A New Paradigm For Religious Persuasion

I have given a look of thought on the subject of “da’wah”, or what I prefer to colloquially term, “religious persuasion”, especially after taking the position as Religious Director at the Islamic Center of Inland Empire. Many of my appointments are for concerned parents whose children have wondered off the beaten path, as it were. And after a recent talk I delivered at ICIE, as well as a discussion with Dr. Sherman Jackson, as to the state of affairs with Muslims in America, I jotted down a few thoughts regarding this topic:

Our attempts at (religious) persuasion tend to be rooted in the presumption of an inherent quality that is possessed by the very thing in which we are calling for: religiosity; ideology, etc. However, such attempts are often fallacious, as they are often carefully disguised circular arguments; the choir preaching to the choir. Rather, a new approach, one in which the concepts themselves are promoted by habituation, such that the concept is delivered to the subject in its “simplest version”, to quote Inception,

“in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Once having taken root, such methods would, God willing, have a much greater efficacy of achieving the end result (religiosity, morality, a life pleasing to God, etc.).

This may sound easier said than done: I am sure it is. However, my intuition tells me that we cannot continue to proceed with the same old rhetoric.

And to God belongs all success.

More on Time: A Khutbah

In my previous khutbah, I discussed the importance of time and time management, as well as time as an object, so that we might think about the “times” we live in. All the above falls under an even larger umbrella, and that is the umbrella of religious literacy. To know and understand time and its importance to the Muslim is to increase one’s awareness of God and increase one’s understanding of Islam and its objective with mankind, God willing.

To step back a moment for before addressing the topic of time head on, I would like to bring our attention to the role that scholarship and learning plays in developing a sense of time. We often hear new buzz words such as “tradition”, both upper and lower cases being used. It is not my desire to contest the existence of an “Islamic tradition” [though I prefer Muslim as it is not quite so atemporal/ahistoric as Islamic], rather quite the opposite. But in order for that tradition to be operational, we must examine our relationship with it. I thought it would best to examine the meaning of tradition, as it relates to Muslims, by looking at it through the prism of another scenario. Below is a quote from the 19th/20th century philosopher, John Dewey:

When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human condition under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.

— From John Dewey’s, Art As Experience. This speaks volumes to me on modern Muslims understanding of pre-modern law [Shari’ah].

If we were to substitute Dewey’s “art” for our “tradition”, we can begin to imagine some of the problems and challenges we are faced with, many of which are by our own hands. Indeed, “Traditional Islam” has attained the status of “classic”, from which it has become quite stagnant and “isolated” from our very own lives. No longer a means of tools by which we interpret and navigate our present reality, “Traditional Islam” has become an operational substitute, relieving us of the burden of having to act, think, and behave as responsible, God-conscious Muslims. This neologism is complete with an aesthetic appearance: one’s burden to think and act with traditional morals and values is even further removed by simply allowing us to dress “traditionally”, even when most of us have no historical relationship with such modes of dress.

Dewey’s words are even more relevant in this passage:

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.

— John Dewey, from Art As Experience. Again, the analogy that can be drawn between Islamic law/studies and what Dewey calls “art” here is intriguing.

I find Dewey’s “artistic objects” a fine substitute for our “traditional Islam” as a means of diagnosing a crippling condition I see prevalent amongst Muslims today: the operational ability for Muslims to think proactively and creatively has been “separated” from our “conditions” and “experiences”; a proverbial wall has been erected around “tradition” that has the opposite intended effect: It renders the significance of that tradition “opaque” to use. We can neither see through it, into it, nor around it. Instead of a tool to a broader means, it has been supplanted as the end. Once “remitted” to this separate realm, our primary means of acting in accordance with our reality that will both please God and make our lives easier, is “cut off” with the “materials and aims” of each and every human [read Muslim] effort, undergoing and achievement. It will be necessary to see the pitfall in this so that our aims and efforts at making responsible and intelligent uses of time are not for naught.

Key Words

  • لهو/to amuse, dally, waste time, engage in excessive pleasure.
  • غفلة/heedlessness
  • زين – تزيين/to embellish, adorn, make-believe, sham, pretense, shave/put on makeup/زينت نفسها
  • عمل و أعمال و فعل و أفعال/Actions [af’al] can have the ability to take on acts of worship but they can also but non-acts of worship whereas Deeds [a’mal] have a distinct inclination towards acts of worship as they are tied to the “intention” to do so:
  • إن بطش ربك لشديد – انه هو يبدئ ويعد و هو الغفور الودود – ذو العرش المجيد – فعال لما يريد
  • قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم إنما الأعمال بالنيات و إنما لكل امرئ ما نوى
  • و هم على ما يفعلون بالمومنين شهود و ما نقموا منهم إلا أن يومنوا بالله العزيز الحميد الذي له الملك السماوات والأرض و الله على كل شيء شهيد

Time marches on, marches towards us, but how attuned are we to this fact?

اقترب للناس حسابهم و هم في غفلة معرضون (۱) ما ياتيكم من ذكر من ربهم محدث إلا اِسْتَمَعوه و هم يلعبون (۲) لاهية قلوبهم و أسّروا النجوى الذين ظلموا هل هذآ إلا بشر مثلكم أفتاتون السحر و أنتم تنصرون (٣) قال ربى يعلم القول في السماء و الأرض و هو السميع العليم (٤)

Mankind’s Reckoning has drawn very close to them, yet they heedlessly turn away (1). No fresh reminder comes to them from their Lord without their listening to it as if it was a game (2). Their hearts are distracted. Those who do wrong confer together secretly, saying, ‘Is this man anything but a human being like yourselves? Do you succumb to magic with your eyes wide open?’ (3). Say: ‘My Lord knows what is said in heaven and earth. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ (4). [Qur’an: 21: 1-5

ألهاكم التكاثر حتى زرتم المقابر كلا سوف سيعلمون ثم كلا سيعلمون

You are distracted in excessive accumulation until you visit the graves!

In the tafsir of these verses, it can mean that you either do so all your life until you “visit the grave” or that you take competition/bragging/مفاخرة to such an extent, you have to go and visit the graves of your dead as did Banu Sahm and Banu ‘Abd al-Manaf. We must be careful with what we do with our time. We will be held accountable.

Time is also critical to Muslim development. We have to not only be concerned about “impending doom”, but with how we spend our time preparing for that doom. As I mentioned in the khutbah, fear as it is discussed in the Qur’an, is not like Hollywood fear, where the victim of anxiety or dread is rendered immobile, but instead is meant to propel us into action. Actions that will bring about a favorable outcome on the Qiyamah. And while we must spend time learning and studying in all manner of so-called secular topics so that we can have a trade or a profession, so too we must spend time learning and knowing our religion so that we have a broad-based understanding of life’s function and role, not simply to memorize the rights and wrongs of Islam. This latter part is critical to the development of a healthy Muslim identity, something to which Muslim thinker Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas discusses in one of his works:

Knowledge of the truth about the world of empirical things can indeed be achieved and increased through inquiry made by generations of mankind. But true knowledge has an immediate bearing on the individual man as it pertains to his identity and destiny, and he cannot afford to suspend his judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations.

Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future by Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas.

Al-Attas’ acknowledgement of the role that sacred [here I am fine with the use of “traditional” so long as it’s understood as an operational imperative, not a laundry list] knowledge plays in the development of the Muslim is crucial. But I think just as important is his observation of the “immediate bearing” such knowledge can and should have on a Muslim. I see this as particularly valuable to the convert, who did not grow up in an “Islamic environment”, and is in need of such knowledge to be immediately beneficial to their growth and development as a Muslim. Convert or otherwise, the lesson here is none of us can, as Shaykh al-Attas says, “afford to suspend [our] judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations”. In other words, time is of the essence and we must all efforts to acquire such knowledge a priority in our lives, one way or another.

Time passing and making actions seem good to them.

تالله لقدَ اَرسلنا إلى أُمَمٍ من قبلك فزين لهم الشيطان أعمالهم فهو وليهم اليومَ و لهم عذاب اَليم

By Allah, We sent Messengers to communities before your time, but Shaytan made their actions seem good to them. Therefore today he is their protector. They will have a painful punishment. [Qur’an: 16: 63]

It is a real temptation to make one’s deeds and actions fair seeming. But as I noted above in the key words section, zayyana/زين – تزيين is thematically connected to the embellishment and self-delusion of deeds. Its root has much in common with the following actions: to adorn, make-believe, as well as to put on makeup, all of which are a means of deception, one way or another. We may not like to think of it [and I am not starting a fiqh war – for more on beauty and makeup, please see or listen to Ustadh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali’s lecture, The Fiqh of Beauty] but when we apply makeup or dress ourselves in a certain way, in part [if not in essence] we wish to imply that what’s in front of us may be better than what is really there. Likewise, in the Qur’an, those that seek to delude themselves and/or God are do so by attempting to make their deeds seem to be better than what they truly are. If left unchecked, this state of the heart can lead one to doom, as is the case of the unnamed group in s. Yusuf, verse 12:

و إذا مس الإنسان الضر دعانا لجنبه قاعدا اَو قائما فلما كشفنا عنه ضره مر كأن لم يدعنا إلى ضر مسه كذلك زين للمسرفين كانوا يعملون

And when a calamity touches mankind, he calls out to Us, upon his side, laying down or standing. Yet when we have removed his affliction, he proceeds upon his way as if he had never been accosted. In this manner whatever the indignant one do seems fair pleasing. [Qur’an: 10: 12]

As we can see in the two above examples from the Qur’an, zayyana/زيّن and ‘aml/عمل go hand in hand, at least in how we try to deceive God and ourselves. This is important as ‘aml/a’mal [عمل و أعمال] are almost always associated with religious practice and deeds, whereas fi’l/af’al [فعل و أفعال] can be religious or neutral.

لقد كان لكم في رسول الله إسوة حسنة لّمن كان يرجوا الله و اليوم الآخرَ و ذكر الله كثيرا

Surely in the Messenger of God is an excellent excellent example for the one that hopes to meet God, and has hope of the Final Day and remembers God abundantly. [Qur’an: 33: 21]

May God Almighty grant us success in this. Amin.

Listen to and download the audio here.

African American Contributions to Islam

CAMP Philadelphia is organizing a panel on the topic of African Americans and their contribution to  Islam. The event will feature yours truly as the keynote speaker as well as spoken word artist, Seff Al Afriqi, author of a new volume of poetry entitled, A Gathering of Myself. The talk will also feature a panel discussion, “Bridging the Gap”, with members diverse cultural backgrounds, in which Muslims and non-Muslims can exchange thoughts on the topic of Islam in America, Islamophobia. The talk will be held this Sunday, Feb 27th, from 3-5:30pm in Griski room, Houston Hall, on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. Sign up on Facebook as well for any changes/updates to the event.

The panelists, organizers, speakers and artists are as follows:

Salima Suswell

Salima Suswell is the current President of the CAMP – Philadelphia chapter. Between 2007 and 2009, Salima served as an advisory board member. Salima is a Senior Litigation Specialist with the United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania and over the past ten years worked as a Senior Litigation Paralegal for several prestigious national law firms. In addition to her duties with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Salima is the Founder and CEO of Evolve Litigation Solutions, LLC., which provides litigation services and staffing in the Delaware Valley area.

Adnan Zulfiqar

Adnan Zulfiqar is the Law & Policy Fellow at Annenberg’s Center for Global Communication Studies. Among his activities he sits on the board of Masjid Quba and is also a member of the Zones of Peace Taskforce and the Administrative Committee of the Religious Leaders Council of Philadelphia. Adnan received his B.A. in Religion and Anthropology from Emory University, his M.A.L.S. in International Affairs from Georgetown University and his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Penn.

Carolyn Baugh

Carolyn Baugh, originally from Indiana, is in her final semester of graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where her focus is gender issues in early Islamic law. She holds a master’s degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Penn (2008) and a degree in Arabic and Arab Literature from Duke University. She currently serves as Interfaith Fellow and Campus Minister to the Muslim Community through the Office of the Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.

Margari Hill

Margari Hill-Manley is an educator and writer with an MA in history from Stanford University where she specialized in Islam in Africa and Muslim social networks. She earned her BA at Santa Clara University where she specialized in European Islam and Medieval-Renaissance Studies. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to Islam, African history, and Black American Muslim communities at universities across the nation and has traveled extensively in the Middle East as a student and researcher. Her blog, “Margari Aziza,” has been featured in international magazines and noted as one of the outstanding female blogs for the 2008 and 2009 Brass Crescent awards. She is currently a high school instructor in Philadelphia where she teaches writing and grammar and literature from around the World.

Seff al-Afriqi

Seff Al-Afriqi spoken word artist Seff Al Afriqi, author of a new volume of poetry entitled, “A Gathering of Myself,”. beyond the mechanics of what makes a great poem. He delves into the most important factors, the rhetoric, the truth, the healing, the content, the conviction, and the person

Mooz-Lum: Thoughts and Reflections on an American Muslim Movie

The new movie by young film maker, Qasim Basir – Mooz-lum – has been causing quite a stir in both Muslim and non-Muslim circles. Much of this inter-Muslim dialog I have observed online (Facebook for example) has waxed axiomatic around such platitudes as authenticity and morality to whether there should be a sequel to Mooz-lum, where the main character returns to complete his memorization of the Qur’an. As much as Mooz-lum is a signifier of the maturation process taking place within the Muslim community, some of the commentary surrounding it still illustrates how far Muslims have to go. Therefore, this short piece will be as much a review of the review of Mooz-lum, as it is a film review of the movie itself.

I should make it clear that I am familiar with the film maker. We both hail from the same part of Michigan (or thereabouts) and thus, when I discovered a few years ago that Qasim was making this film, I was excited and happy on many levels. In my time teaching at Muslim schools in Michigan, I encountered several Muslim children that were very similar to Tariq’s dilemma (the film’s main character). I was approached on more than one occasion by a Muslim parent instructing me to make their son or daughter a hāfiẓ of Qur’an. Some children came from households where only one parent was Muslim, others from families who “wanted the best” for their children, an Islamic education. Continue reading “Mooz-Lum: Thoughts and Reflections on an American Muslim Movie”

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.