Twenty is a nice round number. In human years, twenty is sufficient a time to feel one has amassed enough experience about a thing that one feels these experiences count for something. It is also a point, in human years again, where one can look back as much as one can look ahead, especially when one is reminded of the Prophetic narrative, related by Abu Hurairah:
أعمار أمتي ما بين الستين والسبعين – “The age of my Ummah is between 60 and 70 years…”. Al-Nawawi relates it as hassan.
Hadith methodologies aside, standing so close to the 40 year mile marker, I look back on my twenty years as a Muslim with an increasing amount of introspection. And what I fear most for the future of Islam in America is not anti-Shari’ah legislation or hate-related attacks, but the continued cultural imperialism and colonization of the American Muslim mind.
There are two major areas of concern for this cultural imperialism: the hegemony of western academia over the definition (and thus potentialities) of what constitutes Islam (this being labeled more specifically intellectual imperialism) and the domination over Islam’s definition by legacy Muslims (what some might call immigrant Muslims), what I would call cultural imperialism. Both of these forms of authority present serious challenges to the growth and development of an indigenous, prosperous and autonomous Islam in America.
There can be little doubt as to the power that western academia has wielded over the definition of Islam. Names such as Montgomery Watt, Arthur John Aberry and Bernard Lewis come to mind. Non-Muslim contributions to Islamic scholarship aside (think Bruce Lawrence, Miriam Cooke, John Esposito, etc.), these authors have primarily been an outside group looking in. I say this not to dismiss their scholarship or critiques, but in being an outside group that wields an almost exclusive authority which supersedes Muslim scholarship and sensibilities, you have a scenario which makes it difficult for Muslim scholarship to be respected even concerning itself in western academic circles. In fact, this whole genre, which formerly fell under the title of Orientalist studies, held much of traditional Islamic sciences and scholarship to be suspect if not unreliable. The method of this authority is quite convenient considering that so-called Orientalist studies were themselves an advent of western academia and never a term applied by Muslims themselves (for more on this topic I recommend readings on Max Weber’s application of essentialism). From this vantage point, non-Muslim scholars of Islam (particularly western) have enjoyed a perch which favors them the definers of what is and isn’t Islam and Islamic scholarship. This ranges from the structure of Islamic studies in the western canon to the essentializing of an Islamic aesthetic, all of which have been based on their own provincial understanding of texts, with cultural observations coming in a distant second.
All this has often led western non-Muslim scholarship to the conclusion that it and it alone, knows what defines “true Islam”. And hence, with western scholarship enjoying the position of disseminating from the position of colonizer, many Muslims have adopted the very same vernacular in an attempt to seize this “true definition” from the grasp of the western usurper, and define for themselves (and for all other Muslims, too) what “true Islam” is. So in fact what see more today has less to do with Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and more to do with a clash of narcissisms. Being that modernity is reluctant to administer any recognition of truth (let alone, truths), western scholarship has set the tone for the battle over norms, a battle it is still currently winning. It is for this reason Islam can easily be rendered a bewildering collage of non-sensical images, and just how and why Islam (and by proxy, Muslims) can never truly match up to western aesthetics of beauty or “the good” (even if those Muslims are themselves western!).
Likewise, many American Muslims suffer from a lack of self-esteem and autonomous authority due to the self-inflicted head wound that rendered all American sensibilities concerning Islam suspect. For this reason you will see American Muslims abandon their own modes of dress in favor of those which are deemed to be “Islamic”. In one such exchange, I asked a young man as to why he chose to wear a thobe, or a Middle-Eastern style one-piece clothing. His response was that it was closer to following the “Sunnah” or established habit of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. When I asked him to unpack his claims and to provide clear proofs that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم wore a thobe out of a sense of religious devotion, and not out of say, cultural normalcy, he had difficulty in doing so. In fact, I pointed out a verse from the Qur’an that spoke of women wearing thobes as well:
والقواعد من النساء التي لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناحا أن يضعن ثيابهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who have passed child-bearing age or have no hopes of marriage, then there is no sin upon them if they remove their *thobes* so long as they do not flaunt their adornments,” [Qur’an, 24: 60].
The point being, the Qur’an clearly uses the word *thobe* as a general term, for it is well accepted that the Prophet Muhammad would never dress like a woman unless that item of clothing could be considered categorical (shoes, hats, shirts, etc.). And yet despite this, many American Muslims continue to dress in a manner, claims of ostentation aside, which alienates them from the rest of society. But what is at stake here is more than simply modes of dress, it is about the very potentials of Islam, the ability to be and live and express oneself according to one’s cultural norms, so long as they do not infringe upon the principles of Islam. Interestingly enough, Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, often regarded as a “hardliner” and ultra-conservative, was against Muslims dressing in such a way that it either brought ridicule on Islam or ostracized Muslims from their cultural and social context (see Taymiyya’s Futuwwa).
If Muslims in America are to have any hopes of navigating their future here in America, it will necessitate the establishment of bona fide Muslim intellectual rigor as well as cultural confidence. Such intellectual rigor will need to be able to stand up to the challenges of Orientalist scholarship that is not at its center hostile, but seeks to put forth its own equally valid interpretations and postulates as to what Islam is (in essence, making “true” somehow plural). It will also require American Muslims to feel confident enough to walk around in their own skins (and clothes) such that, moral requirements withstanding, American Muslims look like, if not verbatim, their non-Muslim American counterparts. This will require the above two forces to come together (the intellectual and the cultural) and chart a new course, one that leads not simply to survival, but to a flourishing American Muslim population and culture and ultimately, to the pleasure of God in the next life.
At least that’s what the 20th mile marker is tell me when I look down the road.