Now’s the Time

It becomes increasingly clear the role that converts need to play in Islam in America. For far too long, those who have chosen to be Muslim have taken a back seat to those who’ve hailed from Muslim lands. This “at the back of the bus” mentality can be blamed on no one other than ourselves and we all — so-called converts and non-converts alike — suffer the consequences for it. On today’s edition of The Takeaway (heard here locally on 90.1FM WHYY), the host engaged three groups in a “spiritual conversation”, of “Muslim, Jewish, and Christian millennials who are keeping, losing or reinterpreting their faith”. The Jewish counterparts talked about how, even if they held somewhat non-traditional views on Judaism, still strove to have a Jewish identity rooted in principle and practice. The Muslims, on the other hand, who were interviewed openly opposed base tenets of Islam, such as abstaining from eating pork, drinking alcohol and extra-marital sex. One would ask these “Muslims” and oneself, what is it that actually makes you Muslim? The host and the writers of the show have gone for the okie-doke of Islam by ethnic proxy: Afghani, South-Asian and Iranian. Once again, the media has completely ignored Blackamerican Muslims (who are both born-Muslims and converts, who make up a significant percentage of Muslims in America) as well as those groups (whites, Latinos, Chinese-Americans, Jews, etc.) who choose Islam as their faith and way of life. In a twist of irony, most of the Muslims who would constitute the above group complain of hegemonic domination, leading to their ostracization from the Muslim community. And yet they employ similar tactics to speak authoritatively on Islam for no other reason than their ethic backgrounds, squelching out the narratives of those who’ve chosen Islam willingly and all the strictures therein, to the best of their abilities. Simply put, Blackamerican, Whiteamerican and other non-Arab/-Persian/-South-Asians do not constitute bona fide Muslims and are off of the radar of the media and their interviewees.

In my opinion, the only way to break this monopoly is for “converts” to speak out and speak out loudly. Not only to the media but to our own communities, who to be frank, often adopt us as mascots (or as I have said to Imam Suhaib Webb: avatars) to root and cheer for “their religion”, while many of us continue to live isolated, frustrated and disenfranchised lives. But, as Charlie Parker – one of America’s greatest artists once said: now’s the time. Now is the time for converts to, like our predecessors in that First Community which was comprised entirely of converts, take the reigns, and spearhead a change in the narrative of what is Islam in America: namely that it is American, and that it’s not solely tied to some foreign-born, alien, and even hostile, enterprise. This charge should not be done to the exclusion of those who came from abroad; many of their efforts are why folks like myself even heard of Islam. But it is high-time that we — and I believe we are the only ones who can do this (partly because we already possess the social- and cultural-capital to do so). To fail in doing so is to have those who are opposed to the religion of what Muhammad taught صلى الله عليه وسلم continue to speak for us in the public sphere. For I believe that is what the guests on today’s show are.

And God knows best.

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.

A Religious World Divided? – Call & Response

I have had an interesting reaction to my previous post, A Religious World Divided?. I enjoy having this blog so that I can have a dialog with my fellow Muslims (non-Muslims are welcome to jump in, too!). It allows me, as a student of the social sciences, to examine the nature of some of our tendencies and reply with some of my examinations as well as your thoughts.

In response to the post, Tariq Nelson posted a piece on his blog concerning my post and in doing so, comments ensued. And while I greatly enjoyed the response, I feel compelled to single out one in particular and give it some additional thought and examination. The following thoughts and comments should be taken as constructive criticism.

Abu Noor al-Irlandee posted the following comment:

I love this cultural apostasy point but I know I have a different take on it than some.

My family accepted that me as a Muslim and we remain very close and I think that is beautiful and I would want that to be the case for everyone. At the same time, I hope there always remains as long as this country’s ruling structures are as oppressive as they are a sense that accepting Islam is an apostasy in the sense that one is rejecting the oppression and injustice of this society. I would want sometime to spell this out more at some point but just think about the converts to Islam in the Makkan period…there were some senses in which they were committing cultural apostasy and some senses in which they weren’t. I don’t long for a time when Islam is completely accepted in America because that would mean America has no fear that Muslims are going to threaten the structures of injustice that exist in America. Maybe that’s different for Blackamericans, because even if they are accepted as Americans, they are still usually seen as at least a possible threat, Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas notwithstanding. Speaking as someone who would fit the definition of a white American I hope there never comes the time when I would be acceptable to the white establishment…yes to cultural apostasy! Umar and Abu Sinan are you with me?

I would like to make a clarification as well as respond to the brother’s comments. While I am happy for this brother’s experience with his family accepting him as a Muslim, that was off of the point that I was making in my post. Families in general have a way of reconciling issues that the greater society cannot. Whether that be a homosexual family member or someone who has converted to Islam, one’s family will have a way of dealing and normalizing that issue where society may not.

As for the early community in Makkah, they did indeed commit cultural apostasy and the Prophet was keenly aware of this. He knew the sacrifice he was asking of his fellow Muslims, hence many kept their Islam a secret until much later. And yet despite the hardships that the Prophet faced from the Quraysh, he never lost his love of his people. It is clear, if one studies the Prophet’s biography, that he dearly cared for his people. Pagan, Jew, Christian, and all.

It is commonplace for Muslims today to draw parallels between the early Muslims and what we may face in today’s world, wherever we may reside. But we must also not loose site that we are not living in Revelatory times. In this I mean that while the early Muslims faced persecution from the Quraysh, we are not those Muslims, in those times, and our oppressor cannot simply be replaced as a representative of Abu Lahab or the Quraysh (i.e., the American government or greater society). Instead, to draw from the brother’s quote on Hudaybiyyah and the opening of Makkah (Fath-ul-Makkah), these should be seen as exercises in restraint, compromise and the ability to coexist with those who may have different religious tenements that you do.

al-Irlandee further added:

I don’t long for a time when Islam is completely accepted in America because that would mean America has no fear that Muslims are going to threaten the structures of injustice that exist in America.

I find this statement particularly troubling and if I may say so, ignorant as well as arrogant. The idea that Islam is something that America should fear is absolutely stupid and reckless on his behalf. And above all, where is Islam, and more to the point, Muslims, under any obligation to challenge the status quo? If you see Islam as some sort of “magic pill” for America to swallow and all its problems and issues will magically disappear then you’re even more ignorant that you have made your statements out to be. This may seem harsh but I find this brand of designer revolutionary rhetoric damaging and ridiculous, as well as highly convenient as it easily allows for the justification of a whole array of notions, such as not participating in society, not taking care of one’s responsibilities and so forth. I find this propaganda reminiscent of the the talk I often here at a coffee house near my residence. It is usually filled with white hipsters, replete with their tattoos and piercing, who talk vaingloriously about, “sticking it to the man”, while their father most likely is the man. If I may be so bold, this is commonplace for many white Americans, who in surrendering their Ellis Island ethnicity for a brand-x whiteness, feel they must compensate by acting out as chic revolutionaries.

While I agree with al-Irlandee that in some respects, Blackamericans are still viewed as a threat (especially when affluent, suburban whites come in contact with inner-city blacks) but I find it curious that al-Irlandee chose to single out Condoleeza Rice and Thomas Thomas as his two examples of blacks who are non-threatening. Is it perhaps that these two people also happen to embrace an ideology that conflicts with Mr. al-Irlandee (I’m not objecting to his objection with them – just that he chose them), therefore “selling out”? I would counter that Bill Cosby or Sidney Poitier would be perceived as no less harmless than Ms. Rice or Mr. Thomas but perhaps that they don’t represent “The Man”, they would not make the cut.

From examining al-Irlandee’s statements, it would seem that Islam is more about Revolution than it is about morality. And while al-Irlandee does mention “justice” it seems that it is a specific brand of justice, one which can only be brought about by Islam and “true Muslims” who reject America and all of her wanton moral depravity. As I stated in my post, revolutions do not have long shelf lives. They are often used as tools to achieve other means, perhaps means that in the end, will no longer coincide with the objectives of the revolution itself (the Cuban Revolution comes to mind). Again, I would ask for some type of justification on this stance from the Sunnah of the Prophet.

Another part of al-Irlandee’s response was his justification for not identifying as American and yet claiming some notion of “Irishness”. I would ask al-Irlandee if he was born in Ireland and even if he was, does he reside there? My intuition tells me that al-Irlandee is an Irish-American, who at best, can claim his heritage as hailing from that fair, green land. In what way are you able to claim being Irish when in all likeliness, you’ve been raised here in America. The food you eat is American. The language you speak is American English (not Gaelic or the Queen’s English). This stance to me seems to be an illegitimate excuse to not embrace what you clearly are (an American!) and simply get on with it. And as for the reference to, “hyper-assimilated Irish Americans” (I don’t know what “hyper” here means), rebel or protest people, to me, is “same thing, different smell”.

al-Irlandee continues in his response by stating that,

“…you will never catch me waving an American flag.”

I would ask al-Irlandee how and what do you consider adherence to being American? Does it necessitate waving a flag? Does it take some formal, outward action in order to be included within the fold of America? I would certainly say no. I have not waved an flags and yet I have spoken at the National Constitution Center, having participated in an interfaith reading of the Constitution. Would that in your eyes compromise my Islam? Or even my Blackness? I would say that you have some serious contemplation to do regarding your stance on being American as well as being Muslim. My point about immigrant Muslims being accepted into America and how it revolved around the two main modes of Americaness, mainly white or black, had nothing to do with white Americans embracing Islam (which, of course, they are welcome to do so). Rather, it had precisely nothing to do with that. Such a move would again only validate the stance of majority-white America in that Islam is something “foreign” or something that isn’t “white”. So my point is not that Islam is waiting for white America to convert en masse, which I think we all know ain’t gon’ happen this decade. Instead, White America needs to be able to accept Islam as its own entity, not in how it lacks some Euro-centric/Western component.

From looking at what al-Irlandee wrote, it seems as if there is not room to consciously object while still maintaining allegiance to the greater society, in which ever form that might take. al-Irlandee is correct that many Muslims, black, immigrant or otherwise, may have conscientious objections to many aspects of governmental policies, foreign or domestic (odd how domestic policy gets so little scrutiny for the Muslims here even though there a a system of mass oppression going on – perhaps this fits into the other end of the “us and them” ideology). There is more than one way to be an American – many ways that do not involve flag waving, Constitution readings or otherwise. I find al-Irlandee’s definition to be close minded. Instead, it seems to be a justification to have a pouting party. Incidentally, this same form of rhetoric is used by the Salafi movement here on the East Coast (which is preached to predominantly black populations) which justifies lack of education, joblessness and overall lack of societal responsibility.

My advice to those who adhere to al-Irlandee’s viewpoint is to do some soul searching and reexamine the points on which you are trying to stand on. That reexamination may even require you to rethink why you’re Muslim (not to leave Islam, but “why” you’re Muslim) and the inertia behind it that keeps it moving (or is it stagnant instead?). Being American and Muslim are not two things that need to be reconciled. Instead, perhaps your political and worldly ideologies need reconciling. So I reject the notion that I am “Americanizing” myself. To examine that word, it would mean to make something American that was not so in its inception. Being that I was born in Detroit, and raised by Nancy and Pierre Manley, two proud American parents, I cannot be AmericanizedI already am! Instead, as is the case with many peoples in America, we suffer from an identity crisis. Whether that be Blackamericans who struggle with stereotypical definitions of “blackness” to white kids who grew up in the suburbs, who feeling that they have no culture, attempt to latch on to other perceived cultures (hip-hop is one that I can easily conjure up).

And as I said earlier, it is not my intention to personally attack Mr. al-Irlandee. While I found some of his comments confusing or even offensive, I only intend to engage the ideology and in doing so, I used al-Irlandee as an example. You can see al-Irlandee’s comments here. The post on Tariq’s blog is here. And God knows best.