“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.

Life of the Prophet – Session 3: Theology Superstition and Modernity

The following is a short audio excerpt on the monthly class, Life of the Prophet, at Middle Ground. At the end, we discussed how the world was changing at the birth of the Prophet and the advent of Islam.


[Direct download]

American Muslims and the Challenge of Geography

The following is a segment from Dr. Sherman Jackson’s On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam. I find this passage to be worthy of required reading status.

“As Islam moved out of its isolation in Arabia to settle among the inhabitants if the world of Late Antiquity, where geography, history, and tradition had endowed different individuals and communities with more fundamentally different ways and approaches to thinking. These different endowments would lead in turn to different attitudes towards and approaches to theology. This was the beginning and most important source of theological discord in Islam, a full appreciation of which has only been obscured by the Muslim theologians’ rhetoric of transcendence.

Yet, the typical Western approach, which prides itself on its ability to see through the claims and attributions of the Muslim theologians, has not faired much better. Rather, it too has tended to impede rather than promote understanding of the impact of these differential historical endowments.

It is common knowledge that the influence of Christian theology, the Persian Zoroastrian and Manichaean traditions, and Indian and especially Greek philosophy on Muslim theological discourse was both fundamental and enduring1. Traditionally, however, Western scholars have portrayed this influence as an instance as an instance of cross-civilizational borrowing. At the same time, Muslims are said to have denied or played down this influence, based on their ideological commitment to the premise that ‘Islam is self-sufficient and that in Qur’an and Hadith it contains in essentials all the religious and moral truth required by all humanity to the end of time.’2 Under ordinary circumstances, fear of self-incrimination might pre-empt any reaction to such a view. But such depictions mask an important point that bears directly on our understanding of the nature and causes of theological discord—and thus the requirements and possibilities of theological tolerance—in Islam. Simply stated, the notion of Muslim ‘borrowing’ is based on an artificial bifurcation of the world of Late Antiquity and early Islam into Greek and Persian (alien), on the one hand, and Arab-Muslim (native), on the other, followed by the assumption that any elements of the former found among the latter must be the result of cross-civilizational borrowing. This picture becomes a bit more complicated, however, when we consider that the overwhelming majority of the early Muslims—as well as those who would become Arabs—had theretofore been ‘Greeks,’ Mazdakites, Manichaeans, Christians, and Zoroastrians. R. Bulliet goes a long way in confirming this in his book Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, and it si being pointed out with increasing frequency and clarity by historians of Late Antiquity, e.g., P. Brown, G.W. Bowersock, and O. Grabar in their recent edited volume, Late Antiquity. In fact, in that same volume, the Islamic historian Hugh Kennedy writes:

Of all the dividing lines set up between academic disciplines in the western intellectual tradition, the frontier between classical and Islamic Studies has proved among the most durable and impenetrable…[W]hereas late antiquity can be seen as part of the broader history of western civilization, the history of the Islamic world cannot. Yet reflection will soon suggest that the changes cannot have been so sudden and dramatic, especially at the level of the structures of everyday life, and that the Islamic was as much, and as little, a continuation of late antiquity as was western Christendom.”

If American Muslims are to understand where they are headed, it is essential that our educational efforts work towards empowering, demystifying and in particular for those Muslims who’ve hailed from the historical Muslim world, heal the trauma of their post-colonial experiences, so that we may move beyond many of these blockades, externally and self-imposed.

References

  1. M. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy. 1970.
  2. W.M. Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Elsewhere Watt points out, incidentally, that this insistence on self-sufficiency in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary was also characteristic of medieval and early modern Christianity, which downplayed its debt to Islam and exaggerated its dependence on ancient Greece and Rome.

Black Power and the American Christ

The following essay was published in 1967 by Vincent Harding, printed here from the volume, The Black Power Revolt – A Collection of Essays, Floyd B. Barbour editor [Extending Horizons Books].

The mood among many social-action-oriented Christians today suggests that it is only a line thin as a razor blade that divides sentimental yearning over the civil rights activities of the past from present bitter recrimination against “Black Power.” As is so often the case with reminiscences, the nostalgia may grow more out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness than out of any true appreciation of the meaning of the past. This at least is the impression one gets from those seemingly endless gatherings of old “true believers” which usually produce both the nostalgia and the recriminations. Generally the cast of characters at such meetings consists of well-dressed, well-fed Negroes and whites whose accents almost blend into a single voice as they recall the days “when we were all together, fighting for the same cause.“ The stories evoke again the heady atmosphere, mixed of smugness and self-sacrifice, that surrounded us in those heroic times when nonviolence was our watchword and integration our heavenly city. One can almost hear the strains of “our song” as men and women remember how they solemnly swayed in the aisles or around the charred remains of a church or in the dirty southern jails. Those were the days when Martin Luther King was the true prophet and when we were certain that the civil rights movement was God’s message to the churches-and part of our smugness grew out of the fact that we knew it while all the rest of God’s frozen people were asleep. Continue reading “Black Power and the American Christ”