America’s Enduring Problem of Racism and the Promise of Acceptance

America has an enduring problem: racism. Sadly, many Muslims are not sure quite where they should place their hands and feet regarding this dance with Ms. America: many of us desire acceptance above respect. But what acceptance can one ever have if you leave it wholly to another? What acceptance can there be if it is based not on who you are but on how much of yourself you are not? Like a pretty girl who has no intentions of sleeping with you, Ms. America is quiet happy for you to make a fool of yourself fawning over her. Ms. America loves flattery. But as they say: flattery will get you nowhere.

Until we deal with ourselves, all of our politics, activism, and “jihads” will be all for naught.

Tafsir Ziyan – Reflections on Mistakes in Life

There is a great temptation in life to view one’s past actions as mistakes. After all, upon reviewing them, it’s second nature to saying things such as, “If I could go back…,” or, “If I had it to do all over again.” I must confess, that yours truly is no different. That is, until reflecting on my life after the birth of my child, what I like to call Tafsir Ziyan.

It can be something of a balancing act to have remorse [nadm] about one’s past misgivings and yet still view them in the Light of Allah, the Qur’an, the Sunnah of our Beloved Prophet and our Tradition. I was never very good at juggling but my daughter has forced me to add another ball to the set and in doing so, I have discovered qualities not only of myself and my wife, but of Allah Almighty. As God says in Surah al-Taghabun [64], “There is no hardship or calamity except that it is from God,” verse 11.

Simply put, despite all of my glaring mistakes, missteps, gross errors, transgressions and more, God’s primary quality that He prescribed upon Himself is Mercy, and I have not seen that manifested for myself in any better form than in the birth of my daughter, for God says in the Qur’an [2], “Allah does as He pleases,” verse 253. I was only able to have this understanding when I had an event in my life so large that I had no choice but to submit to it. In the midst of that submission I am beginning to see the bigger picture, and not get lost in self pity [something Shaytan loves] about past grievances while still hoping that God Almighty will pardon me for my sins.

Drawing closer to God in the midst of calamity is supremely difficult, especially at the moment of that calamity. But when one steps back and views the tapestry of one’s life, the mosaic of calamity met with clemency, over and over again, the All-Merciful attribute that is God’s stands clear, humbling oneself in complete abasement. I am left thinking about Surah 3, verse 154:

Then He sent down to you, after the distress, security, restful sleep overtaking a group of you, whereas another group became prey to anxious thoughts, thinking other than the truth about Allah – thoughts belonging to the Time of Ignorance – saying, ‘Do we have any say in the affair at all?’ Say, ‘The affair belongs entirely to Allah.’ They are concealing within themselves things which they do not disclose to you, saying, ‘If we had only had a say in the affair, none of us would have been killed here in this place.’ Say, ‘Even if you had been inside your homes, those people for whom being killed was decreed would have gone out to their place of death.’ So that Allah might test what is in your breasts and purge what is in your hearts. Allah knows all that your hearts contain.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Tafsir Ziyan.

Epiphany of the Self-minded Soul

The following is an article that I wrote back in 2007 that I shelved for one reason or another. Having recenlty updated my web site as well as having consolidated the Manrilla Blog into the main fold, I thought I would share these thoughts. They apply as well in 2011 as they did four years ago.

It is not my customary approach to be preachy. On the whole, I despise self-aggrandizing rhetoric but I feel compelled to share the thoughts that came over me this morning. I had an experience today while going to take my final. Not exactly an epiphany but something significant none the less.

To give a little background, I have been re-reading Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr over again lately as well as some biographical material on the Prophet, sallahu alayhi wa sallam, as well as my general Qur’ānic readings for memorization. And as I was striding up to Temple to hand in my final paper, I lamented about having to drop a course this term. My initial reaction was, “Damn. One more class I gotta make up.” And as my mind started to crunch the data as to how far that might set me back a little light went off in my head…

It is so often that we humans think of things in both linear fashions as well as leaning towards individualistic tendencies. It’s normal, I suppose, though that should be no excuse to not combat those innate characteristics of our being that are less desirable. So to begin to bring this together, the Qur’ānic verse went off in my head [translation mine]: “Lā yukallifu Allahu nafsan illā wus’uhā”

لا يكلف الله نفسا إلا وسعها

God does not place a burden on a soul greater than it can bear.  [Qur’ān, The Cow: 2:286]

For the first time in my fifteen years (now nineteen as of this article’s date!) as a Muslim, I reexamined this verse (a trend I seem to be doing more as of late). What did it mean? Was it straightforward as it seemed or could there be something further, something more subtle or even more expansive. As this thought was bouncing around in my head another verse went off, from the sūrah I’m currently memorizing, Yunus [Jonah]: “Wa idhā massa al-Insāna ad-durru da’ānā li janbihi aw qā’idan aw qā’iman. Fa lammā kashafnā ‘anhu durrahu marra ka ‘in lam yada’unā ilā durrin massa, kadhālika zuyyina lilmusrifiyna mā kanuw ya’ lamuwn”

و إذا مس الإنسن الضر دعانا لجنبه أو قائدا أو قائمافلما كشفنا عنه ضره مر كإن لم يدعنا إلا ضر مسه كذلك زين للمسرفين ما كانوا يعملون

And when a calamity touches Mankind, he calls upon Us, laying on his side, sitting, or standing), “. [Qur’ān, Jonah: 10:12]

To complete the triumvant, the next two verses also chimed in, “Inna al-Insaana lirbbihi lakanuwd, wa innahu ‘alaa dthaalika lashahiyd”

إن الإنسن لربه لكنود و إنه على ذلك لشهيد

Without a doubt, Mankind is ungrateful to his Lord and He is a witness to it. [Qur’ān, The Steeds: 100:6-7]

Ingratitude? Arrogance? All in face of God’s bounty? That’s what started to piece together. It is so often that Man [and I lump myself in here] sees his calamity from his own perspective, judging it from his/mine/our limited scope or viewpoint. But God sees everything from all stances. Was it lamentable that I had to drop a course or could that in itself be the burden I was unable to bear? Sadly, at the time of dropping my course, not once did I give thought that this may be a rahmah [a mercy]. Ibn Kathīr points out two valid opinions on interpreting, “wa innahu ‘alaa dthaalika lashahiyd”? [and He (or he) is a witness to it], meaning that God is most certainly aware of Mankind’s ungracious attitude. But the second opinion is that Man himself is aware of this. Perhaps now, in hindsight, I have become aware of my ingratitude.

Again, I hope this will not be taken as grandstanding but as one brother who just wants to share some thoughts – God knows best.

Getting Serious About Our Islam – More Thoughts on Spiritual Maturity

كرم المرء دينه ، ومروءته عقله ، وحسبه خلقه

“The nobility of a man is his religion, while his manliness is his discernment, and his regard is his character.” Abu Hurayrah via al-Bayhaqi in his as-Sunan al-Kubra.

Some time back, I wrote a small article which turned into a khutbah, a halaqah, and some subsequent blog posts talking about the need for a spiritual maturity on the part of Muslims in American; to come of age, as it were.  While the words were initially met with approval, I still feel they fell somewhere short of the mark.  I continued to talk and lecture from the classroom and the minbar, and was dismayed at what I witnessed: A living disconnect, a living dysfunction amidst Muslims, both young and old, immigrant and indigenous.  There seemed (and still seems) to be a lack of reification of Islam’s values—things such as devotional prayer, the Oneness of God, love for the Prophet and so forth—a process to bring them into play in daily life.  Islam’s values have largely become locked away by Muslims in a plastic, sterile vocabulary that seldom goes beyond the perfunctory “Qur’an and Sunnah”.

In order to not render myself guilty of my own claims, let me be specific.  I cannot account for the number of Jumu’ah prayers I have attended where the rank and file come in their most drab, their most dingy clothing.  Ripped jeans and T-shirts are a common sight.  Middle-aged men attend Friday prayer dressed in sweats, jeans, and all articles of mundane clothing.  Young men (perhaps someone can correct me but I see a much better response from Muslim women, young and old) attend prayer in the shabbiest of clothing, often with holes in them (some I am sure are purposely done for the “cool” factor); their backsides are frequently exposed, revealing their underwear or worse, their nakedness (my parents lovingly endured the many phases of my youth, but I hardly think nakedness would have been one they would have allowed).  Let me make something clear here, these critiques are no solely leveled at “’hood Muslims”.  I have witnessed the same behaviors at Ivy League universities amongst the Muslim Student Associations (MSA’s).  Muslim students attend prayer dressed in the same foppish T-shirts and jeans, or even worse, shorts, with their thighs exposed1.   For some reason, there is an unspoken dispensation given for students to show up as they like.  Not only are these Muslims detached from the tradition of honoring their religion, as Abū Hurayrah indicates, but their prayer itself may be invalid.  Over and over again I see men going into sajdah (prostration) with their shirts hiked up, exposing their back sides and often, a bit more (let your imagination fill in the blanks or the proverbial “cracks”).  What is even more disparaging is the hypocrisy I have been witness to by some of these very same brothers who are quick to turn their gaze on a woman who is not “properly covered”, or even worse, happens to wander over into the men’s section.

So what is at play here?  Or more importantly, what is at stake?  One observation that stands out clearly is not only a lack of appreciation, but a lack of indoctrination of Muslims into the tradition of Islam (small “t”): Muslims have been conditioned to respect and venerate the vocabulary of Islam: Salah, Qur’an, Prophets, Shari’ah, etc., but have seldom been invited to take ownership over these principles, let alone bring them down off of their abstract shelves and put them into play in their own lives.  The results of this schizophrenia has been the near-complete separation between the utterance of a venerated principle (i.e., “Sunnah”), and its enactment on the part of that very same person.  How else does one explain the recitation of such neo-slogans as “having to return to the Sunnah” while praying with one’s underwear showing or attending Friday prayer in one’s play clothes?

The landscape of American Islam is an ever changing kaleidoscope of slogans, cliques, personalities and the like.  This is not so much of a railing critique as it is an acknowledging that Muslims in American (and indeed outside America given American culture’s viral nature) should not expect to remain immune to this phenomenon de facto by nature of being Muslim.  Case in point has been the emergence of “Traditional Islam” onto the stage of American Muslim imagination.  This neologism is very close to becoming a brand name versus signifying anything concrete.  Muslim organizations across the board have adopted its use as a means of granting themselves legitimacy.  It’s not that these organizations may not indeed have claims to legitimacy (as indeed, most if not all do in some way or another) but rather it’s the manner in which this terminology disarms their target audiences of truly benefiting from the teachings they have to offer.  As it stands, “Traditional Islam’s” pedagogy fails to impart to its target Muslim audience, “you need to live by and enact these codes, these edicts, these moral injunctions, in your life”.  All too often to the contrary, targets of Traditional Islam are deceived or misled into a false sense of quietude, by which their lives are magically transformed into being better Muslims, ignorant of the disconnect articulated above, to speak nothing of the crushing loneliness that many Muslims continue to experience, as confessed to me time and time again.  The neologism itself has changed shape via the canopy and backdrop of the American Muslim canvass: Salafism, Sufism, and even in its plain clothes form, Traditional Islam.  I chose to make this distinction as I am not overly biased against one group or another.  To the contrary, I would hope these groups would reanalyze their approaches and rethink their success rates, for the issue is ubiquitous, as has been confirmed from friends of mine who are active in all the aforementioned circles.

Last month (November 2010) I wrote a short piece about the function that story telling plays in the Muslim tradition, one which is dying out.  Similarly, despite the fact that Muslims today have more cataloged access to this so-called tradition, it is dying out as a lived practice.  In fact, we can see the same stance and relation Muslims have today towards “Traditional Islam” as they do towards the Qur’an and Sunnah: Adoption of modes of dress, that are presumed to be more authentically Muslim, supersedes implementation of Muslim tradition; attempts to revive art forms such as calligraphy (of which I happen to personally be a fan of); in sum, a treasure hunt of bygone relics of a former, more nobler or “quaint” epoch.  To the extent that one can excavate these relics, one has become more and more a proponent of “Traditional Islam”, despite whatever gnawing and nagging feelings of isolation and detachment exhibited in so many who are in pursuit of it, not to mention personal character defects that lay at odds with value systems found in the “Qur’an and Sunnah.”  What is being missed here about tradition is precisely that thing which tradition is trying to get at: Acting upon one’s values, not simply memorizing and reciting them.  When the veneration of values become detached from the practice of those same values, the results are reminiscent of the Prophetic narration in which Muslims, despite their numbers, are akin  to “froth, such as is found on a torrent of water”2.  What Muslims are missing today—those on the pedagogical side of the “Traditional Islam” isle as well as those seeking it—is tradition’s power to root and cement the seeker in a reality that reflects his or her beliefs, publicly and privately.  I am reminded by H. P. Lovecraft’s observation on tradition.  He muses:

In a cosmos without absolute values… there is only one anchor of fixity…, and that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally and pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time and space.  (Schultz and Joshi)

Tradition in Islam (arguably in other arenas as well) does more than simply tell us where, how, and in what order to place our footsteps (proverbial and literal), but also affirms that we are doing so to garner the pleasure and reward of God Almighty.  In as much that Traditional Islam (as a brand) claims to evoke the legacy and authenticity of the Prophet [s], its power ultimately rests in its ability to acclimatize it (i.e., the Sunnah) to our locality.  To return us to our example about Friday etiquette, how and in what way will Muslims enact the Prophet’s edict to “wear their best clothes”3?  This, to date, has been mostly patronized by literal interpretations of wearing a thobe, vis-a-vie the hadith’s word, ثوب (the word “thawb” has been understood by many scholars to be representational of clothing in general, a word that is capable of encompassing a variety of styles).  In the absence of a tradition that confers agency, not simply administers it, the non-thobe wearing crowd appear to see little to no value in dressing well for Friday prayer, donning instead the same disheveled look (i.e.,  T-shirts, jeans, and the like).

I see this tension—a clash of temporals—a phenomenon akin to what Dr. Sherman Jackson dubs “juridical empiricism”4 , that act by which (religious) communities—Jackson’s “Believers”—form a “last-ditch effort to find refuge from the deluge of modem secularism”5.  Jackson continues, “Every serious commitment to Islam … assumes that meaning is restricted to the strictly lexical sense of words and that allegorical, figurative, or metaphorical interpretations are most often attempts to escape or distort the true meaning of scripture6 (Jackson).  I have heard from Muslims, both immigrant and indigenous, that wearing a suit is “imitating the kāfir”; the necktie is the “noose of civilization”.  Another example of the “forest ‘fore the trees” syndrome found in the current “Traditional Islam” dilemma, is the adoption of the fez (a hat worn by Muslim men throughout the Muslim world), a hat, that despite its origins who lay outside Revelatory Islam, has been adopted as a bona fide symbol of authentic Muslim identity7.  What has been lost in time is the appropriating power of Muslim tradition, in this case, the appropriation of the fez, originally a “foreign object”, as an appropriated Muslim head piece, to condone and convey identity and agency (two areas American Muslims are in desperate need of).  In other words, Muslim tradition at some point in time conferred upon the red felt hat a degree of symbolic Muslimness; an identity piece.  The question that begs answering is why has this process arrested?  One could possibly make the case that it is still struggling to stay alive, as seen in the city of Philadelphia, where Blackamerican Muslims have attempted to fuse Middle-Easten modes of dress (thobe) with American urban footwear, namely Timberland boots.  This stylistic look has become iconic and symbolic of Islam amongst Blackamericans in Philadelphia.  It is now, in the local culture, an authentic expression of Philadelphia Islam.  The questions is, can this envelop not be pushed to include, or in the spirit of the fez, co-opt, other modes of dress as well?  It is a gut feeling of mine that many Americans in the broader cultural context object to Islam, not on theological grounds, but on aesthetic ones (i.e., they do not wish to dress like “foreigners”).  If American Muslims are going to get serious about da’wah, then they will have to contend with these issues, not simply calling those who don’t mind changing up their wardrobes.

Putting aside the great sartorial debate for a moment, I want to turn back to tradition itself, and more specifically what tradition means to young Muslims as well as what it means to be young and adult in American society.  In a 2007 interview conducted by Andrea Longbottom, she asks Dr. Robert Epstein, author of The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007), about his views on the teenage brain and behavior:

I struggle with [teens’ capacity to make sound judgments and decisions] as a parent of four offspring.  That strong tendency we have to want to protect—there’s a reason for that, absolutely.  But the best thing we can do for young people is to give them the tools they need to be independent and to make those decisions.  There’s only so much you can learn by advice from others.  Most of what we learn in our lives comes from experience.  You give your sons and daughters the best advice you can, and then you give them the tools they need to become independent.

If you give them incentives and opportunities to join the adult world, that’s not the same as setting them free.  You’re not pushing them off a cliff.  What you’re doing is saying, “I’m going to welcome you into the adult world.  If you show me you can do this, then you’re going to join us.” You’re not pushing them toward oblivion—you’re pulling them with you into the world of responsible adulthood.  Given the choice between being infantilized in the frivolous world of teen culture and joining the adult world, I believe most teens will pick the latter.  (Longbottom)

Epstein highlights some key items I think every Muslim in America shout stop and take stock of: “incentives and opportunities to join the adult world.” It has been articulated by numerous other cultural analysts, but the fact America at large has an issue with the transition from childhood to adulthood is hard to overstate.  The fact that the video game industry, at nearly $20 billion dollars annually, a stunning figure in comparison to such (former) titans as General Motors, continues to enthrall and dazzle young adult males between the ages of 15 and 40.  Video games are just one example of the many components of modern culture that “infantilize” young people into a practice of frivolity, Muslims again not being immune. Modern society and culture, on a global scale, deifies youth to such an extent that there are few incentives to be found in popular culture for youth to “grow up”.  For me, I see tradition, in all its various articulations as far as Muslims are concerned, as a vehicle which leads and coaches one through life, informing one on how one comes to decisions, especially the journey from child to adult.  Tradition is that which (should) give options: Sometimes one may take the “traditional route”, meaning that you follow an example of those informed ancestors that came before you, such as the Prophet [s], the Companions, Scholars, etc.  Other times, one may need to interpret the reality one faces for which one’s tradition does not have a “lexical” response to.  In this scenario, one strives to move in the spirit of one’s tradition, aiming to achieve the same goal (see Jackson’s example about opening a window, fetching a fan, turning off the lights, and pouring a glass of water) one would hope to achieve were there a “lexical” example; where a textual application could actually apply.

Epstein also highlights the importance of those who are the current key holders and gate keepers to accompany these young adults into their world of responsibility and tradition.  Here it is especially critical for Muslims to spend more time amongst Muslim youth, specifically those of the imamate and leadership positions.  Doing so will require a paradigm shift in how American Muslims envision and imagine the role of the imam and the masjid.  Muslims must come to put trust in their youth, aiding them in making good decisions, thereby establishing a trust between the generations.  This trust is best earned by being there with these youth as they learn to make those decisions, side-by-side in journeyman fashion, with their adult counterparts leading them, not herding, or worse, chiding them when they make their inevitable mistakes.  In doing so, Muslims will foster an environment whereby they may truly become protectors of one another8. The consequences of not doing so are already readily apparent, as we have, are, and may continue to “wrong ourselves” as Surah al-Tawbah, verses 70-71 proclaim9.

It is my hope that this article does not convey any latent or secret hostility I have towards the Muslim tradition or any Muslim organization who seek to avail themselves of it.  To the contrary, I have endeavored to learn and study the Muslim intellectual and spiritual traditions, a vocation that has been going strong for fifteen-plus years.  It is my hope and wish that it can be made available to Muslims such that their daily lives are impacted and enriched by its endorsement.  To be sure, there has been some impact on the rank and file Muslim by these various organizations.  I only advocate doing a better job, not to deride them for not doing any good whatsoever.  It is also my hope that as adult Muslims, we can step up our game, and demonstrate through actions and words, what a living Islam looks and acts like.  Through this holistic approach, we may actually be able to redeem ourselves in the sight of God, and put forth a better example to the broader Muslim public the transformative and healing power of Islam.

Footnotes

  1. الفخذ عورة الراوي: عبد الله بن مسعود المحدث: البخاري – المصدر: التاريخ الكبير
    جلس رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عندنا وفخذي منكشفة فقال أما علمت أن الفخذ عورة الراوي: جرهد المحدث: أبو داود – المصدر: سنن أبي داود
    خلاصة حكم المحدث: سكت عنه [وقد قال في رسالته لأهل مكة كل ما سكت عنه فهو صالح

    ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud relates, “the thigh is part of the ‘awrah/private parts”, related in al-Bukhari’s al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr. In Sunan Abū Dawud, Jarhad relates, “The Messenger of God sat down with us and my thigh was exposed so he said to me, ‘Did you not know that the thigh is part of the ‘awrah/private parts?’.
  2. أنتم يومئذ كثير ولكنكم غثاء كغثاء السيل — see Abu Dāwud’s Sunan Abī Dāwud, #4297.
  3. ولبس من أحسن ثيابه — see al-Haythumī’s Mujma’ az-Zawā’id, Vol. 2, #177.
  4. See Sherman Jackson’s, Literalism, Empiricism, and Induction: Apprehending and Concretizing Islamic Law’s Maqāsid al-Sharī’ah in the Modern World.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Just to set the record clean, I happen to own several fez’s as I am quite fond of their style.
  8. والمومنين والمومنت بعضهم أولياء بعض — Sūrah al-Tawbah (9), verse 71.
  9. ألم ياتهم نبأ الذين من قبلهم قوم نوح وعاد وثمود وقوم إبرهيم وأصحب مدين والموتفكت أتتهم رسلهم بالبينت فما كان الله ليظلمهم ولكن كانوا أنفسهم يظلمون والمومنين والمومنت بعضهم أولياء بعض يامرون بالمعروف وينهون عن المنكر ويقيمون الصلوة ويوتون الزكوة ويطيعون الله و رسوله ألئك سيرحمهم الله إن الله عزيز حكيم — Sūrah al-Tawbah (9), verses 70-71.

Friday Prayer/Jumu’ah Resources

  • إن يوم الجمعة يوم عيد و ذكر، فلا تجعلوا يوم عيدكم يوم صيام، و لكن اجعلوه يوم فطر و ذكر، إلا أن تخلطوه بأيام
  • “Friday is an ‘Eid/Holy Day and a remembrance therefore do not make your Holy Day [Fridays – not Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr] a day of fasting.  Make it instead a day of “fitr” — a day of charity and feasting, unless you connect it with other days.” Related by Abū Hurayrah from al-Suyūti’s al-Jāmi’ al-Sagīr.
  • من اغتسل يوم الجمعة ولبس من أحسن ثيابه ومس من طيب إن كان عنده ثم أتى الجمعة فلم يتخط أعناق الناس ثم صلى ما كتب الله له ثم أنصت إذا خرج إمامه حتى يفرغ من صلاته كانت كفارة لما بينها وبين جمعته التي قبلها
  • “The one who takes a bath on Friday, wears his best clothes, perfumes himself if he so has it with him then attends the Friday Prayer without stepping on the necks of the people, then prays as God has proscribed it for him, then listens attentively to the Imam from the time he comes out until he [the Imam] finishes his prayer, it serves as an expiation for what was between this Friday and the previous one.” Related by Abū Sa’īd in Abū Dāwud’s Sunan Abī Dāwud, #343.

Extra Reading and Sources

Storytelling

To say that Muslims have been just as equally affected by modernity, the modernity that many Muslims claim to abhor, would be a feat in understatement.  In fact, the sooner that Muslims come to grips with this reality the better chance Muslims will have at confronting modernity. Muslims could proactively (vs. reactively) decide on what aspects of modernity they can negotiate, and what aspects are indeed a real threat to their Muslim identity.  One such aspect of modernity is the individual.  There are a number of new theories floating around in the minds of Muslims regarding the individual and individualism.  Many Muslims decry religious authority and seek to be “free agents”, navigating their Islam and modernity with the tools of reason and intuition.  The Qur’an and Sunnah are seen as a threat to individuality; both are interpreted via a nouveau ijtihad.  Before delving into a possible critique of this choice, we should perhaps look at the formation of individualism and its effects on Muslims today in their relationship with Islam’s sacred sources.

To be concise, I thought I might provide a reading of the situation through examining Walter Benjamin’s article, The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.  Benjamin provides some insightful criticism of the modern age: “The art of story-telling is dying out.  With it also dies the human capacity that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences.  The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away”.  Indeed, storytelling (as well as art, though that is another subject entirely) is dying out and with it goes the traditional method by which Muslims and most pre-modern cultures related wisdom, not just solely information.  In tradition-based cultures, experience functioned as the repository of wisdom.  With the advent of the information age, experience, as Benjamin says, “has fallen in value” (Benjamin 1).  A critical difference between information [خبر] and wisdom [حكمة] in the Muslim tradition is the component of transience, the movement of wisdom from the teacher to the student.  Even on a communal level this translated as the wisdom of the Prophet [s] and his understanding—what elicited God’s pleasure and displeasure—on such subjects such as God’s nature and edicts.  This, in many ways, is what the spirit of the following hadith is getting at: “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error” [إن أمتي لا تجتمع على ضلاة] – related by Anas Bin Malik.

A major challenge facing Muslims today is the challenge of distance.  By distance here I mean the distance that is felt between them and the sacred sources of the religion.  Most attempts to close or bridge this gap have resulted in pan-nationalism in the historical Muslim world or as an identity crisis in American Muslims.  For many Blackamerican Muslims, for example, great efforts have been spent to try and adopt the dress and mores of immigrant Muslims as a means of closing the gap of authenticity.  For the most part, neither group has been very successful in making the Muslim tradition and its sacred sources speak to them with meaning and agency in the American context.  Some of this has to do with the pressures that have been exerted on Muslims from the dominant culture.  Secular America, often as hegemonic as so-called fundamentalism, looks upon religion as something archaic and outdated.  For a religion whose tradition is linked with storytelling, this is especially problematic:

“More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences” (Benjamin 1).

“Embarrassment” here sums up to a great degree how many Muslims are feeling about their religious sensibilities.  Scientism (an extension of secularism) has fought to secure its place as the only means and method moderns can come to “know anything”.  Traditions of knowledge which do not solely rely upon empiricism are deemed retrograde and backwards.  Despite the fact that science has not come to be the panacea it claims to be — the world’s problems seem to only mount in the face of the salvation science is supposedly capable of bringing — many Muslims still feel a tremendous pressure to capitulate to its dictum.

To summarize, the Muslim tradition places great importance on experience.  This is reflected in the ijazah system of certification.  In essence, one gets one’s ijazah from one’s teacher, who presumably has not only the requisite knowledge but also experience, so that one will go on to teach others that same topic; one will continue the tradition of storytelling.  Such teachers know the story and the narrative which such knowledge both comes from and speaks to.  Benjamin’s insight here speaks to the modern predicament, where Muslims feel as if they have arrived at this quandary out of the blue:

“Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible.” (Benjamin 1).

Benjamin’s remarks speak to the disconnection and loss that many Muslims feel as the world has become less and less moral.  It certainly has left us with the feeling we have arrived at this crossroads “overnight”, though in fact, it has been the slow erosion of values and morals over many years and decades.  Indeed, I have heard many Muslims comment in dismay over the lows “never thought possible”, both inside and outside the Muslim community.

What I am trying to get at here is more than simply deconstructing Benjamin’s essay for deconstruction sake.  The purpose is to look at the current state of Muslims in America and ask some hard questions.  What does our Islam mean to us and are the means and methods of making Islam real, relevant, and meaningful to us, successful.  Prophetic tradition, starting as an oral one, has placed a high value on person to person exchanges of story, knowledge, and experience.  This is similar to what Benjamin has to say here:

“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn” (Benjamin 1).

It would seem to be this type of mouth to mouth exchange that many Muslims are beleaguering nowadays.  This helps explain the rise of “traditional knowledge” or “traditional Islamic knowledge” as a buzzword.  However, most of these institutions still rely upon a method of teaching that does not quite bridge that gap.

To return to the theme of reading, it is my theory that modern Muslims have turned to reading the Qur’an in the manner and method in which they read novels.  I use the word novel here, not as a stand-in for “book”, but literally, as “novel”.  Benjamin purports,

“The novelist has isolated himself” (Benjamin 3).

The novel is also, as Benjamin says, “devoid of council”, something many Muslims are sorely in need of today.  “The novelist isolates himself and does not come from oral tradition nor goes to it”.  Some may see Benjamin’s commentary as a Romantic rant, longing for “simpler times”.  I do not see it as thus; for me, “oral tradition” is synonymous with “lived-in” and “pro-human”, and thus, I see it as an alternative method of articulating what the Sunnah of the Prophet was about: council:

أكان للناس عجبا أن أوحينا إلى رجل منهم أن أنذر الناس وبشر الذين ءامنوا أنلهم قدم صدق عند ربهم قال الكافرون إن هذا لسحر مبين

“Is it astonishing to men that We sent Our inspiration to a man from amongst them?  That he would warn mankind as well as give glad tidings to the believers that they are considered by their Lord truthful, sincere?  Those who reject faith say, ‘This is clear sorcery’.” [Qur’an 10: 2].

The tandem of Prophet and Revelation provides that direct, oral relation, the transference of knowledge and wisdom to, not a readership, but a living community.  In this light, the Qur’an, a book whose name can also be said to be “The Recitation”, indicates that it is not simply any book, and most certainly not a novel.  One of the primary characteristics of the Qur’an is that it is a revelation that came down to a human community amidst their history, not in isolation.  My goal in saying this is not to provide the definitive way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an, but to introduce and remind that in order to come to know the Qur’an (and the Prophet, and God), one must not be tempted to read it as a novel amongst other novels.

There are a couple of characteristics of the novel that are worth mentioning here that Benjamin draws our attention to.  First, is the notion that the novel is almost always about, “a particular character, event, or situation”.  This helps to affirm the notion of the novel as isolated.  The Qur’an reveals itself not as a singular event, not about a singular character, and its situation varies from chapter to chapter (sometimes even within it).  This has led many to criticize the Qur’an for being inconsistent; some Muslims even find it difficult to follow.  I believe this is partly in due to the influence of modern literary standards which are largely based off of reading and interpreting novels. Second, is the sense of closure.  Benjamin says, “The novel terminates itself from our memory through the complete closure of the book”.  Not to be confused with “making our minds up for us (something modern and post-modern literature abhor from doing), there is still a closure when the last words are read.  The Qur’an has been and is, continuously rehearsed and recited.  It lives where Muslims live (or ought to, I would argue).  It challenges and compels its adherents to “reflect” and “ponder” its “ayāt”, or signs.  Muslims, if they hope to extract meaningful and relevant interpretations from the Qur’an, they may need to reconsider just how it is they are approaching Islam’s sacred sources.

Experience is king, someone once wrote.  It certainly seems to be for Benjamin as well.  This finds easy correlation in reading the life of the Prophet.  As was mentioned above, the Prophet and the stories of the Prophets and other stories in the Qur’an are in fact translated into experience for us.  This is best understood through the famous narration: “His character was the Qur’an” [كان خلقه القرآن].  By this, Muslims are “counseled” (also known as “nasīhah”/نصيحة) by the Prophet’s life, his understanding and relating of God’s Message.  In the absence of this, historically detached Muslims devolve into lonely individuals who are no longer capable of “speaking exemplarily”, as Benjamin says, to their most important concerns, chief amongst them a dignified existence that will allow them to negotiate what modernity needs and what God wants.  The lonely individual’s existence gives them no counsel, leaving them anxious as well as impotent.

It is obvious from Benjamin’s article that he is not only lamenting the loss of stories, he is also subtlety calling for the return or rebirth of storytellers.  In the Muslim context this is the shaykh, the ālim, the imām, the griot.  It is through the tradition of the Muslim storyteller that the characteristics of the religion are retained.  Without Muslim storytellers, those who have dedicated their lives to the continuity of these stories, how else will Muslims preserve that critical aspect of their identity?  The tendency has been in modern times to prop up a few rock star imāms who draw crowds of individuals who often return home feeling just as isolated and lost before attending said event.  I believe if Muslims are truly invested in their futures here, it will necessitate them developing scholars, leaders, storytellers—“master craftsmen” in Benjamin’s words—who will live in and amongst their communities, keeping the story alive and meaningful to Muslim communities.

The hope for developing Muslim storytellers is to help restore the connectivity amongst Muslims.  It will also allow the healing and holistic aspects of the message of Islam to be delivered to Muslims with greater efficacy.  As Benjamin states,

“Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak” (Benjamin 3).

For me, Benjamin touches on one of the great challenges facing Muslims in America: The disconnect between generations.  It is not authenticity that challenges generational understanding but rather the ability for the older, “more knowledgeable” generation, to be receptive to the realities facing young American Muslims today.  There is a dire need for a Muslim leadership—religious or otherwise—to be emotionally connected and concerned with younger Muslims today.  Benjamin says, about counsel,

“[it] is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding” (Benjamin 3).

I see this as another means of “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error”.  Benjamin is also astute in pointing out one of the natures of counsel:

“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom”,

as well as,

“To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story” (Benjamin 3).

Against the allegations that religious knowledge equates religious tyranny in the Muslim world, this system allows those who have dedicated their lives to the story, the Message of Islam, to walk hand in hand with those who profess Islam as their religion, facing the trials and tribulations of life as one community, as one Ummah.  After all, when the Prophet [s] was questioned as to what religion (“deen”) was, he replied, “sound advice, sound advice, sound advice” [إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة].

Reading

Extra Viewing

  • Thanks to the link from brother Omar. See his comments below. It fits well into the discussion.