The Consequences of No Spiritual Growth

Taken by my father off I-94 near Jackson, Michigan at exit 147

As of late, I have heard a tremendous amount of talk about the State of Such-And-Such Islam; the State of Islam in America. The State of Blackamerican Islam and so forth. There has been majlis councils, shura councils, and every other kind of advisory board that one can shake a stick at. And yet, at the heart of many of these discussion that I have been privy to, none discuss matters of the heart. None discuss the lack of spiritual growth, that in my opinion, lies much closer to the root of the issues that are plaguing [if I may be so bold] and concerning Muslims all throughout America.

I have had a number of discussions lately with a few of my contemporaries, both Muslim and Christian, where we all displayed a general concern over the modern temperament of religious thought and dialog. In a recent conversation with another Blackamerican Muslim that I keep a correspondence with, he dismayed over how the Islam that he was handed has not played out to the Islam he was looking for. My accretion and addendum to his thought was that for many of us, and here I’m speaking as a middle 30’s Black male, we were in search of an identity and spirituality was not something that was on our radar. Consequently, the Islam that we were handed [or better yet, the Islam we handed ourselves] failed to have a prolonged shelf life. As we changed, it did not. In fact, change and mobility was never a part of the initial design concept, if you take my meaning. Instead of using Islam as a vehicle for moral and spiritual upliftment, instead it has been used as a means of justifying whatever idiosyncrasies we have; in our case [Blackamerican], it has been used to perpetuate a diseased mental state of no spiritual [and sometimes intellectual] growth. Get out of the ‘Hood? No! Instead, I will author a version of Islam that says I’m justified at being mad at Whitey and can stay stymied in poor economic, educational and health conditions. In other words, “It’s a Black Thang”.

But for me, the real loss here is not simply a lack of spirituality for the sake of itself but rather the shift of Islam [and for me, really, any religious tradition] from being God/Allah centered, to man centered. This may come as somewhat of a shock in that Islam prides itself as a religion where God is Central. All. One. And yet, so much of our quotidian religiosity is steeped in a man-centered ideology. I will try to illustrate some examples here. Make no mistake, I would not pretend to begrudge anyone coming from a Blackamerican background the resentment s/he may feel towards American society and how it has related or lack thereof, to Blacks. Institutionalized racism. Brutality. Unequal access to resources such as education, health care and wealth making opportunities. The list goes on. But by taking Islam and appropriating its religious and spiritual teachings solely to justify an existence that is based on the reaction to White fears, proclivities and injustices, woefully moves this mode of Islam from a God-centered religion to a man-centered. For who else should be alter our existence more for? Man? Or God? Allow me to tie this loop back in to my earlier statement.

While waiting for the subway at City Hall here in Philadelphia recently, I sat near a young Muslim brother who initially tried to ply his wares of incense, oils and DVD’s to me. Unsuccessful, he relented and sat down next to me whereupon I stuck up a conversation with him. Myself dressed in a pinstripe suit and he in a thobe, the young brother was astonished at my confession to being Muslim. His contempt at my mode of dress was ill concealed. Nonetheless, I pressed him and engaged him in a brief conversation about what constituted his Muslim identity. He had no difficulty in expressing to me that he thought my suit was “un-Islamic”, in that it imitated the kafir, and was not of the sunnah. In short, he continued to relate to me that he preferred his current mode of work because it was halal. He didn’t have to surround himself with kufar. He could dress like a “real Muslim” and that he was saving his money to “go over seas”. This young man’s diatribe should not be conceived or dismissed as juvenile. On the contrary, I believe there is a gold mine of information that is shared by many young Muslims like this brother, both Black and immigrant alike. In fact, this goes directly to supporting my above statement of a man-centered Islam. It is his perceptions of an imagined hostile environment that are driving his religious motivations, not a deeper, more personal conviction towards pleasing God. In my opinion, this is from the lack of a proper spiritual growth.

In order to begin to talk about spiritual growth I think that we must examine both of these keywords: spiritual, and growth. I will tackle the latter first, as it may be a bit easier. Growth implies planting, or germination of some sort. As it relates to us as Muslims, what have we planted, if anything at all. And if we have not planted anything of substance, what will we harvest? While not the aim or within the scope of this post, I believe this is tied into the overriding nihilism that we see today in modern Black culture. Nothing planted. Nothing harvested. In the Prophet’s tradition [i.e., sunnah] there is a tremendous amount of literature on the heart and its care and development. Sufi literal tradition abounds with it. So to conclude the first part, we obviously must plant something of substance for a bountiful harvest later.

Spirituality. in modern conversations about religion, spirituality comes up more often than religion itself. I often hear people describing themselves as spiritual but not religions. What is spirituality? Does Islam even have a spiritual component to it or is it simply a collection of religions edicts? Like most answer, I believe [D] – all of the above, applies. If we were to take the first half of the word, “spirit” then I think that’s a safe place to begin. For me, it would seem that spirit is something not of the tactile world – it is something rather beyond. Perhaps one could say it has no worldly function. If this be the case then Islam is full of spirituality. Hajj, for instance, could be described as a wholly spiritual endeavor. It certainly serves no worldly purpose. Sawm, or fasting during the month of Ramadan could also be termed as spiritual. Even salah, or the 5-times daily prayer, can be seen as a spiritual act, though certainly a communal one. But does Islam have any elements that go beyond a simple five point diagram that fits easily into a flier to handed out on street corners? What about spiritual development that encompasses acts of compassion, mercy, love and justice? And how many of us ever heard these terms when we took shahadah? As the brother said, it was never a part of the handbook he was given.

So if we can firmly establish that there is a tradition of spirituality and the necessity of spiritual growth in Islam, the remain question is, “what happened along the way?” Is this a simple matter of the decay of Black culture? Perhaps. Simply converting to Islam does not magically negate whatever social ills your environment might contain. But to lay the blame solely at the doorstop of Blackamerica would be too simple. Upon closer examination, I would say that spirituality is not even a topic that Muslims en masse are even engaged in discussing or practicing. Countless classes are offered at masajid across the States – but do any of them offer the attendee a chance to move beyond Islam 101? How can in individual, who say has been Muslim for 20, 30, or 40-plus years, continue to grow in a healthy manner, maturing in his/her Islam? Instead, classes on fiqh, Arabic grammar [rudimentary, mind you], how to pray, and so on, are offered in abundance. But the question that begs answering is how can we responsibility continue to perpetuate this line of thought? Of what valid importance is fiqh to a man or a woman who has no high school diploma, resides in crime and drug infested neighborhoods and his little upward mobility for economic and educational opportunities for him/her and his/her family? And yet, simultaneously, we have issues of domeestic violence in our communities as well as members of our communities that engage in disreputable activities. It is my belief that much of the modern humanity is in a deficient state regarding his/her spirituality. As Muslims [primarily speaking to Blackamerican Islam] we must make it a point and duty to reorient our educational efforts and primarliy as people come in the door to take shahadah. It is an embarrassment for me to see a masjid giving someone shahadah before they know who to make wu’duh or salah.

Perhaps, as Dr. Jackson pointed out in his erudite manifesto, Islam and the Blackamerican, some of these answers may be obtained from mining the wealth of knowledge and practice from various Sufi traditions. And I agree with him in his cautioning that the tendency towards cultism must be avoided. Yet, I hope that at some point, and soon the better, that investigation can get underway.

And God knows best.

Photograph © 2009 Pierre Manley

19 Replies to “The Consequences of No Spiritual Growth”

  1. Marquito~

    You are definitely ‘on point’ with the above musings! We were engaged in this conversation earlier and I am contented to see that the substance of our conversation (and others that we’ve had) have a broader, public forum for others to tap into, if they are remotely concerned. On a tangent point, I am currently reading “40 Million Dollar Slaves” by William Rhoden, and one quote that stands out is when the famous Black Nationalist woman, Audley “Queen Mother” Moore quips, “They not only called us Negroes, they made [my emphasis] us Negroes…’things’ that don’t know where they came from and don’t even care that they don’t know. Negro is a state of mind, and they massacred our minds.” If this be the case, then African Americans approach toward the Divine becomes even more daunting in that we must unmask our own elusive identity and then try to tap into our ultimate identity that lies solely within the Divine.

    In light of what you’ve written, it is no wonder that African Americans’ proclivity is towards using religioun as a means to exercise justifiable anger, which is a great tragedy within itself. As was poignantly stated, religion (and/or spirituality–let’s not get bogged down by the appropriations) ought to be G-D centered, not hu-man centered. In general, but in particular for African Americans, it is all important to understand ourselves in relation to G-D i.e., created, Creator without the tags of Black, White, Hispanic. In other words, G-D is not merely a ‘means to an end’…G-D is the ‘means’ and the ‘end.’

  2. Great article, Marc. My only small contention is with not giving shahadah until one has been taught wudu/salat. I took my shahadah without knowing these things, without even having read the Quran in fact. I was hungry for it and I don’t think delaying it would have helped anything. And I know lots of other people who have walked into a masjid out of the blue and asked for shahadah. You have to strike when the iron is hot. But I absolutely agree new convert education is sorely needed, pre or post shahadah.

    As an aside, didja know that Jewish ettiquette is that when a person asks to convert, you’re supposed to try to talk them out of it? “My son, are you sure you know what you’re getting into?” Haha.

    That photo your father took, is that depot town, Ypsilanti?

  3. I agree with this post on the lack of spiritual growth completely. The same is true for muslims in the UK. One thing that the article fails to acknowledge is the role that the literalist interpretation of our faith (imported from Saudi Arabia) has had on the dearth of spirituality and the lack of it in our Mosques and communities.

  4. I agree with this post on the lack of spiritual growth completely. The same is true for muslims in the UK. One thing that the article fails to mention is the role that the literalist interpretation of our faith (imported from Saudi Arabia) has had on the death of spirituality and the lack of it in our Mosques and communities. The same literalist interpretation has also been responsible for focussing too much on the outwards manifestations of our faith to it’s extremes. For example focussing too much on how high your pants are above your anckles, the length of your beard or colour of your hijab as being a mark of piety and less on inner spiritual growth and God conciousness.

  5. Salaam,
    Another thoughtful post.
    I completely agree that looking at the Sufi traditions will be invaluable for many of us being in the state we’re in – the only thing I cannot stand is the mentality that arises when people begin to label themselves. “Cult-like” is definitely what it is is some respects and it has the added effect of turning people away from a beautiful message. Growing up I saw many of my community begin their lives at the stage of “Islam 101” type education and end up taking bayah and embracing the spirit in Islam. No name was attached to who they were or what they were doing – they were just doing. InshaAllah our communities in North America, each with their own specific issues will be able to rise above the mundane and find that spirit that is just waiting to be grabbed.

  6. I’m struck by the way that “black” could be replaced in this writing with almost any identity group and the points would largely hold valid. I don’t mean to co-opt the experience of black muslims in america by saying so … rather to simply say that it is the function of groups to make their experiences the center of their perspectives, and — supposedly — the function of Islam to make God-consciousness the center of our perspectives. There is in essence a battle between the two, and it’s simply easier for the identity-centric view to win. Black muslim, muslim feminists, immigrant muslims, muslim converts, progressive muslims — it’s tempting for all of us to make the (generally well-earned) chips on our cultural shoulders the lenses through which we view all else. Even, ironically, just “muslim-muslims”: muslims looking at the social/political experience of being muslim. But when we do nothing to change ourselves but to add another adjective to our identity labels, to modify the chips with Islam rather than to try to lessen them through Islam or at least to lessen their weight through the cultivated awareness of the Greater … well, we see where we’re all at with that.

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  8. Salaam alaikum,
    You’ve articulated what I have been at loss to say. I think so many of us are suffering from an inner void. Not only are people suffering from spiritual development, but emotional developent. This is why people not only fail to strenghten their Deen, but continual to act enfantile in their dealings with their brothers, sisters, spouses, and children. I have yet to find program that deals with the emotional, psychological, and spiritual problems that plague members of our community. The sad thing is that we have traditions that deal with this. I began to see that tasawwuf minus the cultism and exploitation can help heal us. Insha’Allah, with thinkers like yourself we can begin to move forward in that direction. I don’t think that Black Americans are alone in this failure to develop. But, the importance is to recognize the ways broader social and cultural patterns have affected our pyschology. This is one of the reasons why I’m interested in social pyschology (not so much how groups think, but how sociological patterns effect the individual).

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  10. BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum. This is the second African or African-American that I have read in two days that is touching on their disappointment in their religion, Islam, and loosely point to an actual disappointment with the presiding Selafi position in this country. MashaAllah! Its about time.

    I was wondering when African-Americans Muslims were going to return to their tradition roots which were developed and organized in tasawwuf and tariqat. Though I must admit given the current status of African-American Muslims and Americans in general accepting tariqat ways would be difficult. Particularly because it is a spiritual purging, but in order to advance on in path one must step on his ego and not build it up. The ego must be reduced to nothing, we end the end must seek to be nothing; seeking that nothingness sincerely, which means looking for nothing in return only what please Allah to bestow upon us.

    So I am glad to see these kinds of writings on the internet. I wonder if anyone will actually act on these ideas. And as far as the cult-talk goes, this is typical jargon by non-Muslims about Muslims. It has been that way since the British and French orientalists began writing on the Orientals, i.e. the Muslims. For another spin on the cult-talk you may want to read Yursil’s article which puts your faith to the test.

  11. Salaam alaikum,

    Saifuddin, this comment is not intended on attacking your position. And, in fact, I have had little time to read your statements. I honestly think you don’t completely understand our sentiments as converts. Nor do you have a full understanding of the situation of Black Muslims in America. I am not saying that we don’t appreciate an outsiders perpective, sometimes it offers a fresh perspective. But sometimes inner dialogs are just that. And when someone is not empathetic or really feel where you are coming from tells you how you should feel or thing, it is like they are talking AT you, not WITh you.

    So, with that in mind what I am writing below is more intended for American converts and is in now way intended to blast Sufi organizations, but merely an observation of the social orientations and changing trends in the African American Muslim community:

    Over the past 14 years I have seen some major shifts with a number of Muslims. Some transformations have been great, but other ones lack luster. For me, it was disappointing to see how people lived out our lofty faith and fell short of the ideals we all hold. I find rays of hope, but some days it is really clear that we understand just 10% of our faith. I don’t know if anybody has it on lock. Some people aren’t even trying.

    I had a conversation with a friend who is also familiar with traditional Islam and we have numerous friends who are associated with this tariqa or that one. After almost a decade and a half, both of us went through many transformations in our orientation to Islam. I was one of those activist, fright oppression and inequality in America and oversears, kind of Muslims. I was taught that Islam had the solution to solve the problems in the inner city, in the Black community, and in the world in general. Islam was anti-oppression, uplifitng for women, the solution to unstable family lives, bad politics, etc. So, then when I saw Muslims use Islam to perpetuate the culture poverty, Muslim families unstable and single mothers living in poverty, the Middle class Muslims just as materialistic and immature as the20 year olds who ran the dot com start ups, I began to wonder about the superficiality of our understanding.

    As I saw my own development fall short. I knew something was missing. Like you said, it was a man centered orientation. I needed to feel something more inside. I came to see tasawwuf as an essential component or getting at the core me, of healing, of getting real grounding. That being said, I used to have high expectations of the members of the turuq. But with even the mainstream orders that proport to follow the sunnah, I found a lot of weird stuff going on. People fell short of the ideals that I read about in books. There was cliquishness, group think, mean spiritedness, showiness, and big egos draped in acts of piety. Some sheikhs did shady things like forcing husbands to divorce wives, wives from husbands, having secret marriages, becoming extremely wealthy by following more evangelical conventions than our tradition of teaching from knee to knee. But I also know some Sufis who have had programs that have helped their followers reign in their nafs and be better people.

    My mentor told me one day that the tariqa is a hospital. And a hospital is for sick people. There are different wards, some are in critical condition. Some are out patient. So, when someone is proud that they are in the exclusive ward, you have to wonder. There are many diseases of the soul, and the process of spiritual development makes those apparent, as well.The same can be said for Islam in general.

    I find it interesting how this new generation of Muslims seems less interested in engaging with broader social issues and working to build community. We have either the culture of anger and despair or the culture of disengagement and the inner self. Sometimes it borders on solipsism. When I converted to Islam, my generation was all about the activism, the building, the brother and sisterhood. We really saw ourselves on the vanguard, we wanted to change the world. But we had no spiritual development. So what all know what that leads up to. Now I see the spiritual development but it is all nafsi (all about me). Now I hear people who want sacred knowledge, not so much as trying to find a way to apply it to improve our personal situation and uplift those around us, but just because we want to have it. It doesn’t seem like many of these students are thinking about how social conditions have a corrupting affect. Instead they are disengaged, obsessed with details, and seem just as anxiety ridden and judgmental as their co-religionists with a different orientation.

    Sorry for the rambling. I just wanted to say that it is important to have both inner development and to work to better the lives of people around us. We cannot be shut up in our rooms doing our Arwad for 10 hours, while being mean to our neighbors and brothers and sisters. I guess it is about the balance, and not just some broad pendulum swings from this trend to that. So, I feel like what you’re saying is on point.

  12. Margari,

    salaam and thanks for the well thought out response. I second your emotions on what many of us from our generation may have been looking for – activism, social paradigm shifts and so on. I think to look at this critically, we can’t even discount the influence of 1st-gen hip-hop and how it also was right in line with that type of social clarion call. But the world is the world and we were young and found out that it takes more than slogans, incense and Pumas to change the world. Some of us looked inward while others drew inward. And some others besides those lashed out while yet others again tuned out and dropped off. Fortunately, as we have seen of late, there have been some winds of change. People are starting to look around at their friends and neighbors and at themselves and say, “Is this working? Is this pleasing to God? Is this what I was sent to do?” Again, it’s only a faint breeze but I force myself to hope that from thought comes action and that it’s just not a cool summer’s breeze, refreshing but brief, with the stagnant heat to follow it.

    As for Saifuddin’s comments, I will address them in another post as well as other comments you’ve left here. But to put it simply for you again, you’re way over stepping your bounds. You’re meddling in something that is not your forte – that is to say the history and experience of the Blackamerican Muslim. Your words sound typically immigrant-arrogant. “You silly American converts – you’ll never achieve ‘true Islam’ until you do it our way”. You are entitled to think that tasawwuf may be the solution to all the world’s problems and we all have to have a shaykh in the way you deem one ought to have a shaykh. But when you come and tell me that my Islam is wrong and won’t “work” until it’s done “right”, you’re way out of scope. And it is here, scope, that is getting most Muslims into trouble or even I dare say the world in this Modernity. So I challenge you to go back and reexamine your Prophet’s life, his sunnah, his seerah, and see if it’s as scripted as you would have us believe. And as good as brother Yursil’s article may be, it is God who will challenge my faith and no mortal man!

  13. BismillahirRahmanirRaheem


    I’m surprised at the attempt to belittle Saifuddin’s experience in this regard. Saifuddin, unlike myself, is a Black American and as a convert. Does that in itself give him the right to speak on the subject? Possibly not, but then again I don’t see why it makes his comment overstepping any bounds greater than your own comments on the subject.

    As far as whether you Islam won’t “work” until it is done “right” I’m not sure why quotations are used because Saifuddin didn’t use those terms or words to describe your Islam. Rather, your article here is speaking of the consequences of no spiritual growth, and that in itself is trying to say what doesn’t work until its done ‘right’. Isn’t it?

  14. BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum, thank you for clearing this up Yursil. Marc and Aziza, perhaps you would like to re-read the post, Islam and Sufism in West Africa a second time without such biases as you expressed in earlier comments. You may find it insightful, the second time around.

  15. Saifuddin,
    Like I said, I was more interested in having a conversation with Marc about spirituality and the Black American community, not in sparing with you. I am interested in dialog, not having your opinion shoved down my throat. Sorry to sound so harsh, but that’s how some of your statements come off as I’ve read your posts on several people’s blogs. I am not sure that you intend it that way. But it just does. Maybe it has something to do with youth. I don’t mean to be caustic, but I think you assume that I read your post. But I haven’t gotten around to it. So, how have I read any bias into it? Please don’t make assumptions.

    Yursil, from what I gather Saifuddin was Fulani meaning that he was of West African origin. Some of his statements indicated he also recognized his identity distinct from African Americans. He seemed to comment as an outsider, telling African Americans to follow the West African model–the model of his ancestors. Melanin does not make one an expert on the social conditions that plague the African American community. I don’t understand Afro-Brazilian culture nor do I fully understand Haratine issues in Morocco (even though I might be treated as one while travelling or residing there). Many of these social conditions have lead to some serious spiritual diseases that are endemic in African American Sunni, Salafi, and yes even Sufi communities.

    I am fully aware of the integral part that Sufism played in West Africa. That is the reason why I chose that as my particular field. West Africans took traditions and articulated them in ways that addressed local conditions. There are lessons to be learned about Islam in Africa–West Africa in particular. Transmission of knowledge and isnad does not mean statis. Islam in West Africa was very dynamic and open to change and creative interpretations. In the same way, African Americans and American Muslims will also articulate their spiritual development in different ways. I don’t think that Americans will slavishly adopt another mode, but instead will create a synthesis. The truth is not everyone is going to be into tasawwuf. There’s just too much diversity. Also, the tariqa is not going to play as large role in America as it did in West Africa, unless it starts focusing on many of the social functions it played in history (i.e. lodges for travellers, social aid during famine or time of need, establishing trustworthy business relations across wide distances, conflict resolution between tribes and factions, etc).

  16. BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum Aziza, you are not doing so well with your assessments of me and my background. You wrote,

    “Maybe it has something to do with youth.”

    I’m not exactly sure your age, marital or maternal status but, I’m over 30, a husband and father of three 😉 But if you wish to dismiss me and my experience as a Muslim in America with African origins, you have the right to do so. As you like.

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum

  17. Salaam alaikum,
    I was wrong in my assessment of your age, I assumed you were in your twenties. In the Western sense, you are still a youth but in the Muslim sense you are still a youth–as I am (although in ME and many Muslim countries unmarried women in their 30s are considered spinsters). I was not trying to be condescending, I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. But knowing your age, I guess it could be taken as kind of offensive to state that an approach reflected immaturity. My intent was not to offend or be dismissive.

    As far as discounting your insight into the Black American Muslim experience, it depends on your upbringing and background. I know African Muslim who do have similar experiences as Black Americans, but they do come with a cultural edge that many of us Black Americans don’t have. Many of the Africans who make it to America are the children of elites, although there are some who came as refugees and were sponsored. Some lost everything when they came to America. Some become very Americanized and share similar struggles. Some of the statements you’ve written seem to indicate that while you are sympathetic to the troubles the Black community faces, you seem to lack empathy.

    Maybe that is why some of the statements alienated Muslims like myself and Marc. It didn’t really speak to our shared experience as AFricans in the Diaspora. That experience is not homogeneous, African immigrants come to America with intact networks and families. Those networks provide resources and support where many of us converts lack that. In fact, many of our support networks are still tied to what other Muslims consider the jahiliyya. The sociological structure of Black families also prevent wealth accumulation. Our identity and the ways others see is is linked to the overall condition of African Americans. But immigrant Africans have complex identities and long standing ties to intellectual traditions. This is not to say that favored Black minorities, such as Carribean and African immigrants, are not subject to discrimination. Nor is that to say that just being born of immigrant African families gives one access to African culture, the wealth of Islamic traditions, and Islamic education. But I think it is important that we keep in mind the distinctions between how Islam developed in West Africa (where there were Muslim communities for 1000 years and some well established centers since 1000 AD) and America. We can’t just cut and paste institutions that were developed in a West African context and apply them to the inner city. Instead, we have to consider what worked and adapt those social institutions to fit the needs in America. And for that reason, I feel like there is so many important lessons that Black Americans can learn from WEst Africa. And that is where we can begin to dialogue and learn from each other. Dialogue is based on mutual respect and understanding, not imposing one’s views.

    Well, I think I spent too much time dealing with the immigrant/Black divide. That’s subject for other discussions. I’d be interested to know more of what can be done in terms of spiritual development and work on the emotional well-being of a broken community.

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