Authority Crisis: Who's On First?

In watching a recent speech by Dr. Sherman Jackson, it was interesting to note his pointing out of the authority crisis with American Muslims. This is also a topic that he has pointed out in his book, Islam and the BlackAmerican as well as in other speeches he’s given. It would seem that this is indeed one of the most important topics relating to Islam here in the “West”. As American Muslims strive to gain their own voices, part of that struggle will entail determining how and who has authority to speak on religion. So – who is on first?

When I first took shahadah, I was taught my Islam by fellow Blackamerican Muslims who were in fact trying to live out their religious lives as 20th Century bedouins in the greater Detroit area. They sought to validate their Islam by foreign (more specifically, Arab) standards. The thawbes were donned. The kufis and kifayyah as well. We were dressed and ready to cross the Empty Quarter on camel-back. Anything that might appear to be Western was tossed out of consideration. To be American, to be Western, was almost the same as committing religious apostasy. Thank God that times they did ‘a change (for us, at least)!

There can be many reasons associated with this interpretation of Islam. As I have heard Jackson put it before, many of “us” (Blackamericans) were looking for validation. This can be seen in the few Blackamerican Muslims who went overseas to “study the deen”. Out of the vast majority of these blacks who went to Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan or Pakistan, very few completed their studies in any formal way. But what it did do, in their minds and perhaps even more importantly in the minds of their fellow American counterparts who didn’t go, is it gave them a “stamp of authenticity”. It gave them a connection to this grand history, a history of when Islam shaped the happenings of the world. And now, because they went over seas where “real Islam” exists, they’re now a part of that history. Of course, this in no way connotes that fact that they completed their studies. Few came back with degrees or certificates. But degree or no, in their communities, they were idealized and garnered new levels of respect.

One of Jackson’s other points is the effect that literacy has had on this phenomenon. In pre-modern times, few people had access to books – to vast, literate amounts of knowledge. So in a way, this kept the number of people who could have authority on the religion to a smaller number. But now, in the modern, literate world, bolstered by the Information Highway, many, many times that number of people have access to religious texts, can formulate their own opinions and can readily share it with the rest of the world. This, combined with a collapse of a defined system of who can and cannot speak on the religion has led to a authority crisis.

So what has to happen? Where do we proceed to from here? How can we create an organized system that develops intelligent people, with appropriate backgrounds and educations, to speak authoritatively on Islam? I’m curious for your thoughts.

8 Replies to “Authority Crisis: Who's On First?”

  1. Interesting thoughts….I always learn something new from Dr.Jackson.

    Do you know if he came out with new articles/books that address these issues? Jazakallah!

  2. I don’t know if you’ve listened/watched the lecture he gave at the Western Knight Center. Here’s a link to the file [150+MB]. I’d take the time to check it out and listen to it if you have the time. I don’t have anything yet but I’ll post if I do. Thanks.

  3. Thanks I just saw your other page soley dedicated to him, it helps alot! plus he’s around the block (detroit):)
    Wa salaam.

  4. Marqas,
    Salam Alaikum
    I haven’t read AbdulHakim Jackson’s book yet. But the subject concerns me as an American Muslim.
    After reading your post, ideas popped into my head and so I divided you post up into four main topics, and I’ve used slices of your original text to emphasis the main points.
    what I wrote is maybe a bit to big for the comments section, so I posted to my blog and here’s the “Link”

  5. marqas,

    real interesting thoughts. especially the notion of being a bedouin in urban areas. i think that particular draw has to do with the offering of a cogent world-view, in which all things seem to fit a neat pattern. in which honor doesn’t revolve around material or worldly success but in your interactions with your fellow man. as such, the city-as-desert analogy gives to everyone who feels on the fringe of worldly power a sense of brotherhood. the fact that you can add and say “for 1400 years this has been going on elsewhere” only makes it that much more tangible.

    good post.

  6. Eteraz

    You may be right in some regards. I have no doubt that for many of them or for myself in that time period, it was for those things. What they/we deemed as anti-materialism. Anti-establishment. But what we were trying to get at, and I also think this is part of Dr. Jackson’s point, is a dignified existance. Part of that was also based on our [unconcious?] struggle against white supremacy. We wanted to dress like bedouins because the white man had no authority on bedouins. We could not be ridiculed because we had or were trying to have, authority on that. And of course, in the end, this is a fabricated notion – a mythos of sorts. For the bedouin was most certainly materialistic, albeit in a much more existential kind of way. Furthermore, this is ultimately tragic in that you have a group people who reject their own history and attempt a sort of religious/cultural skin graft to attain legitimacy. This is a great part of what Sherman Jackson talks about in his book, Islam and the Blackamerican, and many of his other lectures. Thanks for the comments.

  7. I’ve been meaning to get to this for days but social dilemmas and psychology of exclusion were calling..
    What an important question…one I see clearly needing to be answered as we attempt to deal with all the problems our communities encounter these days.

    “To be American, to be Western, was almost the same as committing religious apostasy.”

    Imagine watching your parents experience the bipolar world of being a new Muslim in the 70’s. You were made to feel that if you didn’t change your name you were not Muslim enough, if you didn’t sport a thobe or roll up your pants or all of a sudden speak with a funky new accent, there was something wrong with your deen. But damn if you couldn’t help getting down to Stevie Wonder Saturday mornings while mopping the floor.

    Lesson learned from my childhood: you can never fully be in one world or the other. Today I strive to prove that lesson wrong. Some days I don’t think I ‘ll ever find my way and other days I think I almost have it.

    Also, keep in mind that it is not only an internal feeling of having acquired some authenticity that Black people search for their deen where the accents are thickest and the beards fullest. The racist and classist attitudes of the Muslims surrounding them went a long way in promoting their view of an “authentic” Islam.

    I just had a conversation with an older man a couple of months ago who was outraged by Imam Zaid’s “behaviour” as he was speaking. ” He was speaking like these people on tv…. He should not move like that when he is speaking…” This man was of course from a culture where the Imams are I guess Imam-like than our beloved Imam Zaid.

    I trust very few authorities to have the best interests of Black people in mind, or the countless number of converts and their children living in the West.

    That being said I think we need to develop a strong community base from which to nurture those among us who would lead. Before we do that though, we need to be aware of who we are as people, what we can bring to the Islamic culture, what we can bring to the world as a whole.
    We have to have a stong sense of identity and self-worth.
    Build the individual and you have built a nation.

    I could go on for days. But I won’t. I hope I gaven’t offended. This is a subject that hits very close to home and brings up a lot of stuff.

    One day I will build us all commune where we can feed chickens and follow rainbows…. until then we strive


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