Addressing Middle America

Last evening, I had the pleasure of finally meeting up with an acquaintance (whom now I can call friend), a fellow wayfarer in the doldrums of Philadelphia, and discussed all manner of things Muslim: morality, politics, family life (although I’m sad to say we didn’t make mention of Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans’ 3 M’s: music, moons, and meat!). And in our conversations we spoke on the need for American-Muslims to seriously engage middle America, and by that I mean the middle-class. We both lamented that for far too long, particularly amongst Blackamerican Muslims, there has been the tendency to only focus on inner city (what some call ‘hood) in terms of da’wah. The result, we felt, is an Islam that tends to patronize the ugly side of Blackamerican culture instead of, as Imam Suhaib Webb as stated, “polishing it”. While this is not unique to Blackamericans, I do feel its worth discussing. The result of this myopic focus has engendered a number of tragic results. A few them being:

  • lack of spiritual growth on the part of Blackamerican Muslims: immoral behavior is often given a pass due to the expressed interest of large numbers of Blackamericans in Islam. In addition, due to the desire of many Blackamericans desire to escape the realities of black urban life in America, their Islam in many ways becomes escapist or even performance art, not a focus on a God-pleasing life. In this way, Islam is subsumed under Blackamerican culture, right or wrong, instead of negotiating it.
  • it has ignored the realities of this particular demographic and, to be frank, has not been realistic about the challenges those coming out of this experience will face. To speak from experience, one of the major factors that allowed myself and my two older brothers to avoid the trappings of urban black life was a solid, two-parent house hold. This is something that many Blackamerican urban families are lacking. Not only this, but there has been a discernible lack of focus on building family in many urban Blackamerican centers. As my friend and I observed, community in the modern American-Muslim vernacular has been rendered a mostly abstract concept: it has as of yet to take a recognizable form and thus, to date, has frustrated many a Muslim’s attempt to be a part of one. Personally, my thought is that this is because most of the rhetoric that is espoused by American-Muslims tends to go in one of two directions: the aforementioned abstract community and the individual. The latter tends to produce, with all possible respect, things like UnMosqued, where the opinion of the individual is elevated beyond mere concerns to dictating policies. Instead, I believe the most important building block for the community is not the individual, but the family. By accentuating the family (encouraging stable marriages, nurturing children, limiting childhood to children versus extended adolescence, etc.), Islam may in fact be able to deal with the systemic challenges facing Black-(and others)-Americans.
  • this myopic focus has also created a false essentialism between blackness and poverty. That to be truly black is to be truly poor (again with ‘hood as the vernacular). The result, with the above observations in mind, has also systematically ignored the Blackamerican middle-class. God’s Messenger said, “The best from amongst you in pre-Islamic times (jahiliyyah) are the best amongst you in Islam if they comprehend it*” (agreed upon).
  • it has also completed ignored the 700-lbs. gorilla in the room which is white America, in particular middle-class white America. This will, I believe, necessitate Whiteamerican Muslims (convert or otherwise and yes, there are Whiteamerican Muslims who are born Muslim!) to take a prominent role in addressing white America.

I know this will seem an odd recipe to many but I feel, when we look at America, one of the greatest aspects of Islam that will provide Americans with a foothold to begin grasping what Islam is all about, is its intrinsically middle-class values. When I say middle-class here I am referring to those American values which prioritize the family, security, and safety. Solid middle-class morals and ethics which have a strong, if not always properly executed, attachment to helping the poor and the less fortunate. Another good friend of mine, Malik Shaw, and I have often lamented about the state of Blackamerica and the number of children who are casually born out of wedlock and that, once upon a time not so long again, this was unacceptable to middle-class America, black or white. Let me be clear: I am well aware of many of the issues of modern middle-class life, which has wondered from its center and is slowly being solely concerned with procuring a life of no inconveniences (spiritual as well as existential). That being true, I still believe that articulating Islam in this vein to middle-class America: white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., will prove, God-willing, a more efficacious method of calling people to God. I will end and summarize with a quote from ‘Abdal Hakim Murad, from a talk he delivered entitled The Way Forward:

“We can curl up in a prickly ball, like a frightened hedge hog, and curse and damn everything around us, because it happens not to know ‘la ilaha ill’Allah‘, or we can start to activate the Prophetic capacity, which says that ‘laysa sawa’ ‘, ‘they are not all the same’ [Qur’an, 3: 113]. There are amongst the Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, upright people.”

لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً ۗ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ

“They are not all the same. There is a community among the People of the Book who are upright. They recite God’s signs throughout the night, and they prostrate.”

And God knows best.

*Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was asked, “Who are the most honorable of the people?” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The most honorable of them in God’s sight are those who protect themselves from His chastisement. They said, “We’re not asking you concerning that,” to which he said, “Then the most honorable of the people is Joseph, God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s friend (khalil, Abraham).” They said, “We do not ask you about that either.” The Prophet said, “Do you ask about the virtues of the Arabs?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Those who were the best amongst you in the pre-lslamic time are the best amongst you in Islam, if they comprehend.

قَالَ سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَىُّ النَّاسِ أَكْرَمُ قَالَ ‏”‏ أَكْرَمُهُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاهُمْ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَأَكْرَمُ النَّاسِ يُوسُفُ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ ابْنُ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ خَلِيلِ اللَّهِ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَعَنْ مَعَادِنِ الْعَرَبِ تَسْأَلُونِي ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا نَعَمْ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَخِيَارُكُمْ فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ خِيَارُكُمْ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ إِذَا فَقِهُوا ‏”‏‏.‏ تَابَعَهُ أَبُو أُسَامَةَ عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللَّهِ‏.‏

A Religious World Divided? – Call & Response

I have had an interesting reaction to my previous post, A Religious World Divided?. I enjoy having this blog so that I can have a dialog with my fellow Muslims (non-Muslims are welcome to jump in, too!). It allows me, as a student of the social sciences, to examine the nature of some of our tendencies and reply with some of my examinations as well as your thoughts.

In response to the post, Tariq Nelson posted a piece on his blog concerning my post and in doing so, comments ensued. And while I greatly enjoyed the response, I feel compelled to single out one in particular and give it some additional thought and examination. The following thoughts and comments should be taken as constructive criticism.

Abu Noor al-Irlandee posted the following comment:

I love this cultural apostasy point but I know I have a different take on it than some.

My family accepted that me as a Muslim and we remain very close and I think that is beautiful and I would want that to be the case for everyone. At the same time, I hope there always remains as long as this country’s ruling structures are as oppressive as they are a sense that accepting Islam is an apostasy in the sense that one is rejecting the oppression and injustice of this society. I would want sometime to spell this out more at some point but just think about the converts to Islam in the Makkan period…there were some senses in which they were committing cultural apostasy and some senses in which they weren’t. I don’t long for a time when Islam is completely accepted in America because that would mean America has no fear that Muslims are going to threaten the structures of injustice that exist in America. Maybe that’s different for Blackamericans, because even if they are accepted as Americans, they are still usually seen as at least a possible threat, Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas notwithstanding. Speaking as someone who would fit the definition of a white American I hope there never comes the time when I would be acceptable to the white establishment…yes to cultural apostasy! Umar and Abu Sinan are you with me?

I would like to make a clarification as well as respond to the brother’s comments. While I am happy for this brother’s experience with his family accepting him as a Muslim, that was off of the point that I was making in my post. Families in general have a way of reconciling issues that the greater society cannot. Whether that be a homosexual family member or someone who has converted to Islam, one’s family will have a way of dealing and normalizing that issue where society may not.

As for the early community in Makkah, they did indeed commit cultural apostasy and the Prophet was keenly aware of this. He knew the sacrifice he was asking of his fellow Muslims, hence many kept their Islam a secret until much later. And yet despite the hardships that the Prophet faced from the Quraysh, he never lost his love of his people. It is clear, if one studies the Prophet’s biography, that he dearly cared for his people. Pagan, Jew, Christian, and all.

It is commonplace for Muslims today to draw parallels between the early Muslims and what we may face in today’s world, wherever we may reside. But we must also not loose site that we are not living in Revelatory times. In this I mean that while the early Muslims faced persecution from the Quraysh, we are not those Muslims, in those times, and our oppressor cannot simply be replaced as a representative of Abu Lahab or the Quraysh (i.e., the American government or greater society). Instead, to draw from the brother’s quote on Hudaybiyyah and the opening of Makkah (Fath-ul-Makkah), these should be seen as exercises in restraint, compromise and the ability to coexist with those who may have different religious tenements that you do.

al-Irlandee further added:

I don’t long for a time when Islam is completely accepted in America because that would mean America has no fear that Muslims are going to threaten the structures of injustice that exist in America.

I find this statement particularly troubling and if I may say so, ignorant as well as arrogant. The idea that Islam is something that America should fear is absolutely stupid and reckless on his behalf. And above all, where is Islam, and more to the point, Muslims, under any obligation to challenge the status quo? If you see Islam as some sort of “magic pill” for America to swallow and all its problems and issues will magically disappear then you’re even more ignorant that you have made your statements out to be. This may seem harsh but I find this brand of designer revolutionary rhetoric damaging and ridiculous, as well as highly convenient as it easily allows for the justification of a whole array of notions, such as not participating in society, not taking care of one’s responsibilities and so forth. I find this propaganda reminiscent of the the talk I often here at a coffee house near my residence. It is usually filled with white hipsters, replete with their tattoos and piercing, who talk vaingloriously about, “sticking it to the man”, while their father most likely is the man. If I may be so bold, this is commonplace for many white Americans, who in surrendering their Ellis Island ethnicity for a brand-x whiteness, feel they must compensate by acting out as chic revolutionaries.

While I agree with al-Irlandee that in some respects, Blackamericans are still viewed as a threat (especially when affluent, suburban whites come in contact with inner-city blacks) but I find it curious that al-Irlandee chose to single out Condoleeza Rice and Thomas Thomas as his two examples of blacks who are non-threatening. Is it perhaps that these two people also happen to embrace an ideology that conflicts with Mr. al-Irlandee (I’m not objecting to his objection with them – just that he chose them), therefore “selling out”? I would counter that Bill Cosby or Sidney Poitier would be perceived as no less harmless than Ms. Rice or Mr. Thomas but perhaps that they don’t represent “The Man”, they would not make the cut.

From examining al-Irlandee’s statements, it would seem that Islam is more about Revolution than it is about morality. And while al-Irlandee does mention “justice” it seems that it is a specific brand of justice, one which can only be brought about by Islam and “true Muslims” who reject America and all of her wanton moral depravity. As I stated in my post, revolutions do not have long shelf lives. They are often used as tools to achieve other means, perhaps means that in the end, will no longer coincide with the objectives of the revolution itself (the Cuban Revolution comes to mind). Again, I would ask for some type of justification on this stance from the Sunnah of the Prophet.

Another part of al-Irlandee’s response was his justification for not identifying as American and yet claiming some notion of “Irishness”. I would ask al-Irlandee if he was born in Ireland and even if he was, does he reside there? My intuition tells me that al-Irlandee is an Irish-American, who at best, can claim his heritage as hailing from that fair, green land. In what way are you able to claim being Irish when in all likeliness, you’ve been raised here in America. The food you eat is American. The language you speak is American English (not Gaelic or the Queen’s English). This stance to me seems to be an illegitimate excuse to not embrace what you clearly are (an American!) and simply get on with it. And as for the reference to, “hyper-assimilated Irish Americans” (I don’t know what “hyper” here means), rebel or protest people, to me, is “same thing, different smell”.

al-Irlandee continues in his response by stating that,

“…you will never catch me waving an American flag.”

I would ask al-Irlandee how and what do you consider adherence to being American? Does it necessitate waving a flag? Does it take some formal, outward action in order to be included within the fold of America? I would certainly say no. I have not waved an flags and yet I have spoken at the National Constitution Center, having participated in an interfaith reading of the Constitution. Would that in your eyes compromise my Islam? Or even my Blackness? I would say that you have some serious contemplation to do regarding your stance on being American as well as being Muslim. My point about immigrant Muslims being accepted into America and how it revolved around the two main modes of Americaness, mainly white or black, had nothing to do with white Americans embracing Islam (which, of course, they are welcome to do so). Rather, it had precisely nothing to do with that. Such a move would again only validate the stance of majority-white America in that Islam is something “foreign” or something that isn’t “white”. So my point is not that Islam is waiting for white America to convert en masse, which I think we all know ain’t gon’ happen this decade. Instead, White America needs to be able to accept Islam as its own entity, not in how it lacks some Euro-centric/Western component.

From looking at what al-Irlandee wrote, it seems as if there is not room to consciously object while still maintaining allegiance to the greater society, in which ever form that might take. al-Irlandee is correct that many Muslims, black, immigrant or otherwise, may have conscientious objections to many aspects of governmental policies, foreign or domestic (odd how domestic policy gets so little scrutiny for the Muslims here even though there a a system of mass oppression going on – perhaps this fits into the other end of the “us and them” ideology). There is more than one way to be an American – many ways that do not involve flag waving, Constitution readings or otherwise. I find al-Irlandee’s definition to be close minded. Instead, it seems to be a justification to have a pouting party. Incidentally, this same form of rhetoric is used by the Salafi movement here on the East Coast (which is preached to predominantly black populations) which justifies lack of education, joblessness and overall lack of societal responsibility.

My advice to those who adhere to al-Irlandee’s viewpoint is to do some soul searching and reexamine the points on which you are trying to stand on. That reexamination may even require you to rethink why you’re Muslim (not to leave Islam, but “why” you’re Muslim) and the inertia behind it that keeps it moving (or is it stagnant instead?). Being American and Muslim are not two things that need to be reconciled. Instead, perhaps your political and worldly ideologies need reconciling. So I reject the notion that I am “Americanizing” myself. To examine that word, it would mean to make something American that was not so in its inception. Being that I was born in Detroit, and raised by Nancy and Pierre Manley, two proud American parents, I cannot be AmericanizedI already am! Instead, as is the case with many peoples in America, we suffer from an identity crisis. Whether that be Blackamericans who struggle with stereotypical definitions of “blackness” to white kids who grew up in the suburbs, who feeling that they have no culture, attempt to latch on to other perceived cultures (hip-hop is one that I can easily conjure up).

And as I said earlier, it is not my intention to personally attack Mr. al-Irlandee. While I found some of his comments confusing or even offensive, I only intend to engage the ideology and in doing so, I used al-Irlandee as an example. You can see al-Irlandee’s comments here. The post on Tariq’s blog is here. And God knows best.