Addressing Middle America

Last evening, I had the pleasure of finally meeting up with an acquaintance (whom now I can call friend), a fellow wayfarer in the doldrums of Philadelphia, and discussed all manner of things Muslim: morality, politics, family life (although I’m sad to say we didn’t make mention of Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans’ 3 M’s: music, moons, and meat!). And in our conversations we spoke on the need for American-Muslims to seriously engage middle America, and by that I mean the middle-class. We both lamented that for far too long, particularly amongst Blackamerican Muslims, there has been the tendency to only focus on inner city (what some call ‘hood) in terms of da’wah. The result, we felt, is an Islam that tends to patronize the ugly side of Blackamerican culture instead of, as Imam Suhaib Webb as stated, “polishing it”. While this is not unique to Blackamericans, I do feel its worth discussing. The result of this myopic focus has engendered a number of tragic results. A few them being:

  • lack of spiritual growth on the part of Blackamerican Muslims: immoral behavior is often given a pass due to the expressed interest of large numbers of Blackamericans in Islam. In addition, due to the desire of many Blackamericans desire to escape the realities of black urban life in America, their Islam in many ways becomes escapist or even performance art, not a focus on a God-pleasing life. In this way, Islam is subsumed under Blackamerican culture, right or wrong, instead of negotiating it.
  • it has ignored the realities of this particular demographic and, to be frank, has not been realistic about the challenges those coming out of this experience will face. To speak from experience, one of the major factors that allowed myself and my two older brothers to avoid the trappings of urban black life was a solid, two-parent house hold. This is something that many Blackamerican urban families are lacking. Not only this, but there has been a discernible lack of focus on building family in many urban Blackamerican centers. As my friend and I observed, community in the modern American-Muslim vernacular has been rendered a mostly abstract concept: it has as of yet to take a recognizable form and thus, to date, has frustrated many a Muslim’s attempt to be a part of one. Personally, my thought is that this is because most of the rhetoric that is espoused by American-Muslims tends to go in one of two directions: the aforementioned abstract community and the individual. The latter tends to produce, with all possible respect, things like UnMosqued, where the opinion of the individual is elevated beyond mere concerns to dictating policies. Instead, I believe the most important building block for the community is not the individual, but the family. By accentuating the family (encouraging stable marriages, nurturing children, limiting childhood to children versus extended adolescence, etc.), Islam may in fact be able to deal with the systemic challenges facing Black-(and others)-Americans.
  • this myopic focus has also created a false essentialism between blackness and poverty. That to be truly black is to be truly poor (again with ‘hood as the vernacular). The result, with the above observations in mind, has also systematically ignored the Blackamerican middle-class. God’s Messenger said, “The best from amongst you in pre-Islamic times (jahiliyyah) are the best amongst you in Islam if they comprehend it*” (agreed upon).
  • it has also completed ignored the 700-lbs. gorilla in the room which is white America, in particular middle-class white America. This will, I believe, necessitate Whiteamerican Muslims (convert or otherwise and yes, there are Whiteamerican Muslims who are born Muslim!) to take a prominent role in addressing white America.

I know this will seem an odd recipe to many but I feel, when we look at America, one of the greatest aspects of Islam that will provide Americans with a foothold to begin grasping what Islam is all about, is its intrinsically middle-class values. When I say middle-class here I am referring to those American values which prioritize the family, security, and safety. Solid middle-class morals and ethics which have a strong, if not always properly executed, attachment to helping the poor and the less fortunate. Another good friend of mine, Malik Shaw, and I have often lamented about the state of Blackamerica and the number of children who are casually born out of wedlock and that, once upon a time not so long again, this was unacceptable to middle-class America, black or white. Let me be clear: I am well aware of many of the issues of modern middle-class life, which has wondered from its center and is slowly being solely concerned with procuring a life of no inconveniences (spiritual as well as existential). That being true, I still believe that articulating Islam in this vein to middle-class America: white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., will prove, God-willing, a more efficacious method of calling people to God. I will end and summarize with a quote from ‘Abdal Hakim Murad, from a talk he delivered entitled The Way Forward:

“We can curl up in a prickly ball, like a frightened hedge hog, and curse and damn everything around us, because it happens not to know ‘la ilaha ill’Allah‘, or we can start to activate the Prophetic capacity, which says that ‘laysa sawa’ ‘, ‘they are not all the same’ [Qur’an, 3: 113]. There are amongst the Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, upright people.”

لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً ۗ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ

“They are not all the same. There is a community among the People of the Book who are upright. They recite God’s signs throughout the night, and they prostrate.”

And God knows best.

*Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was asked, “Who are the most honorable of the people?” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The most honorable of them in God’s sight are those who protect themselves from His chastisement. They said, “We’re not asking you concerning that,” to which he said, “Then the most honorable of the people is Joseph, God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s friend (khalil, Abraham).” They said, “We do not ask you about that either.” The Prophet said, “Do you ask about the virtues of the Arabs?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Those who were the best amongst you in the pre-lslamic time are the best amongst you in Islam, if they comprehend.

قَالَ سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَىُّ النَّاسِ أَكْرَمُ قَالَ ‏”‏ أَكْرَمُهُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاهُمْ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَأَكْرَمُ النَّاسِ يُوسُفُ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ ابْنُ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ خَلِيلِ اللَّهِ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَعَنْ مَعَادِنِ الْعَرَبِ تَسْأَلُونِي ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا نَعَمْ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَخِيَارُكُمْ فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ خِيَارُكُمْ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ إِذَا فَقِهُوا ‏”‏‏.‏ تَابَعَهُ أَبُو أُسَامَةَ عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللَّهِ‏.‏

Nafs Ammarah

As a Muslim living in a non-Muslim country, I am always on the lookout for things in popular culture from which I might derive a reminder [dhikr ذكر] of Islam, of Reality, and perhaps of the Life To Come. I have found this to be an increasingly important exercise, both for me personally, as well as for the students of classes I teach on Islamic studies. What I mean here is not attempting to ascribe any certain thing with a level of “Islamicity” or Muslim’ness that is not there, but rather, looking at stories and narratives that remind me of that which Allah has written in His Book. One such instance happened yesterday.

The words nafs ammarah, or the commanding self, are found in the Qur’an, in surah Yusuf [Joseph], in which Allah says:

وما أبرئ نفسي إن النفس لأمارة بالسوء إلا ما رحم ربي إن ربي غفور رحيم

“And nor was I [Joseph] completely free of blame. The self commands to evil acts, save that which my Lord has mercy upon me. Surely, my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” [Q 12: 53]

This passage in the Qur’ān on the nafs ammārah relates to us part of the story of Prophet Yusuf [Joseph], and his test when the king’s wife attempted to seduce him.  Yusuf relates that the temptation was there, that his soul wished to entice him to evils deeds.  It was only through God’s mercy and grace that he was able to resist.

The above passage came to me as I recently chanced upon a film I watched as a kid entitled, They Live!, by John Carpenter. In summary, the film is about a man, a drifter, who by happenstance, stumbles upon the stunning reality that the human race has been subdued by a group of space aliens that have enslaved humans through advanced subliminal techniques. When the main character dons a pair of special sunglasses, he is able to see the Unseen: billboards are really devices that command humans to consume, have sex, or to obey, as well as being able to see the aliens for who they really are [ghoulish, lizard like beings]. Even money, when viewed through the sunglasses, have the words “this is your god” written on them. To be sure, the movie is quite comical and the dialog stiff. Nonetheless, I found it to be an intriguing visual example of how the nafs ammārah works. And while the nafs is an internal phenomenon, it still commands us to act upon things in the external world, making the film a worthwhile glance at a Qur’ānic principle on human psychology.

They Live! is based on the short story, Eight O’clock In The Morning, by renowned science-fiction author, Ray Nelson. I have posted the short story here as well as a link to the film They Live! for your B-movie enjoyment.

Note: if you have the opportunity to see Dr. Sherman Jackson speak, ask him to relate to you how Terminator 2 moved him to tears, as it reminded him of how the Prophet [s] had to deliver a message, one in which many people refused to believe him because they could not see what he saw, similar in the way no one believe Sarah Connor. A worthwhile treat!

Note 2: The last part of the movie features some nudity and may be avoided. You’ll get the gist of it by then and can skip the final scene.

Note 3: See this piece on Salon.com about Jonathen Lethem’s film analysis of Carpenter’s film, They Live, A Novel Approach to Cinema. Hat tip to Stephen for the link.

Note 4: A khutbah that pertains to similar aspects of the soul.