From Moses to Malcolm – Islam in America, A Khutbah

Moses was the adopted son of Egypt and Pharaoh. Malcolm too was an adopted son of sorts. Both spoke truth to power. There are many figures of justice throughout the Qur’an and in Muslim history: Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Dhu’l Qarnayn, Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, Umar bin al-Khattab, Nana Asmau, Muhammad ‘Ali, and El Hajj Malcolm Shabbaz, just to name a few.

One of the issues that challenge religious communities in America as it relates to relevance and speaking truth to power is the privatization of religion (secularity/post-secularity). In this process of privatization, I feel we have taken the story, life and today, anniversary of the death of Malcolm Shabbaz, from the perspective of privatized religion. So the question is:

Do we celebrate Malcolm’s “coolness” or do we actually intimately relate to the issues he sought to address?

What did he stand for? Do we really love Malcolm, or have we used his story and history as a repository to write our own, for as God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم tells us, love has conditions:

قَالَ رَجُلٌ لِلنَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَاللَّهِ إِنِّي لأُحِبُّكَ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ انْظُرْ مَاذَا تَقُولُ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ وَاللَّهِ إِنِّي لأُحِبُّكَ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ انْظُرْ مَاذَا تَقُولُ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ وَاللَّهِ إِنِّي لأُحِبُّكَ ‏.‏ ثَلاَثَ مَرَّاتٍ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ إِنْ كُنْتَ تُحِبُّنِي فَأَعِدَّ لِلْفَقْرِ تِجْفَافًا فَإِنَّ الْفَقْرَ أَسْرَعُ إِلَى مَنْ يُحِبُّنِي مِنَ السَّيْلِ إِلَى مُنْتَهَاهُ

A man said to the Prophet (s.a.w): “O’ Messenger of God, I swear to God that I  truly love you!” So the Prophet said: “Consider what you’re saying.” To this the man replied, “I swear to God that I  truly love you!” Three times this was repeated. He said, “If you do indeed love me, then prepare yourself for poverty, for indeed poverty comes faster upon whoever loves me than does the flood to its destination.” — Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, 2350.

While this hadith is rated as weak it does show that standing up for the truth, for la ilahi illa’Allah, will not come without its trials and tests. This was abundantly clear in the life of Malcolm, how ultimately paid for justice with his life, may God have mercy on him.

Another parallel between Malcolm’s life and the Qur’an is the story of Abraham and his people:

وَلَقَدْ آتَيْنَا إِبْرَاهِيمَ رُشْدَهُ مِنْ قَبْلُ وَكُنَّا بِهِ عَالِمِينَ

إِذْ قَالَ لِأَبِيهِ وَقَوْمِهِ مَا هَٰذِهِ التَّمَاثِيلُ الَّتِي أَنْتُمْ لَهَا عَاكِفُونَ

قَالُوا وَجَدْنَا آبَاءَنَا لَهَا عَابِدِينَ

قَالَ لَقَدْ كُنْتُمْ أَنْتُمْ وَآبَاؤُكُمْ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ

قَالُوا أَجِئْتَنَا بِالْحَقِّ أَمْ أَنْتَ مِنَ اللَّاعِبِينَ

قَالَ بَلْ رَبُّكُمْ رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ الَّذِي فَطَرَهُنَّ وَأَنَا عَلَىٰ ذَٰلِكُمْ مِنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ

“We gave Ibrahim his right guidance early on, and We had complete knowledge of him. When he said to his father and his people, ‘What are these statues you are clinging to?’ they said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said, ‘You and your fathers are clearly misguided.’ They said, ‘Have you brought us the truth or are you playing games?’ He said, ‘Far from it! Your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He who brought them into being. I am one of those who bear witness to that.” Qur’an, 21: 51-57.

It took a look of courage for Abraham to address his people on what they were wrongly “clutching on to”. Likewise, Malcolm addressed America, as one of its own, that they too were clutching on to the system of anti-black racism and violence, a system much akin to idolatry, for no other reason than they “found their forefathers doing so”.

This and more is addressed in the khutbah. I pray we can reflect, change and benefit from the examples of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, Moses, Jesus, Abraham and even the likes of our brother, Malcolm.

And with God is all success.

Black Power and the American Christ

The following essay was published in 1967 by Vincent Harding, printed here from the volume, The Black Power Revolt – A Collection of Essays, Floyd B. Barbour editor [Extending Horizons Books].

The mood among many social-action-oriented Christians today suggests that it is only a line thin as a razor blade that divides sentimental yearning over the civil rights activities of the past from present bitter recrimination against “Black Power.” As is so often the case with reminiscences, the nostalgia may grow more out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness than out of any true appreciation of the meaning of the past. This at least is the impression one gets from those seemingly endless gatherings of old “true believers” which usually produce both the nostalgia and the recriminations. Generally the cast of characters at such meetings consists of well-dressed, well-fed Negroes and whites whose accents almost blend into a single voice as they recall the days “when we were all together, fighting for the same cause.“ The stories evoke again the heady atmosphere, mixed of smugness and self-sacrifice, that surrounded us in those heroic times when nonviolence was our watchword and integration our heavenly city. One can almost hear the strains of “our song” as men and women remember how they solemnly swayed in the aisles or around the charred remains of a church or in the dirty southern jails. Those were the days when Martin Luther King was the true prophet and when we were certain that the civil rights movement was God’s message to the churches-and part of our smugness grew out of the fact that we knew it while all the rest of God’s frozen people were asleep. Continue reading “Black Power and the American Christ”

Socially Irrelevant [?] – American Muslims & Race

The continued floundering state of American Muslims’ stance towards race is at once unsettling, disappointing and personally frustrating. To complicate matters, both immigrant and indigenous Muslims seem to be equally guilty of what Professor Sherman Jackson calls, “racial agnosia”. Much to my dismay, I continue to hear the mantra, “Islam does not do race” from the mouths of American Muslims. And while Islam may not, “do race”, in that it does not support a hierarchy of racial preference, it most certainly does “do reality”. Without a doubt, regardless of whether certain individuals perceive race-based thinking to be right or not, race is an integral part of the social landscape of America. By Muslims choosing to not recognize and come to grips with the historical and social forces that have shaped race in America, they will have little chance of abolishing the system they claim to oppose. For indigenous Muslims [and here I am placing more emphasis on Blackamerican Muslim, though not to the exclusion of other groups], they will only further ostracize themselves from their social counterparts, giving the impression that Islam is disinterested in social justice.

In one of Professor Jackson’s recent talks, he underlined a crucial element to the system of racism, specifically its white supremacist manifestation. This value system, at its core, is akin to what Muslim theology calls shirk, or the association of power and authority [not only partnership] with God. Jackson lays bare the role and function a value system such as white supremacy has at its apex; said values have been elevated in to quasi-ahistorical rankings. In other words, the values and proclivities, the likes and dislikes of whites [American or European] are no longer held to be those of a specific people from a specific time and place, but rather have been foisted “beyond history”, attempting to compete with the same place, as traditional theology sees it, Revelation comes from. In this manner of understanding, racism in general and white supremacy in specific represent a real challenge to Islamic theology, which is vehemently opposed to any form of idolatry, be it wood, stone, or man-made.

As I mentioned above, this ideology is not only peddled by foreign-born or foreign-imagined Muslims—who either refuse or claim to be incapable of seeing race [a short visit to the Middle East and South East Asia will reveal this to be overwhelmingly false]—but has been imbibed by a great many Blackamerican Muslims, who, in their desire to escape the “problem of Blackness”, have abandoned social stances that make them strangers within their own ranks. In conversations with other Blackamerican Christians, many view Blackamerican Muslims to be either out of touch with the social plight of today’s African-Americans, or even hostile towards any rhetoric that seeks to address racism. Where once upon a time—such notable Muslims as Malcolm X come to mind—Black Muslims were synonymous with the social and emotional struggles of other Blackamericans. Today’s Blackamerican Muslims, particularly those in urban settings, no longer seem to use Islam as a vehicle to lift themselves out of their social quagmires, instead being content to adopt Islam as a nouveau identité, whereby one can aspire to alternatives modes of validation and self aggrandizement, vis-a-vis, a new name, a new mode of dress, and especially any time spent “overseas”. The stances of these indigenous Muslims are bolstered from foreign-born voices, imbued with religious authority based on no other grounds than their proximity to so-called “Muslim lands”, who claim Islam is a religion that is free of race, that it simply, “does not do race”. What these two parties fail to realize is how crucial race is to the American story, the American narrative, and the collective psyche.

In a recent interview at The Immanent Frame, Nathan Schneider interviewed Muslim pundit, Reza Aslan. In it, Aslan articulates something crucial to the American social project: social narratives. Aslan says,

“Why is it that the vast majority of Americans are so pro-Israel? It’s because they have fully absorbed the Jewish narrative in a way that they haven’t when it comes to the Palestinian narrative. The story of Israel is a good story. It’s a compelling story. And it’s one that Americans get. But they haven’t had an opportunity to hear, let alone absorb, the Palestinian narrative.”

Narrative is everything in America. Without it, no one knows who you are; no one cares who you are. And in fact, without a narrative, the dominant culture will turn on the offending group as white blood cells do on an infection, treating the invasion as something that must be expelled. While American Jews are not completely safe from racist attacks [a la Mel Gibson], they have mastered the art of narration. American Muslims could learn a great deal from their religious counterparts. Given that Blackamericans are an intricate part of the American narrative, to cast aside this narrative in favor of an abstractionist approach to race is akin to committing social suicide.

Above all, American Muslims’ agnosia of the racial climate will only continue to beleaguer Muslims’ attempts at endearing themselves to the rest of American society, to say anything of contributing to it. This task should not be seen as something for “Black Muslims to deal with”, while immigrant Muslims continue to reap the benefits of a racially biased system: why else do Muslims that hail from the Middle East and South-East Asia, despite their swarthy skin tones, claim “white” on that little check box? How else would one explain the racist tendencies amongst immigrant Muslims towards Blacks if indeed their religion “did not do race”? In parting, consider this small factoid, provided by NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous, when interviewed on Roland S. Martin’s, Washington Watch:

“White people are 65% of the crack [cocaine] users in this country. Black people are 85% of people busted for using crack.”

If Muslims, immigrant or indigenous, are to remain relevant to America, they are going to have to have their eyes examined and their heads checked. They must confront the myth that whiteness is omni-benevolent, omni-wholesome, and omni-pure or risk becoming a marginalized, hostile foreign entity that must be treated like an invasive disease, to be expelled at all costs.

Extra Links

  • White Supremacy—The Beginning of Modern Shirk?: an audio lecture by Professor Sherman Jackson.
  • More Thoughts On the Exclucivity of Whiteness: how did the Founding Fathers conceive of whiteness?
  • Religion Gone Global — an interview with Reza Aslan at The Immanent Frame.

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.

Amin

African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory

Hat tip to Khalifa for passing this on. And while we may be occupied with more-than-earthly matters today, perhaps we can take a look at this over the next couple of days and reflect upon it. I have a few thoughts of my own I will share on it shortly.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary. ….History shows that it does not matter who is in power…those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they did in the beginning.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro.

Let me say from the outset that if you’re faint of heart or easily ruffled, pardon my having included you on this note. One would think that in quoting a social commentary from 1933 that its ideas would be anachronistic or at least irrelevant by 2010, but I find that as an African American Muslim its words ring disturbingly poignant and applicable. Between the Muslim world and America, and between history and orthodoxy, African American Muslims are in a social purgatory of agenda and mission…of identity and relevancy..and between citizenship and complacency.

Let me clarify my use of the term purgatory. Social Purgatory: Living effectively in no sphere of mainstream society whether religious/spiritual, professional, economic, or cultural. .. And belonging neither comfortably or whole-heartedly to the African American community or the broader Muslim community. We stand on the fence at a time of key transition. Imam W.D. Mohammed (rahmah of Allah be upon him) has passed away. Imam Jamil is likely to die in prison, we had to scrape to raise funds for Imam Siraj’s health care, and many of us are an arm-span from FBI watch-lists or already on it. Every time a domestic attack occurs we pray that it isn’t a Muslim. Then we pray that it isn’t an African American Muslim. And then we deliver our “that has nothing to do with Islam” speech on cue. That, my brothers and sisters, is something of a purgatory in itself.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye or merely a snide comment to the pathologies that exist among us. The dogmas and isms that we tolerate… No, this is the chasm through which opponents readily attack and before that, these are the anchors that narrow our Islam. These pathologies are too many and complex to elucidate here, but suffice it to say they range from misapplication of polygamy to dysfunctional views of our very American-ness and citizenship. We constantly frame our troubles as being from without. Well my motivation in writing this is that I believe quite the opposite. They are from within. Continue reading “African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory”