Bridging The Credibility Gap – A Message to Muslim-American Leadership

At the recent CAIR LA banquet, Dr. Sherman Jackson made a speech in which he really hit to heart of the matter so many of us Muslims in America, and other parts, are really struggling with: the credibility gap. This gap is what prohibits us to be able to distinguish ourselves from the likes of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any other group or individuals who happen to act in the name of Islam with which we find disagreeable, reprehensible or even barbaric. It is this credibility gap which leaves us on the defensive like the man who is asked if he still beats his wife: if he says no, he admits that he did so in the past; if he says yes, he admits his guilt. Either way, he’s damned if he does or doesn’t.

Take a listen to the short audio clip in which Dr. Jackson summarizes this credibility gap:

“Some images that have been produced about me come between you and me … and so rather than your ability to hear, contemplate, internalize the words that I’m saying, those images come in between us, and they degrade your faculty of human encounter.” — Dr. Sherman Jackson


[Direct download]

Amongst many salient points that evening, Dr. Jackson has also highlighted the need for Muslim leadership, whatever form it may take, get out ahead of this crisis and become credible themselves. We denounce non-Muslims who write and or say whatever they wish about Islam, even going to “the sources themselves (Qur’an, fiqh, etc.)” to prove their points, yet many of us lack credentials and even work to subjugate the broad intellectual tradition of Islam under our own personal agendas. In the end, these leaves the Muslim community woefully uninformed and illiterate of their own religion and tradition. So how can we ask non-Muslims to separate the wheat from the chaff of what is and is not representative of normative Muslim thought, morals and ethics, if we ourselves are not committed to higher standards of integrity and scholarship. Until this issue is resolved no amount of distancing or apologizing will remove the collective guilt that all of us are laboring under. May God grant us guidance, mercy and unity.

وَاعتَصِموا بِحَبلِ اللَّهِ جَميعًا وَلا تَفَرَّقوا ۚ وَاذكُروا نِعمَتَ اللَّهِ عَلَيكُم إِذ كُنتُم أَعداءً فَأَلَّفَ بَينَ قُلوبِكُم فَأَصبَحتُم بِنِعمَتِهِ إِخوانًا وَكُنتُم عَلىٰ شَفا حُفرَةٍ مِنَ النّارِ فَأَنقَذَكُم مِنها ۗ كَذٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُم آياتِهِ لَعَلَّكُم تَهتَدونَ

“Hold fast to the rope of Allah all together, and do not separate. Remember Allah’s blessing to you when you were enemies and He joined your hearts together so that you became brothers by His blessing. You were on the very brink of a pit of the Fire and He rescued you from it. In this way Allah makes His Signs clear to you, so that hopefully you will be guided.” — Qur’an, 3: 103

Keepin’ It One Hunned – Thoughts on Imam WD, Muslim Leadership the Lack of Human Capital

On a recent trip to Nashville where I was asked to speak on Muslims and social justice at Vanderbilt University, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the local Muslims in Nashville. The following is an informal conversation between myself and “brother Todd” on a variety of topics. This is part two of a two-part conversation.

“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


[Direct download]

Branch and Root

A branch is produced by the root. While the branch may come to fulfill an entirely different purpose than the root, it is, nonetheless, indebted to it. It also cannot survive without the root. So, in perhaps a circuitous way, the branch is tied to the root, figuratively and literally.

Branches do not thrive, let alone survive, by severing themselves. In fact, the primary way a branch can survive (should it become severed) is if it is grafted on to another plant which has a root. The branch’s well-being is tethered to the root.

Such is the way to explain ‘asl and far’ (فرع/أصل), in the study of Usul al-Fiqh, as well as the application and implementation of sacred knowledge and overall success as a Muslim. Far too many of us today seek success as branches, heedless of our attachment to roots.

Usul al-Fiqh (the foundation of understanding) constitutes two definitions, made up of two single parts: [1] ‘asl, (lit., “root”), which something — besides itself — builds off of and far’ (lit., “branch”), which itself is built upon something else. [2] Fiqh (lit., “understanding”), is knowledge of sacred rulings, the path to which is known as ijtihad (independent legal reasoning, lit., “to push oneself in striving”.

أصول الفقه مؤلف من جزأين مفردين: فالأصل – ما يبنى عليه غيره والفرع ما يبنى على غيره والفقه – معرفة الأحكام الشرعية التي طريقها الاجتهاد

A short excerpt taken from al-Juwayni’s al-Waraqat.

What’s Good For The Goose…?

…Seems to not be equally as good for the gander when applied to American-Muslim scholarship. I have, over the last twenty-plus years, noticed a tendency for Muslims to foster a number of bewildering exceptions when it comes to America, the latest being as it relates to American-Muslim scholarship.  Case in point was a recent Facebook discussion about a noted American-Muslim scholar. The poster had stated that, “with a brother like this that’s within our mist there is no need to call 10,000 miles to ask a question.” The conversation that ensued highlighted a number of intriguing and disturbing conclusions about the veracity and authority of American-Muslim scholarship. I want to make clear, for the record, that I am not singling out these people as a means of retaliation but rather the incident brought back to my mind something I’ve wanted to write about for sometime. This was just an opportunity to do so.

What struck me foremost was the assumption that American-Muslim scholars, while being adept in the social sciences or perhaps even descriptive theology, they are presumed deficient in matters related to jurisprudence (fiqh). The scholar in question mentioned in the Facebook post is a noted scholar with more than 30 years in the field of Islamic studies. I am curious as to what would provoke such a response? What would justify such an assumption? There seemed little evidence to support this claim and scant evidence was provided. Instead, this accusation seemed more of “a hunch,” based on the non-over-seas-ness of American-Muslim scholars.

To be sure, no one scholar, American or foreign, will have an answer, or more importantly a solution for every problem. Any scholar worth his or her salt will confess to have strengths and weakness. Areas of familiarity and areas where they are not one hundred percent confident. But what is striking here is that when American-Muslims wish to assert that there are qualified American scholars (plural here, not just one exceptional person), there flaws are accentuated whereas the reverse is not done so with scholars overseas. There is no litmus test for many (though not all) brown- or olive-skinned foreign-born, foreign-educated and foreign-minded scholars who have also, curiously enough, not demonstrated any credentials to speak on matters pertaining to Islam in general (beyond them being called “shaykh”) and Islam in America in particular. I feel that either we should be fair and allow American-Muslim scholars the same leniency as their over-seas counterparts, placing the same faith in their hues or complexions, their titles, be it “shaykh”, “imam”, or even just “professor”, or come down just as hard on those scholars overseas for their lack of credentials as we are on our own home-grown scholars.

In the end, I am reminded of what the great 19th-/20th-Century thinker, W. E. B. DuBois, spoke of on the nature of double-consciousness, as is so clearly articulated in this double-standard:

“…the measuring of one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

And God knows best.

Community Foresight – Many Fingers Make Light Work

A listserv started and maintained by Da’ood Nasir

Funerals. They are something we generally do not like to think about. I say this based on evidence of observation in the way in which Muslim communities tend to handle funerals (hereafter referred to as janazah). I’m not talking about the etiquette, or lack thereof, that is displayed at so many jana’iz (pl. janazah): that subject deserves its own post (forthcoming? Make du’ah for my typing skills). What I am talking about are two things: one, community obligations and two, easy deeds for one’s scale.

As for point one, let’s examine it from rom a fiqh point of view: jana’iz fall under the heading of fard al-kifayah/communal obligations. It is our responsibility as a community to bury our dead, not the state’s. What seems to frustrate this process is often times a lack of planning, admittedly on both parties: the deceased (or in this case, the formerly living) and the Muslim community at large. Part of what I feel should be incorporated into the new masjid paradigm we see trying to form in America is help in the area of life planning, or more specifically in this case, death planning (feel free to suggest some other terminology — I know this sounds awful). This is equally important for both legacy Muslims as well as so-called convert Muslims. I have seen many funerals go awry due to improper planning of wills and last testaments. Not that we want to hand every new Muslim a copy of the Qur’an, a prayer rug and then a last-will-and-testament kit (bean pie is optional), but it would be pretty good to have a will-template made up and on-hand, downloadable from a masjid’s website or obtainable from its front office. It would also help to perhaps conduct workshops on this from time to time to keep it in the community’s periphery vision. But I digress.

Point two: easy deeds. What do I mean by easy deeds? There is a well-cited hadith from Ibn Majah, narrated by Abu Hurayrah, that details the fate of those who die in a state of debt:

نَفْسُ الْمُؤْمِنِ مُعَلَّقَةٌ بِدَيْنِهِ حَتَّى يُقْضَى عَنْهُ

“The soul of the believer is attached to his debt until it is paid off.” (Hasan)

For me, this hadith illustrates the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وسلم overarching wisdom in that he saw all sides and all aspects of his community. The Muslim community will always be made up of those who will need the help of others and that these people should not necessarily be looked down upon simply because of economic hardship. In fact, helping one’s brother or sister from a hardship is an excellent and “easy” opportunity to acquire lofty deeds for one’s scale as is noted in another hadith (also narrated by Abu Hurayrah), as recorded in Sahih Muslim:

مَنْ نَفَّسَ عَنْ مُؤْمِنٍ كُرْبَةً مِنْ كُرَبِ اَلدُّنْيَا, نَفَّسَ اَللَّهُ عَنْهُ كُرْبَةً مِنْ كُرَبِ يَوْمِ اَلْقِيَامَةِ , وَمَنْ يَسَّرَ عَلَى مُعْسِرٍ, يَسَّرَ اَللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ فِي اَلدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ, وَمَنْ سَتَرَ مُسْلِمًا, سَتَرَهُ اَللَّهُ فِي اَلدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ, وَاَللَّهُ فِي عَوْنِ اَلْعَبْدِ مَا كَانَ اَلْعَبْدُ فِي عَوْنِ أَخِيهِ

“If anyone relieves a Muslim believer from one of the hardships of this worldly life, Allah will relieve him of one of the hardships of the Day of Resurrection. If anyone makes it easy for the one who is indebted to him (while finding it difficult to repay), Allah will make it easy for him in this worldly life and in the Hereafter, and if anyone conceals the faults of a Muslim, Allah will conceal his faults in this world and in the Hereafter. Allah helps His slave as long as he helps his brother.”

For me, I am concentrating on the first part of the hadith, “If anyone relieves a Muslim believer from one of the hardships of this worldly life…”. I cannot tell you how many notifications for jana’iz have come through brother Da’ood Nasir’s listserv: Islamic Information E-mail Network, of Muslims who have passed on. Often these Muslims who are passing, may Allah have mercy on them and grant them Jannah, have non-Muslim family who may or may not be amicable to a Muslim funeral, are in debt, or are incapable (them or their families) of paying the costs of the funeral. Our communities seem to have no issue in investing millions of dollars into buildings but commits very little to human causes. My thoughts are thus: could we, as a community, set up an emergency fund to help these Muslims alleviate their debt by removing this hardship or the hardship of the cost of the funeral. Perhaps something as simple as a weekly or monthly donation program in which members of the Muslim community could contribute to this fund which would be especially allocated to this particular effort. In the end, it would be a win-win situation for the dead as well as the living, who will be joining them shortly.

These few notes here are not meant to be taken as dictates but rather as a means of starting important conversations in our various communities across America to help facilitate the growth and maturation of the Muslim community in America. And God knows best,

For more information on Da’ood Nasir’s e-mail network you can reach him at nasir [at] nasirkeyman [dot] net.