Philadelphia Muslims – Where Are You?

Being a Michigan native, I still look at Philadelphia with an outsider’s eye, even after five years of living here. The impact upon me of how many Muslims there are here in this city still rings with a newness for me. Last weekend, I happened to meet a young man from Baltimore who was up visiting the University of Pennsylvania in hopes of attending a graduate program there. We spent part of the afternoon together and he continually remarked about how many Muslims there are in Philadelphia. From your bus driver to a world-class surgeon and everything in between, Muslims are quasi-ubiquitous in Philadelphia; they are just everywhere. Everywhere that is, unless you’re looking for civic engagement.

I have been on the Mayor’s inter-faith counsel for the past five years and I have seen Muslims present from time to time but what continues to disappoint me is the lack of structure and organizations that Muslims in Philadelphia have. Most masājid are run down and broke, to be frank. Their operating budgets [if they even seem to have something so official] are minuscule; ramshackle buildings in blighted areas are not out of norm. I write these observations not out of a sense of malice: I often deliver khutbahs in these places and I love my brothers and sisters dearly. But I cannot ignore a glaring problem when I see it. I ask myself: “Why are Philadelphia Muslims so content with their predicament?” Poverty; violence [we lost another young Muslim to violence just this week: an 18-year-old girl]; educational and economic disparity. Why are these dear brothers and sisters not using their Islam as a means of uplift instead as a blunt instrument of complacency? I can’t tell you how many places I have visited and communities I’ve spoken with, brothers I’ve talked to, all whom bellyache, bemoan, and impute the “kafir system”, yet do little to nothing to affect positive changes in their own neighborhoods. Has Islam in Philadelphia simply become a cultural practice [and here I am specifically addressing the Blackamerican community]? Is this not the same crticism we level at so-called immigrant Muslims, who no longer “practice” but still have some feeble notion of Muslim-ness?

This past weekend played host to the Islamic Heritage Festival. My wife and I had a nice time hanging out in the sun, talking to friends we hadn’t seen in a while. Even the music was entertaining, if not somewhat questionable [Miss Undastood singing, “Muhammad Akbar Ali, here’s the number to my wali“]. But what was most noticeably missing to me was the lack of heritage. Philadelphia is ripe with Muslims history, from brother Malcolm to the Ahmad and Muhaimin families, just to name a few. There seemed to be very little to no heritage and more just a gathering. I recognize the importance of social gatherings but how could one of the most important cities in American in terms of Muslim history, have a heritage festival without any heritage? For me, this is indicative of the issue in Philadelphia: there are so many Muslims that Islam is taken for granted.

In a recent e-mail from Mayor Nutter’s office, I received this e-mail:

On behalf of Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the Executive Committee and Steering Committee of NewCORE, we are pleased to invite you to NewCORE’s upcoming dialogue: Moving Toward A More Perfect Union … Two years ago, at the National Constitution Center, Barack Obama gave a famous speech in which he challenged Americans to help form “A More Perfect Union” … Locally, an interfaith group called the New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity (NewCORE), has accepted the President’s challenge, to spur the Philadelphia community to be a leader in this effort … In February 2009 NewCORE convened its first large-scale public dialogue, attended by 100+ faith and civic inspired people, at Philadelphia’s City Hal l… NewCORE is comprised of many individuals and faith organizations, but key support comes from: Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University; the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia; WHYY, Inc., and; the University of Pennsylvania, Project for Civic Engagement.

The part that grabbed my attention above was not so much the NewCORE organization but the lack of any definitive Muslim presence in the line:  Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University; the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia; WHYY, Inc., and; the University of Pennsylvania, Project for Civic Engagement. In a city this size, with a Muslim population this big, how is it there is not one Muslim organization involved?  There are so many opportunities for Muslims to engage the broader public here in Philadelphia in contrast to almost any other city I’ve lived in or visited in the states. Non-Muslims here are either familiar with or accustomed to—if not sympathetic towards—Muslims. These advantages should be capitalized upon. If Islam in Philadelphia is going to have any hopes of succeeding in giving birth to a new generation of Muslims that are going to live for and die for Islam, then a much more aggressive approach is going to be needed. The consequences of not doing so are already present amongst us here. I pray that Allah gives us the fortitude, intestinal and spiritual, to do what is incumbent upon us.


Health Consciousness and Religion

On November 15, I participated in a locally-held, national event co-sponsored by Jewish and Muslim student groups called Health Consciousness and Religion []. The event, held at Hillel on UPenn’s campus, was a talk about Kosher and Halal, and looking at both systems not just in their similarities, but in how their scope goes beyond the mundane boundaries of governing what a Jew or a Muslin can or cannot eat. Instead, such topics as environmental stewardship and low-impact eating were examined within the constructs of Kosher and Halal. I participated in a short talk with Rabbi Joel Nickerson, the Senior Jewish Educator/Rabbi-in-Residence at Hillel. Here are some of Rabbi Joel’s notes:

Humans will have meat for their food and they will kill to get it.

  • We started off as vegetarians in Genesis: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earthm and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” [1:29]
  • Yet, after the flood, in Chapter 9, humans are permitted to eat all food on earth, including animals, yet already with some restriction.

By viewing the Jewish dietary laws as an ethical system, we come to see that Judaism has worked out a system by which we can maintain our lust for animal flesh, yet not be dehumanized in the process.

This is done through 3 basic rules:

  • Choice of animal food is severely limited – startling how few animals there are to eat, according to Jewish law, with no restrictions on plants and fruits.
  • Animals may not be killed by just anyone – only a qualified few, whose skill and religious recognition of the slaughter process, are allowed to slaughter.
  • Ensures that those who slaughter do not become brutalized through regular killing.
  • Even after belong ritually slaughtered, blood must be drained before they can be consumed.
  • humans have the right to nourishment, but not to the life of others
  • Humans have the right to nourishment, but not to the life of others.

Bible’s method of taming killer instinct in humans is through dietary laws – not about hygiene. Bible goes to great lengths to offer rationale for dietary laws, focusing on the holiness of these commandments.

  • How do you define holiness?
  • Separation (from idolators and other cultures), emulating God

My thanks to Roxana and Penn’s MSA for inviting us out for the talk. We enjoyed and benefited from all of the student input as well as Rabbi Nickson’s words. It allowed us to look at how we eat as people of faith through a larger lens. We look forward to engaging in more efforts such as this.

Lecturing At William Penn Charter School

Many thanks to Thomas and his class at the William Penn Charter School – an educational institution built on Quaker values, for inviting me out to speak on Islam again. I have spoken before at William Penn and am always impressed with Tom’s class. This term, Tom was teaching a class centered around the theme of Peoples of the Book. The main text they were reading for the class was Karen Armstrong’s piece.

I spoke on the concept of the People of the Book, namely Jews and Christians, and how they were spoken of in the Qur’an and mentioned in the Sunnah but I also elaborated on the cultural knowledge of the pagan Arabs and what they knew of in terms of stories from the Torah or the Bible. A great deal of Orientalist scholarship has tried to paint the Arabian peninsula as being more isolated than it was. More recent scholarship counters that despite paganism and idolatry being a prevalent practice amongst the Arab tribes of Arabia pre-7th Century, the narratives of Moses, Jesus and Abraham, just to name a few, were known to these Arabs and thus were relevant to them. We also examined how not only is Islam seen by other religious traditions but more importantly, how does Islam see itself in the context of the People of the Book.

Continuing about the legacy of Biblical stories in the Arabian peninsula, without their cultural familiarity of these stories the Qur’an’s relevancy would have been greatly dimmished, hence giving rise to new and alternative scholarship that suggests the Arabian peninsula was more connected to its neighbors, primarily through trade, than has been previously suggested.

I also fielded questions from a number of students, with topics ranging from 9/11 [a perennial question] to how do Muslims negotiate marriage with non-Muslims. We also discussed the role that religion plays in informing social and cultural participation in religion. One of the students, whose family hails from a historical Muslim country, described his family dynamic which consisted of three generations in his household: his grandfather, his parents and he and his siblings. The grandfather still practiced, praying 5 times a day and so forth with the student’s parents being more lax in their religious consistency and finally the student, who said that he didn’t not think much about religion at all. All three generations seemed to function under one roof but more to the above point about culture, we had discussed whether or not, if his family had stayed in their country of origin, would he have been more apt to have had some form of communal practice. By coming and staying in America [i.e., his identity forming here] and his parents not being full-time practitioners, their religious practice tapered off to reflect their environment, where there were no secondary or tertiary enforcements to inform his religious consciousness.

We also discussed the phenomenon of Islam in the Blackamerican community. As a case point, illustrating the mass familiarity Blackamericans have with Islam, one of Blackamerican students in the course stated his grandfather was a Muslim. A brief talk was given to the unique status that Blackamerican Muslims hold as an indigenous American community, whose door is [currently] open to Islam and Blackamericans can freely choose to be Muslim without having to sacrifice anything in the public sphere.

I look forward to going back again. I congratulate Tom on running such an informative course for his students to learn about the many religious traditions we have in America.

Town Square Meeting – GreenFaith

I was honored last night to be asked to attend the Town Square Meeting at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Center City Philadelphia. The meeting was presented by Philadelphia Green and was about the merging of faith-based organizations and the stewardship of those religious groups and how they are or can be engaged in environmental activities. It quickly came to my attention that Muslims at least in this area have been woefully absent. Absent either due to ignorance of such activities or because it’s simply not on the radar. For the concerns of this post, I will address the latter.

Like so many topics and events today, Muslims seem to either be swept along by the zeitgeist of the day or bypassed all together. This is an issue that we as a Muslim community need to address more seriously if we wish to have our voice taken seriously – otherwise, it will be taken away. By zeitgeist I am referring to the trend that many Muslims allow popular consensus or dominant voices dictate to us what is or is not important. One example that comes to mind is a conversation I had with a Muslim brother who said we needed to take a tougher stance towards homosexuality. When I inquired as to what he meant, he was referring to the unions of gay couples and homosexual marriages. He was quite passionate about the topic and felt that Islam was somehow being eroded by this lapse in what he saw as social immorality. I calmly reminded the brother to consider the following: homosexuality is not permissible in Islam. God has made this readily apparent and therefore he should take comfort in this incontrovertible truth. In other words, the question has been answered by the Highest Authority, therefore why approach the topic as if it could be reopened for discussion [and ultimately, permissibility].

Secondly, I asked him to consider why it was so important to him? What was informing his concern? Were there members of his congregation that were openly calling for the permissibility of homosexuality in Islam? He replied in the negative. Upon examining his sources it became apparent to both of us that he was coerced, in a sense, by the dominant hype in the media. That most of the conversation was being driven my Christian groups who were dealing with an internal struggle within Christianity as to the permissibility or lack thereof concerning homosexuality. And ultimately it was the government that was being lobbied on the part of these Christian groups to enact this ban. He conceded that he had not truly formulated his opinion on his own but was rather influenced from the outset. Mind you, none of this compromised his or Islam’s position on the impermissibility of homosexuality. But as a caveat I asked him what he thought of the governments ban on polygamous marriages. The government also placed a ban on that as well, which, according to Muslim tradition, is permissible.

Our conversation led to a common ground of analyzing that in the end, perhaps it was the government that he ought to take to task on intervening in marriages and unions – something that I believe they ought not to be in the business of administrating. The right to union is a right from God and therefore the state should not seek to overturn the rights granted by God. And as for homosexual unions or marriages, if they’re coming to the mosque to do so then Muslims would have every right to nullify or abstain from consecrating any such unions but there would be nothing to stop them from doing them under their own authority [which is to a great extent, what the whole gay marriage issue boils down to]. Ironically, Muslims and homosexuals [as well as other groups] may have common ground on petitioning the state/government to get out of the business of administering marriage. Their sole role should be to recognize the said parties once the union is formed, leaving the respective parties to administer their own unions.

My point in all of this is that Muslims should discipline themselves to ensure that when they are critiquing, that they are doing so on their own terms and are not simply being led around by the nose. Are there social ills that should concern us as Muslims? Absolutely. But we must construct those concerns and critiques in our own language to guarantee that when we are speaking out that we’re doing so with the proper conviction and not serving someone else’s agenda.

To return to my point of Zeitgeist and being passed by, Muslims should develop their own definitive voice on approaching the environment and other “green” causes. As I pointed out during the talk, much of the greening has taken on the form of an elitist rhetoric, whether intentional or not. In discussions with other environmentalists, they often fail to realize that aside from access to the materials and information, economics is often a turn off to small economically challenged groups who may not have the start-up costs to implement these greening methods, especially on the time table and scale of the environmentalists. This has in turn caused a shunning of many low income groups who may see environmental causes as another feel good social stunt for the entitled. Nonetheless, given the overwhelming evidence of the various planet-wide disasters we are facing, Muslims should indeed be lending their voices, their human capital and their expertise based on our scriptural imperatives.

As for the actual presentation, it was invigorating to hear the works that other religious groups were doing. Many spoke of the unexpected gains that they had in lobbying governmental agencies on environmental issues. Rabbi Lawrence Troster from GreenFaith, located in New Brunswich, New Jersey, said that in fact many state legislators were “blind-sided by religious groups advocating for environmental reforms”?. To paraphrase the rabbi, these law makers simply didn’t see this as an expected act from religious groups, who are more typically associated with social justice issues and not environmental ones. And given the great potential for networking and communicating between religious groups and interfaith organizations, they were seeing substantive results. Up until tonight, there had not been a significant Muslim presence in these meetings [many pointed to myself being the one and only thus far] and were eager to welcome the participation of Muslims in these efforts.

Given the many challenges that Muslims are now facing in the public square, opportunities such as these should not be allowed to pass us by. And indeed, if we are to seek a way to articulate an Islam that is not solely reactionary nor appeasing to the dominant culture then we must seize any and all such opportunities and define them with our own voice. We are already seeing the consequences when we let the “experts”? speak for us. And for a city that has so many Muslims – Philadelphia’s Muslim population is enormous [you can see Muslims here in all parts of the city no matter where you go], why do we not have a more active, engaged voice in the affairs that affect us all? I for one am optimistic that we can actively participate in such environmental ventures starting with looking at how green our mosques are. And I’m sure that there are already masajid participating in such activities. I only hope we can do a bit more outreach.

And God knows best.

An American Muslim In Post-Christendom

As of late I have been given over to thoughts pertaining to Christianity and Christendom [definitions forthcoming] and how it has affected myself as well as society, in my opinion, on such topics as cosmology, God-concept and how we think about religion as a whole. These thoughts come from my thirty four years, sans three of four years of early childhood, in observance of how I have come to think of God as well as the many interactions and reactions that I have witnessed people have when conversing about God and religion.

First, I should introduce the notion of Christianity and Christendom as two very separate and distinct entities. One does not equate the other. In fact, I hope to point out some similarities between the evolution of Christendom out of Christianity and such neologisms as Islamic this or Islamic that [especially things like “Islamic society”, etc]. Recent research into early Christian Gnostic literature has shed an amazing amount of light on early notions of what constituted Christian belief, both in terms of exegesis and practice. This bears a striking resemblance to early Muslim thought regarding creed and practice as well. They both share a commonality that can best be summed up as “agree to disagree”. In other words, there was no single, overriding authority that could claim a hegemonic orthodoxy and excommunicate others as heretical. How funny it is that we should be living at a time when such early questions should come around again – what remains is how will we answer them. Shall we answer them as the Early Communities did, fostering a real sense of diversity or inclusion, or give way to narrow-minded viewpoints [yes, I am avoiding fundamentalist here as I believe this word has been striped of any linguistic meaning given the media’s indulgent misuse of it]. Time will tell.

Like it or not, many of us here in America, and certainly in Europe, have gown up in the shadow of Christendom. Much of our understanding of God and religion has come from what we have absorbed passively from this environment. Like a sponge, we soaked up what lay around us, not giving too much thought as to whether it was worth digesting or not. This should not be thought of as something base or vile but rather the function of culture. One of the primary functions of culture is that we don’t have to think, process, and answer every minute detail of our lives. It is always on auto pilot, filtering and processing all that we come into contact with, especially in our formative years. This cultural process is conceptual as well as highly iconic and visual. For example, whether many people believe it or not, the classic Italian paintings that depict God as an old white man in the clouds reaching down to Adam has been exceeding potent in informing many of us on our visualization of God. In fact, through many conversations with people who are atheists or non-religious, many of their verbal objections have included rejection of such “ridiculous notions”. But we should be careful to not cloud our judgment that what we see now in a sort post-Christendom should not be taken part and parcel for Christianity as a whole. This same cautioning should be applied to so-called Islamic or my preference, Muslim societies. History has proven to be a powerful matchmaker for politics and religion. Constantin’s embracing of Christianity as the imperial religion of the Roman empire was done so at the exclusion of many other teachings and interpretation’s Christianity. This process has been repeated time and again across the globe and throughout time and including almost all religious traditions.

It is certain, that in Europe, Christianity developed in a vary iconic manner; meaning that the visualization of God and the Bible affected religious thought – an affect that we have inherited right down to today. It has shaped and defined the conversation of God/religion in our socio-cultural context to an extent far greater than we are aware of. As church historian Hugh McLeod puts it, “most Christians learnt and practiced their faith in the context of ‘Christendom’”. McLeod continues, “That is, they lived in a society where there were close ties between the leaders of the church and those in positions of secular power, where the laws purported to be based on Christian principles, and where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, every member of society was assumed to be a Christian.” [Caputo, John D. and Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pg. 4.].

So why all this talk on Christianity from an American Muslim convert? Well, to be sure, these very same perceptions played a part in my own conversion to Islam, even if it were more passive than vehemently active. To be certain, I was not thinking about the Sistine Chapel when I wandered into the mosque one fateful day but nonetheless, such iconic renderings by Michelangelo impacted my choice to refute such concepts of an “old white man in the clouds”. And if I had these experiences I am bound to think others may have had them as well. Indeed, such “rejections” are not the domain of Muslim converts alone. I have had several conversations with other Christians who have sought out earlier renditions of Christ’s teachings that predate all of the great Italian painters. I have found their journey akin to many American Muslim converts who, usually attracted more to Sufi-style teachings, have looked to return to an early understanding of Islam, one that is uncluttered by the intervention of institutional authority, be it state sponsored or a school of thought that has wedded itself with a state supporter, much akin to the Constantinian edict which set up a particular interpretation of Christianity as the orthodoxy whilst banning others as heretical [it should be confused that I am against a school of thought in any way as I adhere to the Maliki school of Muslim thought]. In many ways, this process of establishing orthodoxy can be said to be the nemesis of modern day diversity. For in the face of orthodoxy, how can there be room for multiple, valid interpretations?

There is much talk these days about an Islamic reformation. That the Islamic world is in an upheaval and much like its Christian counterpart, all of this blood and conflict can be attributed to this transformation. While I do not find this opinion to be completely baseless I am critical of the thought of simply seeing the historical struggle of Muslim thought, growth, and development through the lens of Christianity. Indeed, I think much of the problem of misunderstanding Islam on the part of non-Muslims is this tendency to see Islam not for what it is but for how it is or isn’t Christianity. This misunderstanding can certainly be linked to the above mentioned issues such as iconic visualization and residual understanding of living in a post-Christendom society. I do believe that Muslims are in a state of flux and change. What seems to make this seem so dramatic is that Islam and Muslims have been thrust on to the world stage by process of media attention. The idea that Islam as a religion and Muslims as various people have been some sort of sleeping giant that has suddenly chosen to cease its slumber is as clumsy as it is unobservant. Modernity is a talented trickster and can often seem to pull rabbits out of our hats. To the contrary, Islam and Muslim thought have been in a constant historical flux since the death of the Prophet. This reformation is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, from Malaysia to Yemen. From the Xinjian province in China to Detroit Michigan, Muslims have not simply been victims of history but have been drivers of this vehicle as well. In this case, the tree does make a sound in the forest. The question is not where there is some one to see it fall but rather who do we give importance to as the observer. Spock’s comment to the marine biologist in Star Trek IV sums of the falling of the tree: when she asks how he knows if Gracie (the humpback whale) is pregnant. She insists, “Nobody knows that.” Spock’s reply was, “Gracie knows”.

Modern interfaith dialogs seem to be stagnated at a simple, “can’t we all just get along”. What seems sad to me is the great wealth of experience that other religious traditions have to offer. Much of the early Gnostic approaches bear a clear resemblance to much of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has oft-repeated in his many publications and speeches. That true diversity isn’t a clumsy redefining of diversity as uniformity but rather the real possibility of coexisting and even socially supporting theories that may seriously contradict one’s own core beliefs. It is my sincere hope that more American Muslims will turn their thoughts inward and reflect on our very unique and rich experiences growing up in a post-Christendom society. And that even though we’ve chosen another path to pleasing God, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That there are still viable opportunities to engage other communities and to really add something meaningful to the social discussion on religion.

And God knows best.