What Is Our Place in Society? – A Middle Ground Khutbah


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Who are the believers? I sometimes wonder if we know more about disbelief than we do belief.

We claim to know what’s wrong with society, but do we know what’s right with it? What does a good society look like? What part or role do we play in that?

If the society is to be good, if the world is to be made a better place, than what is our place in that society? In that world?

Read the rest of the notes here.

NBC Nightly News – Why Muslims Need A New Media Strategy

On Sunday, December 4th, I had the privilege of having 10 seconds of my interview with NBC aired before the nation. Yes, I am being sarcastic.

As I mentioned in this week’s The Middle Ground Podcast, I don’t believe in the conspiracy theory of the media to portray Muslims as victims, at least not entirely. Undoubtedly there may be a few journalists who do but I firmly believe that the vast majority in the media who portray Muslims as victims are doing so at the direction of a vocal group of Muslims themselves. It’s much easier for us to demonize the media and scapegoat them for all of our problems than to face an inconvenient truth: many of us love being victims because we believe we can use pity to coerce Chuck into getting what we want from him: our pre-9/11 lives back.

This startling truth was made even more clear when I was interview by Larry Mantel on his show, AirTalk, on KPCC radio.

One caller, Fawaz, further illustrates my point. He spoke on how he was supported by the community, as immigrants. Never did he speak on what they contribute back. He further said,

“I do take an issue with some of the other points. I am an American Muslim, I am an immigrant, but I am fully integrated with the local activities and am part of Arcadia dialog; interfaith group.”

My response to brother Fawaz was,

“the glaring point is I, and your guest, would not be on this show if this wasn’t an issue”.

Clearly the American/Muslim issue has not been put to rest, despite Fawaz’s claims, otherwise there would not be a continued national discussion regarding it. What is most misunderstood here is there’s a difference between being a citizen and being fully American; there’s a difference between how one thinks of one’s self and how one is perceived by others in that society; and the difference between the potential to be fully American and current realities.

Clearly we must take efforts to stop sabotaging ourselves through continued invocations of victimhood. Only through a strong, principled, and courageous voice can we make our narrative felt and understood.

Requiem For Arrival

“…we do not say that God forces rain to fall, it is not necessary to say that God forces a choice on man.”Ahmad Shafaat

There’s a difference between Allah forcing man to do something all the time and Allah being incapable of forcing His creation to do as He sees fit (determines). — Yours Truly

I, like a lot of Americans who were born in the early seventies, grew up with a love for science-fiction and fantasy. And while I’ve always been a lifelong fan of the genre, I’ve also never been naive of science-fiction’s mythos; a mythos which all too often places its white protagonists (see the trailer for the new Luc Besson film, Valerian) in a world where they are surrounded by aliens (real world “aliens” such as Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, or Muslims, are exchanged for a cast of extraterrestrial characters, often just caricatures of these various ethnic groups), whereupon they are conscripted into a campaign of conquest masked as heroism. This call to heroism is often instigated by a foreign, hostile, “alien” threat, revealing the perspectivism and propaganda being visited upon the entire genre: whites are inherently good, benevolent, courageous and civilized (especially the builders of civilization) and never are the aggressors.

It is for this reason I found Denis’ Villenueve’s adaption of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, Arrival, refreshing. I want to pause here before going any further and provide a spoiler alert. If you plan to see the movie and wish to savor the plot, then stop reading here, go see the movie, and then resume!

Arrival is a quiet, cerebral and engaging film. While it has many of the typical props any good science-fiction movie will have (space ships, a secretive government and military, aliens, spooky music, etc.) it does manage to avoid some common tropes (such as the white savior or feminist-ninja-syndrome recently on tap in The Force Awakens). Its visuals are striking and yet still allows for the well-written and for the most part, well acted characters to shine through.

So why am I, an Imam, and self-confessed lover of cheesy sci-fi, praising Arrival? Because it reveals, for me as a Muslim, some really good tidbits for thought, particularly on the subjects of determinism, agency, and rida’/ridwan (being pleased with what Allah decrees). I feel these are three issues that many Muslims today struggle with and even more so after the apparent victory of the GOP in the United States 2016 Presidential election. The question can be asked: with the GOP/white supremacists (so-called “alt-right”) in power, are Muslims bound (determined) to a horrible fate in America or do they posses agency—the power—if not to change the conditions of reality to their suiting, then to change their dispositions towards trying to achieve that which is pleasing to Allah? Can Muslims, despite these challenges, still live full, meaningful lives? According to Arrival, yes, we can.

Arrival plays with time, a hallmark in the sci-fi genre. In this case, it asks some poignant questions about fate, intention, and turns the understanding many of us have: if we had knowledge of what happens in the future and the past, we would doubtless change our actions to suit a more favorable reality. Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams), Arrival’s protagonist, suffers an emotionally crippling blow at the film’s beginning with the death of her daughter who passed away in early childhood from a rare type of cancer. This leaves Banks emotionally “limited” for much of the film; she is highly intelligent, analytical, but also crushed by the death of her daughter. Through Banks’ encounter with an alien species who have come to the earth in mysterious obelisk-like space vessels, she comes to an alternative and non-linear understanding of time.

Arrival’s aliens (whose alien-ness*, amongst other things, is conveyed through their complex and nonlinear form of language) allow Banks to perceive the meaning of her child’s death, not through the lens of entitlement but through the lens of experience. How often, in the vernacular of our own cultural myths, do we hear the phrase, “so-and-so died too early”, or so-and-so is “gone too soon”. One could, in an attempt to validate such statements, say that they’re merely defensive mechanisms, articulated through our confrontation with the mortality of our loved ones, and ultimately with our own. I would not argue with such explanations, but given Islam’s stance towards death—and how it pushes us to accept the fate of others—I was pleased to see how Louise Banks ultimately reconciles her trauma by seeing that what was most important in her relationship with her daughter was not simply to extend the lifespan of her child’s life, but was to fully experience it. In moments of clairvoyance dispersed throughout the film, Banks ultimately comes to see that though she is powerless to change her child’s fate (the result of a genetic abnormality passed on to her daughter from her husband, Ian) she wouldn’t trade being Hannah’s mother for anything, even if she had to experience her death again. This is further emphasized at the film’s conclusion when it is explained who Hannah’s father is (Ian – played by Jeremy Renner); it was through Louise’s and Ian’s collaboration on the alien project that they fall in love. Had Louise not fallen in love with Ian, she’d never have married him and thus become Hannah’s mother, an experience too powerful and to meaningful to give up simply because she could not control it and the pain and difficulty she will experience. In my opinion this metaphor makes Arrival a very powerful film. It demonstrates the power of meaning and also lays bare the powerlessness we humans truthfully have over our fates. The question Arrival begs is, “are we willing to give up  meaning for security?”. We Muslims would echo what Allah says in the Qur’an,

فَيُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَن يَشاءُ وَيَهدي مَن يَشاءُ ۚ وَهُوَ العَزيزُ الحَكيمُ

“Allah misguides anyone He wills and guides anyone He wills. He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.” Qur’an, 14: 4

…meaning that we do not have ultimate control over reality but we do have control over our disposition towards it and most importantly, towards Allah. If I may take creative license, Louise Banks essentially submits to the Will of Allah: she accepts the fate of her child to die in childhood; unarguably a grievous thing to experience, by submitting, whereby she relieves a great burden upon her heart all the while knowing full-well (a result of the nonlinear alien language which Louise learns and thus learns of her child’s fate) she will have to relive and re-experience her child’s death again.

Arrival is a quiet, cerebral science-fiction story that serves up a lot of food for thought; there are aliens but no explosions. Space ships but no laser cannons. Yet despite the absence of these I am left feeling more hopeful and energized about my own prospects, not because I can do anything about them, but because I feel inspired to do something about my attitude towards the One Who Created them.

* Hat tip to the visual creators of Arrival for choosing their aliens to be cephalopods. Having grown up on Lovecraftian short stories of alien creatures with squid-like features was, I felt, a well-deserved nod to H. P. Lovecraft.

Islam Is A Foreign Locale

To paraphrase the title of Zareena Grewal’s Islam Is A Foreign Country, the title of this post reflects the observation I made of a recent video which has us following actor Morgan Freeman traveling about the world asking, Who Is God? My observations come ironically on the heels (ok, twenty-five years ago, but close enough) of Freeman’s (comical/abysmal) portrayal of the Moorish Azeem, in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

So … Morgan Freeman wants to know about Islam, huh? I know everyone wants to celebrate and feel good about themselves these days given Donald Trump’s apparent “victory” but there’s all kinds of wrong with this “encounter”.

  1. Morgan Freeman, an American, in order to find out about Islam, has to enlist National Geographic! and traipse off to some foreign country to encounter “real Islam”, as if the millions of Muslims living in America could not assist him with this project.
  2. Equally amazing in this project is that in order for Mr. Freeman to “understand who God is”, he has to go through a translator! As if the scrolls and secrets to Islam are only capable of being expressed through an ancient and inaccessible tongue. His encounter also emphatically, if subtly, suggests that he has now gone to the “real Muslims”, an imam from Egypt as if he couldn’t find plenty of imams right here in America (black, white, Asian, etc.), who are just as capable—if maybe not more so!—to explain what or who God is in Islam. And they might just look and talk like Mr. Freeman, too!

Which brings me to this: there is a concerted effort, on the part of certain non-Muslims (well intending and not), in partnership with elements of the non-indigenous American Muslim community (yes, immigrant Muslims and their progeny) to exclude those whom they do not deem to be real, authentic, knowledgeable, and capable (indigenous) Muslims.
For me, this is a sad day when one of America’s most celebrated actors has to journey off into the unknown—in favor of the familiar!—to know what Islam is and who Muslims are. If we do not come to see this as fundamentally undermining our existence here then there’s little hope that Islam will ever be able to sufficiently take root in this country, and will be successfully labeled as a foreign, hostile, enterprise.

Ironically, even my non-Muslim family (my brother) gets this while many non-indigenous Muslims argue against it

Ironically, even my non-Muslim family (my brother) gets this while many non-indigenous Muslims argue against it

The Problem With Islamophobia

While it may offend some (not that I care…) but Islamophobia is one of the biggest distractions which allows the greater Muslim community (i.e., non-Black Muslims) to be content with local acts of oppression, particularly those inflicted shamelessly on Blackamerica. Islamophobia is also detrimental to Blackamerican Islam in that it erases the acknowledgement of continued (not just historic) oppression against Blackamericans. The Islamophobia narrative in the Muslim community directs all of our communities energy and resources to garnering acceptance from those who loathe us. And for groups of American Muslims who are not the primary targets of Islamophobia (i.e., Blackamerican Muslims) our concerns are not only erased but are concerns for other-than-Islamophobia generate hostility towards us, calling into question our commitment to Islam in total. And even the so-called gains the non-Black Muslim community in America perceives it achieves in its fight against Islamophobia, none such gains trickle down to Blackamericans, Muslim or otherwise. And thus, Islamophobia becomes for Blackamerican Muslims, doubly a fitnah. And as God says in the Qur’an,

وَالفِتنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ القَتلِ

“And fitnah (trials and tests) are more severe than murder”. Qur’an, 2: 191

The reality is, the enterprise of Islamophobia leaves Blackamerican Muslims oppressed by our own government and society while simultaneously abandoned and betrayed by our coreligionists. This is particularly detrimental to Muslim identity on the part of Blackamerican Islam in that it undermines a fundamental tenet in Islam of egalitarianism amongst believers and standing for justice. Islamophobia, as an obsession (which at its root is about being accepted by white America), is unconscionable given the loss of life in the Black community continues to endure in these so-called modern and progressive times. God has revealed to us through the conduit of history that there is no anchor for Islam in America without blackness, yet we continue to fixate on Islamophobia. The tragic irony of all this is that Blackness is the proverbial “Banu Hashim” (that seventh century Arabian tribe, mostly of whom were non-Muslim!, which sheltered and supported the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his followers) for Muslims in America today. And like Banu Hashim over a thousand years ago, Blackness has been that institution which has taken in, supported and rooted Islam in America. And thus the myopic pursuance of Islamophobia only makes this betrayal all the more bitter. Given the recent responses of Muslims waving pink flags and rainbows and standing in questionable solidarity at best with the LBGT community, this pursuance of Islamophobia is a miscarriage of justice that, for all our sakes, must be rectified.