Muslims, Modernity and America: The Problems of Meaning

During the 2018 Blackamerican Muslim Conference there were a few instances when modernity, liberalsim, and progressivism—amongst other ideals—were evoked and discussed. Often these philosophies are discussed in relation to the so-called immigrant Muslim community and how it affects them. But these philosophies and value systems impact the Blackamerican Muslim community as well. As I mentioned in my last post, my hope is to delve a little deeper into these topics so as to raise our literacy on the forces acting upon us. I found Steven Seidman’s phrase, “problems of meaning” aptly titled and insightful. In short, Seidman defines the “problems of meaning” as,

“a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values, confusing images of self, society and nature, and the ceaseless conflict over the ends, rules, and norms in terms of which personal and collective life is organized and legitimated.”

In the Sunday session on liberalism, Dr. Sherman Jackson astutely pointed out that liberalism, a child of the European Enlightenment, came about as a reaction to a particular experience that Europe had with religion. Similarly, Seidman states,

“The great transformation of European societies issued forth problems of meaning as established cultural frameworks securing identity, moral order, and purposeful existence were disrupted.”

It is clear that if one were to summarize the problems which face the Blackamerican Muslim community, those topping the list would undoubtedly include “a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values” as well as “confusing images of self” as to what a Muslim ought to be and look like from a Blackamerican Muslim point of view. In other words it is not that our challenges as Blackamerican Muslims living in America are legion, but that they are layered and obscured from vision.

One example of a layered problem, or as Seidman labels it, problems of meaning is the doubly shifting sands of Blackamerican Muslim pursuits of “identity, moral order, and purposeful existence”. I say doubly shifting because what effects white America inevitably black America or as the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker quoted, “when downtown catches a cold, Harlem gets pneumonia”. Blackamerican Muslims must try to forge an identity, establish moral order and carve out a dignified existence amidst an ever-changing social landscape, one which we exert little overt control. For me this is why it’s even more crucial that Blackamerican Muslims come to familiarize themselves with these philosophical, intellectual and cultural forces that routinely produce regimes of “pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate belief”. For it is certainly this which is currently decimating the ranks of those who followed revealed religion: Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike.

Seidman, Steven. “Modernity And The Problem Of Meaning: The Durkheimian Tradition”. Sociological Analysis, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 1985, pp. 109-130.

The Tyranny of Liberalism

“Liberals welcome believers insofar as religion can be deployed in service of liberal causes, to be sure. But any expression of theological or moral judgment is met with hostility.” — Sohrab Ahmari, Liberalism: Believers Need Not Apply

In recent comments made by Bernie Sanders, progressives, an extension of modern liberalism, have revealed their true colors: complete hostility towards any tradition or moral system that does not espouse total relativism. The above quote from Ahmari’s timely article lays bare the Left’s attitude: either you’re with us (meaning you buy into our relativism hook, line, and sinker) or you’re against us. For communities of faith, this is a lot more serious than what might appear at first blush. Certainty the Muslim community is being heavily courted to adopt these totalizing, morally-relativist positions. But the question remains: can there be an Islam if we cannot maintain the right to believe in the exclusivity of Islam? Can any faith survive this hostile environment?

Some of us have been duped into believing in this relativism, but we may soon find we’re no longer able to recognize ourselves in the mirror.

Prophet Ibrahim, Amina Wadud and Caught Between Compassion and Indignation

I’d like to say it’s that time of year again for another controversy but it seems these days every day is controversy day in the world of Muslim social media. In specific, many were deeply offended by the statements of Amina Wadud, a scholar who focuses on Islamic studies from a more feminist point of view. Her statement regarding Prophet Ibrahim was as follows,

Amina Wadud’s comment,

Yes, you read that correctly: She labeled Prophet Ibrahim a dead beat dad. I know many found it difficult to look beyond Wadud’s statement, which is blasphemous to say the least, but for myself, having some moderate training in recognizing mental health disorders, it signaled to me a person suffering from some form of a breakdown. Not simply this particular statement but Wadud’s statements and positions over the years. Also knowing a little bit about her personal background I think Amina Wadud may be dealing with untreated trauma, fueled by negative experiences within the Muslim community. I’m not saying this to excuse her despicable comments about the “Friend of Allah” (Khalil Allah), Ibrahim, peace be upon him. Just looking at the situation from another angle.

One problem I have had with the response to this is that from a number of imams and public figures. Many of them, not having adequate mental health training, took the opportunity to not only attack Wadud’s statements (legitimate attacks in my estimation), but also to then use her statements as opportunities to impugn any Muslim women who espouses any relationship to so-called feminist thought. For instance, Mikaeel Smith stated,

It’s not that I have an issue with Smith, and others, being offended by Wadud’s statements, but it’s that they did not restrict their issue to her statements themselves. It’s as if they’re saying any woman who is a feminist (especially black) is in complete agreement with Wadud. Would this include such sisters as Ieasha Prime or Tamara Gray, simply because they speak on matters pertaining to women? I’m not confident that many of us in roles of leadership/scholarship completely understand our grievances with feminism (of which there certainly are grievances). So to make statements like the above is, in my opinion, sloppy. There are legitimate critiques against feminist thought, many I have myself, but I prefer to perhaps be a bit more concise in my critique. I would encourage the brothers to consider doing so as well. In fact, sister Faatimah Amatullah Knight makes the kind of rebuttal that I’m thinking of,

She goes on to give a very balanced critique of Wadud’s statement by saying,

“If we are more forgiving to the characters of Shakespeare or Homer then perhaps we need to work on the prejudices that make us attack people who are traditionally deemed holy.”Faatimah Amatullah Knight

Returning to the question of mental health, I would ask, has anyone checked in on sister Amina Wadud? Perhaps she’s in her right state of mind (I pray to God she is not to excuse her from these statements) and perhaps she’s not.

But let us turn for a moment from the controversy — for there will always be controversy — and look at the kind of situation we have here and what our Deen tells us about it.

أَنَّ نَافِعَ بْنَ عَبْدِ الْحَارِثِ، لَقِيَ عُمَرَ بْنَ الْخَطَّابِ بِعُسْفَانَ – وَكَانَ عُمَرُ اسْتَعْمَلَهُ عَلَى مَكَّةَ

It was narrated that Nafi’ bin ‘Abdul-Harith met ‘Umar bin al-Khattab during his khilafah in ‘Usfan, when ‘Umar had appointed him as his governer in Makkah.

فَقَالَ عُمَرُ مَنِ اسْتَخْلَفْتَ عَلَى أَهْلِ الْوَادِي قَالَ اسْتَخْلَفْتُ عَلَيْهِمُ ابْنَ أَبْزَى قَالَ وَمَنِ ابْنُ أَبْزَى قَالَ رَجُلٌ مِنْ مَوَالِينَا ‏ قَالَ عُمَرُ فَاسْتَخْلَفْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ مَوْلًى قَالَ إِنَّهُ قَارِئٌ لِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى عَالِمٌ بِالْفَرَائِضِ قَاضٍ قَالَ عُمَرُ أَمَا إِنَّ نَبِيَّكُمْ ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ قَالَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَرْفَعُ بِهَذَا الْكِتَابِ أَقْوَامًا وَيَضَعُ بِهِ آخَرِينَ

‘Umar asked, “Whom have you appointed as your deputy over the people of the valley?” He said, “I have appointed Ibn Abza over them.” ‘Umar said, “Who is Ibn Abza?” Nafi’ answered, “One of our freed slaves.” ‘Umar replied, “Have you appointed a freed slave over them?” Nafi’ assured ‘Umar, “He has great knowledge of the Book of Allah, is well versed in the necessities of the religion and is also a good judge.” ‘Umar then remember a statement of the Prophet in which he said, “Did not your Prophet say: ‘Allah raises some people in status because of this book and brings others low because of it.’

For me, I see one of the central lessons to be learned here for our community is that we should ask ourselves, “how is my approach to the Qur’an ennobling me?” And, “how is someone else’s approach to the Qur’an ennobling them?” When you look at the trajectory of sister Amina’s last decade or so she seems to have become even more extreme and isolated in her musings about Islam and the Book of Allah. Is this due to mental health degradation? Perhaps. Or perhaps this degradation is brought on by insulting one of the greatest humans God has ever created and appointed as a light of guidance. It would seem the latter part of the hadith above gives much to consider.

But now, what about ourselves and our responses. Whether we like it or not, we must come to accept that some folks are going to say things we find offensive. When this happens we must also remember the advice that Luqman, peace be upon him, gave his son,

يا بُنَيَّ أَقِمِ الصَّلاةَ وَأمُر بِالمَعروفِ وَانهَ عَنِ المُنكَرِ وَاصبِر عَلىٰ ما أَصابَكَ ۖ إِنَّ ذٰلِكَ مِن عَزمِ الأُمورِ

“My son, establish salat and command what is right and forbid what is wrong and be steadfast in the face of all that happens to you. That is certainly the most resolute course to follow.”Qur’an,
31: 17

Is this easy? No, but neither is the discipline of controlling ourselves (عَزمِ الأُمورِ). I’m not saying that we don’t defend the Prophets, that we don’t stand up for what is right and against what is wrong. I’d be a hypocrite by publishing statements about Reza Aslan if I didn’t believe we have a right to respond to statements of disbelief and blasphemy. Just giving us some food for thought.

May Allah guide us, put Islam in our hearts, and make us from amongst the Grateful. Amin.

The Secular State and Muted Violence

I know a lot of folks who consider themselves to be “secular” — including Muslims — in part due to misconceptions they hold about how religion is (inherently) divisive or even violent, but will turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the violence perpetrated by the secular state. Take for instance the black struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world,

“We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.”1

this, and other theological movements were heavily repressed by the American secular state, a state which still “mutes and manages” race, according to Vincent W. Lloyd, and religion, in a so-called “postracial regime of America”2.

So long as religion remains a mythical beast which must be tamed by the secular, we are unlikely to see any significant shift away from violence in the modern world. In fact, the more that religion is maligned and its leadership marginalized, we will continue to see ever greater and amplified violence inflicted on parts of the world who tragically have also had their voices muted and their narratives managed, all in the name of “peace”.

Our violence, being secular, is rational, peace making, and sometimes regrettably necessary to contain their violence. We find ourselves obliged to bomb them into liberal democracy.”3

Notes

1. Kahn, Jonathan S., and Lloyd, Vincent W. Race And Secularism In America. New York, Columbia University Press, 2016. Pg. 2.

2. Ibid., Pg. 2.

3. Cavanaugh, William T. The Myth Of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict . Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009. Pg. 4.

Religion In A Technical Age – Between What Is And What Ought To Be

It has become something of a tired cliché to pit religion and science against one another. But what often gets left out is an analysis of religion and the technological, and by technological I mean technique. Technique, as defined by Jacques Ellul in his groundbreaking work La Technique, is:

“…any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result … convert[ing] spontaneous and unreflective behavior into behavior that is deliberate and rationalized.”

Ellul continues,

“The Technical Man is fascinated by results, by the immediate consequences of setting standardized devices into motion. He cannot help admiring the spectacular effectiveness of nuclear weapons of war. Above all, he is committed to the never-ending search for “the one best way” to achieve any designated objective.”1

The question that has come to my mind is, has religion today in general, and for Muslims in specific to my concerns, become ‘technicized’? I do not mean religion as a robotic set of rituals; I’m not even addressing rituals per se but more over to what Ellul says about the technical society and more importantly, its technicians: “they are concerned only with what is, as distinct from what ought to be.” Applied to the Muslim community, this has made me ponder as to what extend have we been “technicized”. Another way of saying it is has religious leadership in the Muslim community been reduced to simply “technicians of religion”? We are increasingly asked to take complex things and standardize them for “predetermined results”: “Shaykh, I’m having a, b, or c issue in my life: What’s the litany or dhikr for the solution?” Or: “Shaykh, Donald Trump said x, y, and z, what should we do?” And while these are all fine questions to ask, I feel we that scholars, clergy, and activists, have become obsessed with “what is”, and blinded to the importance of “what ought to be”.

The role of religious leadership, as we as the religious mindset for our community overall, is to always remind ourselves and never forget that while we have to deal with what is, we never lose sight of what ought to be, even if we don’t have the ability to materially manifest it. A religious mindset that focuses on the here and now to the exclusion of the life to come will inevitabley miss its inteded mark: Entering the Garden by the pleasure of God.

So what is a remedy for this possible technicalization of religion? One would be a return to expertise. Muslims should be able to feel comfortable taking advice from those wtih proven credentials and experience without feeling intimidated or encroached upon. Tom Nichols makes a fascinating observation in his article, How America Lost Faith in Expertise And Why That’s a Giant Problem:

“To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.”2

That liberalism (philosophical versus politcal) is one of the most dominant forces informing Muslims today as to the nature of reality and religion would be an understatement. Liberalism, as Sherman Jackson states, is:

“The theoretical rejection of all authority outside the individual (or collective) self casts a cloud of suspicion over … [religious] institution[s] intimately connected to the heteronomous authority of religion.”3

It is this rejection of expertise (external authority) which disadvantages our community in that we’re not able to make use of any potential genius of religious leadership if it is to be reduced to, in the words of a good friend, “a flotation device in case of emergency”. This is akin to Nichols who says of those who, when visiting a medical professional, say:

“Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet.” “Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will.”4

What I’m getting at here is that increasingly the Muslim laity increasingly look to their leaders to simply be the technicians of their religious and spiritual lives, all the while keeping silent about any of the root causes for the maladies they seek counsel for. The irony of this is what Nichols points out to in reference of those Americans who go the doctor to have their leg treated: “More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight” (“what is!”). In other words, “just patch me up, I don’t want to be lectured”; just be a medical technician, not a medical expert. Likewise, in the Muslim context, “don’t lecture me on belief or disbelief, morality or immorality, just (religiously or spiritually) patch me up”. This goes beyond merely not wanted to have outsiders meddle in your personal affairs (the irony that such people bring their private affairs to counselors is not lost on me) and extends to an increasingly virulent form of anti-intellectualism in which, quoting Nichols again, non-experts,

“want to weigh in and have their opinions treated with deep respect and their preferences honored not on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence they present but based on their feelings, emotions, and whatever stray information they may have picked up here or there along the way.”5

Under these conditions, Muslim religious leadership will be reduced to simply being the technicians of religion, reducing all of the concerns for a religious life to an ever more pervasive pragmatism, focusing evermore on a granular “what is”, never even considering “what ought to be”. And it has always been the genius of religion in general, and Islam in specific, that as it negotionates with “what is”, it is always keeping “what ought to be” in its perepheral vision as well as a negotiating partner in regards to “what is”.

Sources

1. Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
2. Nichols, Tom. “How America Lost Faith in Expertise” Foreign Affairs. 13 February 2017.
3. Jackson, Sherman. “The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism and Atheism On The American Mosque” American Learning Institute For Muslims. 4 February 2016.
4. Nichols
5. Nichols