What’s Good For The Goose…?

…Seems to not be equally as good for the gander when applied to American-Muslim scholarship. I have, over the last twenty-plus years, noticed a tendency for Muslims to foster a number of bewildering exceptions when it comes to America, the latest being as it relates to American-Muslim scholarship.  Case in point was a recent Facebook discussion about a noted American-Muslim scholar. The poster had stated that, “with a brother like this that’s within our mist there is no need to call 10,000 miles to ask a question.” The conversation that ensued highlighted a number of intriguing and disturbing conclusions about the veracity and authority of American-Muslim scholarship. I want to make clear, for the record, that I am not singling out these people as a means of retaliation but rather the incident brought back to my mind something I’ve wanted to write about for sometime. This was just an opportunity to do so.

What struck me foremost was the assumption that American-Muslim scholars, while being adept in the social sciences or perhaps even descriptive theology, they are presumed deficient in matters related to jurisprudence (fiqh). The scholar in question mentioned in the Facebook post is a noted scholar with more than 30 years in the field of Islamic studies. I am curious as to what would provoke such a response? What would justify such an assumption? There seemed little evidence to support this claim and scant evidence was provided. Instead, this accusation seemed more of “a hunch,” based on the non-over-seas-ness of American-Muslim scholars.

To be sure, no one scholar, American or foreign, will have an answer, or more importantly a solution for every problem. Any scholar worth his or her salt will confess to have strengths and weakness. Areas of familiarity and areas where they are not one hundred percent confident. But what is striking here is that when American-Muslims wish to assert that there are qualified American scholars (plural here, not just one exceptional person), there flaws are accentuated whereas the reverse is not done so with scholars overseas. There is no litmus test for many (though not all) brown- or olive-skinned foreign-born, foreign-educated and foreign-minded scholars who have also, curiously enough, not demonstrated any credentials to speak on matters pertaining to Islam in general (beyond them being called “shaykh”) and Islam in America in particular. I feel that either we should be fair and allow American-Muslim scholars the same leniency as their over-seas counterparts, placing the same faith in their hues or complexions, their titles, be it “shaykh”, “imam”, or even just “professor”, or come down just as hard on those scholars overseas for their lack of credentials as we are on our own home-grown scholars.

In the end, I am reminded of what the great 19th-/20th-Century thinker, W. E. B. DuBois, spoke of on the nature of double-consciousness, as is so clearly articulated in this double-standard:

“…the measuring of one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

And God knows best.

More Thoughts On the Relation Between Islam, Blackamericans, and Bebop

The following is s short excerpt from The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective [335-7], by Ingrid Tolia Monson. Monson’s book provides some further insight on the nature of the relation and attraction that Islam held for Blackamerican jazz musicians as well as Blackamericans as a whole who embraced Islam.

Art Blakey’s African Travels

Ingrid Tolia Monson It is clear that its members of the New York jazz community of the 1940’s demonstrated awareness of both the anticolonialist internationalism of Robeson and Du Bois, as well as the more cultuml and spiritual pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism of Islam. Art Blakey emerged in the New York modern jazz scene through his work with the Billy Eckstine band from 1944 — 1947 (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were his bandmates in 1944) and his recordings with Thelonious Monk in 1947. He had come to New York from Pittsburgh with Mary Lou Williams in 1938 and worked with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra from 1939 — 1941. Blakey’s first recordings as a leader were four sides for Blue Note in December 1947 with the 17 Messengers, a band conceived as a training band for young musicians. Its members included Sahib Shihab and Musa Kaleem (Orlando Wright). Blakey, whose Muslim name was Abdullah ibn Buhaina, dated his conversion to Islam at about this time. Blakey never publicly explained his path to conversion to the Ahmadiyya movement, but Dizzy Gillespie reports that a Muslim missionary named Kahlil Ahmed Nasir convened many New York musicians to the faith (Gillespie 1979).
ship. Although Blakey later remembered going to Africa for two years beginning in 1947, he likely spent only one year in Africa.

Blakey consistently denied that he ever played music while in West Africa. In one of the most detailed accounts of his African sojourn, Blakey told two French interviewers in 1963: “For two years, I immersed myself solely in philosophers, religion, and Hebrew and Arab languages. I do not remember havin
Blakey’s choice of the name Messengers for his short-lived group of 1947 and for the more enduring group from 1954 onward signifies in several directions. From an Islamic perspective, the word invokes the Islamic belief in Muhammad as the messenger of Allah; from a more broadly African American cultural context, the word implies the common cultural belief that African American music has a message, that it “says something” of deeper cultural significance. Since the Ahmadiyya movement believed in a continuous prophetic tradition (i.e., that there were prophets after Muhammad), the name of the later group, the Jazz Messengers, implies a prophetic view of the music itself. After the failure of the 17 Messengers in 1947, Blakey was unable to secure regular work and decided to travel to Africa, to pursue religious studies by working his way over on a g played an instrument even one time during that entire period” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963). Blakey’s denials later became even more emphatic: “I didn’t go to Africa to study drums — somebody wrote that — I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t, after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion” (Nolan 1979: 19).

Implying that his religious quest was somehow incompatible with music (a remarkable assertion when considering religion in West Africa), Blakey always stressed that his main inertest in Africa was religion.

Although Orthodox Islam disapproves of music, particularly instrumental music, Islam in West Africa has long blended the celebration of Islamic festivals and beliefs with traditional animist worship practices that are deeply musical. In West Africa Blakey is likely to have encountered Muslim groups who made considerable use of drumming. He is also likely to have encountered Akan, Ewe, and Yoruba religious ideas, practices, and music, as well as secular urban popular music in his travels. In 1963 Blakey explained African American interest in Islam to his French interviewers: “Islam brought the black man what he was looking for, an escape like some found in drugs or drinking: a way of living and thinking he could choose freely. This is the reason we adopted this new religion in such numbers. It was for us, above all, a way of rebelling” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963: 38).

Citations and Further Readings

  • Manley, Marc. “The Social Origins of Bebop.” The Manrilla Blog: Academics. 28 Nov. 2008. Web.
  • Monson, Ingrid. African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (Critical and Cultural Musicology, 3). New York: Routledge, 2003.

Islam and Avoiding Double-Consciousness in America

First Khutbah – Main Points

Opening from the Qur’an:

إنا فتحنا لك فتحا مبينا
لّيغفرَ لك الله ما تقدم من ذنبك و ما تأخر و يتمَ نعمته عليك و يهديَك صراطا مستقيما
و ينصُرَك الله نصرا عزيزا

“Without a doubt, we have granted you [Muhammad] the clear, manifest victory. In order that Allah might forgive you for what you have done regarding your sin, as well as pardoning any later ones, and complete His favor upon you and guide you to a straight path. And so that Allah may help you with a great assistance.” [Q: 48: 1‐3]

There has been much written about this verse, and a great deal of popular opinion agrees that it refers to the Conquest of Makkah. But one of the Prophet’s [s] Companions, ‘Ubad Ibn Samit, disagrees. ‘Ubad states:

“I know you think this ayah refers to the Conquest of Makkah – but you are wrong. It is about the victory
of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah.”

‘Ubad’s remarks take us back in time to the historical landscape of 7th Century Arabia, to a time when Islam had yet to sink in its roots. In other words, Islam was yet to be seen as a bona fide Arabian religion.

In some ways, we can see that many of the struggles that the Muslims faced during that period could be held to the fact that they had yet to carve out a niche or establish themselves with a sense of belonging. This is not dissimilar to our struggle today. The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah did just that for many reasons but I will mark just three:

  1. Instituted a 10-year truce between Quraysh and the Muslims
  2. All Arabs in the region became “free agents” – they were free to choose their religious affiliation without fear of reprisal, but most importantly, without fear of losing their cultural identity [i.e., their Arab’ness].
  3. The Muslims, though not that year, would be permitted to return the following year and perform their Hajj at the Ka’abah. This is a crucial turning point in the growth, development and establishment of Islam in Arabia. For without a seat at the Ka’abah so to speak, you truly did not belong. This had the affect of establishing Islam as a bona fide Arabia religion. And for those who have that whole clash of civilizations notion about Islam, in that it must dominate
    everything around it, Islam was coming to the Ka’abah not as the exclusive religion in Arabia, but one amongst many.

This had the effect of breaking down social and psychological barriers between being an Arab, and being a Muslim. There is a great deal of wisdom for us to take from this – not just simply learning these facts as history lessons. We need to break down these same barriers of American and Muslim. We must remove the space and join the words, even if only with a hyphen [see Greco‐Roman].

This juncture illustrates to me the importance of establishing a Muslim habit in America. Let me define what I mean by habit, borrowing from the French author, Marcel Proust:

“Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable.” [Swann’s Way].

Without establishing this sense of Muslim habit, I believe Muslims will continue to suffer and fall prey to a variety of maladies, not the least of which is already prevalent in our community: Double-Consciousness.

One of the erudite scholars of the last century, W. E. B. DuBois spoke on the nature of double-consciousness as thus:

“…the measuring of one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Muslims have been looking at themselves from another one’s eyes for quite some time now. We see it manifest quite often nowadays in so‐called Muslim reformers, who, incapable of seeing themselves for who they are, proffer up an articulation of Islam that is not, at its center, an attempt to please God, but a vain attempt to appease the dominant culture.

Second Khutbah – Main Points

Many such attempts are made when Muslims are faced with such daunting arguments, based on the theory of “universal values”. This has proven troublesome indeed to many pundits, who do not have the training or familiarity of what Islam is trying to get at objectively with the human being. So we ask:

  • How will Muslims deal with this?
  • How will they handle the pressure to produce an articulation of Islam that will be pleasing first and
    foremost to God, and concurrently, though secondly, accommodating the demands of the American
    social, political and moral landscape?

This leaves Muslims on a very precarious precipice: that of secularism and positivism. In fact, if Muslims are not careful, I fear we will either turn 9/11 or have it turned upon us as a sort of secular holiday, where our reflection on the nature of the event is only seen in a “worldly” context – mainly to appease the dominant cultures stance of Muslims [as well as our own psychological insecurities], especially psychologically.

Even the Prophet [s] had to face this difficult task:

و لو لآ أن ثبتناك لقد آِدتّ ترآن إليهم شيئا قليلا

“And if we had not made you firm, you would have leaned towards them a little.” [Q: 17:74]

The idea of standing firm here is not the one for the sake of being obstinate or dominant, but because ultimately, there are some aspects of Islam that are immutable. Like a tree, whose roots must remain firmly planted for the life‐sake of the tree, its branches are free to grow where they need to in order to perform their function. However, they always are attached to the life giving roots of the tree. This is akin to how the Shari’ah operates.

In any event, both ideologies are currently running wild in our midst. And the demands that both of these constructs place on Muslims is thus:

any knowledge, gained or inherited, must pass through the sieve of secularism or positivism, including such spheres as legal, logical, and scientific, whereupon only if Islam’s transcendent values can be brought down and in line with the latter, can the position that Islam holds be deemed valid [i.e., universal, scientific, etc.].

This is killing us, intellectually speaking. First and foremost because this kind of rhetoric is at its heart a true bid’ah, as it seeks to compete and oust the Sunnah and the Shari’ah. And the proof is in the pudding: how many Muslims, especially those coming from ethnic Muslim backgrounds, pursue anything other than law, medicine or some type of science? What we could call the humanities in the West, are left to the dregs of academic and intellectually inferior students. How can we run a community when the best and brightest only student chemistry, law, and medicine?

We have stunted our growth, have cut ourselves off and made ourselves very remote from the world. What was once a major study for Muslims, cosmology, has been reduced to a horizontal plane: the Cosmos is a horizontal one. We never look up, or worse yet, inwards. Forever gazing out, we cannot see the forest for the trees.

We must re‐attach ourselves to the Sacred – to Allah, to His Book, to His Prophet [s], learning his ways, his wont, his attitude, not simply a loose collection of ahadith to be branded about like a blunt instrument.

As for the phenomenon of 9/11, keep the following statement of Allah’s close at hand and reflect on its meaning:

ألآ تزر وازرة وزرَ أخرى

“No one can bear another’s load” [Q: 53:38‐39]

None of us can be held responsible for the actions of others. And here I am explicitly speaking to the malevolent force of communal guilt that has been hanging around the neck of many Muslims who feel, despite having had no hand in it, that they, via proxy of sharing the same religion, are guilty and culpable of the crime. And while I feel we are not guilty of 9/11, we are guilty of not doing our job, of acting in accordance with what we believe and what we know as it relates to our condition and mission as Muslims here in America. Allah admonished the Believers for precisely this point:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لم تقولون ما لا تفعلون

“O’ you of secure faith, why do you say that which you do not do?” [Q: 61:2]

It is not enough to profess faith to be doing the right and responsible thing, but it is that our actions fall in line with what we believe.

حاسبوا أنقسكم قبل أن تحاسبوا
وزنوا أعمالكم قبل أن توزن عليكم

“Take account of yourselves before you are held to account. Weigh your deeds before they are weighed
for you.” [al-Tirmidhī’s al‐Qiyamah]

Closing du’ah:

اللهم، نسألك العِصمة في الحرآات و السكنات،
والكلمات والإرادات والخطرات
من الشكوك والظنون،
والأوهام الساترة للقلوب.
ربنا، أُنصُرنا، فإنك خير الناصرين،
وافتح لنا، فإنك خير الفاتحين،
واغفر لنا، فإنك خير الغافرين،
وارحمنا، فإنك خير الراحمين،
وارزُقنا، فإنك خير الرازقين،
وصلواتك وسلامك وتحياتك ورحمتك وبرآاتك
على سيدنا محمد
آمين

“O’ Allah!, we ask of you your protection, in both motion and rest,
In words, desires, and thoughts,
from doubts and speculative thoughts,
and in self‐delusion that veils the hearts.
Our Lord, help us, for you are the Best of helpers,
Open our minds and hearts, for you are the Best of openers,
Forgive us our sins, for you are the Best of forgivers,
Have mercy on us, for you are the Best of the merciful,
Provide for us, for you are the Best of providers.
And may your prayers, peace, glad tidings, and blessings
be upon our master, Muhammad.

Amin.

What Do We Want?

“What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. But is that all? Do we want simply to be Americans? Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?” – W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art”.

The above is a quote from the masterful W. E. B. Du Bois, which I felt adeptly described the current situation that Muslims in general, and Blackamericans Muslims in specific, find themselves in. In the wake of the much-ado-about-nothingness of ISNA 2009, I see nor feel any clear articulation of what it is we as a Muslim community are after. Muslim leadership is either woefully silent or ignorant of the question. Yet, it is a question we must ask ourselves. As Muslims, are we after a fully-fledged American existence, with all its rights and privileges therein? And if we answer in the affirmative, then how might we best accomplish this task. It is here, at this cross roads that I feel the double-consciousness of my own people, namely Blackamericans, and the unique perspective we may be able to lend to this circumstance. Not only can we as Blackamericans see America in ways that that our Whiteamerican counterparts cannot [the latest issue with Professor Gates should illuminate this fact], but we can also shed unique clairvoyance on America for our immigrant brothers and sisters as well.

In a way, this puts a new twist on the idea of “double-consciousness”. In doing so, Blackamerican Muslims could be poised to help articulate and navigate this precarious existence we have all arrived at. Yet we falter at the starting gate, mainly due to an alternative form of double-consciousnesses, one that is rooted in a struggle for Muslim authenticity where many are torn between being authentically black/American and authentically Muslim. In the end, though, if we can over come some of these obstacles, we may, as an entire Muslim community, be able to ask some very important questions of ourselves and our existence, not the least of which is: upon looking at American and seeing it as it currently is, are we and can we be satisfied with its present goals and ideals? These are the questions for a people who are grounded, who have a vested interest in not solely the survival of America, but its prosperity in general, and how that equates a prosperity for the American Muslim community in specific. 

If Islam in America is to survive, it must avoid two major pitfalls. One, is that of being domesticated by the state/dominant culture in which Islam is no longer free to voice a critical opinion, be it a supportive one at a critical juncture, or admonish or even condem the actions of that very same state/dominent culture with efficacy. The other is that while in attempting to evade domestication, it must not render itself foreign and or inconsequential. This latter part’s success will greatly depend in part on whether or not American Muslims can solidify their identity here, navigating the tightrope of Tradition and prudent opportunism.

And finally, if all of the above can be actualized, we may finally be able to begin the meaninful aspect of our growth and journey as Muslims in this part of the world. Many of the ills we see in the society that we would condem for moral reasons could finally be done so with real social weight and capital, versus the hollow words of dogmatic arm chair generals. If our goal is to change society, to make a more just and moral society not simply for the perpetuating of secular values but because that is what is most pleasing to God, then we will have to alter our entire game plan.

So I ask, are we satisfied with our present goals and ideals?