Muslims, Modernity and America: The Problems of Meaning

During the 2018 Blackamerican Muslim Conference there were a few instances when modernity, liberalsim, and progressivism—amongst other ideals—were evoked and discussed. Often these philosophies are discussed in relation to the so-called immigrant Muslim community and how it affects them. But these philosophies and value systems impact the Blackamerican Muslim community as well. As I mentioned in my last post, my hope is to delve a little deeper into these topics so as to raise our literacy on the forces acting upon us. I found Steven Seidman’s phrase, “problems of meaning” aptly titled and insightful. In short, Seidman defines the “problems of meaning” as,

“a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values, confusing images of self, society and nature, and the ceaseless conflict over the ends, rules, and norms in terms of which personal and collective life is organized and legitimated.”

In the Sunday session on liberalism, Dr. Sherman Jackson astutely pointed out that liberalism, a child of the European Enlightenment, came about as a reaction to a particular experience that Europe had with religion. Similarly, Seidman states,

“The great transformation of European societies issued forth problems of meaning as established cultural frameworks securing identity, moral order, and purposeful existence were disrupted.”

It is clear that if one were to summarize the problems which face the Blackamerican Muslim community, those topping the list would undoubtedly include “a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values” as well as “confusing images of self” as to what a Muslim ought to be and look like from a Blackamerican Muslim point of view. In other words it is not that our challenges as Blackamerican Muslims living in America are legion, but that they are layered and obscured from vision.

One example of a layered problem, or as Seidman labels it, problems of meaning is the doubly shifting sands of Blackamerican Muslim pursuits of “identity, moral order, and purposeful existence”. I say doubly shifting because what effects white America inevitably black America or as the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker quoted, “when downtown catches a cold, Harlem gets pneumonia”. Blackamerican Muslims must try to forge an identity, establish moral order and carve out a dignified existence amidst an ever-changing social landscape, one which we exert little overt control. For me this is why it’s even more crucial that Blackamerican Muslims come to familiarize themselves with these philosophical, intellectual and cultural forces that routinely produce regimes of “pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate belief”. For it is certainly this which is currently decimating the ranks of those who followed revealed religion: Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike.

Seidman, Steven. “Modernity And The Problem Of Meaning: The Durkheimian Tradition”. Sociological Analysis, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 1985, pp. 109-130.

#MiddleGroundPodcast – Sha’ban and Bid’ah: Islam Isn’t Sorcery


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Al-Shatibi, the author of a two-volume book entitled al-I’tisam الاعتصام (Holding Fast), has been hailed by many as the best book ever written on the subject of bid’ah: “unsanctioned innovation in religious matters”. In this work, al-Shatibi gives the following definition for bid’ah:

البدعة طريقة مخترعة في الدين تضاهي الشرعية يقصد بالسلوك عليها ما يقصد بالطريقة الشرعية

“A concocted manner of proceeding in religion that mimics the scripturally mandated way, with the aim of achieving through this concocted way that which should only be sought through the scripturally mandated way.”

According to Dr. Sherman Jackson,

bid’ah” is not simply committing an act that the Prophet did not commit or failing to commit an act that the Prophet actually did. Bid’a is, rather, committing or avoiding such actions as a means of making up one’s own way to God. In other words, the real issue is not whether an act is committed or not; the real issue is the religious value that one attributes to the commission or non-commission of an act“.

The reason why innovation becomes an issue is because people will leave off what was legislated for them* in favor of what is not legislated. In doing so they put themselves in the position of being a prophet or a messenger. We now have people who live recklessly and then attempt to turn religion in general, and Islam in particular, into a kind of magic or sorcery. What was magic’s use or intent? To either gain the gods’ favor, overcome them, or the natural world (which was in most mythologies created by the gods or inhabited by them).

Many of these attempts are “practical” in that they wish to supplant that which would require discipline for something else that “fits their schedule”. “Praying every day in impractical”, in this way of thinking. “I prefer to get it out the way or have it done on my time”.

قُل لِلَّهِ الشَّفاعَةُ جَميعًا ۖ لَهُ مُلكُ السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضِ ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَيهِ تُرجَعونَ

“Say to them,’It’s God’s exclusive right to choose someone to be an intercessor, for the control of the heavens and the earth belongs to Him, and then you’re all going to go back to Him’.”Qur’an, 39: 44

So a person will drink, fornicate, cheat, and even murder, and then think all of this can be mitigated on one special night.

Background on the verses 53 through 59 of Surah al-Zumar (#39)

There were some Makkans who wanted to accept Islam, but they had indulged in very wicked behavior in their lives before, having murdered people, committed adultery, theft and other crimes. They felt that their sins were too enormous for God to forgive merely by their accepting Islam. “How can we become Muslims when we did all that?” one of them even asked. Just after the Muslims migrated to Madinah, the concerns of such sympathetic but despairing Makkans were discussed by many. These verses were revealed, and ‘Umar ibn al Khattab, who knew how to write, wrote them on a paper and sent it secretly back to Makkah. The first person who read it was a man named Hisham who said in later days, “I took it and went to a place named Thitawa, and I asked God to make me understand it. When I realized it was for us, I returned to where my mount was tethered and resolved to follow the Prophet.” Many others also joined Islam and made their way to Madinah.

قُل يا عِبادِيَ الَّذينَ أَسرَفوا عَلىٰ أَنفُسِهِم لا تَقنَطوا مِن رَحمَةِ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغفِرُ الذُّنوبَ جَميعًا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الغَفورُ الرَّحيمُ

وَأَنيبوا إِلىٰ رَبِّكُم وَأَسلِموا لَهُ مِن قَبلِ أَن يَأتِيَكُمُ العَذابُ ثُمَّ لا تُنصَرونَ

وَاتَّبِعوا أَحسَنَ ما أُنزِلَ إِلَيكُم مِن رَبِّكُم مِن قَبلِ أَن يَأتِيَكُمُ العَذابُ بَغتَةً وَأَنتُم لا تَشعُرونَ

أَن تَقولَ نَفسٌ يا حَسرَتا عَلىٰ ما فَرَّطتُ في جَنبِ اللَّهِ وَإِن كُنتُ لَمِنَ السّاخِرينَ

أَو تَقولَ لَو أَنَّ اللَّهَ هَداني لَكُنتُ مِنَ المُتَّقينَ

أَو تَقولَ حينَ تَرَى العَذابَ لَو أَنَّ لي كَرَّةً فَأَكونَ مِنَ المُحسِنينَ

بَلىٰ قَد جاءَتكَ آياتي فَكَذَّبتَ بِها وَاستَكبَرتَ وَكُنتَ مِنَ الكافِرينَ

“[Muhammad – Tell the people that I, Myself, have said, ‘All My servants who have acted excessively against their own souls! Don’t lose hope of God’s mercy, for God can forgive all sins. He truly is the Forgiving and the Merciful!’

‘Turn towards your Lord and surrender to Him before the punishment overwhelms you, for then you’ll have no one to help you.’

‘Follow the best of what’s being revealed to you from your Lord before the punishment overwhelms you all of a sudden without your even realizing what’s happening.’

‘For then your soul will cry out, “I’m doomed! I neglected my duty to God, and I scoffed!”

‘Or it might cry out, “If only God had guided me, I would surely have been one of the mindful.”

‘Or it might cry out, the moment it sees the punishment approaching, “If only I had a second chance, I would surely be with those who are good’.

‘“But no! My signs came to you, and you denied them! You were arrogant, and you tried to cover the truth that was all around you’.”Qur’an, 39: 53-59

Notes

*What do we mean by “legislated”? In specific, that which Allah will judge a person by, and that which may forfeit a person’s entrance to the Garden.

#MiddleGroundPodcast – The Sherman Jackson Reader: On Belief and Rationality For Muslims in the West

In this episode of the Middle Ground Podcast, we share some more insights into our Saturday class, The Sherman Jackson Reader, this time discussing such topics as belief, non-belief, and the hegemony of western constructs such as rationalism, and what are its consequences for Muslims and what our potential reactions might be.

Excerpts

On Sensationalism, ISIS and Liberalism


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Revelation and Talking About Revelation


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On Prophetic Authority


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Belief vs. Religion

ما تَعبُدونَ مِن دونِهِ إِلّا أَسماءً سَمَّيتُموها أَنتُم وَآباؤُكُم ما أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ بِها مِن سُلطانٍ ۚ إِنِ الحُكمُ إِلّا لِلَّهِ ۚ أَمَرَ أَلّا تَعبُدوا إِلّا إِيّاهُ ۚ ذٰلِكَ الدّينُ القَيِّمُ وَلٰكِنَّ أَكثَرَ النّاسِ لا يَعلَمونَ

“If you don’t serve Him, then you’re serving nothing more than names that you and your ancestors made up, and God gave no one permission to do that. The right to command is for none save God, and He has commanded that you serve nothing besides Him. That’s the straight way of life, but most people don’t understand.” — Qur’an, 12: 40


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On Being A Good Person and Being A Non-Muslim


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On Modern Understandings of Religion


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On the Hegemony of Western Norms: Wudu, Rationalism, and the Significance of Ritual


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The Full clip


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For other khutbahs and podcasts, see the Middle Ground Podcast.

Notes

Kahn, Jonathan S., and Lloyd, Vincent W. Race And Secularism In America. New York, Columbia University Press, 2016.

Cavanaugh, William T. The Myth Of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict . Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.

#MiddleGroundPodcast – The Sherman Jackson Reader – Insights Into Practice and Spirituality

I teach a class entitled The Sherman Jackson Reader at Middle Ground. It’s a class where we use Dr. Jackson’s articles, books, and scholarship, to spark meaningful dialogues, conversations, and ask pertinent questions. The following are two short excepts followed by the full length clip. Enjoy, and perhaps join us some Saturday after Fajr!

“Spiritual Savings”


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“Pulling On Faith”


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The Full clip


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For other khutbahs and podcasts, see the Middle Ground Podcast.

#MiddleGroundPodcast – An Islam Without Boundaries – Is It Still Islam?


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In this episode, I clarifyy some points in my article, The Unrecognizable Islam of Reza Aslan, about the boundaries of belief and asks some important questions for our community to consider.

Sources

1. The Unrecognizable Islam of Reza Aslan.

2. Mu’min and Kafir – Negotiating Shared Space.

3. The Trouble With Muslim Pundits TodayPart 1 and Part 2.