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.

Required Reading: Explaining Islam to the Public

The following is an article that was published in the online Blog, The Immanent Frame. The piece, by Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis religious studies professor, Edward E. Curtis IV, is well worth the read. Professor Curtis highlights some of the difficulties, dangers and pitfalls to the symbiotic relationship between 9/11 and Islam in the Academy. In particular, Professor Curtis speaks about the issue of authority and the media’s demand for authoritative voices about, as he puts it, “x or y”:

The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us.

We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama’ say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

I hope you will enjoy reading his article and take away a seldom head but very much needed critique of not only the media, but also of American academic institutions.

Note: this article was originally published on The Immanent Frame‘s web site. For whatever reason, the article was down so I have republished it here. My apologies for stepping on any toes. I felt the article needed to be read. You can read it here on SSRC’s web site.

Explaining Islam to the Public

from The Immanent Frame by Edward E. Curtis, IV

Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies pecialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. Though the number of positions for scholars of Islam advertised through the American Academy of Religion (AAR) has increased only modestly, from 61 between 1996 and 2001 to 74 between 2002 and 2007, Islamic studies scholars found new funding sources through both the government and private foundations, and they scored higher publication rates in journals of record during the latter period. At the same time, all the new public attention resulted in attacks against Islamicists by the general public and, perhaps more alarmingly, systematic campaigns, led by groups such as Campus Watch, to deny tenure to scholars of Islam. In addition, foreign scholars, such as Tariq Ramadan, were prevented by the U.S. government from even attending the meetings of the AAR, which subsequently sued over the matter.

The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution. We reached for our copies of the Encyclopedia of Islam and sent out queries, sometimes quite urgently, to the AAR Study of Islam listserv. “What does Islam say about x?” was the way questions were often framed. We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama’ say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

The pressure to come up with one-liners and sound-bites was particularly acute when Islamic studies scholars were asked or permitted to participate in media outlets. Here the line between professor of Islamic studies and practitioner of Islam was often blurred, as Muslim professors offered answers that reflected, not only their considerable knowledge of the topic, but also their personal opinion or practice of Islam. Not all of them did so, of course, but autobiography was one strategy for dealing with questions about Islam’s position on x or y. At the least, these scholars could answer questions about what Islam says about love, war, life, and death by giving their own views as Muslims. It was as good as any other way of trying to answer impossible questions. But explaining one’s personal beliefs and practices was not a viable strategy for non-Muslims. In both cases, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars were forced to develop strategies, or simply to improvise, to deal with questions about veils, terrorism, churches in Saudi Arabia, Ibn Taymiyya, and a whole host of topics that were bubbling up, especially among anti-Muslim hate groups and in online forums.

My opportunity to participate in national debates over these questions came with the Ground Zero mosque controversy in the summer and fall of 2010. This controversy took the spotlight away from Islam abroad and shone it on Muslim Americans. Like many other Americans, I was angered by the intolerant tone of the debate. I was especially maddened by the idea that building a Muslim community center near Ground Zero would be insensitive to the hallowed ground of the 9/11 attacks. I didn’t like the conflation of the 9/11 hijackers with the Muslims of lower Manhattan and one of their leaders, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who happened to be the single most prominent proponent of interfaith dialogue in New York City. I decided I had to
do something.

So, I wrote an op-ed.

Rather than discuss issues of freedom of religion or the politics of contemporary Islamophobia, I wanted to stress the idea that Muslims have lived and worshiped in Lower Manhattan since the Dutch first arrived in the New World. I don’t know, in the end, if shedding light on Muslim contributions to the history of the United States helps to reduce contemporary prejudice against Muslim Americans or Muslims more generally; but if I am to participate in public scholarship, this is one area in which I can do so with intellectual integrity. Even if history is boring to a lot of folks—as some people have gingerly admitted in response to my speeches about Muslim-American history—I also know that this is a novel approach to Islam in America, and I still get a lot of “I didn’t know thats,” “wows,” and “goshes” when I outline the imprint of Muslims on the thirteen colonies and the United States in both public and academic forums.

The editorial that I penned included descriptions of the Muslim slaves who lived and worked either on or just blocks away from the Ground Zero site when New York was still New Amsterdam. It mentioned the escape of Muslim slave Mahommah Baquaqua from a Brazilian ship on Manhattan’s docks. It reminded New Yorkers of the Arab-American Muslims who lived in the very neighborhood where the twin towers were eventually built. I sent it to a few papers and heard back from the New York Daily News—to be sure, not the New York Times, but still, a New York daily with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The editor didn’t think he could run it, but he did ask if I had references for all of my claims. Yes, I told him, I did, and I sent him a very long list of peer-reviewed references. The take-home line of the piece was, “It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

The first draft that I sent to the Daily News was informational. It largely avoided direct criticism of the anti-Muslim activists who opposed the building of the community center. My goal was to make it impossible to talk about Muslims as new or foreign, thinking, perhaps, that if Americans thought of Muslims as part of their shared past, they would be less inclined to perceive them as threatening. But my editor encouraged me to take a stronger stand and to criticize the Islamophobia that animated much of the opposition to the community center.

Thus, my third draft used the word “troubling” to describe how politicians had exploited the pain of 9/11 victims to advance their own anti-Muslim agendas. I even used the word “lie” to label the argument that the community center would be a “9/11 victory mosque.” But this still was not enough for the editor, who added the following lines himself: “Comments by [Gubernatorial candidate Rick] Lazio and [Sarah] Palin are mere drops in an ocean of right-wing vitriol over this issue.” And: “Rhetoric that treats Muslim Americans like hostile foreigners fundamentally—and intentionally—skews the story of New York and its Muslim community.”

My reaction to these edits was, “Yes, exactly! But … I didn’t know that I was allowed to write that way.” My first draft, which attempted to relate the long history of Muslims in Manhattan as an antidote to Islamophobia, assumed that the reader would understand my larger purpose. I was writing history without explaining why I thought that history was so urgent to expose, and I had forgotten that I was writing for an editorial page. It was a form of self-censorship. In order to find a publisher, I had unconsciously written in the dispassionate tone of the so-called objective academic, trying to avoid the expression of my own feelings. I never expected that an editor for the New York Daily News would help me find my voice, but he did, and he made the op-ed better as a result.

But if working with the Daily News helped me to find my voice, my next experience with a major media outlet, the Washington Post, was a different story. In this case, I lost my voice, or at least a part of it. The Post contacted me to become a one-time contributor to a regular feature of the “Sunday Outlook” section called “Five Myths.” They wanted me to identify and then correct five myths about mosques in the United States. I pointed out that religious studies scholars use the word myth to meanmore than misconception, but that was just the name of the feature, they said. I accepted their offer and submitted the five myths that I wanted to correct.

One was that “all Muslims pray in mosques.” I hoped to point out that Muslims also pray in private homes, Sufi lodges, Shi‘a imambargahs, Isma‘ili jamatkhanas, and Nation of Islam temples. There was too much focus on mosques, I thought, and not enough on other Muslim-American sacred spaces. But this suggestion was rejected on the grounds that it was “interesting, but maybe not worth devoting a full myth to.” In its place, a new myth was suggested by the editors: “Mosques seek to spread shari‘a law in the United States.” One editor wrote that “this one has been coming up so much in conversation … in particular, people have been raising the status of women under shari‘a law.” I went to work correcting the five myths—in 1200 words or less.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life

But my answer had sidestepped the question. In retrospect I realized that I was trying to respond to the negative feelings of Americans toward shari‘a by downplaying its importance in American mosques. I didn’t want to leave people with the idea that lots of Muslims were busy learning when and how to take the law into their own hands and apply hudud penalties, such as the stoning of adulterers. Working on a deadline and with space for two paragraphs or so, perhaps this was the best I could come up with. I was much more pleased with the other parts of the piece, but I had to move on.

In any case, it did not seem to hurt the piece’s reception. Whereas the Daily News op-ed about the history of Muslims in Manhattan received about 500 likes on Facebook and a few dozen comments, this piece received 4000 likes on Facebook and 523 comments. It was syndicated in papers around the world, and more people read this short piece than anything else I have ever written. It led to two subsequent interviews on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Tell Me More with Michel Martin; a harrowing call-in to a show on a Pittsburg Fox radio affiliate (during which my wife almost took the phone away from me to tell off some callers); several speaking engagements; some severe criticism by Stop Islamization of America leader and professional Islamophobe Robert Spencer; and some very angry emails. I got a lot of compliments, too. All of this attention and feedback made me nervous, excited, and scared.

I also received an email from a colleague who wanted to quibble about my claims regarding the teaching of shari‘a in American mosques. Yes, he said, I was technically right that the whole shari‘a is not taught in mosques. That would be impossible. But some of it is, he said. That’s how Muslims know when and how to pray, how to observe Muslim holidays, how much money to give to charity, etc.

He was right. My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

During the brief course of my five minutes of high-profile public scholarship I came to realize just how difficult such work is. Many of the topics on which I was queried and the ways that I could write about them were already determined in such a way that I felt like I was making an appearance in a largely pre-written script. Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do. But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Post piece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

The final point I should have made is that public discussions about shari‘a and other aspects of Islam are inevitably influenced by and reflect anxieties about the nation’s war-making in Muslim lands. A supermajority of the American public thinks that Islam is more violent than any other religion. As I wrote the original version of this piece, which I delivered as a talk at a recent meeting of the Midwest AAR, Congressman Peter King was holding hearings on what he calls the “radicalization” of the Muslim-American community, demonstrating that it is far easier to project blame onto either the Muslim foreigner abroad or the Muslim other in our midst than it is to acknowledge and reflect on American culpability for the deaths of thousands.

To be sure, foreign Muslims who resist U.S. dominance in their own countries utilize their religious traditions in so doing. But analyzing this religious violence in isolation from U.S. foreign policy, economic dominance, and military interventionism renders us mute as critics of our own societies and serves—however inadvertently—to normalize the secular nation-state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991 when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power

It may be tempting for religious studies scholars to take advantage of this historical moment by deploying one-dimensional explanations of religion to justify our own usefulness to the academy and to the nation. But even if we have to admit our ignorance, or just say that it’s complicated, it is better to resist further propagating or reinforcing simplistic conceptions of Islam, or of religion in general. Instead, we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

Required Reading: Muslims, the Constitution and Negotiating Political Reality

As the world sits and celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden, Muslims eagerly await the outcome of this event to see if there is any means of exorcising the association of extremism and terrorism from themselves and their religion. This is of particular concern to Muslims in America, who are ripe for political exploitation with the upcoming election. To be sure, Muslim-Americans bear a great part of the responsibility to ensure that whatever opportunities exist are capitalized upon. However, in order to do so, it will require a new level of commitment and literacy, both political and religious, on the part of the rank-and-file Muslim.

To dive in, this call for a greater political literacy is inextricably tied to a greater religious literacy, as will be demonstrated below. The article I have to offer is a rebuttal of Dr. Sherman Jackson, professor of Islamic studies at large, to Dr. Vincent Cornell’s “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” The reason why I consider Dr. Jackson’s refutation required reading is not for the sport of his dismissal, but because of the threads he lays bare of some very insidious and intimidating arguments facing Muslim-Americans, particularly in light of growing Islamophobia in general and Osama Bin Laden’s death in particular. While some liberal leaning Muslims may have hoped that by expressing joy and elation over Bin Laden’s death—the man who supposedly “tarnished” Islam’s image—it is clear that to those political parties that wish to marginalize and demonize Muslims are in no hurry to exonerate Muslims upon his demise. In fact, pre-OBL’s death, there has been a steady and growing anti-Muslim sentiment centered around Muslim belonging, Shari’ah, and commitment on the part of Muslims to the American project, vis-a-vie the Constitution. What is needed now, is not simply pandering out of fear oppression or hope of acceptance from the dominant culture, but a more pragmatic approach to the future of Islam in America by engaging, as Dr. Jackson puts it, the American political reality “as believing, practicing Muslims!”. Muslim-Americans, despite the voices that argue to the contrary, “do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî‘a”, but rather, Muslim-Americans can still “firmly embrace this Constitution” without sacrificing their commitment to Divine law and its superiority over any man-made document. It is not, as many radical elements claim, an us-or-them argument. We do not need Peter King or any other political office to put us to the Ordeal, to The Question, to know where our political allegiances lay and how they operate. And just as importantly, to the nay-sayers from the Muslim side of the isle, being politically engaged in a political reality which is based on a flawed, man-made document, is not sufficient grounds to disengage from the political process altogether. For like the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم at the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, we engage the American political reality not based on its [non-present] transcendent truths, but on its facts and political dividends.

It is my hope that both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences will read Dr. Jackson’s article and reflect on the lessons to be learned from it. Now’s the time, Charlie Parker once said, and time certainly is of the essence. Hat tip to brother Stephen for the article.

“Soft Sharî’a Fundamentalism” and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell

Sherman A. Jackson: The University of Michigan

I have been invited to respond to Vincent J. Cornell’s critical assessment of some of my views in his recent essay, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari’a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” Cornell weaves an elaborate web of questionable characterizations, name-calling and outright personal attack. This is joined by a tendency to impose his constructions on the statements of others, employ a double-standard in using the term “fundamentalist,” de-historicize the articulations of modern Muslim thinkers, and apotheosize the American nation-state. This is all ostensibly vindicated by appeal to a would-be panacean liberalism, the poverty of whose freedom, equality and tolerance is painfully demonstrated and repeatedly confirmed. For the moment, however, most of this will have to pass without comment. Instead, given the limited space I have been allotted, I shall focus on a single issue—my depiction of the normative relationship between American Muslims and the U.S. Constitution—in hopes of steering serious readers away from what Cornell presents as the clear and only logical conclusions to be drawn from the ideas of mine he cites.

Cornell is deeply perturbed by my assertion that the Constitution is a political fact, not a transcendent ‘truth’ to which we must all give assent as truth, as I put it, “no more binding on the Muslim-American moral/religious conscience than was, say, tribalism or agrarianism on that of the early Muslim-Arabian community.” For Cornell, this is “a tepid endorsement,” certain to reinforce charges of Muslim disloyalty. This is especially problematic given that I imply (and let me state here clearly, I actually believe) that Sharî’a, i.e., in its broadest, ideal sense, is binding on the Muslim moral/religious conscience. For Cornell, the logic here is simple: “If Sharî’a is in fact the only legitimate legal and moral order in the eyes of God, then participating in a self-governing liberal democracy is at best a cynical exercise in political accommodationism.” This is what makes me a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” incapable of embracing the U.S. Constitution, except as a modus vivendi, ultimately a duplicitous act of stealth dissolution (taqîya). In this regard, I differ only in degree, not kind, from such hard “Sharî’a fundamentalists” as OBL and Sayyid Qutb.

Now, there is much to unpack here. For one, Cornell’s conflation of my position with that of OBL or Qutb is simply a poor excuse for not engaging in a more serious and fairer analysis of my view, which my writings—including, as we shall see, Islam and the Blackamerican—make abundantly clear. But, again, given the limited space I have been allotted, let me cut to the heart of the matter.

Cornell has an emphatically romantic view of the Constitution. How much of this is indebted to 9-11 and its aftermath I cannot tell. But in this essay he makes it clear that he sees the Constitution as a statement of truth, indeed, perhaps transcendent truth. On this understanding, one can only accept the Constitution if one accepts its truth. And, one cannot really accept the Constitution’s truth if one has another source of truth, in my case, Sharî’a. Now, this view of the Constitution is Cornell’s business. But he ought not be so, well, “fundamentalist,” that he cannot accept that others might legitimately entertain another perspective. I for one do not see the Constitution as a statement of truth; nor did the actual Framers; nor has the Supreme Court or the American scholarly tradition. Rather, the Constitution, as Robert Dahl notes, was and is basically a negotiated, political arrangement. Few delegates to the convention got exactly what they wanted (or what they held to be the ‘truth’ of the matter); in fact, so stern was their initial opposition that Rhode Island refused to send any delegates and New Hampshire’s didn’t arrive for several weeks. The Constitution contains, thus, not transcendent, ultimate truth but a negotiated, compromise-agreement over how political rights and protections are to be distributed and adjudicated.

It is thus not the substance of the Constitution that is operative but the fact that it was agreed to. Agreements, of course, e.g., when disputing parties agree to split the difference, rarely express what either party believes to be true or even right. They merely express the basis upon which the parties agree to act, based on their inability or refusal to impose their will unilaterally. If Cornell wants to make the substance of the Constitution (i.e., qua substance, not qua agreement) binding on my moral/religious conscience as an expression of some sort of ultimate truth, I should like to ask when the Constitution acquired this proud preeminence: When it declared me three-fifths of a human? When it was constitutionally legal for him to enslave me? When women were not recognized as enjoying the right to vote? Of course, all of this ultimately changed. And this is precisely my point: what changed was the substance, which everybody recognized as not transcendent but changeable, not the fact that whatever was agreed to remained a binding agreement.

Now, the other side of Cornell’s misunderstanding is the distinction he overlooks between moral/religious and political conscience in Islam. On this distinction, I as a Muslim can honestly and fully embrace the fact of our Constitutional agreement without having to believe its substance per se to be binding on my moral/religious conscience, as an expression of ultimate truth. This distinction is clearly reflected in numerous actions of the Prophet, God’s peace and salutations be upon him. Take, for example, the Treaty of Hudaybîyah. When the Prophet set out to draw up this agreement, he began with the dedication, “In the name of God, The All-Merciful, The Mercy-Giving.” The negotiator from Quraysh stopped him and refused to recognize this. The Prophet agreed to have it removed. When the Prophet proceeded to state, “This is what Muhammad, the Messenger of God agrees to with…” the Meccan negotiator stopped him and said, “If I thought you were the Messenger of God, I would not have fought you. Change this to, ‘Muhammad, the son of ‘Abd Allâh’.” The Prophet agreed. The treaty itself went on to stipulate, inter alia, that the Muslims could not make pilgrimage that year but must return to Medina and come all the way back the next year. Now, my point in all of this is that, as a matter of moral/religious conscience, the Muslims believed much of the substance of this treaty to be wrong; they certainly did not believe it right to omit the dedication or the prophethood of Muhammad; nor did they think it right that they could not make the pilgrimage to the pan-Arabian sanctuary. Yet, as a political arrangement, this is what they agreed to. And it was the fact of this agreement, not the ‘truth’ of its substance, that rendered this treaty binding on the Muslim political conscience.

Part of what I find so sad and myopic in Cornell’s critique is that in his hasty zeal to ram the Constitution down Muslims’ throats he actually does more to alienate them—especially practicing, second-generation youth—by demanding that they see in the Constitution a truth that they believe to be the preserve of God alone. On this alienation, these youth are rendered more rather than less susceptible to attempts by the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki or others to radicalize them. I, on the other hand, am telling these youth that they do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî’a and they can still recognize and firmly embrace this Constitution—as believing, practicing Muslims!—as a fact, an agreement that is binding on the political conscience and has the authority to regulate the political life of all Americans. And just to be clear here and to show the extent to which Cornell misrepresents me on this issue, let me quote what I actually wrote in Islam and the Blackamerican, from the same section, incidentally, from which Cornell purports to reconstruct my view:

To my mind, a more profitable approach would be not only to accept the provisions of the Constitution but to commit to preserving these by supporting and defending the Constitution itself. According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith… The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua) Muslim to pledge allegiance to the United States! Surely it must be worth asking if Muslims in America should conduct themselves as “nouveau free” who squander these and countless other rights and freedoms in the name of dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history, rather than turning these to the practical benefit of Islam and Muslim-Americans. (IBA, 148)

Try as I may, I see nothing duplicitous or remotely suggestive of OBL or Sayyid Qutb here. True, OBL, Qutb and I all recognize the ultimate moral/religious authority of Sharî’a. But so did Abû al-Hasan al-Shâdhilî, Ibn ‘Atâ’ Allâh al-Sakandarî, ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî, al-Junayd and countless other Sufis. Would Cornell count these men “Sharî’a fundamentalists”? Clearly, then, one can recognize the primacy of Sharî’a without being a “Sharî’a fundamentalist.” But Cornell might protest that I am skirting the issue here, as these men, unlike OBL, Qutb and allegedly me, did not embrace Sharî’a as the repository of a “totalitarian epistemology,” according to which, if I understand him correctly, it was looked to for the answers to all questions, as an all-inclusive, self-contained, self-sufficient leviathan that stands over and against any and all man-made propositions. Now, I cannot speak for OBL or Qutb (though I would invite honest, serious inquirers to recognize the role of rhetoric in their articulations). But I have long recognized the limits of Sharî’a‘s concrete rule-making capacity and noted the ease with which it appropriates ideas and institutions from other civilizations, unceremoniously distinguishing “non-Muslim” from “un-Islamic.” All of this I have expressed explicitly in my writings.

Now, if we couple this perspective on Sharî’a with what I said earlier about the distinction between moral/religious versus political conscience, we can easily see our way to the conclusion that, while Sharî’a clearly entails political values, principles, concerns and sensibilities, it neither provides nor dictates the concrete, detailed substance of what kind of political arrangement Muslims in America must or can come to with the American state. Sharî’a empowers Muslims to engage and agree; then it compels them to uphold their agreements: O you who believe, fulfill your agreements! [5: 1] From here, what Muslims agree to, assuming due diligence, enjoys the full sanction and force of Sharî’a! Cornell attacks me as a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” because, according to him, I, like OBL and Sayyid Qutb, see Sharî’a as dictating a divinely ordained, concrete, specific political arrangement that stands in stark contradiction with the Constitution. On this understanding, I can be committed either to Sharî’a or to our man-made Constitution, but not both. Whereas OBL and Qutb accept this contradiction openly, I, and my likes, hide behind the slick and specious rhetoric of would-be ‘moderates’.

Ultimately, however, this accusation is purely—and sadly—a reflection of Cornell’s attempt to impose his understanding of Sharî’a on me. Long before his essay, I stated explicitly that, going all the way back to classical times, Sharî’a always recognized the validity of a broad range of man-made laws that the entire tradition, including such arch-“Sharî’a fundamentalists” as Ibn
Taymîya, openly recognized and endorsed. Now, I take great umbrage at Cornell’s insistence that converts to Islam and immigrant Muslims have no right to challenge the substance of the Constitution. But that that substance itself, simply because it did not originate in Cairo or Baghdad or Muslim America, must be understood as standing in categorical opposition to Sharî’a is simply the invention of Vincent J. Cornell and his totalitarian epistemology grafted onto Sharî’a. It is not the position of Sherman Jackson or, necessarily, those who believe, as he does, in the supremacy of Sharî’a as the presumptive repository of divinely ordained truth. And God knows best.

You can read the articles here:
Vincent Cornell’s article, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism, and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” [PDF].
Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response, ” ‘Soft Shari‘a Fundamentalism’ and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell” in [PDF].
A display of “true patriotism”.

America: A Post Bin Laden Response

The capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, the American government’s most wanted terrorist, came as a surprise last night as I was turning in for bed. Like many Americans, the news brought about a flux of emotions, from relief to something more along the lines of morose. I say morose because as a person of faith, it’s an odd mix to feel elation at someone’s demise, even if there were someone as nefarious as Bin Laden. Muslims were not alone in these feelings. Vox Nova, a Catholic blog, wrote a piece, The Death of Bin Laden, where Henry Karlson asked the question in relation to the rejoicing we see on the evening news: “But should there be?” Karlson continues with, “Taking the life from someone else will never be an act of justice – it does not restore what has been lost, but rather, brings further loss onto the world.” While I personally do not agree that taking a life can never be an act of justice, nonetheless, Karlson’s words resonate with what I observed from a broad stripe of Muslims. The moral quandary had less to do with Bin Laden’s death being just but more with the celebratory spirit with which it is being observed. However, in the current climate it is unlikely that many Muslims will feel free to express this sentiment out of fear of their commitment to America will appear to be weak or suspect. In this manner, we Muslims owe our Catholic neighbors a debt of gratitude for speaking out on this topic, helping to add a much needed nuance to an ever shrinking dialog.

Beyond all of the speculation of right, just, or wrong, lies another set of questions that many American Muslims have and that is: Even with a proponent’s stance on Bin Laden’s death, what dividends will this pay for brokering a more fair and equitable viewpoint on Muslims in the American public sphere? Many Muslims that I spoke with and observed harbor a cynical attitude towards the significance of Bin Laden’s death. Many fear that instead of smoothing over the perception of Muslims in the broader public dialog, it may even induce further backlashes. Evidence of these fears was seen in the vandalizing of a mosque in Maine as well as a hit-and-run accident in Florida which looks to be the result of a hate crime. The perpetrator, Gerald Prebe, of Clearwater, Florida, said, “he intended to kill” his target because he “looked Middle Eastern”. However, the victim, Terry Butler, was found out to be African-American.

It remains to be seen if the death of Bin Laden can make life for American Muslims any easier to live [this was the gist of my interview on Philadelphia’s CBS3 below via Oren Liebermann – click here for a direct link to the video in case it doesn’t load below]. But as a person of faith, I am committed to an optimistic outlook, even if I have to work on it day by day. For now, we will all have to sit back and see what further facts can unfold from this bizarre and emotional story.

Muslims in Phila. have three reasons to rejoice

By Alfred Lubrano, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Amidst the din of a meat-cutting machine quartering a lamb carcass at Al Aqsa Halal Meats in the Northeast on Monday afternoon, store manager Ray Hamidah shared a thought about his adopted country:

“A bullet in Osama bin Laden’s head was something the American people needed. Revenge relaxes people.”

A Jordanian-born U.S. citizen, Hamidah, 42, is a pragmatist who saw bin Laden as a “perverter of Islam” who brought pain and prejudice to Muslims in America.

“This will be better,” Hamidah concluded, the fresh lamb being sliced at his butcher counter an apt symbol of springtime renewal. “We’re not celebrating. But this is better.”

Arabs and Muslims in the Northeast as well as in mosques and professional organizations around the city are expressing a sense of relief that U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan killed the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks during the early morning hours Monday.

Still, the killing has not alleviated the fear that Muslims will long be linked with terrorism, forever viewed with suspicion.

“My main worry is that anybody in the world can do something bad now and people will blame Muslims avenging bin Laden,” said Aeman Ali Mohamad, 26, owner of Safe Side Services, an insurance firm on Wyoming Avenue across from Al Aqsa.

Weary of being associated with terrorism, Mohamad, a North Jersey native, explained his distance from bin Laden.

“Al Qaeda has nothing to do with me, with most Muslims, and I hope they die with Osama bin Laden,” he said. “I feel relief that he’s gone.”

Down the street, it was more of the same at Pizza Point, where manager Mohammed Jubran, 27, bristled that bin Laden “wasn’t good for the Muslims, killing innocent people.”

The Jerusalem-born Palestinian, now an American, spoke as though the constant heat of his pizza ovens scorched his words as he spoke them: “The man deserved to die.”

Along with the businessmen of Wyoming Avenue, the Arab American intelligentsia of imams and advocates in the area detailed their delight in bin Laden’s end.

“As Arab Americans, we’re triply happy,” noted Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab American Corporation, a social service agency.

“First, he killed at least 3,000 Americans on 9-11, and we’re glad he got his just due.

“Next, as Arab Americans, we know the vast majority of people killed from his reign of terror are Muslims.

“And third, his actions caused reactions here, making us unfairly targeted – a community under fire.”

Kreidie added that bin Laden’s message of a violent Islamic revolution yanking the world back to the 14th century never took hold among the youth of the Arab world.

The proof has been the so-called Arab spring, in which young revolutionaries have gathered and fought for democracy – not jihad – in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere.

Moein Khawaja, executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that as an American and a Muslim, he cheered when he heard of bin Laden’s demise.

“My wife and I were watching the Phillies game where they announced his death,” Khawaja said. “As people at the game chanted, ‘U.S.A.,’ we yelled, ‘We got him!'”

He added, “I never forgot the day our country was attacked so brutally, and at the same time the religion of over 1 billion people was tarnished.”

Among the religious, a paradox develops around bin Laden’s death.

“I’m not not happy he’s dead,” said Marc Manley, a South Philadelphia imam not associated with any particular mosque.

“But I do feel odd about being happy a human was killed. Is it appropriate?”

Manley also wondered what changes would develop from bin Laden’s demise.

“Will we Muslims get screened less often in airports now?” he asked. “Will we not be used as political hockey pucks during election campaigns that include anti-Muslim feelings?”

Manley said he’d like to be optimistic that pressure on Muslims will lessen.

“But,” he added, “the cynical side kicks in, and you say, ‘Of course this isn’t going to change everything.’ At least not yet.”

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

Read the original article here.

Religion and Social Media

In the past weeks, we have seen the role that social media has come to play in religious life, from the Pope’s tentative endorsing of social media to the impact it has had on movements in Tunisia and Egypt. I myself have used various social media component such as this blog, Twitter, and Tumblr, to “help get the message out”. It has provided me a means of communicating with fellow Muslims as well as reaching out beyond the Muslim community. Today’s [February 3rd, 2011] Philadelphia Inquirer has penned an article about the developing role that social media plays in American religious life. The articles author, John Timpane, was kind enough to reach and include myself in his piece. You may read it here online.