Muslims, Modernity and America: The Problems of Meaning

During the 2018 Blackamerican Muslim Conference there were a few instances when modernity, liberalsim, and progressivism—amongst other ideals—were evoked and discussed. Often these philosophies are discussed in relation to the so-called immigrant Muslim community and how it affects them. But these philosophies and value systems impact the Blackamerican Muslim community as well. As I mentioned in my last post, my hope is to delve a little deeper into these topics so as to raise our literacy on the forces acting upon us. I found Steven Seidman’s phrase, “problems of meaning” aptly titled and insightful. In short, Seidman defines the “problems of meaning” as,

“a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values, confusing images of self, society and nature, and the ceaseless conflict over the ends, rules, and norms in terms of which personal and collective life is organized and legitimated.”

In the Sunday session on liberalism, Dr. Sherman Jackson astutely pointed out that liberalism, a child of the European Enlightenment, came about as a reaction to a particular experience that Europe had with religion. Similarly, Seidman states,

“The great transformation of European societies issued forth problems of meaning as established cultural frameworks securing identity, moral order, and purposeful existence were disrupted.”

It is clear that if one were to summarize the problems which face the Blackamerican Muslim community, those topping the list would undoubtedly include “a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values” as well as “confusing images of self” as to what a Muslim ought to be and look like from a Blackamerican Muslim point of view. In other words it is not that our challenges as Blackamerican Muslims living in America are legion, but that they are layered and obscured from vision.

One example of a layered problem, or as Seidman labels it, problems of meaning is the doubly shifting sands of Blackamerican Muslim pursuits of “identity, moral order, and purposeful existence”. I say doubly shifting because what effects white America inevitably black America or as the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker quoted, “when downtown catches a cold, Harlem gets pneumonia”. Blackamerican Muslims must try to forge an identity, establish moral order and carve out a dignified existence amidst an ever-changing social landscape, one which we exert little overt control. For me this is why it’s even more crucial that Blackamerican Muslims come to familiarize themselves with these philosophical, intellectual and cultural forces that routinely produce regimes of “pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate belief”. For it is certainly this which is currently decimating the ranks of those who followed revealed religion: Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike.

Seidman, Steven. “Modernity And The Problem Of Meaning: The Durkheimian Tradition”. Sociological Analysis, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 1985, pp. 109-130.

Islam’s Capacity to Empower

Given the recent attack in London — along with others, many would be highly suspicious of, if not downright hostile towards, any claims of Islam’s ability to empower those who have been downtrodden themselves. Quite the contrary, many view Islam as a corrupting force which prays on the poor and disenfranchised, of which then they all too often employ Islam as an irrational justification to mete our violence in response to perceived injustices. But it may surprise some, particularly American whites and Europeans, that Islam has a very different assessment in the black community. For many of us, even non-Muslim black folks, Islam is seen as redemptive, a system that has the solutions to our social, existential, and even civilizational conundrums. This was beautifully demonstrated by brother Ibn Ali Miller when he broke up two young men attempting to solve their disagreements through violence. He also gave a valuable critique against the voyeuristic technology culture that allows others to sit on the sidelines and gloat at the suffering of others. May Allah reward brother Ali and make him of the inheritors of Islam. An inspiration to us all.

وَنُريدُ أَن نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذينَ استُضعِفوا فِي الأَرضِ وَنَجعَلَهُم أَئِمَّةً وَنَجعَلَهُمُ الوارِثينَ

“And We want to empower those who were being oppressed in the land, to make them leaders, and to give them an inheritance in the earth.” Qur’an, 28: 5

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.