Muslims, Modernity and America: The Problems of Meaning

During the 2018 Blackamerican Muslim Conference there were a few instances when modernity, liberalsim, and progressivism—amongst other ideals—were evoked and discussed. Often these philosophies are discussed in relation to the so-called immigrant Muslim community and how it affects them. But these philosophies and value systems impact the Blackamerican Muslim community as well. As I mentioned in my last post, my hope is to delve a little deeper into these topics so as to raise our literacy on the forces acting upon us. I found Steven Seidman’s phrase, “problems of meaning” aptly titled and insightful. In short, Seidman defines the “problems of meaning” as,

“a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values, confusing images of self, society and nature, and the ceaseless conflict over the ends, rules, and norms in terms of which personal and collective life is organized and legitimated.”

In the Sunday session on liberalism, Dr. Sherman Jackson astutely pointed out that liberalism, a child of the European Enlightenment, came about as a reaction to a particular experience that Europe had with religion. Similarly, Seidman states,

“The great transformation of European societies issued forth problems of meaning as established cultural frameworks securing identity, moral order, and purposeful existence were disrupted.”

It is clear that if one were to summarize the problems which face the Blackamerican Muslim community, those topping the list would undoubtedly include “a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values” as well as “confusing images of self” as to what a Muslim ought to be and look like from a Blackamerican Muslim point of view. In other words it is not that our challenges as Blackamerican Muslims living in America are legion, but that they are layered and obscured from vision.

One example of a layered problem, or as Seidman labels it, problems of meaning is the doubly shifting sands of Blackamerican Muslim pursuits of “identity, moral order, and purposeful existence”. I say doubly shifting because what effects white America inevitably black America or as the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker quoted, “when downtown catches a cold, Harlem gets pneumonia”. Blackamerican Muslims must try to forge an identity, establish moral order and carve out a dignified existence amidst an ever-changing social landscape, one which we exert little overt control. For me this is why it’s even more crucial that Blackamerican Muslims come to familiarize themselves with these philosophical, intellectual and cultural forces that routinely produce regimes of “pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate belief”. For it is certainly this which is currently decimating the ranks of those who followed revealed religion: Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike.

Seidman, Steven. “Modernity And The Problem Of Meaning: The Durkheimian Tradition”. Sociological Analysis, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 1985, pp. 109-130.

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

Violence in the Modern World

A short talk about the events in Manchester and violence in the world in general.

“I strongly agree with President Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia to Arab leaders. It’s ultimately going to have to be Arab and Islamic leaders — that speak to their own people of their own faith.”Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, speaking on The Hugh Hewitt Show

Notes

Cavanaugh, William T. The Myth Of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict . Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.

What To Do About Our “Liquid Modernity”?

There was an interesting interview today on WBUR’s On Point in which Tom Ashbrook interviewed Rod Dreher, author of the new book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation“. In it, Dreher articulates something that I’ve heard kicked around in Muslim circles, namely what do we do about, what Zygmunt Bauman termed “liquid modernity”. Bauman felt this term was more articulate than postmodern in trying to describe the phenomenon of a constantly changing society, especially one driven by technology. The interview also showcases some competing ideas between Dreher and his fellow conservative Andrew Sullivan (author of “The Conservative Soul“). I look forward to reading and discussing Dreher’s book at Middle Ground as part of our book club, starting after Ramadan, God willing.