While Looking Back, Don't Forget To Look Ahead

“The average person cannot readily believe, for instance, that the Socialism of today is a very different thing from the Socialism of 1890, or 1900, or even 1910. He is apt to assume that Socialism is a fixed, stereotyped body of ideas and propositions, and that it cannot undergo any material change without ceasing to be Socialism.” Yarros, Victor S. “Socialism and Individualism in Evolution.” International Journal of Ethics Vol. 29, No. 4. (Jul., 1919), pp. 405-413.

The above is from an essay by Victor Yarros. And while the article primarily talks about Socialism I find the words emphatic, percolating my thoughts about the current condition of Muslims here in Philadelphia, and the broader America community. It is true, at least in my experience, that a great many Muslims do not conceive that Islam today may not be the same as the Islam that came before it. By this, I mean that the historical context that informed Muslims of yore is not the same context that is informing us today [or at least it shouldn’t be]. Given Islam’s many universal maxims, this makes this imagined space very difficult to conjure up without fear of blasphemies being uttered where they should not be. But this should not be the case.

I can see no reason for Islam’s universals [not to be conflated with uniformity] to not stay firmly intact while looking ahead. But how does one navigate this path, where there are so many pitfalls lurking in dark patches? One of the things that I see entangling us are the branches of Tradition. Not the essence of Tradition, which in reality, holds many gems for us to examine and use, but rather the blind, verbatim following of Tradition, as if the entirety of the Past were precedent for the Future. This is often where I see many a foot caught in the bramble. But, God willing, if we but examine the undergrowth, we may be able to not only untangle our feet, we may discover many a gold nugget down there to light our way ahead.

Change is never easy and often not willing. The struggle of the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia against the Quraysh, his own people, should be proof enough that change is not easily brought about. But to quote the Qur’an, “With hardship comes ease” [94: 5]. To be sure this type of change will require much effort. The first step I see is a relinquishing of previously conceived notions of the universalist cum uniform visualization of Islam. This would be, borrowing from Yarros again, the same “fixed, stereotyped body of ideas and propositions”. For how can we truly begin to see a future of Islam here in America, or to be more specific a future for us as Muslims in America, when Islam is seen as something that, “cannot undergo any material change” without ceasing to be Islam. This material change should not be misunderstood to be any devious or eudaemonic attempt to make unlawful what God has made lawful or vice versa. Instead, this process is a reassessment of our condition as Muslims here and tailoring our Islam to make our lives both equally more livable as Muslims here while still adhering to all the important religious precepts [i.e., Qur’├ón and Sunnah]. This process should not be seen as a departure from our great Tradition but rather a baton passing – the carrying on of that tradition. To help illustrate this point, I will quote from the great Maliki justist, Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi:

What is the correct view concerning those rulings found in the school of al-Shafa’i, Malik and the rest, which have been deduced on the basis of habits and customs prevailing at the time these scholars reached these conclusions? When these customs change and the practice comes to indicate the opposite of what it used to, are the rulings recorded in the manuals of the juristconsults rendered thereby defunct, it becoming incumbent to issue new rulings based on the new custom? Or is it to be said, “We are mere followers. It is thus not our place to issue new rulings, as we lack the qualifications to perform unmediated interpretation [ijtihad]. We issue opinions, therefore, according to what we find in the books handed down on the authority of the independent interpreters”?

Al-Qarafi’s response was both clear and unequivocal.

Holding to the rulings that have been deduced on the basis of custom, even after this custom has changed, is a violation of Unanimous Concensus [ijma”] and an open display of ignorance of the religion. Jackson, Sherman. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Towards the Third Resurrection. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005. 161-162.

As you can see, in al-Qarafi?’s opinion, not only is it not enough to just simply pass along what came before you, it is actually a woeful display of “ignorance of the religion”. I see this as a two-fold maxim for American-Muslims. [1] Swallowing foreign-born religious rhetoric is no longer acceptable and should be examined as to its validity for application in our current status [note, however, I did not say to toss the baby out with the bathwater]. [2] There will be a need to actively make rulings and accommodations on current American proclivities and how they can or will relate to American-Muslim religiosity. The second point is not an individual, chaotic, misinformed interpretation process [much like we have now] where Muslims must “consult the books” before engaging in cultural practices [such as the permissibility of going to the movies or eating a hamburger]. More of what I have in mind are social cultural practices [such as marriage, divorce, eating habits, (feel free to add here!)], and the selecting or choosing of rulings that will make the lives of Muslims both more enjoyable and easier to live. This may involve rulings of a “weaker” or more “liberal” tradition because it places the least burden on Muslims here. This should not be taken as a sign of weakness on the part of Muslims but rather a more intelligent, pragmatical stance on how to successfully live as Muslims in this part of the world, in this time, with our history.

But to swing back a little, to keep us in line with the essence of Tradition, such collective, social decisions, at least in their inception, should be made be the brightest and most qualified from our ranks [men and women included]. And while the individual on the street certainly has the option of making decisions for his or herself, this above process has the great potential to alleviate the high levels of anxiety I see amongst many Muslims in that in the absence of a clear, viable modality, they live in constant fear of displeasing God. Not the type of fear over, say, “should I eat this piece of pork?”, but, “oh, God! I put my shoes on left then right! I may have just gone against the Sunnah!”. Through the above process, Muslims in America will have the greatest potential of unlocking their own genius as Muslims in America. It is also the most likely way that American-Muslims will be able to contribute to the greater society of America instead of a misplaced prideful stance against all that is American.

In conclusion, by looking ahead, using the examples of the past in a well-tempered manner, Muslim can finally move beyond a “halal/haram”, stagnant existence. Muslim talent can be harvested and developed and allowed to grow to fruition, having something truly valuable to offer American society [something beyond an authoring of Islam, whose sole aim is the pleasing of the dominant culture and not the pleasure of God]. And like Barack, I too have the audacity to hope.

And God knows best.

2 Replies to “While Looking Back, Don't Forget To Look Ahead”

  1. I like the idea of a Muslim think tank made up of the brightest and most qualified Muslims. That is a great notion! A format could be put together for shifting from blindly following without questioning others.We could start adapting to where we are actually are living at the moment. For example, there are no deserts in Philadelphia(that I know of lol) so can we maybe modify some of the dress that was created to deal with wind/sand storms in Saudi Arabia which many of us have been encouraged to wear? Instead, can we find modest alternatives that allow for easy exit and entrance off of city buses and trains in urban settings such as ours?
    I think that when practical alternatives are offered to the Muslims here in America what would follow would be an inclusion of our culture here in our everyday practice without the controversy of straying so far from the Sunna as to create discourse. Such a meeting amongst scholars that are respected here by the Muslim mass populus could be ideal for building an initial framework for what could provide American Muslims shelter from the elements.
    A protection from moral-less American culture and instruction from cultural Islam that becomes a smoke scene to the true practice of practical Islamic life meant to nurture and guide us, insha’Allah…

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