Keepin’ It One Hunned

I want to keep it “one hunned”, as the young folks say today. Young Muslims — and here I mean The Next Wave (second generation immigrant, Blackamerican Muslims, converts), whine and moan and groan about the State of the Ummah, yet have not sacrificed even a modicum in comparison to their folk’s generation (or their grandparents in some cases). All the while, especially inner city Muslim communities, wallow in urban blight and decay. As a Blackamerican Muslim, I have been frustrated by my treatment in the broader (immigrant) Muslim community but that is only half the story. In truth I have also experienced incredible kindness and generosity often outstripping what I have experienced at the hands of my own Blackamerican Muslim counterparts. All too often now, we Blackamerican Muslims scoff at our immigrant brothers and sisters (I say “we” because I myself have been a part of this) about how they came here for “Dunya” (worldly means). In my opinion, this has been a very short-sited explanation of how Allah, the Majestic!, moves people around as well as some measure of hasad (envy) on our parts to be sure. As the Book says, “they have a plan, and I have a plan”. Indeed, some immigrant Muslims did come here for worldly gain (which is not in and of itself blameworthy) but they also helped to establish Muslim communities. Communities many of us have benefited from day one. I cringe to think of where we would even pray (in the streets?) if it were not for the establishment of many of these communities. Were they perfect? No. Should they have done things differently? Certainly. However, if we look at their histories, and had we lived those same histories, we might, (ironically) have done the same things they did!

What we need now is not another documentary about the State of the Ummah, but a way forward that benefits the maximum amount of people. This will mean starting small, verses attempting to build mega-mosques. In fact, some of the most successful organizations we see in front us today, from AlMaghrib Institute, to Zaytuna, to Ta’leef, for example, all started as small organizations often held together by nothing other than the close bonds of Muslims who, in addition to believing in God, believed in one another. This is why I want to present the following rubric as a way, a suggestion, for small groups of disenfranchised believers to channel that frustration into action.

A Way Forward

Community-Budget

I have laid out in the above image a rubric which demonstrates the amount of capital that can be raised by groups of various sizes and capacities to contribute to a central fund. As you can see, even a group as small as ten people — at four to five dollars a day — could rent a location allowing them create their own spaces (see Dr. Jackson’s definition of third spaces) for their own uses. The numbers obviously grow as does the number of participants. The reason I find this rubric informative is that it illustrates that great numbers of people are not needed to effect change, or at the very least, start. Instead, it is a matter of determination and trust that allows small but efficient groups to grow and be successful.

At first blush this may seem divisive: a call to split the community and fracture its unity. I would counter that there a number of Muslims who equally pollinate between AlMaghrib, Zaytuna, and Ta’leef, just to mention a few. But what is great about these institutions is that they all serve different demographics; no single one serves the entire community. Smaller local homegrown organizations are much more adaptable and scalable to meet the needs of local communities.

In summary, and to return to my initial critique, this generation of Muslims will need to rise up, not only to face the challenges that are in front of them, but rise up and give thanks for what came before them. In this I equally indict myself. We’ve all been the benefactors of communities and mosques built by those who came before us all the while contributing very little of nothing at all. And in particular, to my fellow Blackamerican Muslims, we truly have no excuse as to why we are not community builders. It is for no other reason than we have conflated cynicism and our protest spirit with pietistic indifference. Most of us have no qualms with giving Mr. Comcast and Mrs. Verizon $100 — $200 dollars a month, Mr. Dunkin Donuts $30 — $50 a month, all the while crying and complaining about materialistic immigrant Muslims and their racist communities, simultaneously refusing to donate to causes that have a black face on them. Our success (and Allah!) will demand a much higher level of engagement that we have thus far been willing to give.

The time is upon us to build. I continue to be astounded at the inability for Muslims in America and American Muslims (there’s a difference) to see providence in our being here. Nowhere else in Muslim history have we seen the meeting of two auspicious histories converging on the same spot: the emigration of large numbers of Muslims from the historic Muslim world to America at the same time the single largest mass-conversion to Islam in the western hemisphere (may God have mercy on Imam Warith Deen Mohammed!). Both of these events unfolding as America’s traditional religious and moral values begin to waver and crumble. For what else is it that the Qur’an says about our Book (and vise-a-vie, ourselves):

وَإِذْ قَالَ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ يَا بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ مُصَدِّقًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيَّ مِنَ التَّوْرَاةِ وَمُبَشِّرًا بِرَسُولٍ يَأْتِي مِنْ بَعْدِي اسْمُهُ أَحْمَدُ

“And when ‘Isa son of Maryam said, ‘Tribe of Israel, I am the Messenger of God to you, confirming the Torah which came before me and giving you the good news of a Messenger after me whose name is Ahmad’.”Qur’an 61: 6.

Like Jesus the son of Mary (peace and blessings upon them both), who was sent as a reformer to the Tribe of Israel, so too is Islam: that which confirms which is true that came before it. America, by the mid-60’s, had forgotten what was morally true from its own tradition: sexual immorality, usury, crime and violence, etc. We must come to see our being here greater than some materialistic drive, but rather, as one’s ‘aqidah should confirm, part of God’s Divine Plan to remind and revive, not destroy and ridicule. Our mission here, indeed our very lives, should not about grabbing and acquiring political power (though we should have a political voice, a conversation for another time) but rather about reminding America about what is ultimately good (God, first and foremost) and what is right. I see this whole scenario unfolding before our eyes as perfect timing, only as God could do it!, that the one community that is supposed to be witnesses over humanity (just as our Messenger is a witness over us!) would be brought, through fantastic historic forces, to America just at the moment when things look dark.

So take a moment and reflect on these words. Find, God willing, if you can, ten like-minded people in your community, and plant the seeds for something good and wholesome to grow. Gone is the time for being unmosqued. Now is the time for re-mosqued, for asserting oneself, with all proper etiquette, and with a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, all fi sabil’Allah (in the way of God).

Islam: Questions and Answers

I am re-posting this from a letter my wife wrote about the 20/20 incident.

After lengthy discussion about ABC’s recent 20/20 program on an email listserv for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Maytha Alhassan invited members to compose a letter to the producers. We have workshopped the letter with someone in the media and incorporated suggestions from readers. If you are interested in signing, please send your name, title, and affiliation.

ABC’s 20/20

Islam: Questions and Answers

We applaud ABC’s 20/20 for producing the show “Islam: Questions and Answers” program, which attempted to address the American public’s curiosity about Islam and show the true face of Islam in America. However, as scholars, activists, educators, and community leaders, we are concerned about the ways in which this program misrepresented Muslim Americans.  We would like to address three major areas where your program inaccurately depicted Islam in America: first, by continually asserting that moderate Muslims do not speak up; second, by overlooking the contributions of African American Muslims;  and finally, allowing women who have complete antipathy towards Islam (Pamela Gellar and Ayaan Hirsi) to speak for Muslim women. The producers and researchers may have been well meaning, however the program’s insensitivity and lack of nuance  alienated many American Muslims and perpetuated many misconceptions about American Muslims. Our aim is to address these three areas and provide some recommendations for more accurate coverage of American Muslims in the future.

  1. First, the show continually asked, “Why don’t we hear or see more mainstream, peaceful Muslims speaking up?” or “Where are the moderate voices?”
    • It is problematic to divide Muslims into binary categories of “moderate” and “radical.” Would the same categorical statement be made about the socio-political orientation of followers of different religious faiths and other ethnic groups? How would the mainstream reaction to your program be had you produced a segment titled “Where are all the moderate Christians?,” “Where are all the moderate Latino Americans?” The framing of these questions and methodology of answering these questions highlights an acceptability of a bigoted stance on Muslims that is rarely acknowledged.
    • Muslim Americans are constantly blamed for not speaking up, however the media bears some responsibility. Moderate Muslims continually speak out and do positive things for American society, but this does not make it in the news. And there American Muslim scholars and leaders who hold conferences, talks, lectures devoted to the topic of “Forging an American Muslim identity.” Zaytuna Institute scholars Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, Islamic Center of New York University Imam Khalid Latif and professor Dr. Sherman Jackson are but a few of the many American born intellectuals and community leaders who do speak out.
    • Where is the media when peaceful Muslims gather, participate in the American political process, protest terrorism, violence, and hatred?
    • At one point, an expert posits a recommendation “They need to have a million man march on Washington,” while conveniently ignoring that the Million Man March was actually led by a Muslim man, Louis Farakhan.
    • On September 25, 2009, Islam on Capitol Hill gathered an estimated 8,000 to prayer Friday prayers. And on October 15, 2010 thousands of Muslims once again convened on Capitol Hill to demonstrate their belief in American democracy and promote religious freedom, however, there were few media outlets at the DC event.
    • Muslim Congressmen Keith Ellison wrote an Op-ed “Should We Fear Islam?” in the Washington Post speaking to the first point made in this section. Ellison and Muslim Congressman Andre Carson were also completely absent from the program, which brings us to an important issue of accurate portrayal of American Muslims.
  2. The program reinscribes Islam as a foreign religion by focusing on Arab and South Asian immigrant communities in the US, at the expense of African American Muslim communities.
    • Your program excluded African American Muslims in the narrative of Islam in America and conflated of Arab with Muslim. African Americans make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America, and yet your program visited Dearborn, Patterson, NJ, and even Egypt to speak with Arabs who compose the third largest group of Muslims in the US.
    • The Nation’s first capitol, Philadelphia, has a rich and long history of Muslims. There was a community of orthodox Black American and Caribbean American Muslims from the 1920s. It has high concentration of Muslims, a Muslim chief of police, Muslims who work in city government, etc.
    • With the over-exposure of Arab Muslims, your program even failed to mention that Arab American Muslims are in the minority in Arab American communities. Most Arab Americans are Christian.
    • The program did a poor job discussing, engaging with and highlighting the diverse community of Muslims.
    • Low figure for Muslims (2-3 million?), and no breakdown of the demographics.
    • No discussion of converts.
    • The program even failed to show celebrated athletes (NFL, NBA, boxing, Soccer players), politicians and historical figures who are Muslim and African American.
  3. Finally, the segment, “Does Islam oppress women?” did a great disservice to Muslim women.
    • While we appreciate the inclusion of one Muslim voice, Irshad Manji, she herself is not a scholar on Islam.
    • Instead two polemics who are vehement in their anti-Islam stance, Ayaan Hirsi and Pamela Gellar received undo attention.
    • Your program failed to include any Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson (a Canadian scholar who recently ended her term as ISNA president), or Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud to speak in this segment? Their and other scholars’ absence is an indication of an asymmetric representation of opposition views.
    • Perhaps these scholars would have shed light on Muslim women’s contributions through history such as Islam’s first convert, Khadija al-Kubra, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, who was also his employer before marrying. One of the first Sufi saints was a woman, Rabia al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Rabia al-Basri) or Nana Asma’u, a West African educator and reformer.

In order to explore our rich diversity, we have provided some recommendations to improve your coverage of American Muslims below:

  1. Explore the long history of Muslims in the US, a history of residency and settlement that predates the formation of America as a country. American born Nawawi scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has written extensively on this subject.
  2. Include broader segments of the American Muslim community to ensure that each major ethnic group, South Asian American, African American, and Arab American, is represented in your programs.
  3. Attend Muslim American events, banquets and conferences like the prayer on Capitol Hill, MPAC, CAIR’s functions, etc. Do not just focus on sensationalism, but cover American Muslims during Ramadan or Eid al-Adha (the end of Hajj).
  4. We ask your researchers and staff to be more careful in their selection of “experts.” Make distinctions between socio-politics and Islamic scholarship. None of the women you interviewed in the question on the oppression of women in Islam had training in Islamic scholarship on covering or the hijab. We can help provide a list of scholars and experts who would be happy to lend their expertise.
  5. Consider diversifying your staff, researchers and interns with knowledge, expertise, and experience in various communities may yield better results.

In summation, your program provided a rare opportunity to provide accurate coverage of Muslims and clear up misconceptions. As acknowledged at the onset of your program, the controversy surrounding the Park 51 community center elicited a renewed curiosity in Islam. We were pleased with the inclusion of Edina Lekovic’s (MPAC) comments, Reza Aslan’s explanation of the definition of “fatwa,” and Faiza Ali’s (CAIR-NY) elucidation of the hijab’s complex historical place in cultural and religious practice, “coerced headcoverings are tribal.” However we note that while your program was a step in the right direction, it still ended up being misleading. By taking into consideration the recommendations we have made, your producers can create more accurate programing on Muslim Americans thereby showing the real face of Islam in America.

Where To Turn To When Returning To Spirituality

 

There has been a great increase in interest in spirituality from the Muslim community over the last several years. Published manuscripts of this or that teacher, new translations of Ibn ‘Arabi’scosmology as well as lesser known, more esoteric authors have hit the shelves of book stores in waves. The Muslim readership in the English-speaking world are hungry for spiritual sustenance. But is this hunger being fed? That is the question I would like to ask.

This new call for methods and practices on Muslim spirituality have not been solely limited to print. Many neo-Traditional institutions have found themselves in demand, holding numerous seminars across the United States and Britain, calling for returns to a spiritual practice of Islam. And while I laud these efforts, I will illustrate how some of these mediums may not actually be accomplishing their goals: to help engender a spirit of God conscious amongst the rank and file believers. And finally, to go beyond just critique, I will try and offer a few meager suggestions myself.

It goes without saying that Islam is a religion that has a strong historicaland spiritual practice, what some may call Sufism, Tasawwuf, or mysticism, found in all corners of the earth, where ever Muslims have traveled to. It is linked with many of the great intellectual and philosophical figures in Muslim history (the aforementioned Ibn ‘Arabi, Mulla Sadra and of course, the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali). Many if not most of these spiritual traditions have survived up to the present day, from Africa to Asia, the Balkans to the Middle-East, in various turuq (plural of tariqah, or a Sufi brotherhood). And now that Islam has arrived on America’s shores, what will its spiritual tradition look like? Is there one at all? Proto-Islamic groups, such as the Nation of Islam, had their roots in a “holy protest” against white supremacist values and socialinjustices; spirituality was not a primary or even secondary focus of their experiences as Muslims (note: I am obviously aware of the doctrinal differences between orthodox Islam and the problematic theology of the NOI, but for the purposes of this article, I will refer to them nonetheless as Muslim here) in America. Following the popular demise of the NOI in the face of Muslims hailing from the historical Islamic world, again, we see most Muslims in America primarily concerned with existential matters: education, employment, assimilation. And while these are all necessary matters, they cannot sustain a community over the long haul alone. So why the recent interest in spirituality? And more importantly, how will it shape itself in this unique context, addressing the many various needs of the American Muslim community? These are some of the questions that beg many answers.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the last severalyears attending, photographing, and observing many religious functions of Muslims in America. Many of these, whose objectives are a call to spirituality and the return to a more focused spiritual life. The significance of this shift coming post 9/11 cannot be ignored, as it helps us to see who’s interested and why. To be more direct, calls for a return to spirituality have been championed primarily by immigrant-supported groups. By supported I mean groups either led by leaders or more importantly, support financially by immigrant Muslims. Many, though not all of these Muslims tend to come from more affluent backgrounds, having both more formal education than their Blackamericancounterparts as well as the disposable income to support such groups and even the human capitalto volunteer and assist in their implementation. This should not be thought of as a critique versus merely an observation. In fact, it is because of the lack of both economic and human capital that many indigenous [and here I am referring to Blackamerican] institutions have yet to fully take flight. So the question I ask myself is in what way, in what role, will indigenous Muslims have a role in shaping the future of the development of spiritual practices. But before attempting to answer such a question, first we must look at what are the current practices and trends on the ground and what does the triage call for.

Like any thing else in the American Muslim experience, divergent groups will have divergent needs. The spiritualneeds and practical implementation of any such developed practices will have to vary from community to community. The trials and tribulations of immigrant Muslims may indeed be very different from those of BlackamericanMuslims, regardless if they are low-income urban Blacks or educated, upwardly mobile. It is the different histories of the two communities that will drive (or ought to be) and dictate the spiritual needs of the communities. What I believe should be paid more attention to is that bothcommunities have a real need for such a return. And while this has been felt by the immigrant Muslim community, in large, this has either been ignored by the Blackamerican population, especially in urban settings, where there is a palpable mistrust of such practices as deviant, or not fully articulated into a “need”, and thus practice. But there has been a small groundswell of interest in more independent-minded BlackamericanMuslims, many of whom I have been in contact with and have discussed this very same topic. For them, the question is not “if”, in terms of spiritual practice, but “how” and “by whom”, and in what way. Many of us have toured the travel circuit, attended the lectures and workshops but have yet to be left with a feeling of a workable plan. A functional spirituality that gives meaning to their private lives as Muslims. That bring them closer to God.

With two possible tracks articulated, the question now turns to the institutions themselves. How are they, if at all, prepared to deal with the multiplicity of backgrounds, cultural proclivities and the like of the above groups. The traveling workshop has left many with just a taste of what might be possible, but with no solid or tangible means to pursue these practices further. Many have stated they do not feel they can learn or accomplish much in a one-day or two-day talk, often of which the topics seem more like a talk show format than something truly topical. Should we be asking more and/or different formats of dissemination from our Islamic higher institutions of learning? Many would seem to think so. And given that time and money are of limited supply, many of these attendees feel that their money, time, and resources could be put to better use for better results.

To be certain, a great deal of this difficulty is brought about by modern life itself, which at many times can seem and feel antithetical to the betterment of the human being. Time constraints, inflation, taking more to obtain less, all add to the stress and detracted interaction of not only Muslims from one another, but to all peoples caught in this bind. And while the Internet has made the dissemination of information doubly more proficient, it has yet to prove to be truly capable to mimicking the experience of bona-fide human involvement. In short, both short seminars and web casts are poor substitutions for proper teachers and real companionship (suhbah, the word from which the word Sahabah (the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وسلم companions) is derived). And it may be true that the greater aspects of spirituality are those demons we all rankle with on the inside, there is also an outer aspect that involves companionship with our common man. And in our case specifically, with other Muslims. I myself saw the proof of this when interviewing many of the attendees at conferences such as MANA and ISNA or even talks by Zaytuna. They all attested to the fact that the greatest benefit from those conferences wasn’t the talks, wasn’t the shopping at the bazaars, but it was just the honest-to-goodness social interaction with other like-minded Muslims. I believe this to be step one in commencing our journey towards a healthy spiritual practice. We must come to know one another. And there is plenty of evidence that we, as an American Muslim collective, still do not know one another as well as we should.

“O’ mankind! Without a doubt we created you from a single pair of man and woman and made you of various sorts and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” al-Hujaraat, 13.

As for the second step of this journey, we, both the rank and file and the administrators of such institutions, must constantly ask, “is this serving our purpose?” Is this what we need? Along with a new generation of imams, who will need to be trained in more than just Qur’anicrecitation, our next generation of scholars and community educators must need be multifaceted, trained in many areas of expertise, capable of on-spot cultural analysis, assessing that the community needs, what they’re facing, and how best to prepare them for the world in which they not only live in, but for one they want to live in, and of course, for the life to come. Perhaps in there lies a hope for divergent communities to come together, utilize and celebrate the genius of our communities, and not just sending our best and brightest off to study medicine and engineering. I encourage many of my Blackamericanbrethren to take a second look at the intellectual and spiritual history and tradition of Islam and not right it off as just “bid’ah“. With all of the difficulties that Blackamericans face, especially those coming out of urban backgrounds, we need to deliver to them an Islam that is more than simply an conglomerate of rules and regulations. More intelligent ways of saying “halal” and not just “haram”, without giving up or into the demands of the dominant culture and yet not completely disassociating ourselves from it. Without a doubt, we need a return to spirituality, but we can ask for and receive better.

And God knows best.