Have We Traded Our Bedrock Convictions For The Shifting Sands Of Values?

“The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality.” — James Davison Hunter from The Death of Character

While Hunter makes an interesting observation, I do believe the one thing that he left off his list which can restore character is religion, specifically Islam. I mean this in no cheap or reductionist way. I mean a religious and spiritual practice that returns us to silence. The silence we so desperately need as individuals but also the communal silence by which we, by standing together in ranks for prayer, tune out the world and tune in to the Oneness of The Creator. This, I still believe, can achieve that elusive goal of restoring character.

I do concur with Hunter’s conclusion that “character is formed in relation to conviction and is manifest in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation.” This speaks to heart of many of the struggles I witness in Muslim youth. They have hearts but have not been spiritually trained to have conviction. And by barring them from sharing in the vision of our community they have been given little opportunity to develop religious and spiritual conviction. It’s as if they know what Islam is gesturing but they do not know what it’s saying. Out of a misplaced sense of love and lack of trust — that it is God who makes a believer — we have stifled this all important aspect of Muslim development. This is akin to my statement of sucking all of the oxygen out of a room:

Another way to think about the challenges we face is how we’ve supplanted creeds with values. This has been concurrent with the secularization of the Muslim mind. As Hunter puts it, “Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. Many of us, not only youth, have been inculcated into internalizing Islam, not as a fundamental truth claim, one which places demands on us, but merely as a set of “values” which can be altered, rearranged, or even deleted, depending on what our social circumstances demand of us or what we desire (demand!) from society. Or as Bo Burlingham quoted in his book Small Giants, “mediocrity is our greatest competition”.

To better understand the dilemma of values, I quote Hunter again: “the very word ‘value’ signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable”. And therefore we must also ask ourselves: “what is conviction”? It is, as Hunter explains: “the commitment to truths made sacred”. Likewise, what is its absence. Again, Hunter: “There is nothing there (values) that one need believe, commanding and demanding its due, for ‘truth’ is but a matter of taste and temperament”. This elegantly echoes the Qur’anic verse,

كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

“Fighting (in the cause of God) is a duty laid down upon you, even though it might be unpleasant for you. However, you may hate something that’s good for you and love something that’s bad for you. God knows, and you don’t know.”Qur’an 2: 217

Now’s the Time

It becomes increasingly clear the role that converts need to play in Islam in America. For far too long, those who have chosen to be Muslim have taken a back seat to those who’ve hailed from Muslim lands. This “at the back of the bus” mentality can be blamed on no one other than ourselves and we all — so-called converts and non-converts alike — suffer the consequences for it. On today’s edition of The Takeaway (heard here locally on 90.1FM WHYY), the host engaged three groups in a “spiritual conversation”, of “Muslim, Jewish, and Christian millennials who are keeping, losing or reinterpreting their faith”. The Jewish counterparts talked about how, even if they held somewhat non-traditional views on Judaism, still strove to have a Jewish identity rooted in principle and practice. The Muslims, on the other hand, who were interviewed openly opposed base tenets of Islam, such as abstaining from eating pork, drinking alcohol and extra-marital sex. One would ask these “Muslims” and oneself, what is it that actually makes you Muslim? The host and the writers of the show have gone for the okie-doke of Islam by ethnic proxy: Afghani, South-Asian and Iranian. Once again, the media has completely ignored Blackamerican Muslims (who are both born-Muslims and converts, who make up a significant percentage of Muslims in America) as well as those groups (whites, Latinos, Chinese-Americans, Jews, etc.) who choose Islam as their faith and way of life. In a twist of irony, most of the Muslims who would constitute the above group complain of hegemonic domination, leading to their ostracization from the Muslim community. And yet they employ similar tactics to speak authoritatively on Islam for no other reason than their ethic backgrounds, squelching out the narratives of those who’ve chosen Islam willingly and all the strictures therein, to the best of their abilities. Simply put, Blackamerican, Whiteamerican and other non-Arab/-Persian/-South-Asians do not constitute bona fide Muslims and are off of the radar of the media and their interviewees.

In my opinion, the only way to break this monopoly is for “converts” to speak out and speak out loudly. Not only to the media but to our own communities, who to be frank, often adopt us as mascots (or as I have said to Imam Suhaib Webb: avatars) to root and cheer for “their religion”, while many of us continue to live isolated, frustrated and disenfranchised lives. But, as Charlie Parker – one of America’s greatest artists once said: now’s the time. Now is the time for converts to, like our predecessors in that First Community which was comprised entirely of converts, take the reigns, and spearhead a change in the narrative of what is Islam in America: namely that it is American, and that it’s not solely tied to some foreign-born, alien, and even hostile, enterprise. This charge should not be done to the exclusion of those who came from abroad; many of their efforts are why folks like myself even heard of Islam. But it is high-time that we — and I believe we are the only ones who can do this (partly because we already possess the social- and cultural-capital to do so). To fail in doing so is to have those who are opposed to the religion of what Muhammad taught صلى الله عليه وسلم continue to speak for us in the public sphere. For I believe that is what the guests on today’s show are.

And God knows best.

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”