The Evolution of Muslims in America

With yet another PBS documentary under its belt, American Islam would seem to be on the up and up. There are a number of hip-hop artists affiliated with Islam to lesser and greater degrees, thus, many see this as the “coming of age” of Islam in America. Seen as giving the American Muslim youth something to identify with, many seem to be reluctant to call out and name hip-hop for what it is. Two isles have formed where individuals either decry hip-hop as a spiritually bankrupt and corrupting enterprise while others say it has positive messages at its root. I will clearly state that I find hip-hop as it is expressed to be incompatible with a healthy Muslim practice but I am not using this opportunity to roast but rather make this one addendum: while we may denounce hip-hop as not being conducive to a healthy Muslim experience we must allow for the evolutionary process of people as they try and make moves towards understanding and living their Islam.

This idea of evolution may seem an awkward expression, especially given the word’s [ma sha’Allah] unfortunate or highly charged history in the English speaking world. I am not speaking of that flawed theory presented by Charles Darwin but rather the aspect that while people may start at point [A], and hope to arrive at point [C], there is a wide swath of [B], the evolutionary path that all of us tread on in one form or another. If we can come to understand and appreciate this we have a greater chance of actually allowing more people to make it to point [C] without being waylaid or ambushed along the path.

Part of what may help to make this idea better known to Muslims is that, one, it is a type of pedagogical technique practiced by the Prophet [s], where he allowed people to grow into their Islam, all the while not sacrificing one iota of the transcendent values of the religion he sought to teach. It is not wholly necessary here to delve into excessive examples but we are all familiar with the many examples where the Prophet [s] withheld punishment or judgment on persons who had character flaws or issues because he saw it as a progress [another highly charged and misused word] of their Islam, that they would eventually get to point [C] if given an opportunity to develop.

One of the ways in which we as Muslims [and especially as those in leadership positions] can help to bring this to fruition is to walk that solid line between understanding and condoning. Extend a hand but a firm one – one that is not afraid to give sincere nasihah [keeping it real in the modern vernacular] to those who are still in that early stage. Along with this comes the need to give people the education and tools to realize the true nature of Reality – for when people unveil [kashf] the inner nuances of what it is we object to, they will have, God willing, the toolset to come to similar conclusions. What is happening currently, is that people who do not have that spiritual training and maturity, are often demonized to such an extent that they are banish from any thought of coming to terms with what they do [their mu’amalat] and how they can come to realize its detriment to their health as Muslims [mukashafah]. If we, as both leaders and as a community claim to be inheritors of the Prophet [s], then we must examine our kulliyat and question if we’re letting the kullu shay [every little thing] get in the way of the big picture.

Two small pieces caught my eye regarding this topic. One, was rapper Lupe Fiasco reciting al-Fatihah at a concert.  For many Muslims this causes two reactions: [a]: total dismay, as the Qur’an is something Holy and should not be used for such purposes – that Its Message would be lost amongst the din a crowd enthralled at the performance of a star. [b]: total enchantment, for this is what some see as finally an opportunity to blend their personal or secular likes with the transcendent. The other piece was Suhaib Webb’s response to the proposition of hip-hop, where he stated,

“I was brought into Islam through the Hip-Hop world. That being said, once I became Muslim and started studying, I realized that in order for me to develop and grow as a Muslim I would have to amputate my relations with Hip-Hop and its community. I realized that the Qur’an and Hip Hop simply don’t mix.”

Webb articulates the difficulty that he has had in trying to sign off on hip-hop, but, as a sign of his own maturation as a Muslim and future leader, is that he had to make a tough decision and label hip-hop for what it is. But for me, the more important lesson here is that while Suhaib Webb was able to call hip-hop out for what it is he never gave the impression that those that do still engage in it [particularly here I assume he means listeners but perhaps performers as well] would be “amputated” from the community. In other words, stand firm on recognizing hip-hop, the “thing” and not the people, is corrupt at its core, whereas people can always be reformed, God willing.

To summarize, we have to do a better job of lending a helping hand while not compromising our core principles. We have to start to offer real, sincere, and alternate solutions, solutions with efficacy, not simply sloganized dogma. I think more Muslims who have a genuine love of their religion, if given the proper tools, God willing, will come to unveil hip-hop for what it is, and work to salvage their souls. Something all of us, hip-hop connoisseurs or not, strive to do.

11 Replies to “The Evolution of Muslims in America”

  1. Great blog, Jazakallah. I wonder if the state of hip hop is what you are talking about or what it is inherently. I believe that the muscial expression as did the poets of the prophets time who spoke about issues of the society are inherently good things, if they speak towards and about good things. But I do agree that the state of Hip Hop as it is, from top to bottom is mostly a corrupt thing which exploits people and ideas for the bottom line. I believe some people have the ability to turn things around and step on the stage because the niche and the massive portions of people who are listening are quite the opportunity for one who wants to send a message. I guess your point is, at what price and at what cost? Wonder what others think. Once again Jazakallah.

  2. I think something that is lost when the ignorant are speaking of Hip Hop is the total understanding that it is a culture not just a musical style.

    Amazing. You take the time to write something thoughtful and all you get are insults. Well, I can deal with that as well.

    As for ignorant, well, I’ll let your adab do the talking. Your blind love of hip hop have barred you from seeing or hearing any critique of it, as if it were The Revelation. Call it Hip Hop or Rap, there are still many ways in which it is not a beneficial enterprise. Like Imam Suhaib Webb, I have many fond memories of hip hop, some of the lyrics even made me aware of Islam in some ways, but upon graduating from youth life to adult life, it had to get left behind. In addition, hip hop in its current expression is a detriment to healthy Muslim development. And while you say there’s a difference between hip hop and rap, I would argue that many young people will not make that distinction. I think you’re letting your hip hop connoisseur-ness get in the way of sound critiques.

    My advice to you, sincerely, would be to work on your adab and a little less on your hustle and flow.

  3. I think something that is lost when the ignorant are speaking of Hip Hop is the total understanding that it is a culture not just a musical style. As someone who has been involved in Hip Hop since 1982 and wasn’t one those johnny come latelys who first heard Hip Hop with Run DMC’s god-awful “Walk This Way” I believe most people perception and wrong ideas about hip Hop culture come from associating it with “Rap” or the rap music industry. As though rap music industry and Hip Hop culture are one of the same.

    To ignorant Hip Hop was/is something they heard on the radio so it’s on radio it must be Hip Hop…wrong!! That is rap music industry dominated by corporations who are selling a product to those who don’t know any better. If Rap music industry and Hip Hop were the same Master P,Cash Money Click and all of trash coming from th south would never seen the light of day.

    Hip Hop culture at it’s essence is about expression and improvement. it can bad or or good depending on how one uses it in their own life.

    Truth is truth there are people in all across the world in hundred of thousands and maybe millions who can say Hip Hop has been a positive force in their life but I have yet to hear anyone say Hip Hop has changed their life for the worse.

    Indeed there is a sadness to those within Hip Hop culture..those who spend a great amount of time and effort to do something most of the world doesn’t appreciate or understand (Just watch the documentaries Infamy, Scratch, Planet B Boy or This Is The Life to see that) but yet every now and again some do understand and appreciate that is what makes Hip Hop everlasting. You’re part of world will everyone is welcome but only a few will “get it”. Those who know…. know and those who don’t…. don’t. It’s that’s simple.



    Planet B Boy

    This Is The Life

  4. Your adab is poor – to use a word such as “ignorant” simply because I disagree with you proves my point only further. My knowledge of hip-hop stands just as firmly as yours does. Because I have an opinion that varies from yours in no way banishes it to the realm of ignorant, simply because you do not like it. And as for the public sphere, you can still have poor adab, be it in public or private. I recommend further reading on the subject for you.

    My opinion was neither sweeping nor generalizing. In fact, I feel what I had to say was concise, but not general. I will thrust my point home further in that, because of your obvious love of hip-hop, and because it is dear to you, you have become incapable of withstanding any critique of it.

    As for reflection, I think it is you who needs to reflect – the very idea that you think you are privy to my experience in the area hip-hop only outlines your arrogance and obstinance in this subject. I mentioned before that I grew up listening to it – I still own some in my music collection but it is music that I seldom listen to because there are real issues with it. Issues that cannot be side stepped by relagating that which you do not like to the genre of “rap”, whilst retaining all that is “good” in the genre of hip-hop. This is duplicious and I think you can see it’s not entirely honest.

    In the future, I would recommend you to come with line-item rebuttals. I would welcome that. Give concrete examples, but in a dignified manner such as not to insult your brother, even if you should disagree with what he has written. I have provided suffecient proof, verified in the writings of other respected scholars and figures.

    My issue with hip-hop is that I personally feel its cons outweigh its pros. You may disagree, which you are certainly entitled to do. I just request that you learn to do so in a dignified way. If you cannot abide by that then I will remove any capacity for you to comment here as it will save your soul as well as mine.

  5. I neither “hustle” nor “flow” and that comment is telling. It proves my statement you can’t differentiate between Hip Hop culture and rap music industry as well this statement:

    I have many fond memories of hip hop, some of the LYRICS even made me aware of Islam in some ways

    In your opinion my adab maybe poor (I believe it isn’t in this case) but I see nothing wrong with calling someone out when they make a major mistake as you did. Especially when it is in the public forum such as on this public blog.

    If your read my comment carefully I didn’t in anyway state I disagreed with some of your critiques. I did ,however, state your obvious lack of awareness and ignorance about Hip Hop culture.

    If one made sweeping generalizations about Arabs and then linked it to Islam you know you would point out the difference between Arab culture and society and Islamic principles and culture. To one with a prejudice mind such knowledge would brushed aside but just because such knowledge aside doesn’t make it true.

    Now back to issue on hand where ,specifically, did I state something not true in my original comment and where is your proof that what your stated in your critique of Hip Hop that it actually applies to Hip Hop and not rap music? After all ,as Muslims, if we make a claim must bring the evidence to support the accusation.

    After a little reflection I believe you will see your whole premise was based upon ignorance and not sound knowledge nor experience but only perception and hearsay.

    And yes as you stated many of the youth can not make the distinction between rap & Hip Hop but it doesn’t mean the distinction doesn’t exist.

  6. Maybe I wasn’t clear in my original and second comment but I will more precise in this response.

    In your statements you keep coming back music as though Hip Hop ONLY a form of music which it it not.. which is my point. You keep reducing Hip Hop to a) A musical style and b) popular music. That’s your bias and ignorance.These statements bare witness to that fact:

    “I have many fond memories of hip hop, some of the LYRICS”

    “I mentioned before that I grew up LISTENING to it – I still own some in my MUSIC collection but it is music that I seldom listen to”

    Again I affirm what I stated earlier based upon your words for you Hip Hop was something you heard on the radio it was never a community, a culture just a form of music. Which is sad because you probably never experienced being connected to a people who changed the world. You probably only found that through Islam but not before.

    To illustrate my point I’ll quote the words of the acknowledged founder and “godfather of Hip Hop” Afrika Bambaataa:

    Well hip hop is basically the whole culture of the movement. There’s the RAP which is a FORM of hip hop culture. It could be breakdancing, freestyle dancing or whatever type of dancing that’s happening now in the Black, Hispanic and White community. It’s also the djs and rappers and their dress codes. That is hip hop, meaning the WHOLE CULTURE.

    1991 Interview with Davey D

    Now read that statement carefully he says what everybody within Hip Hop culture has been saying since the media stared using the term “rap music” in mid 80’s…It is whole culture not just a musical style.

    Your statements concerning the negatives within Hip Hop (in reality your speaking of issues within ghetto culture) are centered around the premise these negatives are

    a) part of Hip Hop Culture and
    b) Hip Hop promotes this type of negativity.

    Yet I have asked you for evidence of this and you still come back my adab (lack of thereof). So I will ask again where’s the PROOF that leads to this conclusion?

    In medical field doctors are taught not to diagnose a problem by looking a patient’s ailment through bad lighting. In other words examining things as they are not what you perceive them to be.

    I’ll give example why your perception that Hip Hop is promoter of negativity is false.

    Back in mid 80’s (and don’t believe that BS from East coasters about sagging pants coming homosexuals in jails) many of the youth starting wearing real baggy jeans that hanged below the waistline revealing their underwear. Many, if not all, of the youth did listen to Hip Hop music. However Hip Hop culture didn’t promote this behavior nor did it speak out against it.. It had nothing to do with Hip Hop culture.

    It was based the experiences of youth in CYA (California youth Authority) who in turn brought that back to hood. It was ghetto expression not a Hip Hop one. To make a connection that because these youth were listening to Hip Hop music and went to some form of a Hip Hop event Hip Hop culture is responsible for this behavior is disingenuous and bias. One has nothing to do with the other. Hip Hop Culture didn’t tell these youth to

    a) commit crimes that lead them to CYA and
    b) adopt the dress code of inmates

    That is just one example of the bias outlook that the ignorant have of Hip Hop culture and I don’t use the word ignorant as insult but as apt description. In my experience ask someone who blames Hip Hop culture for all negativity and ask them who are Rock Steady crew or who is Kool Herc and they dare a blank stare.That’s basic Hip Hop knowledge and you don’t know the answers to these questions you are ignorant of Hip Hop culture.period.

    You describe me as Hip Hop connoisseur – a phrase I would never use but it’s meaning fits – and maybe I am but I would describe myself as someone who been there and done that and still doing it. From the early bboy battles in 80’s and when Hip Hop music wasn’t played on the radio to the outright suppression of Hip Hop events by club and venue owners during early 90’s. I’ve seen it all and still surviving.

    Over the years I’ve seen many heads come and go. Hip Hop was something to try out for awhile and then they leave to do other things and I’ve seen others who lost their lives (RIP Rob One,DJ Dusk,Frosty Freeze,Buck 4,De la Vie) but always represented to their dying day.

    For me with my experience, an experience many hundreds of thousands have shared I might add, to reduce Hip Hop culture to all the negativity you see around you and convey the idea that Hip Hop culture promoted and is responsible for it is insult to all hard work of us who kept and are keeping it alive and as well the memory of all those who benefited from it.

    You may disagree but I know of the positive aspects Hip Hop culture has had in my life and the lives of those around me. Ultimately, Hip Hop through my life has nourished me, sustained me, and inspired me to improve myself because at it’s core Hip Hop culture is about expression and improvement. You are either school(teach) or get schooled (learn). There’s no middle ground in Hip Hop, either progress or regress. Which I think is one of problems of backlash against Hip Hop. Many couldn’t progress so they left and left with a bitter taste for Hip Hop culture because they couldn’t step up and now are trying to malign and destroy it.This definitely the case with taggers (the scum of earth in my opinion). They don’t progress so just destroy.

    I’ll leave with words of Afrika Bambaataa again:

    “Peace,Unity,Love And Having Fun”

  7. You keep reducing Hip Hop to a) A musical style and b) popular music.

    I keep coming back to what is pertinent. You, in your imagination of what hip-hop is, refuse to look at an on-the-ground reality of what hip-hop is: music and popular culture. My article is dealing with the on-the-ground reality, not the supposed “hijacked” notion of what you perceive hip-hop to be. Again, for redundancy sake, you cannot discredit what I write solely because you do not like it. That is both juvenile and duplicitous, for you utilize the same tactics elsewhere in your argument.

    Hip Hop was something you heard on the radio it was never a community, a culture just a form of music.

    Perhaps you grew up on some sort of hip-hop ashram, but for many of us coming out Black Urban America, that’s where we heard it. And because we did not experience it as the monastic practice that you did, does not mean that our experience of hip-hop is any less genuine than your pure, distilled brand.

    in reality your speaking of issues within ghetto culture

    Funny how it’s convenient for hip-hop to jettison those aspects of urban culture, which gave it its life, but then denies it when it casts an unfavorable light upon it.

    examining things as they are not what you perceive them to be

    I have provided sufficient proof and observations. The issue or the impasse here is that you wish to marginalize any critique of hip-hop – it is beyond reproach. Perhaps I missed the memo when it was part of the Qur’an or the Sunnah. Last I checked, it was not. My criticism, which is rooted in the fact that hip-hop is not simply this imaginized bastion of urban morals but in fact gave rise to the modern form of Rap, whether it likes it or not. Would you consider the lyrics of such groups as A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School, The Roots, Gangstarr, etc., not to be hip-hop? And are there not aspects of what they talk about and promote that are detrimental to the healthy development of the Muslim?

    My critique of hip-hop does not deny some positive aspects of it. Rather, it weighs the pros and cons and in the end, says that it’s not worth the pros. That there is another level of development awaiting the Muslim. I have gone through a similar journey with bebop and jazz. A musical form that I love. The music of John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Jackie McLean and others all are dear to me. But in that, there are things that may be detrimental to what is good for me as a Muslim. I have to be honest with it as well. So the same critique I level at hip-hop, I’ve leveled at myself and my love of be-bop.

    And again, my issue with you and your adab is that the use of such harsh language as “ignorant”, simply because of disagreement, stands. We should speak to each other with better manners. You could have disagreed with me and used language that would not have been quite so charged. If you do not see that…, well, then I guess our conversation is finished.

  8. I also wanted to add to the following:

    You are either school(teach) or get schooled (learn). There’s no middle ground in Hip Hop, either progress or regress. Which I think is one of problems of backlash against Hip Hop. Many couldn’t progress so they left and left with a bitter taste for Hip Hop culture because they couldn’t step up and now are trying to malign and destroy it.

    As for the first part, well, one needs to go to school first. As Allah says, “He taught man which he knew not”. For the second, I sought out my “schooling” in the Sunnah of the Prophet [s] and the intellectual tradition of Islam. While Hip Hop may have no middle ground, Islam is the middle way – as-Sirat al-Mustaqim. It is precisely this type of arrogance about hip hop, as if it is a revealed religion, that I object to. Listening to music is one thing, taking advice from a source that has no Divine chain, that’s something else.

    As for the backlash to speak about against hip hop, I would not characterize it as thus, at least in my own experience, as it is a progession to that which will benefit my soul on the Day of Judgment. You said, “Many couldn’t progress so they left and left with a bitter taste for Hip Hop culture because they couldn’t step up and now are trying to malign and destroy it.” Hip hop has not left a bitter taste in my mouth – it ‘s just that it is not a system that is suffecient to save my soul, nor the soul of any human being. And any attempts to ascribe or imbue hip hop with that capability shows that one has lost sight of what Islam is, and what man-made things are not. I am not seeking to “malign” hip hop as you put it, but rather to show and illustrate that there’s so much more – much for to fulfill the human being’s life, soul and desire, than hip hop is capable of doing. Did I call for anyone to burn their CD’s and delete their mp3’s? No – that process of moving up and on is something each of us has to realize in our own way, just as I still have some of my Coltrane records, but now, with the Light of the Qur’an, the Light of the Sunnah, such things begin to wane in their brilliance when compared to the radiance that is Islam.

  9. as-Salaamu ‘alaykum Samira.

    I do have an academic and even personal interest in the relationship with Islam and bebop. There have been a number of people that have been turned on to Islam because of bebop, directly or indirectly, as has been the case with hip hop. I argue the case though, that one, hip hop, in my opinion, is a youth activity. I feel to ascribe it the status of a culture is granting it a scope that is not due to it. This is part of the fact that I believe some of the issues society faces today is the lingering of adolesence. We should provide young people a more concrete method and path for ascending to adulthood.

    But let me make a couple of things clear: my critique of hip hop is not exceeded by my understanding that people grow and evolve in their Islam at different rates and in different degrees. So while I may critique hip hop, I am not leveling accusations at those who listen to the music. I am simply making an observation that there are issues with it that can impede the development of a healthy Muslim psyche.

    Part of my critique is that like it or not, hip hop has mainstreamed to a greater extent. While the hip hip connoisseur may see a stark difference between rap and hip hop, that line is not so obvious to youth today. Thus, my critique is leveled at the popular use of the word. There may indeed exist a more “noble” form of hip hop, but that is not what my critique is focused on.

    You noticed a commonality between myself and Zaid Shakir in that both of us moved away from music and focused more on religion. I suppose that may be true, though I do not have enough information from his article to know if we’re both on the same page or path. But to articulate my story, yes, I have moved away from music, though not cut it off, as you have observed. I do not believe music to be haram in and of itself, though I do believe that its form, content and use/context can make it so. If music is used to encourage people to actions that can result in divine punishment [drinking, illicit sex, drug use, etc.], contains language we ourselves cannot and should not use or any combination of these two, then it can be rendered impermissible. Again, the popular form [and I would even venture to guess there are some aspects of the “old school” form as well] is woefully guilty of this. Even Hamza’s venerated Afrika Bambaataa is not immune:

    Shake it now, go ladies, it’s a livin’ dream
    Love Life Live
    Come play the game, our world is free
    Do what you want but scream
    We know a place where the nights are hot
    It is a house of funk
    Females and males
    Both headed all for the disco

    As positive as one thinks this message is, upon reflection, one can see that engaging in these actions will not lead one to a lifestyle that will be pleasing to Allah [going to the disco with women] and so forth. To relate this with bebop, one of the reasons why I eventually stopped performing jazz because of the context in which I was playing it in [bars and clubs that served alcohol, not to mention the lifestyle that many of my teachers led – excessive drinking, drug use, etc.]. Even my listening to bebop has waned as my understanding of what my life is about and where and to Whom I am journeying to. Does that mean that I don’t listen to music at all? Certainly not. But I am much more scrupulous about what I allow myself to listen to as well as how much and now often I engage in it.

    To conclude, the critique against hip hop is one that I level equally against bebop, and against myself. It is to bring attention to the fact that we must be more conscious of what we put in our minds and bodies. From what we read, what we listen to, even what we eat. I say this to remind myself first and foremost as well as for the benefit for others.

    In sha’Allah, that makes my stance a bit clearer.

  10. Assalaamualaikum-

    I find this post and the subsequent comments interesting. I was just wondering if your evolution is one that has moved you away from music completely? I ask this question because of your critical comment about bee bop in response to Hamza’s comments. Early on you seemed to have an academic interest in the relationship between bee bop and Islam. Why/how has that waned?

    I recently read an article by Zaid Shakir in response to Michael Jackson’s death where he wrote about how his study of Qur’an moved him away from popular music. It seems that within your critique there is a resistance to popular culture and the related idolization of musical movements to do “spiritual” work. I think the spiritual uplift aspects of music is particularly pertinent to Black America and relatedly BAMs. It seems to me that you are trying to trouble an uncritical belief in musical movements possibilities within our communities.

    You do not seem to be falling into a hardline music is haram position (as this would seem to actually go against the spirit of your exploration of the Prophet’s (p.b.u.h) pedagogy).

    Please correct me where I am wrong in my thoughts.

  11. Thanks so much for your detailed and well-articulated response. As someone who works closely with young people I couldn’t agree more with this part of your response:

    I feel to ascribe it the status of a culture is granting it a scope that is not due to it. This is part of the fact that I believe some of the issues society faces today is the lingering of adolesence. We should provide young people a more concrete method and path for ascending to adulthood.

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