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