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.


  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.

Aesthetic Islam

For some, the decision to become Muslim is political. For others, trendy. But trends come and go, and when people pursue an aesthetic rather than the beliefs that ground it, these folks are often the first to move on to the next thing. The main issue is not these political or aesthetic choices — human beings make them all the time — but rather what are we, the current community, building to help those who choose Islam as their way of life and become function, operational and just plain normal?

No Growth – No Surprise

Squeaky wheels gets the grease. There are some in our community who are attention seekers. They want a lot of attention and we obliged them. Perhaps if we work actively to steer our converts (so they can move beyond conversion into “being” Muslim) and other members of our community towards operationalizing their Islam, we could nip all of this in the bud. It’s no coincidence that some can rise to popularity in this age of social media and blogs (I myself have a well-read blog). It provides an (unhealthy for some) outlet for those who struggle with narcissism (a disease of our age).

For those of us who personally know converts who leave Islam, you’ll often see there was no progression, no growth of who they were as a person (not only as a Muslim) during their stint in Islam. I hold us a community (fard kifayah?) partially to blame: we have no expectations on ourselves other than beards, hijabs, and bummery (yes, that’s a word). This is also where, again for those of us who do know these converts, we should be challenging them by asking, “why did you spend x-number of years jumping from lily pad to lily pad instead of learning how to swim in the big pond?” What do I mean? Salafism, Sufism, progressivism, this ‘ism and that ‘ism. Some even claim that Islam, vis-a-vie, Muslims, are incapable of competing in the marketplace of ideas. How ironic that in making this statement (which in to some degree may actually hold a bit of validity) thet indict themselves! Obviously is you spend your life committed to the Cult of Personality and not to establishing a relationship with God and His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم then you can’t expect blood from a turnip. This ordeal is bigger than any one personality; I see the same issue happening now with the UnMosqued people (which is interestingly enough, also taking place online via social media. Just go on Twitter and look for the hash-tag #unmosqued – also see #remosqued). People are whining and complaining about the predicament of our mosques (some true – some maybe not so much) but that’s it. It only amounts to complaints. Folks are unwilling to be that change they want to see in their mosques and communities. Case in point, I was just asked by a young Muslim this morning:

“Why did you want to become an Imam and grow closer and become an important part of your Muslim community? This MSA is my first ever Muslim community and I just can’t help be feel that maybe I just wasted my time by joining it.”

I am not chiding this person but as you can see, many struggle with seeing validity in their lives and the easiest and most convenient target for their frustrations is the Muslim community (an abstraction). My reply was:

“In short, because I like people, because if I don’t, who will. Because I have the necessary skills and talents, in sha’Allah. And because I don’t see it as a waste of time.”

For every commentator on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, we should be asking critical questions, not simply refuting this or that particular person’s misguided reasons for leaving Islam. What can we do, right now, today, tomorrow, this month, this year, to make our community a beacon of light and hope, where folks (myself included!!) can be rehabilitated, where we can help reinforce our children’s love of Islam (and themselves!). Where Islam becomes a lived-in reality, a way of life, not simply a collection of do’s and don’ts (we need more do’s!!).

In a closing observation, I want to say this about converts, who often look for validation and a sense of belonging. For some, this is sought in the Black community (for others with Arabs or South Asian community). This is why for some, even in their demeanor, they attempted to co-opt Black vernacular, body language, urban modes of dress and even derogatory aspects of Black urban behavior. In essence, they seek acceptance from and by African-Americans. This is often the base because their his whiteness is perceived as an immutable barrier to BEING black. Why else do so many feel so comfortable in weighing in on issues with in the black community such as black masculinity. What is not addressed is they own perception of whiteness and how its seen as emasculation personified (look at the critiques of Nuh Ha Meem Keller, Hamza Yusuf, Joe Bradford and others by white converts). Some pursue their Islam through Salafism in its urban, Blackamerican form, not Arab or Desi Salafis (for they do exist in abundance). And even when Salafism “disappointed” them, their next “lily pad” they jump to is often Sufism (the sign of an imbalanced mind – this is nothing to do with those groups in particular); but not just any expression of Sufism (Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Shadhili) but the tariqah which is predominantly black: the Tijani Order. The issue here is seeking acceptance from personalities and groups of people: African-Americans in this case here, instead of dealing with their obvious identity crises and (erroneous) misgivings of being white (which for many white converts, they seem to feel — and indeed may be encouraged to feel — is in jeopardy of discrediting the authenticity of their Islam) has more to do with their apostasy than anything else in my opinion. You’ll notice that theology (tawhid) is often left out of the discussion and the reason being is that for many new converts, theology may not play a major role in the decision to convert (I know it didn’t in mine — I had no idea what tawhid was when I became Muslim. All I knew was my best friend since I was 5 years old became a Muslims, so I became a Muslim — the important part is that I eventually grew as a person which allowed me to grow in my Islam). The major reasons initially may fade over time (boyfriend, girlfriend, marriage, etc.) and if people grow in themselves then such things as tawhid, Sunnah, etc. may become the defining points in why they stay Muslims.

Food for thought.

Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.