African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory

Hat tip to Khalifa for passing this on. And while we may be occupied with more-than-earthly matters today, perhaps we can take a look at this over the next couple of days and reflect upon it. I have a few thoughts of my own I will share on it shortly.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary. ….History shows that it does not matter who is in power…those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they did in the beginning.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro.

Let me say from the outset that if you’re faint of heart or easily ruffled, pardon my having included you on this note. One would think that in quoting a social commentary from 1933 that its ideas would be anachronistic or at least irrelevant by 2010, but I find that as an African American Muslim its words ring disturbingly poignant and applicable. Between the Muslim world and America, and between history and orthodoxy, African American Muslims are in a social purgatory of agenda and mission…of identity and relevancy..and between citizenship and complacency.

Let me clarify my use of the term purgatory. Social Purgatory: Living effectively in no sphere of mainstream society whether religious/spiritual, professional, economic, or cultural. .. And belonging neither comfortably or whole-heartedly to the African American community or the broader Muslim community. We stand on the fence at a time of key transition. Imam W.D. Mohammed (rahmah of Allah be upon him) has passed away. Imam Jamil is likely to die in prison, we had to scrape to raise funds for Imam Siraj’s health care, and many of us are an arm-span from FBI watch-lists or already on it. Every time a domestic attack occurs we pray that it isn’t a Muslim. Then we pray that it isn’t an African American Muslim. And then we deliver our “that has nothing to do with Islam” speech on cue. That, my brothers and sisters, is something of a purgatory in itself.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye or merely a snide comment to the pathologies that exist among us. The dogmas and isms that we tolerate… No, this is the chasm through which opponents readily attack and before that, these are the anchors that narrow our Islam. These pathologies are too many and complex to elucidate here, but suffice it to say they range from misapplication of polygamy to dysfunctional views of our very American-ness and citizenship. We constantly frame our troubles as being from without. Well my motivation in writing this is that I believe quite the opposite. They are from within. Continue reading “African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory”

What Do We Want?

“What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. But is that all? Do we want simply to be Americans? Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?” – W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art”.

The above is a quote from the masterful W. E. B. Du Bois, which I felt adeptly described the current situation that Muslims in general, and Blackamericans Muslims in specific, find themselves in. In the wake of the much-ado-about-nothingness of ISNA 2009, I see nor feel any clear articulation of what it is we as a Muslim community are after. Muslim leadership is either woefully silent or ignorant of the question. Yet, it is a question we must ask ourselves. As Muslims, are we after a fully-fledged American existence, with all its rights and privileges therein? And if we answer in the affirmative, then how might we best accomplish this task. It is here, at this cross roads that I feel the double-consciousness of my own people, namely Blackamericans, and the unique perspective we may be able to lend to this circumstance. Not only can we as Blackamericans see America in ways that that our Whiteamerican counterparts cannot [the latest issue with Professor Gates should illuminate this fact], but we can also shed unique clairvoyance on America for our immigrant brothers and sisters as well.

In a way, this puts a new twist on the idea of “double-consciousness”. In doing so, Blackamerican Muslims could be poised to help articulate and navigate this precarious existence we have all arrived at. Yet we falter at the starting gate, mainly due to an alternative form of double-consciousnesses, one that is rooted in a struggle for Muslim authenticity where many are torn between being authentically black/American and authentically Muslim. In the end, though, if we can over come some of these obstacles, we may, as an entire Muslim community, be able to ask some very important questions of ourselves and our existence, not the least of which is: upon looking at American and seeing it as it currently is, are we and can we be satisfied with its present goals and ideals? These are the questions for a people who are grounded, who have a vested interest in not solely the survival of America, but its prosperity in general, and how that equates a prosperity for the American Muslim community in specific. 

If Islam in America is to survive, it must avoid two major pitfalls. One, is that of being domesticated by the state/dominant culture in which Islam is no longer free to voice a critical opinion, be it a supportive one at a critical juncture, or admonish or even condem the actions of that very same state/dominent culture with efficacy. The other is that while in attempting to evade domestication, it must not render itself foreign and or inconsequential. This latter part’s success will greatly depend in part on whether or not American Muslims can solidify their identity here, navigating the tightrope of Tradition and prudent opportunism.

And finally, if all of the above can be actualized, we may finally be able to begin the meaninful aspect of our growth and journey as Muslims in this part of the world. Many of the ills we see in the society that we would condem for moral reasons could finally be done so with real social weight and capital, versus the hollow words of dogmatic arm chair generals. If our goal is to change society, to make a more just and moral society not simply for the perpetuating of secular values but because that is what is most pleasing to God, then we will have to alter our entire game plan.

So I ask, are we satisfied with our present goals and ideals?

The Presumption of Privilege

As Islam continues to sputter along in its American context, post-9/11, various Muslim organizations and groups seek to capture the eye of the masses [who are starting to look more and more like glazed donuts by the minute] by inviting them to “return to Tradition”. I have not noted the capitalized “T” without purpose. Tradition, as it is being marketed currently, is a mono-narrative. Moreover, one might even call it a counter-narrative to the one that is equally applied by the West to Islam/Muslims, in any given time or space. But this concept of Tradition is playing out to be more than simply going back to previously forgotten sources or methods. It is also being linked to privilege. A privilege that takes the form in not only in what economic access can provide but a privilege of ideals. A Believers’ country club, if you will. But one of the main issues with this exclusivity is not solely in the gated mental communities that it fosters but the very idea that Tradition is a panacea. That so long as what is being passed along is stamped with the seal of Tradition, it requires no further investigation, contemplation or scrutinization. But is this truly [the?] tradition? And to what point or end is this tradition to accomplish? What avenues is this tradition to navigate for us? Or are we instead being taken for a ride. Islam in America and more directly, Muslims in America are in dire need for a viable, conducive, productive, creative, indigenous Muslim culture. But how do we get to there from the pre-packaged Tradition we’re currently being offered?

As some of you read before, I had been doing a bit of light reading before heading off to ‘Umrah. Upon my return I decided to put aside some of the heavier bits in favor of what’s been published in magazine format. Two articles piqued my interest: the Summer 2008 edition of The American Scholar, with an article by William Deresiewicz entitled, Exhortation: The Disadvantage of an Elite Education, and Great Neighborhoods, by Mark Hinshaw in the January 2008 edition of Planning. American Scholar deals mostly with issues through a social science perspective, while Planning is a journal in the vein of city planning [The magazine of the American Planning Association]. The two articles are not directly linked and yet, after reading both of them, their impact in tandem drew me to consider the current state of contemporary Muslim education and direction in America [again…].

There is a peculiar handshake between the parties of tradition and authority. Those who are seated are or have seated themselves as the key masters and gate keepers of tradition grant themselves a great deal of authority. An authority, that once imbibed by the target audience, is not easy to regurgitate. Its authority rises from the idea that tradition cannot be made but rather found, and more importantly, bestowed. Those that wish to belong can only do so as long as there are invited. It is precisely this type of exclusiveness that many of the traditionalists are offering American Muslims. Ensconced in the robes of this vernacular, calls towards Traditional Islam continue to rise. But we must ask ourselves: to what, for what, and by whom are we being called?

Let me state again for the record that I am not against the idea of tradition. In fact, I have talked, written and in general, worked towards the formation of a viable Muslim culture in America in my own small way. One can simply substitute tradition for culture in this case. Nor am I averse to the intellectual history of Islam. A quick perusal of this blog will vindicate any accusations. Neither am I unique in this clarion call. Notable scholars such as Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship and Dr. Sherman Jackson, just to name a few and all potent scholars in their own right, have spoken on this necessity. But one of the caveats of tradition is that it can also take on a self-sanctioning pathology, where in stead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes a means and an end. The pitfalls of this phenomenon can be clearly observed in the so-called Muslim world. But for the sake of this argument, I am not interested in how Muslims articulate their cultures in the historical lands of Muslims but rather the process of transference. In as far as the Traditionalists look at it, America and by proxy all Muslims within it are rendered helpless and incapable of manufacturing and creating a vibrant American Muslim culture – a culture that not only speaks to the histories of those Muslims in America but even more importantly to their present and their future. Taking their point of view, at the very best, culture can be imported from overseas and draped on the shoulders of modern day Muslims but in no way do they recognize American Muslims as possessing any form of agency. With the script pre-written, Muslims in America will have to settle for acting in someone else’s play – never becoming stars in their own right.

In this interplay of tradition and privilege, the Traditionalists often see themselves as an object of desire. That in fact, their own interpretation of culture is fit for all peoples, in all times, and all places. And conversely, anyone who resides outside of their cultural expression do so at their own choice. It is here that I found Hinshaw’s comments pertinent:

I imagine that many people consider their own neighborhood a pretty fine place. After all, people live where they are comfortable with the physical surroundings and the neighborhoods.

Hinshaw precludes that who ever lives in a neighborhood does so at their own discretion. The possibility that people often live where they can and not where they would like to is completely glossed over in Hinshaw’s treament of the topic. And yet, for anyone who has done even the most rudimentary examination of inner city populations will realize that the people that reside within these spaces do so not out of choice but rather from the lack of it. To assume that inner city blacks, for example, “are comfortable with the physcial surroundings and the neighborhoods” in which they live in is woefully ignorant [ironically, I found this magazine at my place of work, the University of Pennsylvania: School of Design, in their City Planning department]. This presumptuous rhetoric smacks of the same song mentality practiced by the Traditionalists. They are just as much out of touch with the times as a city planner that assumes all people are happy with where they live. And yet, one of the claims of tradition is that it is supposed to be grounded. Grounded in some sort of existential, historical narrative. So what, precisely, is the current trend of Traditional Islam grounded in?

The theme of being out of touch is central to my critique of Traditional Islam [not to be confused with the intellectual tradition of Islam]. At least in the way it is marketed and packaged. By disarming its adherents of any means of agency, a homegrown, authentic articulation of Islam, driven by a healthy, grounded American Muslim culture, can never develop. Part of this syndrome is due to the fact that many of the institutions of Traditional Islam are out of touch with the development of such a culture. In fact, it may not even be an agenda point. I was reminded of this current situation by William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, where Deresiewicz speaks on his inability to communicate with his plumber:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Socks cap, and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness.

Deresiewicz argues that it was his Ivy League education that did not provide him with the social skills to speak with people “below him”?. That because the plumber is assumed to not have the same amount or level of educational [a safe assumption, no doubt, as Deresiewicz has over a decade of Ivy League education], that not only can he not come down to the plumber’s level but the plumber cannot also ascend to Deresiewicz’s. In my many dealings with students and even some teachers of Traditional Islam, there has been a heavy tendency to practice intellectual elitism. And unlike Mr. Deresiewicz’s education, which undoubtedly took many years and lots of hard work, in the Muslim context, it seldom takes having a bit of Arabic under your belt and a few classes with the right scholars. Thus, by crafting a nomenclature around Tradition, those who fail to ascend to its lofty towers will be left to serve as the plumbers of the Muslim world [the fact that the world would suffer tremendous more for a lack of plumbers than a lack of intellectuals but this fact is not explored], at least academically speaking. There has also been the similar tendency of assumption that Muslims of non-preferential backgrounds [especially Blackermican or non-college educated, hence the lack of their numbers in their circles] lack the basic fundamentals of understanding this form of Islam. Indeed, central to the approach is an almost complete absence of the gifting of intellectual ownership of one’s understanding in Islam. To put in summary, if one wishes to understand Traditional Islam, one must keep paying the subscription fees or face having oness service shut off.

One of the key ways in which a viable culture might take roots here in America is that if Muslims in America begin to take intellectual ownership of their religion and their education in the religion. This process is being hampered by the exclusiveness of Traditional Islam as well as the celebrity of Traditional Islam. It’s add-another-fork-to-the-dinner-table mentality will only seek to impede this process. We need less secret handshakes and more psychological spaces opening up, especially given the last decade or so that indigenous Blackamerican community has gone through. Issues such as man/woman relationships, civic engagement, and education, just to name a few, are in dire need of revamping and retooling.

It is one of my supreme hopes that Muslims in America will wake up and realize that they have the tools to create a healthy, vibrant American Muslim culture. For anyone who thinks that having an American Muslim culture is not a major hurdle on the way to arriving in America need only look to our foreign brothers and sisters. For better or worse, it is their culture that allows them to alleviate many of the anxieties of quotidian existence that plagues so many Muslims in America. An anxiety that is rooted from the fact that they can take no solace in not having to consult an imam, shaykh, 15-volume tome of Bukhari or the like, just to simply figure out if you can cross the street, tie their shoes or go see a movie. It is this culture that could allow many of us to simply “be” to a greater degree versus “trying to be”?. And yet, as we work towards the development of this culture, God willing, we must be shrewd of our embrace of it. For as we have seen, it is apt to have a mind of its own. Culture should serve us towards our goals and ambitions, not making us slaves to the rhythm or at the very least, lower our monthly subscription fees.

The Need For A New Manhood

I keep wondering when Blackamerica is going to take stock. More and more, I see in my fellow young, black males, levels of aggression and intolerance that baffle my mind. Gun violence. Gang violence and even for those not associated with gang violence, the misplaced reverence that so much of pop-black-culture has on it. What, you may ask, is this reverence? In Philadelphia, one need not venture far to see the signs. Scarface T-shirts being sold on the corner or out of someone’s car in South Philadelphia. Grown men walking around in Biggie and Tupac T-shirts with fake bullet holes in them. And then of course, the glorifying of violence in the pop culture through acts of hyper-masculinity. How else could you explain Michael Vick’s behavior? In a discussion with a white associate, he expressed his dismay over Vick’s behavior [and rightly so] in his role in dog fighting. “He’s got it all, you know. Fame. Money. How could someone like that just f#ck that up?” I shook my head and replied, “manhood”. My associate looked quizzically back at me and said, “Manhood? What’s that got to do with it?” I chuckled, wryly, and continued, “it’s a black thing, man. You wouldn’t understand”.

At the risk of dabbling in pan-Islamic rhetoric, this, in my opinion, is one of the greatest things the Prophet brought with his Message. Beyond no god but God, the Prophet also brought about a new modality of manhood, one where you could fully be a proud, protective, strong character and yet it tamed the domineering, bombastic and even violent tendencies that were prevalent in the society he lived in during 7th Century Arabia. It is here that his Sunnah has so much potential for Blackamericans [though not exclusively] to address and resolve the pertinent issues of our time: Hyper Black Masculinity.

I cannot lay claim to the term, hyper masculinity, in reference to Blackamericans. As usual, it was a term I heard coined by Dr. Sherman Jackson. In a talk that Dr. Jackson gave last year at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jackson urged Blackamerica to deal with three things: education, economics, and sex. And he tied all of these together in a talk that addressed the state of Islam in the Blackamerican community to the malfeasance on black males and their overt masculinity. Dr. Jackson drove home his points by illustrating that the Prophet, as our example, was a man who was never seen as a coward, though he was never full of bravado. He was never perceived to be a “punk” or a “chump”, even by his enemies. The Quraysh had many things to say about the son of Abdullah, but a coward or a chump was never one of them. I need not spend time here reiterating the blessed characteristics of the Messenger – he was kind, caring, compassionate, thoughtful and so on. Yes, we know them but we do not implement them. A recent case drove this home for me:

I was photographing a group of imams and when it came time for the group picture I placed the women in front, seated in chairs. This was done mainly out of photographic needs. But like clockwork, one of the imams boisterously raised his objections to have women siting in front of him.

“Akhiy, these are women and we are men! How can we be protectors and leaders of our community when we place our women in front of us? No, no! We have to have them get behind us.”

“If we have them ‘get behind us’ they won’t be in the picture. Can’t you be a man and stand in the back? No one here seems to be challenging your authority or place as a ‘man’. Need you be a tyrant to show it?”

Needless to say, I’ve had a few issues with this person before and I took this opportunity to stick it to him a bit but this is typical of the reaction of many Muslim men – and yes, the imam was Blackamerican. Instead of addressing real topics and real issues and standing up and dealing with those “like a man” we instead take our misplaced pride and break the proverbial stick over our leg so all can see how manly we are. So I make this plea, this cry to my fellow brothers [and sisters, as they will certainly be a part of this] regardless of religious affiliation, to look at, contemplate and rethink our approach to manhood and to be a man where it counts, to make the change.