Where To Turn To When Returning To Spirituality


There has been a great increase in interest in spirituality from the Muslim community over the last several years. Published manuscripts of this or that teacher, new translations of Ibn ‘Arabi’scosmology as well as lesser known, more esoteric authors have hit the shelves of book stores in waves. The Muslim readership in the English-speaking world are hungry for spiritual sustenance. But is this hunger being fed? That is the question I would like to ask.

This new call for methods and practices on Muslim spirituality have not been solely limited to print. Many neo-Traditional institutions have found themselves in demand, holding numerous seminars across the United States and Britain, calling for returns to a spiritual practice of Islam. And while I laud these efforts, I will illustrate how some of these mediums may not actually be accomplishing their goals: to help engender a spirit of God conscious amongst the rank and file believers. And finally, to go beyond just critique, I will try and offer a few meager suggestions myself.

It goes without saying that Islam is a religion that has a strong historicaland spiritual practice, what some may call Sufism, Tasawwuf, or mysticism, found in all corners of the earth, where ever Muslims have traveled to. It is linked with many of the great intellectual and philosophical figures in Muslim history (the aforementioned Ibn ‘Arabi, Mulla Sadra and of course, the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali). Many if not most of these spiritual traditions have survived up to the present day, from Africa to Asia, the Balkans to the Middle-East, in various turuq (plural of tariqah, or a Sufi brotherhood). And now that Islam has arrived on America’s shores, what will its spiritual tradition look like? Is there one at all? Proto-Islamic groups, such as the Nation of Islam, had their roots in a “holy protest” against white supremacist values and socialinjustices; spirituality was not a primary or even secondary focus of their experiences as Muslims (note: I am obviously aware of the doctrinal differences between orthodox Islam and the problematic theology of the NOI, but for the purposes of this article, I will refer to them nonetheless as Muslim here) in America. Following the popular demise of the NOI in the face of Muslims hailing from the historical Islamic world, again, we see most Muslims in America primarily concerned with existential matters: education, employment, assimilation. And while these are all necessary matters, they cannot sustain a community over the long haul alone. So why the recent interest in spirituality? And more importantly, how will it shape itself in this unique context, addressing the many various needs of the American Muslim community? These are some of the questions that beg many answers.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the last severalyears attending, photographing, and observing many religious functions of Muslims in America. Many of these, whose objectives are a call to spirituality and the return to a more focused spiritual life. The significance of this shift coming post 9/11 cannot be ignored, as it helps us to see who’s interested and why. To be more direct, calls for a return to spirituality have been championed primarily by immigrant-supported groups. By supported I mean groups either led by leaders or more importantly, support financially by immigrant Muslims. Many, though not all of these Muslims tend to come from more affluent backgrounds, having both more formal education than their Blackamericancounterparts as well as the disposable income to support such groups and even the human capitalto volunteer and assist in their implementation. This should not be thought of as a critique versus merely an observation. In fact, it is because of the lack of both economic and human capital that many indigenous [and here I am referring to Blackamerican] institutions have yet to fully take flight. So the question I ask myself is in what way, in what role, will indigenous Muslims have a role in shaping the future of the development of spiritual practices. But before attempting to answer such a question, first we must look at what are the current practices and trends on the ground and what does the triage call for.

Like any thing else in the American Muslim experience, divergent groups will have divergent needs. The spiritualneeds and practical implementation of any such developed practices will have to vary from community to community. The trials and tribulations of immigrant Muslims may indeed be very different from those of BlackamericanMuslims, regardless if they are low-income urban Blacks or educated, upwardly mobile. It is the different histories of the two communities that will drive (or ought to be) and dictate the spiritual needs of the communities. What I believe should be paid more attention to is that bothcommunities have a real need for such a return. And while this has been felt by the immigrant Muslim community, in large, this has either been ignored by the Blackamerican population, especially in urban settings, where there is a palpable mistrust of such practices as deviant, or not fully articulated into a “need”, and thus practice. But there has been a small groundswell of interest in more independent-minded BlackamericanMuslims, many of whom I have been in contact with and have discussed this very same topic. For them, the question is not “if”, in terms of spiritual practice, but “how” and “by whom”, and in what way. Many of us have toured the travel circuit, attended the lectures and workshops but have yet to be left with a feeling of a workable plan. A functional spirituality that gives meaning to their private lives as Muslims. That bring them closer to God.

With two possible tracks articulated, the question now turns to the institutions themselves. How are they, if at all, prepared to deal with the multiplicity of backgrounds, cultural proclivities and the like of the above groups. The traveling workshop has left many with just a taste of what might be possible, but with no solid or tangible means to pursue these practices further. Many have stated they do not feel they can learn or accomplish much in a one-day or two-day talk, often of which the topics seem more like a talk show format than something truly topical. Should we be asking more and/or different formats of dissemination from our Islamic higher institutions of learning? Many would seem to think so. And given that time and money are of limited supply, many of these attendees feel that their money, time, and resources could be put to better use for better results.

To be certain, a great deal of this difficulty is brought about by modern life itself, which at many times can seem and feel antithetical to the betterment of the human being. Time constraints, inflation, taking more to obtain less, all add to the stress and detracted interaction of not only Muslims from one another, but to all peoples caught in this bind. And while the Internet has made the dissemination of information doubly more proficient, it has yet to prove to be truly capable to mimicking the experience of bona-fide human involvement. In short, both short seminars and web casts are poor substitutions for proper teachers and real companionship (suhbah, the word from which the word Sahabah (the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وسلم companions) is derived). And it may be true that the greater aspects of spirituality are those demons we all rankle with on the inside, there is also an outer aspect that involves companionship with our common man. And in our case specifically, with other Muslims. I myself saw the proof of this when interviewing many of the attendees at conferences such as MANA and ISNA or even talks by Zaytuna. They all attested to the fact that the greatest benefit from those conferences wasn’t the talks, wasn’t the shopping at the bazaars, but it was just the honest-to-goodness social interaction with other like-minded Muslims. I believe this to be step one in commencing our journey towards a healthy spiritual practice. We must come to know one another. And there is plenty of evidence that we, as an American Muslim collective, still do not know one another as well as we should.

“O’ mankind! Without a doubt we created you from a single pair of man and woman and made you of various sorts and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” al-Hujaraat, 13.

As for the second step of this journey, we, both the rank and file and the administrators of such institutions, must constantly ask, “is this serving our purpose?” Is this what we need? Along with a new generation of imams, who will need to be trained in more than just Qur’anicrecitation, our next generation of scholars and community educators must need be multifaceted, trained in many areas of expertise, capable of on-spot cultural analysis, assessing that the community needs, what they’re facing, and how best to prepare them for the world in which they not only live in, but for one they want to live in, and of course, for the life to come. Perhaps in there lies a hope for divergent communities to come together, utilize and celebrate the genius of our communities, and not just sending our best and brightest off to study medicine and engineering. I encourage many of my Blackamericanbrethren to take a second look at the intellectual and spiritual history and tradition of Islam and not right it off as just “bid’ah“. With all of the difficulties that Blackamericans face, especially those coming out of urban backgrounds, we need to deliver to them an Islam that is more than simply an conglomerate of rules and regulations. More intelligent ways of saying “halal” and not just “haram”, without giving up or into the demands of the dominant culture and yet not completely disassociating ourselves from it. Without a doubt, we need a return to spirituality, but we can ask for and receive better.

And God knows best.

Applying Rouge


“It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one’s sleeve. It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, his complexion may be poor. At such time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge.” – Yamamoto Tsunetomo

The challenge of modernity is not met necessarily in the clash of civilizations, the clash of titans or anything quite as grandiose as we may be led to believe. Rather, it would be the clash of plurality; the attempt to make the many, one. In modern times, we often see the implacability of multiple notions on the same ideal. These neuroses have not escaped the Muslims here in America, where it is often more popular than not for self-appointed vanguards of personally conceived notions to coerce the masses into a mold other than that of their choosing. This is carried out by groups and individuals, that for lack of a better word and for dramatic effect, I will dub virtue bullies. The tactic is simple: bludgeon, batter and browbeat those who are perceived to differ in form and thus function of these bastions of moral rectitude. The results of these cultural-psychological attacks are the demonization of individuals and groups who can now easily be used as target practice – religious target practice in as far as this post is concerned. But in my opinion, these attacks are a rouse; a distraction, a cover-up. An applying of rouge to cover one’s blemishes.

What I am speaking about here, primarily, are the notions and concepts on manhood and vis-a-vie, Islam, that some bloggers have taken to attacking. These rants are not merely a waste of time – indeed, they are a fitnah, a trial and tribulation of the community in a time when we have bigger proverbial fish to fry. We live in a time when we need contributors, not detractors. Those who can strive intelligently and morally to say “yes”. Not to fall back on their shortcomings as a safety net to give us the all-too familiar, “no”. But we must get to the heart of these derisive comments. What is really being said here? What is the goal and what is it that these pundits of manhood are seeking to protect, or as I mentioned above, cover up?

To cut to the quick, many of these attacks have centered around the theme of a “hard working man”. The kind of man who earns his keep and, if possible, with his hands. Work that may not involve physical labor while not outright disdained, is certainly mistrustful. Vocations of an intellectual nature are cast with aspersions. After all, how can one really embody all that is right and manly, if you’re providing for your family while dressed in an ascot sweater, wearing suede shoes. Of course, we must not forget the affinity that such men may also have for coffee beverages, such as lattes, cappuccinos, and the like.

While the examples I am giving here are for dramaturgical effect, they are nonetheless, part and parcel with this scornful outlook on those who do not fit their predetermined profile. But in essence, these attacks are highly reminiscent of nativist sentiments towards immigration. Like the attitudes of many lower-class working whites at the turn of the 20th century who saw themselves as the defenders of a way of life, so to do these unsubstantiated claims smack of the same song ilk. Manhood, in the eyes of this self-selected few deem those who exist outside their socio-economic class as lacking in manhood. I say these notions are folly and instead, it would appear that their mascara is running at this point.

To say that Islam is a religion that is broad and wide enough to emcompass many modalities of manhood goes without saying. I would prefer to move beyond this Islam 101 narrative and instead seek to broaden the circle of enclosure. We must endeavor to find ways to include, not exclude. To state that the only acceptable form of dress is for men to dress as these pundits due is outright idiocy and completely outside their jurisdiction. Many such pundits have had the audacity to call for reforms in the community that will promote marriage, strong families and yet, many of them have been the participants of multiple marriages, leaving a wake of divocees, uncared for children and worse in their wake. How can someone who has little to no formal education, no formidable job skills, and makes a questionable contribution to community or society have the gumption to leer at persons who have a well-paying jobs, provide for their families in comfortable means, and even have the disposable income to potentially give to charity [something most of these individuals are hardly in the position to do, let alone reliably provide for their families in safe neighborhoods, provide quality educational opportunities for their children, etc.]? But instead of pointing the looking glass at themselves, they reach up their sleeves for some powdered rouge. Again, the mascara is really starting to run at this point. Only upon becoming spiritually sober, to awaken from the slumber of half-baked misconceptions of manhood whose substance is that of papier-mâché, will they have the chance to contribute something to themselves, their families and their communities and perhaps even society. I continue to be baffled at the state of some Muslims’ minds. With the serious future we face, that intellectual capital would be spent on something as asinine as this truly boggles the mind. Assuredly, manhood in Islam can be broad enough to accommodate a cup of coffee.

Of course, I am a tea drinker so I dare not ask what may be said of me.

The Presumption of Privilege

As Islam continues to sputter along in its American context, post-9/11, various Muslim organizations and groups seek to capture the eye of the masses [who are starting to look more and more like glazed donuts by the minute] by inviting them to “return to Tradition”. I have not noted the capitalized “T” without purpose. Tradition, as it is being marketed currently, is a mono-narrative. Moreover, one might even call it a counter-narrative to the one that is equally applied by the West to Islam/Muslims, in any given time or space. But this concept of Tradition is playing out to be more than simply going back to previously forgotten sources or methods. It is also being linked to privilege. A privilege that takes the form in not only in what economic access can provide but a privilege of ideals. A Believers’ country club, if you will. But one of the main issues with this exclusivity is not solely in the gated mental communities that it fosters but the very idea that Tradition is a panacea. That so long as what is being passed along is stamped with the seal of Tradition, it requires no further investigation, contemplation or scrutinization. But is this truly [the?] tradition? And to what point or end is this tradition to accomplish? What avenues is this tradition to navigate for us? Or are we instead being taken for a ride. Islam in America and more directly, Muslims in America are in dire need for a viable, conducive, productive, creative, indigenous Muslim culture. But how do we get to there from the pre-packaged Tradition we’re currently being offered?

As some of you read before, I had been doing a bit of light reading before heading off to ‘Umrah. Upon my return I decided to put aside some of the heavier bits in favor of what’s been published in magazine format. Two articles piqued my interest: the Summer 2008 edition of The American Scholar, with an article by William Deresiewicz entitled, Exhortation: The Disadvantage of an Elite Education, and Great Neighborhoods, by Mark Hinshaw in the January 2008 edition of Planning. American Scholar deals mostly with issues through a social science perspective, while Planning is a journal in the vein of city planning [The magazine of the American Planning Association]. The two articles are not directly linked and yet, after reading both of them, their impact in tandem drew me to consider the current state of contemporary Muslim education and direction in America [again…].

There is a peculiar handshake between the parties of tradition and authority. Those who are seated are or have seated themselves as the key masters and gate keepers of tradition grant themselves a great deal of authority. An authority, that once imbibed by the target audience, is not easy to regurgitate. Its authority rises from the idea that tradition cannot be made but rather found, and more importantly, bestowed. Those that wish to belong can only do so as long as there are invited. It is precisely this type of exclusiveness that many of the traditionalists are offering American Muslims. Ensconced in the robes of this vernacular, calls towards Traditional Islam continue to rise. But we must ask ourselves: to what, for what, and by whom are we being called?

Let me state again for the record that I am not against the idea of tradition. In fact, I have talked, written and in general, worked towards the formation of a viable Muslim culture in America in my own small way. One can simply substitute tradition for culture in this case. Nor am I averse to the intellectual history of Islam. A quick perusal of this blog will vindicate any accusations. Neither am I unique in this clarion call. Notable scholars such as Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship and Dr. Sherman Jackson, just to name a few and all potent scholars in their own right, have spoken on this necessity. But one of the caveats of tradition is that it can also take on a self-sanctioning pathology, where in stead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes a means and an end. The pitfalls of this phenomenon can be clearly observed in the so-called Muslim world. But for the sake of this argument, I am not interested in how Muslims articulate their cultures in the historical lands of Muslims but rather the process of transference. In as far as the Traditionalists look at it, America and by proxy all Muslims within it are rendered helpless and incapable of manufacturing and creating a vibrant American Muslim culture – a culture that not only speaks to the histories of those Muslims in America but even more importantly to their present and their future. Taking their point of view, at the very best, culture can be imported from overseas and draped on the shoulders of modern day Muslims but in no way do they recognize American Muslims as possessing any form of agency. With the script pre-written, Muslims in America will have to settle for acting in someone else’s play – never becoming stars in their own right.

In this interplay of tradition and privilege, the Traditionalists often see themselves as an object of desire. That in fact, their own interpretation of culture is fit for all peoples, in all times, and all places. And conversely, anyone who resides outside of their cultural expression do so at their own choice. It is here that I found Hinshaw’s comments pertinent:

I imagine that many people consider their own neighborhood a pretty fine place. After all, people live where they are comfortable with the physical surroundings and the neighborhoods.

Hinshaw precludes that who ever lives in a neighborhood does so at their own discretion. The possibility that people often live where they can and not where they would like to is completely glossed over in Hinshaw’s treament of the topic. And yet, for anyone who has done even the most rudimentary examination of inner city populations will realize that the people that reside within these spaces do so not out of choice but rather from the lack of it. To assume that inner city blacks, for example, “are comfortable with the physcial surroundings and the neighborhoods” in which they live in is woefully ignorant [ironically, I found this magazine at my place of work, the University of Pennsylvania: School of Design, in their City Planning department]. This presumptuous rhetoric smacks of the same song mentality practiced by the Traditionalists. They are just as much out of touch with the times as a city planner that assumes all people are happy with where they live. And yet, one of the claims of tradition is that it is supposed to be grounded. Grounded in some sort of existential, historical narrative. So what, precisely, is the current trend of Traditional Islam grounded in?

The theme of being out of touch is central to my critique of Traditional Islam [not to be confused with the intellectual tradition of Islam]. At least in the way it is marketed and packaged. By disarming its adherents of any means of agency, a homegrown, authentic articulation of Islam, driven by a healthy, grounded American Muslim culture, can never develop. Part of this syndrome is due to the fact that many of the institutions of Traditional Islam are out of touch with the development of such a culture. In fact, it may not even be an agenda point. I was reminded of this current situation by William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, where Deresiewicz speaks on his inability to communicate with his plumber:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Socks cap, and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness.

Deresiewicz argues that it was his Ivy League education that did not provide him with the social skills to speak with people “below him”?. That because the plumber is assumed to not have the same amount or level of educational [a safe assumption, no doubt, as Deresiewicz has over a decade of Ivy League education], that not only can he not come down to the plumber’s level but the plumber cannot also ascend to Deresiewicz’s. In my many dealings with students and even some teachers of Traditional Islam, there has been a heavy tendency to practice intellectual elitism. And unlike Mr. Deresiewicz’s education, which undoubtedly took many years and lots of hard work, in the Muslim context, it seldom takes having a bit of Arabic under your belt and a few classes with the right scholars. Thus, by crafting a nomenclature around Tradition, those who fail to ascend to its lofty towers will be left to serve as the plumbers of the Muslim world [the fact that the world would suffer tremendous more for a lack of plumbers than a lack of intellectuals but this fact is not explored], at least academically speaking. There has also been the similar tendency of assumption that Muslims of non-preferential backgrounds [especially Blackermican or non-college educated, hence the lack of their numbers in their circles] lack the basic fundamentals of understanding this form of Islam. Indeed, central to the approach is an almost complete absence of the gifting of intellectual ownership of one’s understanding in Islam. To put in summary, if one wishes to understand Traditional Islam, one must keep paying the subscription fees or face having oness service shut off.

One of the key ways in which a viable culture might take roots here in America is that if Muslims in America begin to take intellectual ownership of their religion and their education in the religion. This process is being hampered by the exclusiveness of Traditional Islam as well as the celebrity of Traditional Islam. It’s add-another-fork-to-the-dinner-table mentality will only seek to impede this process. We need less secret handshakes and more psychological spaces opening up, especially given the last decade or so that indigenous Blackamerican community has gone through. Issues such as man/woman relationships, civic engagement, and education, just to name a few, are in dire need of revamping and retooling.

It is one of my supreme hopes that Muslims in America will wake up and realize that they have the tools to create a healthy, vibrant American Muslim culture. For anyone who thinks that having an American Muslim culture is not a major hurdle on the way to arriving in America need only look to our foreign brothers and sisters. For better or worse, it is their culture that allows them to alleviate many of the anxieties of quotidian existence that plagues so many Muslims in America. An anxiety that is rooted from the fact that they can take no solace in not having to consult an imam, shaykh, 15-volume tome of Bukhari or the like, just to simply figure out if you can cross the street, tie their shoes or go see a movie. It is this culture that could allow many of us to simply “be” to a greater degree versus “trying to be”?. And yet, as we work towards the development of this culture, God willing, we must be shrewd of our embrace of it. For as we have seen, it is apt to have a mind of its own. Culture should serve us towards our goals and ambitions, not making us slaves to the rhythm or at the very least, lower our monthly subscription fees.

John Locke and the Root of the American Experience

No culture or civilization in the history of mankind has ever arisen from a vacuum. All histories are informed by that which came before them.  Even if that history (and perhaps even especially) happens to be the ascending culture in its time and space.  This cannot be said to more true than in the case of the United States of America, a country which prides itself on its freedoms and the right of one to dispose of one’s affairs as one sees fit.  The cultural philosophies  we hold today as normal were first sketched out and further laid in stone by the likes of great thinkers such as John Locke.  His influence over our cultural philosophies in regards to the right to life, property ownership, and even penal codes is greatly underappreciated. America owes a debt of gratitude towards Locke. Without Locke, many of the cultural norms we assume to be our birthright might have been lost in the mists of history.

Modern day America sees itself caught in between upholding the principles  John Locke laid down for us and the need to protect and maintain the national security.  This compromise is not a bit different from the concessions the Colonists had to make when faced with British domination. Therefore in today’s  reality, whether it be an attack from outside forces such as al-Qaedah or the influx of immigrants across the Rio Grande, Americans are still having to address the balance between “freedoms” and “security”.

One does not have to look too deeply at the American democratic process to see and feel the influence of Locke. Many of the democratic concepts we believe constitute a free society, the very need to form a civil society, itself can be traced back to Locke.  His clout can be also be perceived in the immediacy of his own time, counseling the pens of Jefferson, Madison and many others who came shortly after him.

Locke’s viewpoint from his time is one that straddles both modem and pre-modem sensibilities.  By this I mean that Locke perceives his world as one that is in constant turmoil; a chaos that constantly threatens the natural Free State in which man is born into.  Locke’s world demanded a philosophical outlook that would guarantee safety as a primary objective.  The Colonists shared no love for one another but the looming threat of the Royal Crown forced them to rally around a common cause: security and self-determination.

Like all of Locke’s points in Second Treatise, they are interwoven and complement one another, from self-determination to property ownership.  These two points in fact have had long lasting effects on how Americans look at the environment and the manner and extent to which they extract resources from it.  From legislation to the drafting of penal codes, Locke’s arguments accompany each other.  It is precisely this formation of government (or legislative commonwealth as Locke terms it) that seeks to preserve the right to property.  For Locke dictates that property extends beyond mere land ownership.  It encompasses one’s personal self, one’s liberties and the self-entitlement to dispose of them as one sees fit.

One of the most important liberties or freedoms that Locke informs us on is the right for men to own and appropriate property. Through one’s property one is able to extract sustenance from nature.  This process of extraction through one’s property is what Locke says entitles man to what product he extracts from it.  It is also here that Locke illustrates for us the role of the legislature in preserving individual rights to property ownership and the results of labors produced by them or on them.

Locke did not delegate the role of the legislature for simply scripting laws that govern the appropriation of land. They also functioned as the guardians against tyranny and transgression.  In Locke’s argument, man has the right to dispose of his property unmolested by extraneous powers.  This opinion is informed by both Locke’s past and present.  For centuries, Europe lay in the grip of powers that used religion as a tool to not just sway the masses but as a writing instrument to dictate the laws of the land.  And a powerful tool it proved to be.  After all, who could counter the authority of God, even if He chooses to remain “absent”?   Instead, Locke transformed this absentee lordship into a theological interpretation, giving leave to Locke and those who followed his line of thinking to authoring themselves a genuine philosophy for autonomy.

The environment that Locke was to live in would bear a great number of resemblances to that in which the Enlightenment philosophers were living in, namely the dominance of religiously mandated monarchies.  In Locke’s quest to give decree for the Colonists to lead a separate, dignified existence, he borrowed heavily in the form of Enlightenment language (which trumpeted the use of reason for determining destiny), subverting the Crown’s authority over their right to manage their own destinies.  Instead of a theocratic tyranny, Locke delivered a solution for man to simultaneously choose his own destiny and yet still recognize his Creator and God.  Locke himself relates to us that all mankind is the handiwork of one omnipotent Maker.

Any student of American democratic or governmental processes can inform one that the separation of Church and State are two essential components of democracy (as for democracy being essential to “good ruling,” that is up for debate).  Locke as well as many of the Colonists sought to escape religious tyranny in England and other parts of Europe.  Locke’s ideas on the role of religion in society would ultimately come to greatly influence how America legislature would remove the ability or authority of any one religious body from imposing its rule in American society.  Ironically, the fight for separation of Church and State, which Locke so adamantly stood for, is seen to be in jeopardy by many today.

Locke framed his argument against religiously mandated governments in language that was very similar to that of his antagonists.  By reinterpreting Christian theology, Locke presents the Christian god as a passive god; a god who established the Laws of Nature and set them upon a course, wherein man can forge his own destinies.  In modem day America, many feel this separation has been eroded and that despite calls for America to return to its “Christian heritage”, America should remain an inactive part of Revelation.

It is indeed a curiosity that many of the modem day politicians who seek to reintroduce religion back into the public space use many of the founding forefathers as evidence for the original Christian roots of America.  While there is no doubt that Locke is a man who’s  conscious does not stray far from thoughts on God, he clearly in no way sought to implement a theocracy nor lay the foundation for one to be built.  Indeed, it is hard to extract such ideologies from Locke’s Treatise as his disdain for European religious domination took on an almost preventative rhetoric.

The legacy of Locke’s philosophies can be clearly seen in the value that property ownership had maintains in American society. Locke himself was a landowner who made a great deal of wealth of his land ownership.   Even in today’s modem society, property ownership is something that is striven for in American society. It is one of the primary vehicles through which we express our freedom.  In contrast to European society at the time of Locke, where it was exceedingly difficult for one to own land, the Colonies were touted as a place where one could come and own land easily. For many Europeans, land or property ownership was the exclusive domain of the aristocracy or the very wealthy of society.  But Locke saw land should not just be owned but used and used to its full potential.  It is this concept, the idea of land cultivation, which Locke held as a necessary component that went hand in hand with one’s right to own property.

History has acted as a pasteurizing force; internalizing our cultural norms to such an extent that we could never image that there was never a time when they didn ‘t exist. We talk about the Laws of Nature today, as if they are policed by an unseen force.  But it was precisely this concept of Nature and man’s natural state that Locke used to lay the foundation for autonomy from Britain.  And while in the modern context no one thinks of his self as free from British dominance in America, we do believe that we are all born free, in a natural state to dispose as we see fit.  A classic American quote is, “it’s a free country.  You can do what you want.”

While Locke spends a great deal of time expounding on the virtues of absolute freedom, it is not possible to have these absolute freedoms in the context of a greater society.  According to Locke, man’s state of absolute freedom also runs side by side with vulnerability.  In exchange for some of man’s freedoms, he gains increased security in his surroundings.  The Colonists lived in tumultuous times.  Under constant threat of attack from the indigenous Native American tribes, naval threats from the British and even slave rebellions in their own midst, gave plenty of reason for Locke to give pause and provide compromise.   In contrast, our own era, dominated by a post 9/11 milieu, it is not hard to see the traces of what Locke spoke of between absolute freedom and the need for security.  Locke’s definition of government dictates that one of the primary goals of such a government is the safety and protection of the public.

John Locke introduced more than just concepts of property ownership.   Many of America’s modem sensibilities regarding its penal system can trace its genealogy back to Locke.  For Locke, freedom is the right and duty of all those who partake in civil society and uphold and the enforcement of the law.  This is one of the primary functions of Locke’s civil society: To protect the health, property and possessions of others from being accosted by another.  The American democratic system itself grew into an order where losing was an integral part of how the system functioned.  Representatives would be elected by the people and the public would need submit to the authority of the majority.  While minority opinions could still exist they could not oust the duly appointed government unless it took on unjust qualities (and even then it would have to prove those injustices over an extended period).

In all, John Locke gave America a tremendous endowment; a tradition of legislative philosophies and social moralities, thought not without its consequences. Despite being a man of deep thoughts, much of the havoc that has been wrecked upon the environment can be traced back to Locke as well. His attitudes towards nature had a tremendous impact on corporations and their philosophies regarding production, efficiency and progress.  Indeed, many point the finger now at Locke, his contemporaries as well as to Enlightenment philosophy as the smoking gun on why the planet seems to being killed off at an alarming rate. In addition, Locke has been criticized by some as a hypocrite, in terms of human rights, for his own ownership of slaves. He was, nonetheless, a man who gave inspiration to countless Americans to seek their own free destinies.  If not a debt of gratitude, America certainly owes him the responsibility of never forgetting his contribution to the formation of its society.