorable lines from the Star Wars franchise was Emperor Palpatine’s cruel admonishment of Luke when he cackled, “you shall pay the price for your lack of vision!” This chastisement was swiftly followed by searing bolts of blue lightening. If it weren’t for the timely intervention of Luke’s at-one-time sinister father, Darth Vader, Luke may have met a very unfortunate fate.  In what has also become now a cruel twist of fate, American Muslims are now paying their own price for lack of vision, as the United States now increasingly turns on Muslims, demonizing and terrorizing them, not unlike this recent incident in New York, where a mosque was attacked by a small pack of marauding teens. Similarly to Luke’s blunder, American Muslims simply did not adequately prepare, in this case, for life in America. Where is our Darth Vader in our time of despair?

Sadly, Islam in American, in its heretical inception—referred to as the First Resurrection via The Nation of Islam—did a far better job of indigenizing Islam.  The Second Resurrection [Islam 2.0?], consisted of both immigrant Muslims and new orthodox converts, who were initially unconcerned with the dominant culture’s views of Islam, and thus chose to either live anonymous lives in their new found homes—vis-a-vie through the door of whiteness—or in the case of Blackamerican Muslims, chose to live new lives that had little to do with the existential realities as colored folks living in a post-Jim Crow America. Both groups lived in a fantasy; a bubble.  Of particular interest to immigrant Muslims, whiteness has been the gateway that many if not most immigrants have successfully integrated into the American social landscape.  This created a dichotomy in American Islam in which immigrant Muslims increasingly turned a blind eye to the underside of assimilation: whiteness, and all of the unearned privilidges it entails. Blackamerican Muslims, having no such option, opted to simply limp along, paroting their immigrant counterparts without the Players Club incentives. Much to the dismay of [immigrant] Muslims, the 9/11 attacks did away with any hopes of Muslims being considered white/American, and thus we arrive back at our “price” for “lack of vision”. In another twist of ironic fate, blackness and its legacy of civil rights engagement [i.e., its holy protest against white domination and supremacy] seems to be the last bastion of hope for both communities. It is the only social modality that is seen and recognized as viably America: out of immigrant and indigenous Muslims, it’s the only one that’s socially acceptable, if not preferred. Perhaps if immigrant Muslims had not uncritically flocked to the banner of whiteness [I can hear Admiral Akbar shouting now, “it’s a trap” – or “it’s a twap”, however you prefer your phonetics] and Blackamerican Muslims had not been so quick to abondon blackness, we might very well be in a completely different situation today.

The Nation of Islam, and subsequently its splinter group, led by the courageous Warith Deen Muhammad, charted a vision of Islam [by Islam here, I mean as it was socially expressed by the NOI, and not by the normal rigors of classical Muslim theology] that sought to place the cares, concerns, and proclivities of [Black] American Muslims at the heart of its agenda.  And while the WD movement has also fallen on hard times, it still alludes to the crux of the current social predicament.

In many ways, Muslims in America were afforded a tremendous blessing post-9/11. Public sentiment towards Muslims was somewhat tarnished but by and large, the cloud of negative perceptions of Islam were held at bay, only occasionally making their way in to the public arena.  In fact, there was a notable calling amongst non-Muslims that the 9/11 attacks were perpetuated by a few terribly misguided souls and that Muslims and Islam were not to blame.  American Muslims, instead of capitalizing on this opportunity to push forward efforts to indigenize [not assimilate] themselves to their social, cultural and political landscapes, simply rested on their laurels.  Both sides of the indigenous/immigrant isle have been equally to blame.  Native-born Muslims still continued to favor a brand of Islam that was more about cultural acting than getting down to brass tax and most immigrant Muslims were so devastated at the quandary of being abandoned on the doorstep of whiteness that most of the efforts out of that community have been mostly assimilationist at best, if not simply down-right floundering.  So again, where is our Darth Vader in our time of need?

Simply put, it is my belief that if Muslims do not solve this issue [if it is already not too late], then Islam will suffer a fate worse than persecution: irrelevancy.  And by issue, I mean to address what is at the heart of mainstream America’s growing resentment towards Islam. I believe this to be mainly aesthetic: people simply do not like the way Islam looks and feels as a result of not knowing what Islam’s story is, or more precisely, what the American Muslims’ story is. And American Muslims have failed in telling their own story because they have yet to craft one. Narrative is crucial to survival in America; if you don’t have one, you don’t belong. Perhaps it’s not too late to stop, reflect, and take stock of our condition, our situation.  Let us look at examples from our common cultural past that have succeeded: the Nation of Islam as well as the American Jewish community, who have critically understood the necessity of story and narrative as a primary means of not only survival but also of flourishing. To delay any longer would be akin to another favorite Star Wars quote: “almost there … almost there …” – and we all know what happened next after that.

Cross posted on Tumblr.