Much of social media can be a slosh of one-liners: a blur of detached quotes and images. Total chaos. But once in a while a post comes along that does make you stop and reflect. The Islam & the Third Resurrection Facebook group posited the following question:
“Why does it seem like the majority of all the black American Muslims are 55 and up? Why weren`t they able to successfully pass Islam on to their children?”
This is a prescient question, one deserving our undivided attention. And while not wanting to universalize, this also reflects a comment I made during my interview with sister Heather Laird when asked about the differences, if any, between the challenges facing the Blackamerican/indigenous American-Muslim community and the immigrant community:
“It’s like a different album cover but the songs are still the same.”
This question cannot be answered in any single, simple term. It’s as complicated as the folks who made the problem itself. I tried to address some of this in the interview (timeline about 16:00) but if I were to begin an attempt to answer this question, it would be an accusation against the older generation that they thought “it was all about them”. They largely built nothing for succeeding generations: very few institutions by Blackamerican Muslims (masajid, schools, other spaces) and dysfunctional mosques and schools by immigrants. In both cases, the few places that were built were devoid of any purpose and back by little if any human capital.
Additionally, these two communities have stifled any and all creativity in their children. As a result, Islam was mainly reduced to a reactionary theology, devoid of real character building, absent of moral conviction, that painted God as little more than a great big cop in the sky, ready to punish anyone who drove 65 in a 55 mph zone, with their pants too long, their beards too short, and the hijabs not wrapped tight enough (or absent all together!). Our inclination to protest (something present in both the Blackamerican experience as well as the immigrant one) has gotten the better of us: we protest to the point that we even proverbially picketed our children. And with all of the alluring secular options to just bounce out and live lives as “good people”, they were failed to be led to see how, in any way, that religion adds value to life.
So let us ask God for guidance, to come to our senses, and try to right the ship before it’s too late for us all.
كرم المرء دينه ، ومروءته عقله ، وحسبه خلقه
“The nobility of a man is his religion, while his manliness is his discernment, and his regard is his character.” Abu Hurayrah via al-Bayhaqi in his as-Sunan al-Kubra.
Some time back, I wrote a small article which turned into a khutbah, a halaqah, and some subsequent blog posts talking about the need for a spiritual maturity on the part of Muslims in American; to come of age, as it were. While the words were initially met with approval, I still feel they fell somewhere short of the mark. I continued to talk and lecture from the classroom and the minbar, and was dismayed at what I witnessed: A living disconnect, a living dysfunction amidst Muslims, both young and old, immigrant and indigenous. There seemed (and still seems) to be a lack of reification of Islam’s values—things such as devotional prayer, the Oneness of God, love for the Prophet and so forth—a process to bring them into play in daily life. Islam’s values have largely become locked away by Muslims in a plastic, sterile vocabulary that seldom goes beyond the perfunctory “Qur’an and Sunnah”.
In order to not render myself guilty of my own claims, let me be specific. I cannot account for the number of Jumu’ah prayers I have attended where the rank and file come in their most drab, their most dingy clothing. Ripped jeans and T-shirts are a common sight. Middle-aged men attend Friday prayer dressed in sweats, jeans, and all articles of mundane clothing. Young men (perhaps someone can correct me but I see a much better response from Muslim women, young and old) attend prayer in the shabbiest of clothing, often with holes in them (some I am sure are purposely done for the “cool” factor); their backsides are frequently exposed, revealing their underwear or worse, their nakedness (my parents lovingly endured the many phases of my youth, but I hardly think nakedness would have been one they would have allowed). Let me make something clear here, these critiques are no solely leveled at “’hood Muslims”. I have witnessed the same behaviors at Ivy League universities amongst the Muslim Student Associations (MSA’s). Muslim students attend prayer dressed in the same foppish T-shirts and jeans, or even worse, shorts, with their thighs exposed1. For some reason, there is an unspoken dispensation given for students to show up as they like. Not only are these Muslims detached from the tradition of honoring their religion, as Abū Hurayrah indicates, but their prayer itself may be invalid. Over and over again I see men going into sajdah (prostration) with their shirts hiked up, exposing their back sides and often, a bit more (let your imagination fill in the blanks or the proverbial “cracks”). What is even more disparaging is the hypocrisy I have been witness to by some of these very same brothers who are quick to turn their gaze on a woman who is not “properly covered”, or even worse, happens to wander over into the men’s section.
So what is at play here? Or more importantly, what is at stake? One observation that stands out clearly is not only a lack of appreciation, but a lack of indoctrination of Muslims into the tradition of Islam (small “t”): Muslims have been conditioned to respect and venerate the vocabulary of Islam: Salah, Qur’an, Prophets, Shari’ah, etc., but have seldom been invited to take ownership over these principles, let alone bring them down off of their abstract shelves and put them into play in their own lives. The results of this schizophrenia has been the near-complete separation between the utterance of a venerated principle (i.e., “Sunnah”), and its enactment on the part of that very same person. How else does one explain the recitation of such neo-slogans as “having to return to the Sunnah” while praying with one’s underwear showing or attending Friday prayer in one’s play clothes?
The landscape of American Islam is an ever changing kaleidoscope of slogans, cliques, personalities and the like. This is not so much of a railing critique as it is an acknowledging that Muslims in American (and indeed outside America given American culture’s viral nature) should not expect to remain immune to this phenomenon de facto by nature of being Muslim. Case in point has been the emergence of “Traditional Islam” onto the stage of American Muslim imagination. This neologism is very close to becoming a brand name versus signifying anything concrete. Muslim organizations across the board have adopted its use as a means of granting themselves legitimacy. It’s not that these organizations may not indeed have claims to legitimacy (as indeed, most if not all do in some way or another) but rather it’s the manner in which this terminology disarms their target audiences of truly benefiting from the teachings they have to offer. As it stands, “Traditional Islam’s” pedagogy fails to impart to its target Muslim audience, “you need to live by and enact these codes, these edicts, these moral injunctions, in your life”. All too often to the contrary, targets of Traditional Islam are deceived or misled into a false sense of quietude, by which their lives are magically transformed into being better Muslims, ignorant of the disconnect articulated above, to speak nothing of the crushing loneliness that many Muslims continue to experience, as confessed to me time and time again. The neologism itself has changed shape via the canopy and backdrop of the American Muslim canvass: Salafism, Sufism, and even in its plain clothes form, Traditional Islam. I chose to make this distinction as I am not overly biased against one group or another. To the contrary, I would hope these groups would reanalyze their approaches and rethink their success rates, for the issue is ubiquitous, as has been confirmed from friends of mine who are active in all the aforementioned circles.
Last month (November 2010) I wrote a short piece about the function that story telling plays in the Muslim tradition, one which is dying out. Similarly, despite the fact that Muslims today have more cataloged access to this so-called tradition, it is dying out as a lived practice. In fact, we can see the same stance and relation Muslims have today towards “Traditional Islam” as they do towards the Qur’an and Sunnah: Adoption of modes of dress, that are presumed to be more authentically Muslim, supersedes implementation of Muslim tradition; attempts to revive art forms such as calligraphy (of which I happen to personally be a fan of); in sum, a treasure hunt of bygone relics of a former, more nobler or “quaint” epoch. To the extent that one can excavate these relics, one has become more and more a proponent of “Traditional Islam”, despite whatever gnawing and nagging feelings of isolation and detachment exhibited in so many who are in pursuit of it, not to mention personal character defects that lay at odds with value systems found in the “Qur’an and Sunnah.” What is being missed here about tradition is precisely that thing which tradition is trying to get at: Acting upon one’s values, not simply memorizing and reciting them. When the veneration of values become detached from the practice of those same values, the results are reminiscent of the Prophetic narration in which Muslims, despite their numbers, are akin to “froth, such as is found on a torrent of water”2. What Muslims are missing today—those on the pedagogical side of the “Traditional Islam” isle as well as those seeking it—is tradition’s power to root and cement the seeker in a reality that reflects his or her beliefs, publicly and privately. I am reminded by H. P. Lovecraft’s observation on tradition. He muses:
In a cosmos without absolute values… there is only one anchor of fixity…, and that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally and pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time and space. (Schultz and Joshi)
Tradition in Islam (arguably in other arenas as well) does more than simply tell us where, how, and in what order to place our footsteps (proverbial and literal), but also affirms that we are doing so to garner the pleasure and reward of God Almighty. In as much that Traditional Islam (as a brand) claims to evoke the legacy and authenticity of the Prophet [s], its power ultimately rests in its ability to acclimatize it (i.e., the Sunnah) to our locality. To return us to our example about Friday etiquette, how and in what way will Muslims enact the Prophet’s edict to “wear their best clothes”3? This, to date, has been mostly patronized by literal interpretations of wearing a thobe, vis-a-vie the hadith’s word, ثوب (the word “thawb” has been understood by many scholars to be representational of clothing in general, a word that is capable of encompassing a variety of styles). In the absence of a tradition that confers agency, not simply administers it, the non-thobe wearing crowd appear to see little to no value in dressing well for Friday prayer, donning instead the same disheveled look (i.e., T-shirts, jeans, and the like).
I see this tension—a clash of temporals—a phenomenon akin to what Dr. Sherman Jackson dubs “juridical empiricism”4 , that act by which (religious) communities—Jackson’s “Believers”—form a “last-ditch effort to find refuge from the deluge of modem secularism”5. Jackson continues, “Every serious commitment to Islam … assumes that meaning is restricted to the strictly lexical sense of words and that allegorical, figurative, or metaphorical interpretations are most often attempts to escape or distort the true meaning of scripture”6 (Jackson). I have heard from Muslims, both immigrant and indigenous, that wearing a suit is “imitating the kāfir”; the necktie is the “noose of civilization”. Another example of the “forest ‘fore the trees” syndrome found in the current “Traditional Islam” dilemma, is the adoption of the fez (a hat worn by Muslim men throughout the Muslim world), a hat, that despite its origins who lay outside Revelatory Islam, has been adopted as a bona fide symbol of authentic Muslim identity7. What has been lost in time is the appropriating power of Muslim tradition, in this case, the appropriation of the fez, originally a “foreign object”, as an appropriated Muslim head piece, to condone and convey identity and agency (two areas American Muslims are in desperate need of). In other words, Muslim tradition at some point in time conferred upon the red felt hat a degree of symbolic Muslimness; an identity piece. The question that begs answering is why has this process arrested? One could possibly make the case that it is still struggling to stay alive, as seen in the city of Philadelphia, where Blackamerican Muslims have attempted to fuse Middle-Easten modes of dress (thobe) with American urban footwear, namely Timberland boots. This stylistic look has become iconic and symbolic of Islam amongst Blackamericans in Philadelphia. It is now, in the local culture, an authentic expression of Philadelphia Islam. The questions is, can this envelop not be pushed to include, or in the spirit of the fez, co-opt, other modes of dress as well? It is a gut feeling of mine that many Americans in the broader cultural context object to Islam, not on theological grounds, but on aesthetic ones (i.e., they do not wish to dress like “foreigners”). If American Muslims are going to get serious about da’wah, then they will have to contend with these issues, not simply calling those who don’t mind changing up their wardrobes.
Putting aside the great sartorial debate for a moment, I want to turn back to tradition itself, and more specifically what tradition means to young Muslims as well as what it means to be young and adult in American society. In a 2007 interview conducted by Andrea Longbottom, she asks Dr. Robert Epstein, author of The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007), about his views on the teenage brain and behavior:
I struggle with [teens’ capacity to make sound judgments and decisions] as a parent of four offspring. That strong tendency we have to want to protect—there’s a reason for that, absolutely. But the best thing we can do for young people is to give them the tools they need to be independent and to make those decisions. There’s only so much you can learn by advice from others. Most of what we learn in our lives comes from experience. You give your sons and daughters the best advice you can, and then you give them the tools they need to become independent.
If you give them incentives and opportunities to join the adult world, that’s not the same as setting them free. You’re not pushing them off a cliff. What you’re doing is saying, “I’m going to welcome you into the adult world. If you show me you can do this, then you’re going to join us.” You’re not pushing them toward oblivion—you’re pulling them with you into the world of responsible adulthood. Given the choice between being infantilized in the frivolous world of teen culture and joining the adult world, I believe most teens will pick the latter. (Longbottom)
Epstein highlights some key items I think every Muslim in America shout stop and take stock of: “incentives and opportunities to join the adult world.” It has been articulated by numerous other cultural analysts, but the fact America at large has an issue with the transition from childhood to adulthood is hard to overstate. The fact that the video game industry, at nearly $20 billion dollars annually, a stunning figure in comparison to such (former) titans as General Motors, continues to enthrall and dazzle young adult males between the ages of 15 and 40. Video games are just one example of the many components of modern culture that “infantilize” young people into a practice of frivolity, Muslims again not being immune. Modern society and culture, on a global scale, deifies youth to such an extent that there are few incentives to be found in popular culture for youth to “grow up”. For me, I see tradition, in all its various articulations as far as Muslims are concerned, as a vehicle which leads and coaches one through life, informing one on how one comes to decisions, especially the journey from child to adult. Tradition is that which (should) give options: Sometimes one may take the “traditional route”, meaning that you follow an example of those informed ancestors that came before you, such as the Prophet [s], the Companions, Scholars, etc. Other times, one may need to interpret the reality one faces for which one’s tradition does not have a “lexical” response to. In this scenario, one strives to move in the spirit of one’s tradition, aiming to achieve the same goal (see Jackson’s example about opening a window, fetching a fan, turning off the lights, and pouring a glass of water) one would hope to achieve were there a “lexical” example; where a textual application could actually apply.
Epstein also highlights the importance of those who are the current key holders and gate keepers to accompany these young adults into their world of responsibility and tradition. Here it is especially critical for Muslims to spend more time amongst Muslim youth, specifically those of the imamate and leadership positions. Doing so will require a paradigm shift in how American Muslims envision and imagine the role of the imam and the masjid. Muslims must come to put trust in their youth, aiding them in making good decisions, thereby establishing a trust between the generations. This trust is best earned by being there with these youth as they learn to make those decisions, side-by-side in journeyman fashion, with their adult counterparts leading them, not herding, or worse, chiding them when they make their inevitable mistakes. In doing so, Muslims will foster an environment whereby they may truly become protectors of one another8. The consequences of not doing so are already readily apparent, as we have, are, and may continue to “wrong ourselves” as Surah al-Tawbah, verses 70-71 proclaim9.
It is my hope that this article does not convey any latent or secret hostility I have towards the Muslim tradition or any Muslim organization who seek to avail themselves of it. To the contrary, I have endeavored to learn and study the Muslim intellectual and spiritual traditions, a vocation that has been going strong for fifteen-plus years. It is my hope and wish that it can be made available to Muslims such that their daily lives are impacted and enriched by its endorsement. To be sure, there has been some impact on the rank and file Muslim by these various organizations. I only advocate doing a better job, not to deride them for not doing any good whatsoever. It is also my hope that as adult Muslims, we can step up our game, and demonstrate through actions and words, what a living Islam looks and acts like. Through this holistic approach, we may actually be able to redeem ourselves in the sight of God, and put forth a better example to the broader Muslim public the transformative and healing power of Islam.
- الفخذ عورة الراوي: عبد الله بن مسعود المحدث: البخاري – المصدر: التاريخ الكبير
جلس رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عندنا وفخذي منكشفة فقال أما علمت أن الفخذ عورة الراوي: جرهد المحدث: أبو داود – المصدر: سنن أبي داود
خلاصة حكم المحدث: سكت عنه [وقد قال في رسالته لأهل مكة كل ما سكت عنه فهو صالح
‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud relates, “the thigh is part of the ‘awrah/private parts”, related in al-Bukhari’s al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr. In Sunan Abū Dawud, Jarhad relates, “The Messenger of God sat down with us and my thigh was exposed so he said to me, ‘Did you not know that the thigh is part of the ‘awrah/private parts?’.
- أنتم يومئذ كثير ولكنكم غثاء كغثاء السيل — see Abu Dāwud’s Sunan Abī Dāwud, #4297.
- ولبس من أحسن ثيابه — see al-Haythumī’s Mujma’ az-Zawā’id, Vol. 2, #177.
- See Sherman Jackson’s, Literalism, Empiricism, and Induction: Apprehending and Concretizing Islamic Law’s Maqāsid al-Sharī’ah in the Modern World.
- Just to set the record clean, I happen to own several fez’s as I am quite fond of their style.
- والمومنين والمومنت بعضهم أولياء بعض — Sūrah al-Tawbah (9), verse 71.
- ألم ياتهم نبأ الذين من قبلهم قوم نوح وعاد وثمود وقوم إبرهيم وأصحب مدين والموتفكت أتتهم رسلهم بالبينت فما كان الله ليظلمهم ولكن كانوا أنفسهم يظلمون والمومنين والمومنت بعضهم أولياء بعض يامرون بالمعروف وينهون عن المنكر ويقيمون الصلوة ويوتون الزكوة ويطيعون الله و رسوله ألئك سيرحمهم الله إن الله عزيز حكيم — Sūrah al-Tawbah (9), verses 70-71.
Friday Prayer/Jumu’ah Resources
- إن يوم الجمعة يوم عيد و ذكر، فلا تجعلوا يوم عيدكم يوم صيام، و لكن اجعلوه يوم فطر و ذكر، إلا أن تخلطوه بأيام
- “Friday is an ‘Eid/Holy Day and a remembrance therefore do not make your Holy Day [Fridays – not Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr] a day of fasting. Make it instead a day of “fitr” — a day of charity and feasting, unless you connect it with other days.” Related by Abū Hurayrah from al-Suyūti’s al-Jāmi’ al-Sagīr.
- من اغتسل يوم الجمعة ولبس من أحسن ثيابه ومس من طيب إن كان عنده ثم أتى الجمعة فلم يتخط أعناق الناس ثم صلى ما كتب الله له ثم أنصت إذا خرج إمامه حتى يفرغ من صلاته كانت كفارة لما بينها وبين جمعته التي قبلها
- “The one who takes a bath on Friday, wears his best clothes, perfumes himself if he so has it with him then attends the Friday Prayer without stepping on the necks of the people, then prays as God has proscribed it for him, then listens attentively to the Imam from the time he comes out until he [the Imam] finishes his prayer, it serves as an expiation for what was between this Friday and the previous one.” Related by Abū Sa’īd in Abū Dāwud’s Sunan Abī Dāwud, #343.
Extra Reading and Sources
- Inculcating Taqwa In Our Lives.
- Jackson, Sherman. “Literalism, Empiricism, and Induction: Apprehending and Concretizing Islamic Law’s Maqasid al-Shari’ah in the Modern World.” Michigan State Law Review (2006): 1469-1486.
- Longbottom, Andrea. The Home School Court Report Vol. XXIII. July/August 2007. 27 December 2010. http://www.hslda.org/courtreport/V23N4/V23N401.asp.
- Schultz, Dave E. and S. T. Joshi, An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1991.
- Smell good on Friday — via Oud Select. Borneo Black is my favorite.
I’ve been resisting writing and posting during Ramadan but I opted to put out one small post. I pray everyone’s Ramadan is rewarding, redeeming, and fulfilling.
One of the most memorable lines from the Star Wars franchise was Emperor Palpatine’s cruel admonishment of Luke when he cackled, “you shall pay the price for your lack of vision!” This chastisement was swiftly followed by searing bolts of blue lightening. If it weren’t for the timely intervention of Luke’s at-one-time sinister father, Darth Vader, Luke may have met a very unfortunate fate. In what has also become now a cruel twist of fate, American Muslims are now paying their own price for lack of vision, as the United States now increasingly turns on Muslims, demonizing and terrorizing them, not unlike this recent incident in New York, where a mosque was attacked by a small pack of marauding teens. Similarly to Luke’s blunder, American Muslims simply did not adequately prepare, in this case, for life in America. Where is our Darth Vader in our time of despair?
Sadly, Islam in American, in its heretical inception—referred to as the First Resurrection via The Nation of Islam—did a far better job of indigenizing Islam. The Second Resurrection [Islam 2.0?], consisted of both immigrant Muslims and new orthodox converts, who were initially unconcerned with the dominant culture’s views of Islam, and thus chose to either live anonymous lives in their new found homes—vis-a-vie through the door of whiteness—or in the case of Blackamerican Muslims, chose to live new lives that had little to do with the existential realities as colored folks living in a post-Jim Crow America. Both groups lived in a fantasy; a bubble. Of particular interest to immigrant Muslims, whiteness has been the gateway that many if not most immigrants have successfully integrated into the American social landscape. This created a dichotomy in American Islam in which immigrant Muslims increasingly turned a blind eye to the underside of assimilation: whiteness, and all of the unearned privilidges it entails. Blackamerican Muslims, having no such option, opted to simply limp along, paroting their immigrant counterparts without the Players Club incentives. Much to the dismay of [immigrant] Muslims, the 9/11 attacks did away with any hopes of Muslims being considered white/American, and thus we arrive back at our “price” for “lack of vision”. In another twist of ironic fate, blackness and its legacy of civil rights engagement [i.e., its holy protest against white domination and supremacy] seems to be the last bastion of hope for both communities. It is the only social modality that is seen and recognized as viably America: out of immigrant and indigenous Muslims, it’s the only one that’s socially acceptable, if not preferred. Perhaps if immigrant Muslims had not uncritically flocked to the banner of whiteness [I can hear Admiral Akbar shouting now, “it’s a trap” – or “it’s a twap”, however you prefer your phonetics] and Blackamerican Muslims had not been so quick to abondon blackness, we might very well be in a completely different situation today.
The Nation of Islam, and subsequently its splinter group, led by the courageous Warith Deen Muhammad, charted a vision of Islam [by Islam here, I mean as it was socially expressed by the NOI, and not by the normal rigors of classical Muslim theology] that sought to place the cares, concerns, and proclivities of [Black] American Muslims at the heart of its agenda. And while the WD movement has also fallen on hard times, it still alludes to the crux of the current social predicament.
In many ways, Muslims in America were afforded a tremendous blessing post-9/11. Public sentiment towards Muslims was somewhat tarnished but by and large, the cloud of negative perceptions of Islam were held at bay, only occasionally making their way in to the public arena. In fact, there was a notable calling amongst non-Muslims that the 9/11 attacks were perpetuated by a few terribly misguided souls and that Muslims and Islam were not to blame. American Muslims, instead of capitalizing on this opportunity to push forward efforts to indigenize [not assimilate] themselves to their social, cultural and political landscapes, simply rested on their laurels. Both sides of the indigenous/immigrant isle have been equally to blame. Native-born Muslims still continued to favor a brand of Islam that was more about cultural acting than getting down to brass tax and most immigrant Muslims were so devastated at the quandary of being abandoned on the doorstep of whiteness that most of the efforts out of that community have been mostly assimilationist at best, if not simply down-right floundering. So again, where is our Darth Vader in our time of need?
Simply put, it is my belief that if Muslims do not solve this issue [if it is already not too late], then Islam will suffer a fate worse than persecution: irrelevancy. And by issue, I mean to address what is at the heart of mainstream America’s growing resentment towards Islam. I believe this to be mainly aesthetic: people simply do not like the way Islam looks and feels as a result of not knowing what Islam’s story is, or more precisely, what the American Muslims’ story is. And American Muslims have failed in telling their own story because they have yet to craft one. Narrative is crucial to survival in America; if you don’t have one, you don’t belong. Perhaps it’s not too late to stop, reflect, and take stock of our condition, our situation. Let us look at examples from our common cultural past that have succeeded: the Nation of Islam as well as the American Jewish community, who have critically understood the necessity of story and narrative as a primary means of not only survival but also of flourishing. To delay any longer would be akin to another favorite Star Wars quote: “almost there … almost there …” – and we all know what happened next after that.
- For further reading, also see: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/coalition-of-african-american-muslims-caam-responds-to-controversy-surrounding-park-51-project-101911568.html – hat tip to Tariq.
- Cross-posted at Muslim Matters and Tumblr.
- African-American Muslims: Left Out of the National Conversation on Islam, an Illume Magazine piece.
Cross posted on Tumblr.