American Muslim Prerogatives: Between Divine Inspiration and Religious Pragmatism

It is becoming increasingly clear that the path the American Muslim community is headed down is not conducive to long-term health, spiritual or otherwise. Confusion abounds and all the while much of Muslim leadership in America remains mired in dissension and derision or woefully out of touch with the realities Muslims are facing. As one brother recently told me, he felt that there was a proverbial “civil war” brewing between, what I will term, the “Next Generation” (converts as well as second- and third-generation Muslims, immigrant or otherwise), and the Old Guard.  It is indeed eerily similar to the divisions that beset that First Great Community of Believers, some 1,400 years ago. Is history, in fact, doomed to repeat itself?

Recently, while doing my weekly ritual of reading surah al-Kahf (“The Cave”, the eighteenth chapter) I had some thoughts come to mind that I will try and put down here. My purpose in sharing these reflections is not to fan the flames of factionalism but instead provide food for thought. First, to lend emotional support to my fellow Muslims who are going through trying times. We live in an age of confusion. My hat goes off to anyone simply trying to believe in la ilaha illa’Allah, Muhammadan rasul’Allah in this challenging time. Secondly, it is to provide a window of insight for the Old Guard to perhaps better understand where they are, what is happening around them, and to try and explain in some minor detail the underpinnings of the psychology that drives the Next Generation to do what they do. And lastly, to provide hope and a suggestion of how a way forward might go and what it might look like.

To begin, the section of surah al-Kahf  that I am dealing with is the story of Musa (Moses) and al-Khidr, the enigmatic figure who is as baffling as he is witty. What drew my attention is how much this story relates to our present scenario. I will explain as follows. God says,

وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِفَتَاهُ لَا أَبْرَحُ حَتَّىٰ أَبْلُغَ مَجْمَعَ الْبَحْرَيْنِ أَوْ أَمْضِيَ حُقُبًا

“Remember when Moses said to his servant, ‘I will not give up until I reach the meeting-place of the two seas, even if I must press on for many years’.” (Qur’an, 18: 60)

Reading this verse imparted to me a new-found sense of respect and understanding of what my fellow immigrant brothers and sisters must have gone through in order to migrate to America. I say this because, in the context of this observation, I see immigrant Muslims as Moses here: having left their land, their comfort zone, with their children, only to head off into the unknown. However, also like Moses, I feel immigrant Muslims have perceived themselves as ultimate authority figures, having lost the distinction between what is common cultural practice for them and what is religious law. Like Moses, who represents authority and tradition, who could be more knowledgeable than them? That in fact is the impetus which sets off Moses’ adventure:

سَمِعْتُ أُبَىَّ بْنَ كَعْبٍ يَقُولُ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ‏”‏ قَامَ مُوسَى خَطِيبًا فِي بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ فَسُئِلَ أَىُّ النَّاسِ أَعْلَمُ فَقَالَ أَنَا أَعْلَمُ ‏.‏ فَعَتَبَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ إِذْ لَمْ يَرُدَّ الْعِلْمَ إِلَيْهِ فَأَوْحَى اللَّهُ إِلَيْهِ أَنَّ عَبْدًا مِنْ عِبَادِي بِمَجْمَعِ الْبَحْرَيْنِ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ مِنْكَ

“I (Ibn ‘Abbas) heard Ubayy bin Ka’b saying: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say ‘Musa stood to deliver a khutbah (sermon) to the Children of Israel. He was asked: ‘Who is the most knowledgeable among the people?’ He said, ‘I am the most knowledgeable.’ So God admonished him as he did not refer the knowledge back to God. God then revealed to Moses: ‘A slave among My slaves, at the junction of the two seas, is more knowledgeable than you’.” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, hadith 3149)

The next section in this story is when Moses meets al-Khidr and God gives him an apt description:

فَوَجَدَا عَبْدًا مِنْ عِبَادِنَا آتَيْنَاهُ رَحْمَةً مِنْ عِنْدِنَا وَعَلَّمْنَاهُ مِنْ لَدُنَّا عِلْمًا

“They found a slave of Ours whom We had granted mercy from Us and whom We had also given knowledge direct from Us.” (Qur’an, 18: 65)

There has often been the tendency to describe the conversion process to Islam in America as someone giving someone else shahadah. While this may hold true on a descriptive level I have often felt this denies the greater reality that Islam, that is to say, Divine guidance, is from none other than God Almight. That as “converts”, we are from amongst the ‘ibad, or slaves, that God granted mercy and knowledge to. This is of course in the proverbial sense and in no way do I intend to infer that we have been grant infallible knowledge from God, as is the case of al-Khidr. Nonetheless, I feel the distinction is an important one as we talk about competing psychologies, between the Next Generation and the Old Guard. Again, my purpose here is not to undermine the contributions that immigrant Muslims have made to the lives of the Next Generation, but to emphasize an inarticulated point that ultimately, according to orthodox Muslim theology, knowledge and guidance are only imparted to those whom God wills:

اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ ۚ لَا تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ ۚ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِنْدَهُ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ ۚ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ ۖ وَلَا يُحِيطُونَ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ عِلْمِهِ إِلَّا بِمَا شَاءَ ۚ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ ۖ وَلَا يَئُودُهُ حِفْظُهُمَا ۚ وَهُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْعَظِيمُ

“Allah!, there is no god but Him, the Living, the Self-Sustaining. He is not subject to drowsiness or sleep. Everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to Him. Who can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them but they cannot grasp any of His knowledge save what He wills. His Footstool encompasses the heavens and the earth and their preservation does not tire Him. He is the Most High, the Magnificent.” (Qur’an, 2: 255)

To be straight forward, I see the burgeoning Muslim community in America as al-Khidr: special, not because of any doing of our own, but because God, in His Wisdom, chose to grant us mercy and knowledge. What proceeds from here is not only an amusing tale of frustration for Moses but an engaging insight into why the Old Guard is so frustrated at the Next Generation and why they continue to have an inability to “let go” of the communal power they wield.

al-Khidr bluntly rebuffs Moses, stating:

قَالَ إِنَّكَ لَنْ تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِيَ صَبْرًا

“(al-Khidr) said, ‘You will not be able to bear with me (*sabr).” (Qur’an, 18: 67)

He continues with,

وَكَيْفَ تَصْبِرُ عَلَىٰ مَا لَمْ تُحِطْ بِهِ خُبْرًا

“And how could you bear with something you have no experience with?” (Qur’an, 18: 68)

In the three scenarios that Moses encounters with al-Khidr: scuttling a boat; killing an “innocent”; reparations for work performed, all of them frustrate Moses’ sense of normalcy. This is no different than the sense of normalcy the Old Guard wants to maintain. Simply put, it is not in the Old Guard’s cannon of knowledge or experience: a cannon that has thus far been unwilling or unable to concede that neither converts nor even their own progeny posses the capacity to steer the community’s course in the right direction. This has led to the infantilization of the Old Guard’s children, the disclusion of African-Americans from positions of authority in the Muslim community as well as the “tokenizing” of white converts, by which whiteness is celebrated only so far as it aggrandizes their own (battered!) self-esteem, reducing them to little more than mascots at best.

But for me, the real lesson that struck me here was thus: imagine if al-Khidr, despite having the correct knowledge and perspective on what needs to be done in each situation, relented and allowed Moses to stop him? Take the first scenario, in which God says:

فَانْطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا رَكِبَا فِي السَّفِينَةِ خَرَقَهَا ۖ قَالَ أَخَرَقْتَهَا لِتُغْرِقَ أَهْلَهَا لَقَدْ جِئْتَ شَيْئًا إِمْرًا

قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُلْ إِنَّكَ لَنْ تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِيَ صَبْرًا

“They continued until they boarded a boat by which (al-Khidr) scuttled it. Moses retorted, ‘Did you scuttle it so that its owners would be drowned? This is truly a dreadful thing that you have done!’ He (al-Khidr) said, ‘Did I not say that you could never bear with me?’ ” (Qur’an: 71-72)

By Moses applying these three tools (religious knowledge as he understood it to be; common sense; personal experience) to the scenario above, he could not grasp the meanings or intentions of al-Khidr’s actions. They appeared for all intensive purposes, insane and misguided. However, if al-Khidr had not carried through with which he knew to be the right thing to do, all of them (Moses, al-Khidr and Joshua as well as the passengers on the ship) would have come to a horrible end:

أَمَّا السَّفِينَةُ فَكَانَتْ لِمَسَاكِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ فِي الْبَحْرِ فَأَرَدْتُ أَنْ أَعِيبَهَا وَكَانَ وَرَاءَهُمْ مَلِكٌ يَأْخُذُ كُلَّ سَفِينَةٍ غَصْبًا

“As for the ship, it belonged to some poor people who worked on the sea. I wanted to knock it out of commission because a king was coming behind them who commandeered every boat by force.” (Qur’an, 18: 79)

For me, this parable is clear. If we, the Next Generation of Muslims in America, continues to allow ourselves to be persuaded from pursuing a course we know to be right, then we will have no one to blame but ourselves when we’re faced with harsh consequences. We cannot allow ourselves to be turned aside — no matter how well intended the Old Guard is; no matter how intimidating their arguments are; no matter how much they lay claim to authority. History is a powerful force: it molds and shapes our sensibilities. History can also render itself nearly invisible by which our prerogatives and proclivities can come to seem so second nature that change can be hard to come by particularly when we cannot envision a reality without them. Certainly the case we see before us is none other than this very same conundrum. And we should take comfort in the knowledge that God is the Shaper of human history. The very same history that has disarmed our uncles, and aunties, our mothers and our fathers, has bestowed upon us a set of experiences and knowledge that will allow us to do what will be pleasing to God, even if it appears to be just the opposite to our onlookers.

A note on “sabr”:

Sabr is commonly translated as “patience.” And while it certainly includes that component, the verb sa-ba-ra encompasses much more than that. Like many verbs, its meaning is reflective of its circumstance: To tie, to fetter, to shackle; to put up with. It also conveys the meaning to withstand something which you have no power to remove. In the Muslim context, it also means to show and express praise (hamd) and gratitude (shukr) in trials and adversity.

وَإِذْ قُلْتُمْ يَا مُوسَىٰ لَنْ نَصْبِرَ عَلَىٰ طَعَامٍ وَاحِدٍ فَادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُخْرِجْ لَنَا مِمَّا تُنْبِتُ الْأَرْضُ مِنْ بَقْلِهَا

“And when you said, ‘Moses, we will not be tied down to just one kind of food so ask your Lord to supply to us some of what the earth produces – its green vegetables’…” (Qur’an, 2: 61)

أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ اشْتَرَوُا الضَّلَالَةَ بِالْهُدَىٰ وَالْعَذَابَ بِالْمَغْفِرَةِ ۚ فَمَا أَصْبَرَهُمْ عَلَى النَّارِ

“Those are the ones who have sold guidance for misguidance and forgiveness for punishment. How steadfastly they will endure (or shackled to) the Fire!” (Qur’an, 2: 175)

14 Replies to “American Muslim Prerogatives: Between Divine Inspiration and Religious Pragmatism”

  1. Some beautiful thoughts on a very grave situation which is relevant to the UK scenario, I think.
    What do you think are some of the greatest practical challenges between the old guard and the coming generations? Also what do you think are the main differences between the convert community and native-born children of immigrants?

  2. Assalam Alaikum. I’m not really too familiar withe the type of clash you’re talking about. What are the points of friction between this Old Guard and the Next Generation?

  3. super insightful. Dear Br. Talha: I love you my fellow brother in this beautiful faith but if you have to ask that question there may be no hope of you understanding. To the author. Br. Ronin Imam: I guess (as a white convert mascot 🙂 I worry that my Khidri compass may be off and want to ensure that the disagreements with the old guard are sound. wouldn’t it be more safe to rely on our scholars (who are not of the old guard but may be able to more effectively negotiage the discrepancies) or is it like in surah Kahf where we each go on this journey our seperate directions?

  4. I absolutely agree with the majority of your points here. There is definitely a divide that we are living in Canada as well. I think your points hold true for the West in general.

    With writers and intellectuals like yourself, may Allah(SWT) help us understand and make the choices that will be healthy for us all.

  5. Assalamu’alaikum,

    Your discussion of “someone giving someone else shahadah” is on point; jazakallah khair.

    Couple questions:

    1. Is the “Old Guard” a consciously constructed entity or group?

    2. Can you provide an example of something that would appear to be inappropriate/off course to onlookers but is actually beneficial, and perhaps even necessary? – How does avoid the alternate extreme of becoming so inundated with personal bias that they become unwilling to entertain valid criticism?

    I would also add to this – while various immigrant communities may not have claim to authority, I’d certainly hope that authorities that happen to be tied to foreign institutions, nations, etc. are not brushed aside altogether (Meaning those who have authority by virtue of their grounding in Islamic scholarship and ties to long chains of understanding and knowledge across the world, rather than a superficial association with an ethnic or political group). I don’t think this is what was implied of course, but I wanted to throw it out there.

  6. Assalamu Alaikum,

    Alhamdulillah, this reply is to brother Talha. Let us look at this in a holistic manner. Your question was “What are the points of friction between this Old Guard and the Next Generation?”. First of all, if we put our shoes in an Old Guard, we can see that the struggle to come to America is no easy one. What was even more harder is coming to a land unknown to you and taking the risk of raising your children in a land whose culture is in someways extremely different from yours. This is especially difficult if one hasn’t studied in school and doesn’t know much about anything in the world around them (we won’t use ignorance for respect of our elders). However, they know their culture and their deen and they want to raise their kids in that same manner. Now, coming here you (as an Old Guard) are very scared and you want to integrate in society yet you don’t want to let go of your values. With your children growing up in this country, you are also terrified at the fact that your children will have a much different behavior and culture than yourself and you don’t want them to get lost in this land which is mystery to you. It is not something that is easy to cope with, as you want your children to be good muslims, to be understanding of you, and not to put you to shame or grievance. So this is all put to account. The friction comes when the “Next Generation” takes on values that the Old Guards don’t necessarily hold and when they cannot understand each other at all. Examples include: how to raise a child, how to be successful, what is really important, how to allocate time, what to allocate time to, technology, science, etc. This can cause real frustration between the Old Guards and the New Generation because things will never be the same, and what the Old Guards have become so comfortable with is deemed to change. This world is ever changing and we are adapting to our environments and locations, so the gap between the old and new generations will cause issues and concerns on how the new generation will carry forward the Muslim Community in America. Will they let it crumble? Will they make peace between the nation? Will they deviate from their religion? Will they cause trouble in the lands? Will they deviate from their culture? These are all concerns that the older generation have. As America becomes a melting pot of different cultures and races in the next several decades, this question of succession is a great question. The future of Islam in America. May Allah bless us all, there is No Power nor Might except with Allah. HasbunAllah Wa Ni’mal Wakeel. I hope this benefited you and if it did and it is correct, it was from Allah. And if I didn’t benefited and I was wrong, then it was either from my own mistake or the whispers of Shaytan. JazakAllah Khair.

    Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah.

  7. Perhaps some of the answers to these very difficult and pressing questions can be answered by looking at the past at another group who faced similar issues. I am sure that if we could transport ourselves back in time and look at the Catholic Church of the 19th Century we would ask ourselves will these new immigrants ever assimilate? Will they be able to reconcile their “Old World “ ways with the “New”? In an essay by Dr. Julie Burne, Dept. of Religion Duke University entitled “ Roman Catholics and Immigration in the Nineteenth Century “ The point is made that in 1850 Roman Catholics made up 5% of the US population, but in just a little over 50 short years Roman Catholics made up 17% of the US population. Catholics from various countries came to America bringing their different languages, different social statuses and emphasizing different parts of their Catholic heritage. What kept these new immigrants who came here to the “New World” expecting the “American Dream” going? After all, these immigrants were for the most part found themselves in dirty run down parts of big cities, working back -breaking jobs for low wages, and living in sub standard housing. What held them together? The local Catholic Church, more than any other organization, made these immigrants welcome. How? By focusing on the pressing problems and as a group helping to meet the needs of welcoming these new immigrants, helping them find jobs and homes, teaching English, and holding celebrations of religious festivals and social events. The neighborhood church wasn’t just a church; it was the focal point of the whole community. The church was a whole way of life. Even if the local Parish wasn’t perfect, it provided the comforts of ritual and belief that gave their world meaning.

    Sound familiar? Muslims are blessed with teachings that address our whole way of life. Isn’t it time we start putting the faith to the test and addressing the pressing problems that we face and leave the “Old World” behind? We need to address the problems of the local community. If it is healthcare, we need to find local Muslim healthcare providers that are willing to stand and fill-in the gap. This also needs to include mental health issues. If it is needs of housing and jobs we need to address these from the local community resources. If it is a question of education those that are able and willing need be teaching. There will always be a way to divide this Ummah. Old ways vs. new is just another divide. It is our responsibility as the believers to take on these issues as a respectful cohesive group. Each of us can learn from the other. We all have something to give. We all have something to take. But wouldn’t our efforts be best put forth striving together as one for the sake of Allah?

  8. Asalam Aleikum,

    I think we’re missing a point or something is missing in the picture. Only problem I see from my generation (young generation) we’re trying to make is Islam more generic, to fits the western civilization and that is what cause crashes.

    Islam came as strange and it will leave as strange glide tidings to the strangers. What I start to see is cherry pick of what Islam should look like, and I total think that is wrong, and it’s wrong. We should stick together and avoid any division. Alhamdulilah am in Houston, where there are Muslim from all work of life, different madhahab and one thing I learned is to understand the difference of opinion and respect that. The problem with us either born in the west or convert we want Islam to fit us and not us to fit Islam. I think that is simple wrong and Allah knows best.

  9. Interesting experiment Marc, but utterly misguided on many levels. Altering the story into a narrative of political power and control, let alone equating a Prophet and a Wali with segments of Muslim population is bad adab with the Qur’an.

    Musa goes to Khidr as a humble student, not as a competitor and Khidr is well aware he has an drastically different view of things difficult to teach. They have adab with each other and are not interested in religious leadership whatsoever. Khidr doesn’t want Musa’s prophethood nor his leadership, and Musa is said to have had much grief with the stress of leading his people.

    I should remind you Musa was not wrong — he just had a different ijtihad, the typical ijtihad, one that is best for the masses and Musa knew his people well. Muslims do not go according to Khidr because we do not make the exception the rule and we have not seen centuries with the same eyes as Khidr has. Chances are Khidr would see the mistakes American Muslims are making as variations of mistakes Muslims made in the past, no matter what segment of American Muslims we are talking about. We need to learn from our history…

    Equating Khidr with “Next Generation” as if they are as exceptional as Khidr is basically a Quranicized reading of American exceptionalism. Our ilmi laduni is waswasa of shaytan. Destroyed nations mentioned in the Qur’an saw themselves as exceptional, but the believers saw themselves as simple Muslims no different than those past. Again, the importance of seeing how Muslim’s strayed in the past is needed, not being cut off from people…

    This is a story about knowledge and humility. This is not a story of inheritance. To read it as such is almost Jewish in nature…see this film called ‘Footnote’ to see what I mean.

    If anything Muslims are the boy in the story who follows Musa along on the journey and makes the mistake with the fish. We are just along for the journey. Or we are the people Khidr and Musa help oblivious to their help and baffled at God’s knowledge and qadar.


  10. Dawud – first, al-Salaamu ‘alaykum. That would be “proper” adab to begin a conversation. Secondly, I think it’s above your pay grade to denote what is and is not “misguidance”. You are free to disagree with me but to take it to such a level, where you impugn my religiosity or even my stance with God, is simply unacceptable. You seem to lack a basic sensibility of adab and knowledge of Islam itself. I would seriously contemplate your words and actions here.

  11. Theirs a lot of people on here who forgot to say salam (as I did) so not sure why you are pointing that out.

    And I meant misguided in the casual sense of the word…not in the harsh religious sense.

    I hope you are open to people who disagree with you…



  12. Dawud – if I were not open to criticism, I would not have approved your comment. However, I am not open to crass attitudes. If you yourself cannot take to heart what I said about the manner and tone of how you spoke to me, then perhaps you’re better off not commenting at all. I do not expect for everyone to agree with everything that I’ve said, but there’s not way around the fact that you said some pretty disparaging things about me religiously. It simply will not due not to scale back your tone unless you’re apologizing, for which I am happy to accept that.

  13. Iddi – wa ‘alaykum salaam. I’m not sure what you mean by more generic. I am curious, though, as to why you see an issue with Muslims (young or not) living in the West, attempting to make it work in their environment? How is this any different to Muslims who’ve made accommodations to make Islam work in Senegal, or Turkey, or even modern day Saudi Arabia? There is an enduring illusion that the Muslim world has not continuously and routinely accommodated Islam, intellectually, existentially and perhaps most important, culturally. Why the (cosmic?) exception for America or the West?

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