Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.

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.