Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.

Now That The Sugar High Is Gone

 

– and other collected thoughts on the MANA conference.

So, here we are, a full week after the successful MANA conference and we’re already starting to see the mud slinging around the Muslim blogosphere. I was beginning to think real change had in fact come from this conference. But don’t mistake my sarcasm for critiquing MANA. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In fact, I would like to again extend my thanks to MANA for hosting their first conference. God willing, this is just the first of many more successful conferences.

So what should we expect from a conference such as this MANA conference? Should we emerge from it to find the streets paved with gold? Or as Conan so once eloquently put it:  “to hear the lamentations of the women”? Perhaps – or perhaps not. I will have to say in defense of MANA I certainly encountered many happy and motivated faces of those who attended the various workshops. And while I didn’t attend any myself I have it on good account that they were well constructed and of value.

It is precisely that last word, value, that keeps bouncing around and around inside my head as I ponder our current condition. If we do not value ourselves then I think very little will change. And from what Dr. Jackson had to say during his speech, that seemed to be one of his underpinning points – we as Blackamerican Muslims are in a unique vantage point, one where Allah has chosen us to be in this spot, this place, and this time, as the receptacles and carriers of Islam to this part of the world at this point in Time and History. So the enduring question is: what we gon’ do?

But to bring us back to the opening point, I’ll speak about some reactions I’ve observed about the conference. One in particular criticism smacks of one of the very issues the conference sought to address: disengagement. Disengagement is the word best word I’ve been able to find to describe the current mood of many Muslims around the country. Instead of seeing Islam as a system of access, it’s been co-opted as an illegitimate excuse to not participate. To help render my point perhaps such colloquialisms will sound familiar:

“Naw, akh. I quit my kafir job – it was too much dunya.”

“I dropped out of college to get a real education in the deen.”

And the perennial crowd pleaser

“I’m going overseas to study in Yemen or Syria so I can get that haqq.”

These should all be familiar to many of us. And while they might produce a giggle or two out of some of us, I believe they speak to an undercurrent in the Blackamerican Muslim pathology that continues to hinder and plague many of our communities from emerging out of the quagmire and starting to produce and participate. In fact, my biggest criticism of these folks is that that is all they do! Arm chair criticisms seldom produce anything and are for the sole benefit for lazy Negroes to sluff off, if you can pardon my French. It is not my aim to take potshots at my fellow Muslims but I do believe we have to starting calling figs, figs. In a conversation with a close friend of mine today, we both lamented at the criticisms that were leveled at the conference, specifically in reference to MANA inviting members of the Nation of Islam to the conference. The meat and potatoes of their argument rests in the fact that these people do not have the correct ‘aqueedah and therefore we should just toss the baby out with the bathwater [again?]. How dangerous and slanderous is this. MANA is the only organization that I’ve seen that has taken serious steps to extend the Nation an olive branch to try and bridge the gap in terms of dogma, but also to say, “hey, we as Blackamerican Muslims wish to express our solidarity with our fellow Black brothers and sisters and that we’d like to address the various maladies that attacking our communities”. Please note this: I am not a member of MANA. Nor do I speak for them. Rather, this is how I interpreted their gesture. But to dive in a bit further about this notion of correct ‘aqueedah, let’s ask our selves: “Hmm”, what would Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم do?”

Despite the efforts of many a pundit on the left and right, from within and without Islam, Islam is not an ahistorical process or entity. It’s inception was born and lived out in the context of 7th Century Arabia. Its characters and actors were real human beings who lived through a lot of real History. Yet, Muslims themselves tend to be woefully ignorant of this fact. The cultural and historical setting of 7th Century must be fully appreciated to fully comprehend all that was going on to understand Islam itself. Alas, this appreciation has been misapplied to a crude mimicking at best. In other words, the setting of Muhammad’s 7th Century Arabia is routinely ignored and instead we have Muslims [Blackamerican in the case of this article] in the 21st Century trying to live like Bedouins, having completely missed the examples that God has tried to lay out for us. Examples? Dress code is interpreted to mean one must wear thobes, robes, and turbans to be “authentically Muslim” – for those of us of opt to done a suit are condemned for imitating the kafir. Moral rectitude? Honesty? Had work? These have fallen by the way side or are totally ignored all together. How else can you explain large populations of Muslims that live complacent lives in areas that are dominated by poverty, crime, and drugs. And let’s not even toss in the Muslims who are participants in the above activities.

But this disconnection goes beyond wardrobe selection. The Prophet himself is severely misunderstood. Muslim education is sorely lacking in providing Muslims an accurate, historical account for his life. In a recent criticism, one Muslim found fault with MANA for having Akbar Muhammad on the panel discussion. The brother’s criticism was thus:

I think to myself: What the heck is a man that OPENLY says that Fard Muhammad is his god who appeared in Detroit in the 1930’s (for those wanting proof of their current beliefs it is here) and that a “Messenger” came after Muhammad ibn Abdullah (pbuh), doing here on a panel for Muslims that believe in tawheed and the finality of Prophethood and Messengership?

The brother continued:

This was a tragic and completely avoidable sore point of the MANA Conference Weekend. I must also admit that I was appalled and saddened that Imam Siraj referred to Elijah as Honorable. It was all very disappointing and I was hurt to witness this spectacle.

And more:

If we return to the days wherein we lacked clarity regarding tawheed and shirk, we will certainly accomplish nothing even if we solve the many undeniable social problems plaguing us.

Plus:

Sadly, in the end, Siraj lent legitimacy to an irrelevant and illegitimate (not to mention weird) movement.

And concluding with:

Finally, I can only imagine how alienated white Muslims must have felt with the invitation of a man who believes that whites were created in a laboratory by a big headed scientist.

Taking it back to my point about the historical Muhammad [pbuh], how can we explain the Prophet’s behavior in the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah or his invitation that extended to the Quraysh? Indeed, it is an incontrovertible truth that the Prophet’s Message could not have been delivered without the aid and help of shirk-committing, idol-worshipping, kafir Makkans! Yes!, indeed the Prophet collaborated with these “kafirs” on numerous occasions – his flight from Makkah was aided by a boding, idol-worshiping Makkan! And of course there’s the Prophet inviting the idol-worshipping Arabs even when Islam was in a position of power and authority. Never did the Prophet ever make is Message “an Islam thang”. When one steps back and looks at the Prophet as a man, as a human being, one theme that runs through is life is that he was a man who was truly troubled about his people and loved his people and wanted the best for his people. Now if the Prophet could engage in this, and he most certainly had the “correct ‘aqueedah” [for if the Prophet ain’t got it, who do?], then why can’t we do the same? As Blackamerican Muslims, we should feel free to invite, engage and work with members of our community, even if they don’t have the “correct” ‘aqueedah. In my opinion, this is just plain niggardly. And as my friend poignantly pointed out, “what have you done to help out your fellow man/neighbor” in comparison to what the Nation has done? ‘Aqueedah or not, Akbar Muhammad is someone who cares about the plight of Blacks – can you say the same? This isn’t poker and all deeds are cards on the table – no bluffing.

The bewilderment continues as I examine the brother’s post. Imam Siraj’s use of the title, “Honorable”, seems to be a point of contention. But when was the Prophet ever ungracious, even to people that killed his loved ones, slandered his wives, and tried to take his life? Never! If I address the Pope as his Holiness, does this mean that I recognize him as divine or that I believe Jesus is the son of God? This 3rd grade analysis has got to go! And I don’t know how this in any implicates any of the MANA members in condoning shirk. As a member of an interfaith counsel, if I sit and talk with a bishop about improving Christian-Muslim relations, does this mean I’ve condoned the Trinity? More holes than Swiss cheese. Siraj’s engaging Akbar in no way compromises his tawheed or Islam. And since when did a Black conference worry about alienating [just] white folks? I suppose that a Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican Muslim might be equally uncomfortable but I guess those are just throw away groups [?]. And why is it that we as Black folks cannot engage on a subject that might have great benefit for our community without being labeled as nationalists or abandoning our religion?

But let me temper my ending words here; I do not wish the brother any ill will. Indeed, it is my hope we can find common ground. And we need not look any further than our Prophet’s sunnah for the example of finding common ground? If there’s one message that I came away with from the conference it is this: we’ve got a lot more work to do. The road continues down the bend. No rest for the weary. I pray God grants us a beneficial understanding of our noble master and Prophet and that his Message was not in vain – that it sinks into our hearts and minds and allows us to partake in greater engagement and like him, knock down all barriers and return all of our hopes, fears, likes and dislikes to God and not resting them on the proclivities of any other.

And God knows best.