#MiddleGroundPodcast – A Return To Meaning


[Direct download]

In this episode, I speak about how ritual and meaning are increasingly seen as things not only trivial or perhaps juvenile, but also something scornful, a reminder of a not-so-distant past many would like to pretend never existed, when life was not able to be safely and comfortably quantified.

The loss of meaning’s appreciation can also be linked to western educational institutions:

“Its emphasis on specialization meant that most professors considered the question of meaning beyond their purview … The question of how to live, after all, requires a discussion of abstract, personal, and moral values. It does not belong, these professors argued, in colleges and universities devoted to the accumulation of objective knowledge … An increasing consensus in the academy is that faculty members should not help students discern a meaningful philosophy of life or develop character, but should instead help them master the content and methodology of a given discipline and learn critical thinking.”1

This can be seen manifesting in the Muslim community in a number of ways, such as how Muslims (especially western Muslims) approach the month long ritual of fasting in the month of Ramadan. Social media will shortly be a flurry with posts recommending this or that suhur (or pre-dawn) smoothie which promises to reduce or even eliminate fatigue and hunger. How odd that the practitioners of a faith would want to minimize the experience of one of its most important rituals: but that is precisely what we see happening with Islam in the West. Increasingly we seem to be saying, “ritual and religious experience, particularly those that ask us to give up something or daresay, even experience something uncomfortable, we don’t want any part of it. Either it changes to accommodate our desires or it gets jettisoned!”.

For me, this is why I think so many are trying to find way to validate what would otherwise been seen – according to post-religious secular norms – as ridiculous, by legitimizing and substantiating fasting for one month as something healthy. According to this new logic, to the extent that Islamic rituals can be confirmed by empirical/scientific observations, they may be tolerated. But to the extent to which they can’t (wearing hijab or growing a beard, for example), then they condemned as backwards and even potentially subhuman (hijab again).
One of the fundamental on the long differences is the pursuit of emotions versus the crafting with meaning. is the pursuit of emotions versus the crafting of meaning. The pursuit of emotion attempts to extract, for example, happiness, either from objects or activities like superfoods or yoga, alcohol or sex. But those who seek to craft meaning transcend objects and experience and see meaning in them; they see God. This should not be mistaken as a form of shamanism, in the Muslim sense, for Muslims do not believe God is inside their superfood smoothie or tantric sex, but rather see any such objects or activities as the result of God. The former tends to be rooted in an idolatrous materialism which places conditional value on things (things here being objects, activities/experiences). To the extent that an object, activity, or experience makes that individual happy it is deemed to be good regardless of what Revelation may have to say about it. Whereas the latter sees beyond this triumvirate and knows the source from which, for example, blueberry smoothies and alcohol, come from, thus allowing them to apply wisdom.

For other khutbahs and podcasts, see the Middle Ground Podcast.

Notes

1. Smith, Emily Esfahani. The Power of Meaning: Crafting A Life That Matters. Kindle ed., Crown, New York, 2017.

Status Quo – A Khutbah

Islam is more than a religion. According to Cicero, religion comes from “relegere” or “to go through again/read again.” From “re” + “legere”.

But Islam is a way of life, a way of living your life, of seeing, of acting, all tied together. It can even be classified as civilizational, though this can sometimes be problematic when certain groups or races of people are seen to be indistinguishable with that civilization.

This way of life touches on every aspect of human existence: the personal, the public, the private; even the political. But in today’s world, where so much emphasis is placed on the political, Muslims have often lost sight of where in the grand scheme of things does politics fit. What about our principles? What happened to that simple piety of “doing the right thing”? We cannot wait-list our morals and principles until we achieve certain (perceived) political goals. What if we do not have the capacity to do so? Being Muslim isn’t always about what you’d like to be able to do but about what you ought to do with what you’re given.

إنكم في زمان من ترك منكم عشر ما أمر به هلك ثم يأتي زمان من عمل منهم بعشر ما أمر به نجا

“You live in a time that one will be destroyed if he does not fulfill a 10th of what he has been commanded to do. Then there will come a time when fulfilling a 10th of what you have been commanded will be salvation.” al-Tirmidhi, hasan.

Getting our community back to basics: morality, compassion, God-fearing and God-consciousness (warning people):

فَإِنْ أَعْرَضُوا فَقُلْ أَنْذَرْتُكُمْ صَاعِقَةً مِثْلَ صَاعِقَةِ عَادٍ وَثَمُود

Qur’an, Fussilat, 41: 13.

Even out theology connects belief in God to feeding poor people. This is not contingent upon any political aspirations:

إِنَّهُ كَانَ لَا يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ الْعَظِيمِ – وَلَا يَحُضُّ عَلَىٰ طَعَامِ الْمِسْكِينِ

Qur’an, al-Haqqah, 69: 32-33.

Current state of heedlessness: we are only jolted awake and into action when there’s a crisis. We live from crisis to crisis:

مَثَلُهُمْ كَمَثَلِ الَّذِي اسْتَوْقَدَ نَارًا فَلَمَّا أَضَاءَتْ مَا حَوْلَهُ ذَهَبَ اللَّهُ بِنُورِهِمْ وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَا يُبْصِرُونَ – صُمٌّ بُكْمٌ عُمْيٌ فَهُمْ لَا يَرْجِعُونَ – أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ فِيهِ ظُلُمَاتٌ وَرَعْدٌ وَبَرْقٌ يَجْعَلُونَ أَصَابِعَهُمْ فِي آذَانِهِمْ مِنَ الصَّوَاعِقِ حَذَرَ الْمَوْتِ ۚ وَاللَّهُ مُحِيطٌ بِالْكَافِرِينَ – يَكَادُ الْبَرْقُ يَخْطَفُ أَبْصَارَهُمْ ۖ كُلَّمَا أَضَاءَ لَهُمْ مَشَوْا فِيهِ وَإِذَا أَظْلَمَ عَلَيْهِمْ قَامُوا ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَذَهَبَ بِسَمْعِهِمْ وَأَبْصَارِهِمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

Qur’an, al-Baqarah, 2: 17-18.

We don’t read the Qur’an with a sense of fear and awe. We think these “stories” are about “other people”. Why would Allah inform us of what they did wrong if not then to warn us to avoid the same pitfalls?

Are we committed to delivering Allah’s message and to doing good works? Or are we here just to enjoy this life? But then suddenly we find ourselves victims of this heedlessness as well:

أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَنْ يُتْرَكُوا أَنْ يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُونَ

Qur’an, al-Ankabut, 29: 2.

إن قامت الساعة وفي يد أحدكم فسيلة فإن استطاع أن لا تقوم حتى يغرسها فليغرسها

al-Adab al-Mufrad, sahih.

Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.

Religion and Secularism: A Conversation with Robert Bellah

The following are a series of Youtube videos which feature famed sociologist Robert Bellah in conversation with Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of global and international studies as well as sociology and religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In it, professor Bellah provides an number of worthwhile insights on the topics of secularism, religion, public space and more.

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Continue reading “Religion and Secularism: A Conversation with Robert Bellah”