Required Reading: Muslims, the Constitution and Negotiating Political Reality

As the world sits and celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden, Muslims eagerly await the outcome of this event to see if there is any means of exorcising the association of extremism and terrorism from themselves and their religion. This is of particular concern to Muslims in America, who are ripe for political exploitation with the upcoming election. To be sure, Muslim-Americans bear a great part of the responsibility to ensure that whatever opportunities exist are capitalized upon. However, in order to do so, it will require a new level of commitment and literacy, both political and religious, on the part of the rank-and-file Muslim.

To dive in, this call for a greater political literacy is inextricably tied to a greater religious literacy, as will be demonstrated below. The article I have to offer is a rebuttal of Dr. Sherman Jackson, professor of Islamic studies at large, to Dr. Vincent Cornell’s “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” The reason why I consider Dr. Jackson’s refutation required reading is not for the sport of his dismissal, but because of the threads he lays bare of some very insidious and intimidating arguments facing Muslim-Americans, particularly in light of growing Islamophobia in general and Osama Bin Laden’s death in particular. While some liberal leaning Muslims may have hoped that by expressing joy and elation over Bin Laden’s death—the man who supposedly “tarnished” Islam’s image—it is clear that to those political parties that wish to marginalize and demonize Muslims are in no hurry to exonerate Muslims upon his demise. In fact, pre-OBL’s death, there has been a steady and growing anti-Muslim sentiment centered around Muslim belonging, Shari’ah, and commitment on the part of Muslims to the American project, vis-a-vie the Constitution. What is needed now, is not simply pandering out of fear oppression or hope of acceptance from the dominant culture, but a more pragmatic approach to the future of Islam in America by engaging, as Dr. Jackson puts it, the American political reality “as believing, practicing Muslims!”. Muslim-Americans, despite the voices that argue to the contrary, “do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî‘a”, but rather, Muslim-Americans can still “firmly embrace this Constitution” without sacrificing their commitment to Divine law and its superiority over any man-made document. It is not, as many radical elements claim, an us-or-them argument. We do not need Peter King or any other political office to put us to the Ordeal, to The Question, to know where our political allegiances lay and how they operate. And just as importantly, to the nay-sayers from the Muslim side of the isle, being politically engaged in a political reality which is based on a flawed, man-made document, is not sufficient grounds to disengage from the political process altogether. For like the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم at the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, we engage the American political reality not based on its [non-present] transcendent truths, but on its facts and political dividends.

It is my hope that both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences will read Dr. Jackson’s article and reflect on the lessons to be learned from it. Now’s the time, Charlie Parker once said, and time certainly is of the essence. Hat tip to brother Stephen for the article.

“Soft Sharî’a Fundamentalism” and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell

Sherman A. Jackson: The University of Michigan

I have been invited to respond to Vincent J. Cornell’s critical assessment of some of my views in his recent essay, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari’a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” Cornell weaves an elaborate web of questionable characterizations, name-calling and outright personal attack. This is joined by a tendency to impose his constructions on the statements of others, employ a double-standard in using the term “fundamentalist,” de-historicize the articulations of modern Muslim thinkers, and apotheosize the American nation-state. This is all ostensibly vindicated by appeal to a would-be panacean liberalism, the poverty of whose freedom, equality and tolerance is painfully demonstrated and repeatedly confirmed. For the moment, however, most of this will have to pass without comment. Instead, given the limited space I have been allotted, I shall focus on a single issue—my depiction of the normative relationship between American Muslims and the U.S. Constitution—in hopes of steering serious readers away from what Cornell presents as the clear and only logical conclusions to be drawn from the ideas of mine he cites.

Cornell is deeply perturbed by my assertion that the Constitution is a political fact, not a transcendent ‘truth’ to which we must all give assent as truth, as I put it, “no more binding on the Muslim-American moral/religious conscience than was, say, tribalism or agrarianism on that of the early Muslim-Arabian community.” For Cornell, this is “a tepid endorsement,” certain to reinforce charges of Muslim disloyalty. This is especially problematic given that I imply (and let me state here clearly, I actually believe) that Sharî’a, i.e., in its broadest, ideal sense, is binding on the Muslim moral/religious conscience. For Cornell, the logic here is simple: “If Sharî’a is in fact the only legitimate legal and moral order in the eyes of God, then participating in a self-governing liberal democracy is at best a cynical exercise in political accommodationism.” This is what makes me a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” incapable of embracing the U.S. Constitution, except as a modus vivendi, ultimately a duplicitous act of stealth dissolution (taqîya). In this regard, I differ only in degree, not kind, from such hard “Sharî’a fundamentalists” as OBL and Sayyid Qutb.

Now, there is much to unpack here. For one, Cornell’s conflation of my position with that of OBL or Qutb is simply a poor excuse for not engaging in a more serious and fairer analysis of my view, which my writings—including, as we shall see, Islam and the Blackamerican—make abundantly clear. But, again, given the limited space I have been allotted, let me cut to the heart of the matter.

Cornell has an emphatically romantic view of the Constitution. How much of this is indebted to 9-11 and its aftermath I cannot tell. But in this essay he makes it clear that he sees the Constitution as a statement of truth, indeed, perhaps transcendent truth. On this understanding, one can only accept the Constitution if one accepts its truth. And, one cannot really accept the Constitution’s truth if one has another source of truth, in my case, Sharî’a. Now, this view of the Constitution is Cornell’s business. But he ought not be so, well, “fundamentalist,” that he cannot accept that others might legitimately entertain another perspective. I for one do not see the Constitution as a statement of truth; nor did the actual Framers; nor has the Supreme Court or the American scholarly tradition. Rather, the Constitution, as Robert Dahl notes, was and is basically a negotiated, political arrangement. Few delegates to the convention got exactly what they wanted (or what they held to be the ‘truth’ of the matter); in fact, so stern was their initial opposition that Rhode Island refused to send any delegates and New Hampshire’s didn’t arrive for several weeks. The Constitution contains, thus, not transcendent, ultimate truth but a negotiated, compromise-agreement over how political rights and protections are to be distributed and adjudicated.

It is thus not the substance of the Constitution that is operative but the fact that it was agreed to. Agreements, of course, e.g., when disputing parties agree to split the difference, rarely express what either party believes to be true or even right. They merely express the basis upon which the parties agree to act, based on their inability or refusal to impose their will unilaterally. If Cornell wants to make the substance of the Constitution (i.e., qua substance, not qua agreement) binding on my moral/religious conscience as an expression of some sort of ultimate truth, I should like to ask when the Constitution acquired this proud preeminence: When it declared me three-fifths of a human? When it was constitutionally legal for him to enslave me? When women were not recognized as enjoying the right to vote? Of course, all of this ultimately changed. And this is precisely my point: what changed was the substance, which everybody recognized as not transcendent but changeable, not the fact that whatever was agreed to remained a binding agreement.

Now, the other side of Cornell’s misunderstanding is the distinction he overlooks between moral/religious and political conscience in Islam. On this distinction, I as a Muslim can honestly and fully embrace the fact of our Constitutional agreement without having to believe its substance per se to be binding on my moral/religious conscience, as an expression of ultimate truth. This distinction is clearly reflected in numerous actions of the Prophet, God’s peace and salutations be upon him. Take, for example, the Treaty of Hudaybîyah. When the Prophet set out to draw up this agreement, he began with the dedication, “In the name of God, The All-Merciful, The Mercy-Giving.” The negotiator from Quraysh stopped him and refused to recognize this. The Prophet agreed to have it removed. When the Prophet proceeded to state, “This is what Muhammad, the Messenger of God agrees to with…” the Meccan negotiator stopped him and said, “If I thought you were the Messenger of God, I would not have fought you. Change this to, ‘Muhammad, the son of ‘Abd Allâh’.” The Prophet agreed. The treaty itself went on to stipulate, inter alia, that the Muslims could not make pilgrimage that year but must return to Medina and come all the way back the next year. Now, my point in all of this is that, as a matter of moral/religious conscience, the Muslims believed much of the substance of this treaty to be wrong; they certainly did not believe it right to omit the dedication or the prophethood of Muhammad; nor did they think it right that they could not make the pilgrimage to the pan-Arabian sanctuary. Yet, as a political arrangement, this is what they agreed to. And it was the fact of this agreement, not the ‘truth’ of its substance, that rendered this treaty binding on the Muslim political conscience.

Part of what I find so sad and myopic in Cornell’s critique is that in his hasty zeal to ram the Constitution down Muslims’ throats he actually does more to alienate them—especially practicing, second-generation youth—by demanding that they see in the Constitution a truth that they believe to be the preserve of God alone. On this alienation, these youth are rendered more rather than less susceptible to attempts by the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki or others to radicalize them. I, on the other hand, am telling these youth that they do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî’a and they can still recognize and firmly embrace this Constitution—as believing, practicing Muslims!—as a fact, an agreement that is binding on the political conscience and has the authority to regulate the political life of all Americans. And just to be clear here and to show the extent to which Cornell misrepresents me on this issue, let me quote what I actually wrote in Islam and the Blackamerican, from the same section, incidentally, from which Cornell purports to reconstruct my view:

To my mind, a more profitable approach would be not only to accept the provisions of the Constitution but to commit to preserving these by supporting and defending the Constitution itself. According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith… The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua) Muslim to pledge allegiance to the United States! Surely it must be worth asking if Muslims in America should conduct themselves as “nouveau free” who squander these and countless other rights and freedoms in the name of dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history, rather than turning these to the practical benefit of Islam and Muslim-Americans. (IBA, 148)

Try as I may, I see nothing duplicitous or remotely suggestive of OBL or Sayyid Qutb here. True, OBL, Qutb and I all recognize the ultimate moral/religious authority of Sharî’a. But so did Abû al-Hasan al-Shâdhilî, Ibn ‘Atâ’ Allâh al-Sakandarî, ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî, al-Junayd and countless other Sufis. Would Cornell count these men “Sharî’a fundamentalists”? Clearly, then, one can recognize the primacy of Sharî’a without being a “Sharî’a fundamentalist.” But Cornell might protest that I am skirting the issue here, as these men, unlike OBL, Qutb and allegedly me, did not embrace Sharî’a as the repository of a “totalitarian epistemology,” according to which, if I understand him correctly, it was looked to for the answers to all questions, as an all-inclusive, self-contained, self-sufficient leviathan that stands over and against any and all man-made propositions. Now, I cannot speak for OBL or Qutb (though I would invite honest, serious inquirers to recognize the role of rhetoric in their articulations). But I have long recognized the limits of Sharî’a‘s concrete rule-making capacity and noted the ease with which it appropriates ideas and institutions from other civilizations, unceremoniously distinguishing “non-Muslim” from “un-Islamic.” All of this I have expressed explicitly in my writings.

Now, if we couple this perspective on Sharî’a with what I said earlier about the distinction between moral/religious versus political conscience, we can easily see our way to the conclusion that, while Sharî’a clearly entails political values, principles, concerns and sensibilities, it neither provides nor dictates the concrete, detailed substance of what kind of political arrangement Muslims in America must or can come to with the American state. Sharî’a empowers Muslims to engage and agree; then it compels them to uphold their agreements: O you who believe, fulfill your agreements! [5: 1] From here, what Muslims agree to, assuming due diligence, enjoys the full sanction and force of Sharî’a! Cornell attacks me as a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” because, according to him, I, like OBL and Sayyid Qutb, see Sharî’a as dictating a divinely ordained, concrete, specific political arrangement that stands in stark contradiction with the Constitution. On this understanding, I can be committed either to Sharî’a or to our man-made Constitution, but not both. Whereas OBL and Qutb accept this contradiction openly, I, and my likes, hide behind the slick and specious rhetoric of would-be ‘moderates’.

Ultimately, however, this accusation is purely—and sadly—a reflection of Cornell’s attempt to impose his understanding of Sharî’a on me. Long before his essay, I stated explicitly that, going all the way back to classical times, Sharî’a always recognized the validity of a broad range of man-made laws that the entire tradition, including such arch-“Sharî’a fundamentalists” as Ibn
Taymîya, openly recognized and endorsed. Now, I take great umbrage at Cornell’s insistence that converts to Islam and immigrant Muslims have no right to challenge the substance of the Constitution. But that that substance itself, simply because it did not originate in Cairo or Baghdad or Muslim America, must be understood as standing in categorical opposition to Sharî’a is simply the invention of Vincent J. Cornell and his totalitarian epistemology grafted onto Sharî’a. It is not the position of Sherman Jackson or, necessarily, those who believe, as he does, in the supremacy of Sharî’a as the presumptive repository of divinely ordained truth. And God knows best.

You can read the articles here:
Vincent Cornell’s article, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism, and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” [PDF].
Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response, ” ‘Soft Shari‘a Fundamentalism’ and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell” in [PDF].
A display of “true patriotism”.

Another Letter To My People

To say that we are living in difficult and troubled times would be an exercise in escapism itself.  Put aside economic depression and endless wars, for these are only symptoms of a greater social illness; an illness so perverse that it is killing us from the inside like cancer.  The culprit?  We are the culprits and the crime is a crime against Reality.  So far have we become detached from the true nature of Reality that we have had no other recourse than to foolishly attempt to make our own reality.  And man is a piss poor creator.

Less than twenty four hours from now, Americans will excuse themselves from work, class, and other obligations, to go and vote.  But vote for what, I ask?  And for whom?  These are not merely rhetorical questions, but real inquiries as to what it is we think we’re going to do?  Nor is this a clarion call to un-rock the vote.  It’s an honest-to-goodness petition to ask ourselves what it is we want and what it is we’re doing and is there any modicum of possibility that those choices will elicit the results we claim we so desperately want.  And yet if it is change we want, what kind of change?  Is it change for the better or for the worse?  2008 certainly did bring about change, but it hardly seems that things have gotten remotely better.  “Official” unemployment numbers threaten to crest the 10% mark (“the unemployment rate held at 9.6 percent”, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ web site, during the month of September).  However, anyone who’s spent a little time with numbers and statistics knows that data findings can be manipulated to almost any means.  Unofficial sentiment says that unemployment has gone beyond 10%, with some particularly hard-hit areas (like my native Detroit) are as high as 50%, as Mayor Dave Bing as attested (Melnick).  With staggering numbers such as these, how can we as a nation go the poles and elect officials from either side of the isle?  Finger pointing simply won’t do.  Quick glimpses at our social condition point to both political parties being equally guilty and equally incapable (let alone even having the interest to change the status quo) of making that change.  So again, who and what are we voting for and what do we think we’ll see?

To bring things a bit sharper into focus and to talk about this issue from a personal perspective, I want to highlight one aspect of our current illusory state: Black America.  There are so many points I want to touch on but one aspect that stands out from amongst the crowd is the damaging effect that liberalism has had on Black America.  In fact, I believe that the current brand of liberalism has had a detrimental effect on America as a whole, not because I am a conservative (which I do not adhere to, either), but because liberalism has been guilty of the very same crimes it accuses conservatism of.  Furthermore, in line with what Chris Hedges said in a recent article, I find liberals to be “a useless lot” (Hedges, Liberals Are Useless).  I know this language may sound unduly harsh, but it is how I feel nonetheless.  My truck with liberalism (perhaps neoliberalism works better here?) goes beyond Hedges’ critique, which includes a “bankrupt liberal intelligentsia” or the cynicism that is part and parcel of the attitudes many young people mistake today for being rebellious, and touches on something much more personal and insidious: the perpetuation of a post-slavery mentality amongst Blacks.

In order to help elucidate what I mean here, let me reference Tim Wise, author of a number of books on racism in the modern age such as Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, and Color Blind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, speaks to what I am aiming at here.  Wise manages to strike right at the center of liberal-based racism, which is no easy task being that (neo)liberalism struggles to maintain “a position of invisibility” (Dryer 39) as whiteness itself does.  Liberalism makes a very convincing argument based on supposed positions of equality and egalitarianism but in fact is one half of the coin that is American racism.  As Wise points out,

“many white liberal Obama supporters openly admitted that what they liked about the candidate was his ability to ‘transcend race’ (which implicitly meant to transcend his own blackness), to ‘make white people feel good about ourselves,’ and the fact that he ‘didn’t come with the baggage of the civil rights movement.'” (Wise)

Wise here lays bare the troubling and duplicitous nature of liberal race rhetoric: Blackness (and any other color or category for that matter) can be rendered harmless and acceptable so long as it is viewed as something to “get beyond”.  To be blunt, Obama appealed to the Change Generation not because he was a part of Black consciousness but because he seemed to be alienated from it.  His white heritage was seen as a means of finally moving beyond that troublesome social construct, race, and launching off into the realm of a post-race reality, something much more akin to how white Americans see themselves: “at once a sort of race and the human race, an individual and a universal subject” (Dryer 39).  This line of thinking has the same core values as tradition American conservative-base racism a la Jim Crow: Blackness is the problem, where here, instead of barring access to blackness as is the game play of American conservatism, liberalism only grants access so long as the black signifier is either left behind or is rendered irrelevant.

This modality of racism also bears the marks of a very subtle exceptionalism.  Barack Obama cannot be seen as part of the greater body of what is American blackness, but is seen as wholly exceptional.  This is part of the very same rhetoric of those would chastise Blacks on “not being happy with finally having a Black president” as if Obama has been the only qualifying candidate in the last four hundred years.  To see Obama as normal would run the risk of tainting him of the very same blackness that liberals are trying to strip him of.  The flip side to this is not only making Obama out to be exceptional but also to make the rest of Black America un-exceptional and thus un-qualified as an entire racial group for greatness.  Wise concludes that this process draws comparisons between Obama and The Cosby Show, a sitcom that was much beloved by white America which “despite [Bill Cosby’s] blackness”, it allowed white America the ability to “identify” with him (Wise).

As Wise further points out, the implications here go beyond personal biases and into the realm of social institutions.  Liberal attempts to create a colorblind society have been amongst the most debilitating to Blackamericans to acknowledge and wrestle with their own personal demons.  The outcome from this has been the enshrining and even “angelisizing” of Blacks, who as a result of their brutal history at the hands of whites, are deemed categorically noble despite any flaws they may have.  In doing so, Blacks have been nurtured and encourage to turn their intellectual and creative resources away from solving Black issues and instead into helping liberals maintain this status quo through actors such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson.  I mention the two men here not because of their lack of commitment to the Black Cause (at least on first blush) but because their efforts have been solely directed at maintaining a social way of thinking amongst Blacks that perpetuates victimization.  The only time color is seen is when there is some overt racial bias, such as a police shooting of Black teens or race-based attacks or slurs.  In the absence of obtuse acts of racism, the two activists are woefully silent on the issues confronting Blackamericans on a social, existential, intellectual, and even cosmological level.

To return to the political spectacle at hand, I must confess my own guilt involved.  I voted for Barack Obama in 2008.  I won’t delve into the details here but to summarize, it surely involved not only his great oratory skills, but also my own identity politics as well as the disillusionment I felt at the past eight years.  But there is one illuminating vision I have had come out of the last two years: This is no longer a nation by the people, nor for the people.  There is simply no way that the majority of Americans have asked to lose their jobs, have their homes taken from them, and driven into crushing debt.  And the actions of the current administration have revealed them to be an extension of a very evil and anti-human system that has and is, tearing the fabric of our society apart.  But the finger pointing can only go so far.  We must, as a nation, be willing to indict ourselves as being apathetic and greedy.  It is the apathy of liberalism again that I point to as half of the blame.  Despite all of its complex rhetoric, liberalism has proved to be toothless in the onslaught against the American public.  I was deeply saddened to see Yusuf Islam on stage with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  I believe I understand Yusuf’s intentions but as people of conscious, I believe American Muslims must stand up with the conviction and courage to see the playing field for what it is.  Allying ourselves with a party and a way of thinking, which at its heart, is no less despicable than the crass, overt racist conservatism we see amongst the Old South Resurrected (a.k.a., the Tea Party), is in my opinion a mistake and a disservice to the broader public.  If Muslims truly are people of the Middle Way, then both parties’ deceptions should stand out clear to us.  So long as we allow the senseless banter of a two-party rodeo show to continue without criticism, we may be a guilty third party.  The conservative party seeks to scare the populace to death with the threat of terrorism and immigration while the liberals turn serious issues of the day into mere entertainment, the gravity of the topics is drowned out from the laugh track.  Chris Hedges sums it up here:

The rally delivered a political message devoid of reality or content. The corruption of electoral politics by corporate funds and lobbyists, the naive belief that we can somehow vote ourselves back to democracy, was ignored for emotional catharsis. The right hates. The liberals laugh. And the country is taken hostage (Hedges, The Phantom Left).

Islam is first and foremost about Reality, about Truth, as these are the names of God, both capable of being distilled from the name, al-Haqq, one of God’s 99 names.  Islam sees reality itself contingent upon God and at once pointing towards the Truth.  When we are in the state we are in now, where reality—most properly here our understanding of reality—is based not on God, not even on scientific empiricism (which can be just as tyrannical) but rather on illusion and imagery.  “Reality itself has been converted into stagecraft”, as Hedges puts it (Hedges, Empire of Illusion 15).  All of pop culture bears this out.  At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, man is a piss poor creator.  Yet, in light of our social grip on reality being lost, what other recourse could we have taken?  As Daniel Boorstin warns us, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them” (Boorstin 240).  Fingers on both sides of the liberal/conservative isle have pointed to the cultural media engine which churns out image after image, practically making slaves out of young people who are coerced into hopeless attempts to live up to these illusions; body image, wealth, prestige, beauty, self-worth.  The list goes on and yet neither side has been able to offer an effective countermand to the system that produces them which leaves me to think that if they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.  And yet, in order for Muslims to even having a chance of being part of the solution, we will have to finally answer the question as to whether or not we will get serious about America.  It has to go beyond slogans and flag waving (a recent picture showed an American Muslim woman with a sign that read, “I am a Veteran.  I am an American. I am a Muslim.”) and get down to a real, honest and committed conversation where American Muslims will offer up their human and economic capital for the salvation of the society.  Anything less will result as the victims of rabid conservatism or perhaps even worse, the perpetrators of liberal apathy.

So when you vote tomorrow, think about what you’re really doing.  Are you simply exercising your rights as an American, or are you acting as a God-conscious person.  A purveyor of truth or too afraid to bite the hand that’s feeding you (today).

“The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 12).

يريد الله ليبين لكم ويهديكم سنن الذين من قبلكم ويتوب عليكم والله عليم حكيم

God desires to make things clear to you and to guide you to the correct practices of those before you and to turn towards you. God is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

والله يريد أن يتوب عليكم و يريد الذين يتبعون الشهوت أن تميلوا ميلا عظيما

God desires to turn towards you, but those who pursue their lower appetites desire to make you deviate completely.

يريد الله أن يخفف عنكم و خلق الإنسن ضعيفا

God desires to make things lighter for you. Man was created weak.

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تاكلوا أمولكم بينكم بالباطل إلا أن تكون تجرة من تراض منكم ولا تقتلوا أنفسكم إن الله كان بكم رحيما

O’ you who profess belief in God!, do not consume one another’s property by false means, but only by means of mutually agreed trade. And do not kill yourselves. God is Most Merciful to you [Qur’an, 4: 26-29].

Sources & Links

If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

There has been, in my mind, a growing trend in Black America for the last 40-odd years: the rise in secularism amongst Blackamericans. By this I refer to the increasing tendency for Blackamericans to make religion, be it Islam or Christianity, irrelevant to their daily lives, public or private (I say private as well because of the private malfeasance that Blackamericans commit have public ramifications). In times past, traditional religious institutions in Black America provided the moral framework which would govern the moral and ethical codes of Blackamericans. One recent study showed that in the mid-Sixties, roughly 84% of black families were two-parent households. That number has dwindled to the mid- to low-thirties. To say that these figures are alarming would be a gross understatement. What is worthy of consideration here is not simply the numbers, but the story behind the numbers.

I say that the trend of secularism in Black America cannot, and should not be treated as coincidence, in coming in at the end of the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s. In its inception, the Civil Rights Movement began, as University of Michigan professor Sherman Jackson dubbed it, a “holy protest against white supremacy”. Yet, it would seem that after the supposed defeat of white-authored violence and discrimination against blacks, the “holy” was taken out of the protest, and all that was left was and has been, hot wind. In my opinion, there have been real social, economic, and developmental consequences to removing God from the daily and public lives of Blackamericans (indeed, for all Americans but for the purposes of this article, I am addressing Black America). The resulting consequences have ranged from lack of direction, an increasing lapse in morals, and an overall heedlessness. Further, these consequences have produced the single-mothers and fatherless children, the broken homes and families, and the general breakdown and dereliction of black culture. The broader American (and dare I say, white) cultural engine has proffered up to blacks the hope of a free civil society in which God no longer needs to play any role, let alone a central one. From what looks to have been a successful campaign, many Blackamericans have taken the bait: black families are plagued with divorce, incarceration rates are at astronomical numbers, economic and educational disparities go unchecked, and public as well as private morality is at an all-time low. I write this both as a concerned Blackamerican, but even more specifically as a concerned Blackamerican Muslim. The practice of thinking themselves immune to the broader ills of Black America, or even America as a whole, has been a strain of thought that still finds a welcome home amongst Blackamerican Muslims. It is my concern that if these tendencies are not addressed and countered, Blackamerican Muslims will find that their Islam is indeed no inoculation against the tide of secularism that is plaguing their non-Muslim counterparts. In fact, the early warning signs are already here.

My wife wrote an article recently where she spoke of the many troubling observations she has witnessed in her one year in Philadelphia. I have been here for five years, and can safely estimate that my observations are five-times as troubling. I have been privy to teen pregnancy amongst Muslims, and more specifically, amongst Blackamerican Muslim teens. Mothers having ‘aqiqahs for fatherless children. The engaging in illicit sexual activities amongst these teens has been on a quiet rise, with little to no dialog or action from the community. This, coupled with an ever-increasing recalcitrance amongst Muslim youth, are just two of a number of growing social issues facing Blackamerican Muslims. The biggest problem for me is not communities having issues; I do not know a community that is free of them. Rather, it is that Blackamerican Muslims make little to no use of their Islam in recognizing, battling, and countering these maladies. Indeed, it seems at times that there are hardly any distinguishing characteristics between Blackamerican Muslims and their black, non-Muslim counterparts, save dress code and dietary restrictions. I must admit, as one who stands on the minbar on a weekly basis, I find myself both deeply troubled as well as disheartened. I have spoken with a number of imams, scholars, and concerned congregationalists, about this very same topic only to be met with heavy sighs, concerned stares, and stalwart encouragement to “keep fighting the good fight”. And while I have been appreciative all of those (especially the latter), I continue to brood over how Muslim leadership can re-connect (for I do believe the connection has been severed) with Muslim men, women, mothers, father,s and especially, Muslim youth. What steps can be taken to show and demonstrate that no only is there a place for God and Prophetic morality in the daily lives of Muslims, public and private, but that we must return to these principles if we have any hope of not annihilating ourselves.

It is to the above I would like to comment a bit further: returning to the Qur’an and Sunnah. In this case, I am referring to morals and conduct. Yet, for many of our youth (though not exclusively) this is not so much of a return as it is embarking on a new journey, for one cannot return to what one has never been at in the first place. To be more specific, the moral languish we see in Black America is a generational issue. For many Blackamericans, they never knew a strong moral foundation. And if the principle holds true that one cannot return to where one has never been, it must also hold true that the approach to re-moralizing Blackamerican Muslims, especially the youth, will need to take a different approach. We cannot simply backtrack our steps. We have to walk this sojourn from the beginning of the path.

Another aspect of secularism that requires examination is its liberal tendency and history. Many of those who call for toeing a secular line do not come from backgrounds that are suffering the most from its degenerative effects. Many liberals are also unaware of the ways in which they are able to cope with its effects to a much greater efficacy than Blackamericans can. To be more specific, I will name a few examples: economics, education, and lack of social stigma. I refer to these defensive mechanisms as the social insulation that many liberals possess. Many liberals may possess the financial means to absorb a fatherless child, whereas the burden placed on a black single-mother may prove debilitating to any socio-economic mobility. Access to education, which ties into economic self-sufficiency, is another tool at the disposal of liberals. And finally, many liberals, and here I am talking Whiteamericans, lack the social stigma in the broader American context when it comes to marital infidelity and any love children produced from it. Sarah Palin’s daughter comes to mind as an excellent example. For the latter, I find it ironic that a social stigma should be created for blacks outside of Black America, but not inside it. In other words, Black America has lost its own social stigma for illicit sexual activities, where this might have served a useful purpose, and instead has served to only resurrect or re-animate the specter of pre-Civil Rights racist attitudes towards blacks in the public sphere.

It is my hope that we, as a community, can come together and embark on this journey towards public and private morality, towards embracing and embodying the Prophetic actions, characteristics, and wont of God’s Messenger, such that we can please both God as well as offer solutions to a world that is in deep moral and spiritual trouble.

Joe Henderson’s If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, with George Cables, Lenny White, Woody Shaw, Tony Waters. Recorded live at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California, 1970.