Our community is in dire need of a tune up, especially religious leadership. We need people at the helm who truly have the skills to teach, not just regurgitate textual material. I’m not calling for abandoning texts, just that we need folks who can really and truthfully convey the meanings of the texts, amongst many other things, to our community members.
That’s why I’m always disturbed when I hear people say, “such-and-such can’t be translated from the Qur’an”and then proceed to translate what was apparently locked away in Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets. In my esteem this is nothing other than such a person disqualifying themselves as a proficient educator. But furthermore, I also see it as part of a fundamental misunderstanding of what translation even means:
from the Latin translatus“carried over”,trans, meaning “across, beyond” and latus“borne” or “carried”.
So the meaning of the Qur’an can indeed be “carried over” to other languages. Will those new translations be independent of the source from which they are translated from? No. But intellectual gatekeeping (a symptom rooted in a vanquished self-esteem and identity more than anything else) will never be a substitute for true education.
It’s funny the way leadership and power is viewed, in the Muslim community and elsewhere. Everyone wants to be in control. That is, until they have to be responsible. Which is probably why so many who wind up in “control”, or positions of leadership or authority, do just that: act irresponsibly, because to do the opposite would require not only self-sacrifice, but a willingness to constantly deal with things that you “didn’t do”, “didn’t start”, or “didn’t ask for”. In my short career as an imam, I have had a real glimpse into the life of the Prophet ﷺ: not in a scholastic way, not in a textual way, but in a real, tangible “human” way. It requires dealing with ups and a lot of downs. It requires fighting fires you not only didn’t start, but fighting fires you don’t always feel equipped to fight. And here comes the true glimpse into the Prophetic life: it is God Who is in charge, Who Decrees, Who Compels us humans to situations not of our making, but of His Design, always to a greater good, even if that greater good lays outside of our (spiritual) peripheral vision.
“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.
The American Muslim community is a relatively young one. Its process of coming-of-age has, and continues to be, an understandably tumultuous one. The ground upon which we stand is an ever shifting one and thus, naturally there are going to be some mistakes, missteps and snafus. And while I’m not here to begrudge any of that, I would like to comment on a damaging tendency that is currently wreaking havoc on our community and that is namely the emotional hostage taking that we currently see. It is detrimental enough that this takes place between rank-and-file Muslims (particularly online through social media) but it becomes even more nocuous when it’s perpetrated by leaders. So I make these few comments, not in the spirit of fanning flames, but in hopes we can reconsider alternative methods—more productive ones—that will allow us to have our differences but also allow us to maintain unity (which is not the same as uniformity!).
To put it bluntly, American foreign-policy cannot be the litmus test or yardstick by which American Muslim leadership is judged to be efficacious. Not all institutions are equipped or even necessarily concerned, with such subjects. In the case of Dr. Tariq Ramadan and ISNA, myself, along with others, would question whether or not such political jockeying is (A) something ISNA is equipped to do, and (B) if ISNA would be effective at achieving that goal. Additionally, Dr. Ramadan’s critique include no roadmap as to how ISNA, or any other Muslims organization, might achieve those goals. I personally find those clamoring for changes in foreign policy (as detestable as it is) whilst silent on domestic injustices indicative of a broader malady, one which highlights why the Muslim community still struggles to find a niche in the American narrative: by and large, we’re not concerned with what America does at home, only what it does abroad. Nor can foreign-policy be the preferred or prestiged conduit by which American Muslims formulate (or attempt to formulate) communal unity. Case in point: post-sermon du’as (supplications/prayers) are often highly politicized, resulting in complaints because one geographic location was mentioned while another was not. With the current levels of injustice in the world, American Muslims need not feel they must pick which continent to root for. We can have solidarity with our brothers and sisters no matter where they are, though local issues should take priority as they are the ones we are most likely to have the ability to affect change in.
Lastly, to return to the topic of leadership, (American) Muslim leaders must be conscious of the influence and power they wield. From fanboys (and fangirls!) to followers on social media numbering in the thousands, we must know and acknowledge we operate and employ tremendous sway. So when we draw ideological lines in the sand we must know that we’re not only drawing our own personal lines, but also lines for potentially thousands of others. If a leader chooses to boycott or not attend a certain conference it can have damaging effects by dragging out grievances (justified or otherwise) into the public sphere where it quickly devolves down into pitting one person’s followers against an institutions like a grudge match. Instead, we as Muslim leaders must work to forge environments where our disagreements and grievances can be legitimately aired without turning every instance of ikhtilaf into a public drama.