A khutbah I delivered at Drexel University on May 24th, 2013.
Islam is more than a religion. According to Cicero, religion comes from “relegere” or “to go through again/read again.” From “re” + “legere”.
But Islam is a way of life, a way of living your life, of seeing, of acting, all tied together. It can even be classified as civilizational, though this can sometimes be problematic when certain groups or races of people are seen to be indistinguishable with that civilization.
This way of life touches on every aspect of human existence: the personal, the public, the private; even the political. But in today’s world, where so much emphasis is placed on the political, Muslims have often lost sight of where in the grand scheme of things does politics fit. What about our principles? What happened to that simple piety of “doing the right thing”? We cannot wait-list our morals and principles until we achieve certain (perceived) political goals. What if we do not have the capacity to do so? Being Muslim isn’t always about what you’d like to be able to do but about what you ought to do with what you’re given.
إنكم في زمان من ترك منكم عشر ما أمر به هلك ثم يأتي زمان من عمل منهم بعشر ما أمر به نجا
“You live in a time that one will be destroyed if he does not fulfill a 10th of what he has been commanded to do. Then there will come a time when fulfilling a 10th of what you have been commanded will be salvation.” al-Tirmidhi, hasan.
Getting our community back to basics: morality, compassion, God-fearing and God-consciousness (warning people):
فَإِنْ أَعْرَضُوا فَقُلْ أَنْذَرْتُكُمْ صَاعِقَةً مِثْلَ صَاعِقَةِ عَادٍ وَثَمُود
Qur’an, Fussilat, 41: 13.
Even out theology connects belief in God to feeding poor people. This is not contingent upon any political aspirations:
إِنَّهُ كَانَ لَا يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ الْعَظِيمِ – وَلَا يَحُضُّ عَلَىٰ طَعَامِ الْمِسْكِينِ
Qur’an, al-Haqqah, 69: 32-33.
Current state of heedlessness: we are only jolted awake and into action when there’s a crisis. We live from crisis to crisis:
مَثَلُهُمْ كَمَثَلِ الَّذِي اسْتَوْقَدَ نَارًا فَلَمَّا أَضَاءَتْ مَا حَوْلَهُ ذَهَبَ اللَّهُ بِنُورِهِمْ وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَا يُبْصِرُونَ – صُمٌّ بُكْمٌ عُمْيٌ فَهُمْ لَا يَرْجِعُونَ – أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ فِيهِ ظُلُمَاتٌ وَرَعْدٌ وَبَرْقٌ يَجْعَلُونَ أَصَابِعَهُمْ فِي آذَانِهِمْ مِنَ الصَّوَاعِقِ حَذَرَ الْمَوْتِ ۚ وَاللَّهُ مُحِيطٌ بِالْكَافِرِينَ – يَكَادُ الْبَرْقُ يَخْطَفُ أَبْصَارَهُمْ ۖ كُلَّمَا أَضَاءَ لَهُمْ مَشَوْا فِيهِ وَإِذَا أَظْلَمَ عَلَيْهِمْ قَامُوا ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَذَهَبَ بِسَمْعِهِمْ وَأَبْصَارِهِمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
Qur’an, al-Baqarah, 2: 17-18.
We don’t read the Qur’an with a sense of fear and awe. We think these “stories” are about “other people”. Why would Allah inform us of what they did wrong if not then to warn us to avoid the same pitfalls?
Are we committed to delivering Allah’s message and to doing good works? Or are we here just to enjoy this life? But then suddenly we find ourselves victims of this heedlessness as well:
أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَنْ يُتْرَكُوا أَنْ يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُونَ
Qur’an, al-Ankabut, 29: 2.
إن قامت الساعة وفي يد أحدكم فسيلة فإن استطاع أن لا تقوم حتى يغرسها فليغرسها
al-Adab al-Mufrad, sahih.
As has been pointed out numerous times, Muslim scholars from the medieval and so-called “golden age” where practitioners of what we could call science today (something close to it) as well as being doctors in many of the various fields of religious studies. There is much speculation as to why the change in duality has occurred: being a person of science (i.e., dedicated to studying the natural world) and being a person of God. Many look at it as the degradation of society and the collapse of moral infrastructure; the pervasiveness of immorality. And while this may have contributed to it (though I feel this is more symptomatic than it is causal), I feel it has been the atrophy and lackadaisical attitude of religious thinkers and institutions that have been the greatest contributors if not facilitators of this modern demise. I say this because in those pre-modern times, science was mostly a way of exploiting the natural world to some benefit, and was never meant to be theology or even eschatology in and of itself. It was simply a method. But as the genius of religious thinking waned, technology, who was never born for this, was by proxy and de-facto, thrust onto stage as the ever-growing and only means of “knowing.” As religious thinking retreated, it became more and more comfortable in its own seclusion and surrendered its birthright to “tell us” and to “narrate to us.” So when I look out on the youth of today’s Ummah it is not coincidence that so many Muslims have continued to retreat to and swell the ranks of science-based programs (versus the humanities). This exodus is not only based on economic factors (though this does play an important role) but is also grounded in the stark reality that religion, as it is being articulated today, captures little of the imagination of young Muslims. In essence, religion has become boring.
I have been talking with a few colleagues for several years now for the need for a “fiqh of technology.” One of the greatest challenges facing humanity at this point is what is technology, does it have any limits, is it genuinely neutral, and to what ultimate purpose is its use? I can see no other way of answering any of these questions unless we consult religion. As technology pushes us to move faster and faster, fractures our capacity for deep and sustained thought, as its very short shelf life of usefulness makes an even greater quandary for its very long half-lives, as it increasingly wants to the thinking for us, we will increasingly run the risk of not only destroying our natural world, but may in fact be expediting our obsoleteness as Bani Adam. It is clear to me, and I have an itching intuition that it is for many others as well, that technology is not going to solve problems, or even make our lives better in and of itself, if people are not at the top of the thinking food chain. I saw the iPhone 5’s release as a prescient moment where for the first time in long while, a piece of technology truly failed to deliver on all its hype. Yes, people gathered around the block but it was almost as if a small but important balloon had been popped somewhere in the stratosphere (the Heavens?) And perhaps what troubles me the most about all of this, even with the balloon deflated, is what will replace that enthusiasm in technology’s absence? For if it is not a return to religion, I don’t even wish to imagine what awaits us around that corner.
- The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman.
- Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman.
- Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education, Neil Postman.
- Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman.
- The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul.
The moral collapse we see around is can be daunting at times. This is made even more disenfranchising due to modernity’s inability to confront the golem of its handiwork: the abandonment of moral in virtue. What tool is there for modernity to tackle the consequences of moving “beyond,” to a post-tradition age? I dare say that if modern culture chooses to plunge over the cliff of post-tradition, it will only prove itself being further incapable of diagnosing let alone addressing the fallout from having no moral compass.
It is this area that I believe Muslims have something genuine to offer America: Offer, not supplant. These ideas and more are discussed in the following Chaplain Chat, the last for the Spring 2012 term at the University of Pennsylvania. It has been a real pleasure to have inherited such a great weight and responsibility from the likes of Adnan Zulfiqar and Carolyn Baugh. I pray that God will bless the further endeavors of the MSA and I am extremely grateful for the love and support of UPenn’s MSA, without whom I could not have attempted the task at hand.
If there is one word that comes to mind in regards to the America Muslim condition, it’s synthesize. We have for us a couple of different definitions:
To form (a material or abstract entity) by combining parts or elements.
To combine (constituent elements) into a single or unified entity.
The combining parts are the various cultures and histories that Muslims either bring with them here or more significantly, the history they and their ancestors have already lived out on this soil. To detach wholly from one’s history is impractical, detrimental and perhaps not entirely possible. Instead, an amalgamation should be sought that will both validate the new found religious and spiritual teachings while grounded not only in the realities of one’s past, but most importantly in one’s present.
The consequence of this lack of synthesis is a communal car wreck that leaves both individuals and communities stranded in a ditch, at best wounded and at worst, [spiritually] dying. And laying face down in a ditch, angry, confused and fed up is a common condition for many Muslims I have encountered in my wanderings. Stuck in the proverbial mud, one cannot see in front or behind. As the Qur’an says, “Summun, bukmun, ‘umyun, fa hum laa yarji’uwn: deaf, dumb and blind, as for them, they will not return.”
The current generation of Muslims could easily be labeled a generation “X”, due the fact that many are lost. Ethnic/immigrant Muslims struggle to navigate the torrid waters of the American cultural landscape – many loose themselves in the rapids, capitulating to these uncharted waters. Upon resurfacing, any vestiges of Islam have been stripped from them. In hopes of appeasing the dominant culture (and thereby gaining access to acceptance and all the fruits of being a “true American”) the immigrant/ethnic Muslim unconditionally surrenders his or her Islam, disarmed, dismantled and completely dysfunctional, both as an American and as Muslim, for the dominant culture is not so easy to accept them as equals whilst mired in a defensive stance.
In contradistinction, indigenous Muslims (and here I am speaking about Blackamerican Muslims in specific) have attempted to jettison their over 400 year history as bona fide Westerners in favor of a doppelganger-identity, donning thobes in favor of Abercrombie & Fitch. Instead of using Islam as a vehicle for moral or ethical reformation, Islam is used to validate a protest against the legacy of a White Supremest value system. Left holding the bag of post 60’s social reforms, many Blackamericans never experienced the grandiose promises that America offered. That, combined with a pop culture which embraces hyper-individualism and a nihilistic outlook, Islam offered a safe haven to many blacks trying to find a safe port in a storm. But the high moral values that Islam embraces and encourages were never internalized, at best only to be used as blunt theological instruments to compel fellow coreligionists into submission of their supposed orthodoxical, utopian interpretations of Islam which ever points to its glorious past, not towards an auspicious future. In the end, both parties, in quest of an ever elusive acceptance and validation, lay face down in the mud.
So where to from here? The psychoanalyzing was the easy part. How does real change get implemented and what’s the time table? These are the questions that I’ve heard Dr. Sherman Jackson ask at his various lectures. And while not offering any simple 1-2-3 step solutions, he has laid down some questions we as Muslims ought to ask, tackle and wrangle with. Out of those, two primary ones come to mind: sex and education. Starting with the second one first, education is more of a problem for the Blackamerican community than it is for ethnic/immigrant Muslims. This is not just simply getting an education (though that is important as well) but rather the process of placing value on obtaining an education. This should entail both a secular as well as religious one. But for both the ethnical/immigrant and Blackamerican Muslims, this means serious reforms in how Islamic schools are operated. High standards of qualification will be required of all staff just as in any other educational institution. The same standards must be appointed for student academic standards or Muslim parents will be face with “no child left a deen” syndrome.
The other issue is sex. For this, it is pretty simple and straightforward. The American cultural landscape is unabashedly more promiscuous than ever and if Muslims are to navigate this obstacle course then Islam is going to have to eroticize man/woman relationships. I am not talking about caving in to wanton sexual deviancy but that, in the parlance of our times, Islam in America is going to have to accommodate Muslims, “getting their mac on.” Victorian or puritanical principles are lost on this new generation that has been exposed to gratuitous quantities of sex. And a synthesis of this new milieu with the moral principles of Islam will have to combine and even collide in the way atoms are forced to collide, producing a new dynamic. Without grappling with the above two topics, the future is Islam awaits a grim half-life, neither thriving or growing, subservient and trodden under the feet of the dominant culture. Muslims will have to decide which side of the smithy they want to reside in – the anvil or the hammer.
Having said all of the above, it still leaves the question of timeline unanswered. According to Dr. Jackson, whatever actions Muslims take, in terms of social, political and cultural/religious over the next twenty five to fifty years will dictate how Islam will function in the United States for the next two to three hundred years. We are living in a critical time where Muslims must simultaneously combat hostilities from the dominant culture, which seek to cloak their own bigotry in the name of righteousness and freedom of speech, as a justification for committing acts of brutalities against Muslims as well as the internal struggle for critical definition of what is and what isn’t Islam in the American public square. Indeed, still laying face down the mud, Muslims are currently caught between the hammer and the anvil, shaped into whatever fashion the blacksmith chooses. Success lies in Muslims having the fortitude to grasp the hammer and place themselves on the anvil, shaping themselves as they see fit.
“For without a doubt, with hardship comes ease, with hardship comes ease” [Q 94: 5-6].