Moses was the adopted son of Egypt and Pharaoh. Malcolm too was an adopted son of sorts. Both spoke truth to power. There are many figures of justice throughout the Qur’an and in Muslim history: Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Dhu’l Qarnayn, Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, Umar bin al-Khattab, Nana Asmau, Muhammad ‘Ali, and El Hajj Malcolm Shabbaz, just to name a few.
One of the issues that challenge religious communities in America as it relates to relevance and speaking truth to power is the privatization of religion (secularity/post-secularity). In this process of privatization, I feel we have taken the story, life and today, anniversary of the death of Malcolm Shabbaz, from the perspective of privatized religion. So the question is:
Do we celebrate Malcolm’s “coolness” or do we actually intimately relate to the issues he sought to address?
What did he stand for? Do we really love Malcolm, or have we used his story and history as a repository to write our own, for as God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم tells us, love has conditions:
A man said to the Prophet (s.a.w): “O’ Messenger of God, I swear to God that I truly love you!” So the Prophet said: “Consider what you’re saying.” To this the man replied, “I swear to God that I truly love you!” Three times this was repeated. He said, “If you do indeed love me, then prepare yourself for poverty, for indeed poverty comes faster upon whoever loves me than does the flood to its destination.” — Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, 2350.
While this hadith is rated as weak it does show that standing up for the truth, for la ilahi illa’Allah, will not come without its trials and tests. This was abundantly clear in the life of Malcolm, how ultimately paid for justice with his life, may God have mercy on him.
Another parallel between Malcolm’s life and the Qur’an is the story of Abraham and his people:
“We gave Ibrahim his right guidance early on, and We had complete knowledge of him. When he said to his father and his people, ‘What are these statues you are clinging to?’ they said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said, ‘You and your fathers are clearly misguided.’ They said, ‘Have you brought us the truth or are you playing games?’ He said, ‘Far from it! Your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He who brought them into being. I am one of those who bear witness to that.”Qur’an, 21: 51-57.
It took a look of courage for Abraham to address his people on what they were wrongly “clutching on to”. Likewise, Malcolm addressed America, as one of its own, that they too were clutching on to the system of anti-black racism and violence, a system much akin to idolatry, for no other reason than they “found their forefathers doing so”.
This and more is addressed in the khutbah. I pray we can reflect, change and benefit from the examples of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, Moses, Jesus, Abraham and even the likes of our brother, Malcolm.
Last evening, I had the pleasure of finally meeting up with an acquaintance (whom now I can call friend), a fellow wayfarer in the doldrums of Philadelphia, and discussed all manner of things Muslim: morality, politics, family life (although I’m sad to say we didn’t make mention of Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans’ 3 M’s: music, moons, and meat!). And in our conversations we spoke on the need for American-Muslims to seriously engage middle America, and by that I mean the middle-class. We both lamented that for far too long, particularly amongst Blackamerican Muslims, there has been the tendency to only focus on inner city (what some call ‘hood) in terms of da’wah. The result, we felt, is an Islam that tends to patronize the ugly side of Blackamerican culture instead of, as Imam Suhaib Webb as stated, “polishing it”. While this is not unique to Blackamericans, I do feel its worth discussing. The result of this myopic focus has engendered a number of tragic results. A few them being:
lack of spiritual growth on the part of Blackamerican Muslims: immoral behavior is often given a pass due to the expressed interest of large numbers of Blackamericans in Islam. In addition, due to the desire of many Blackamericans desire to escape the realities of black urban life in America, their Islam in many ways becomes escapist or even performance art, not a focus on a God-pleasing life. In this way, Islam is subsumed under Blackamerican culture, right or wrong, instead of negotiating it.
it has ignored the realities of this particular demographic and, to be frank, has not been realistic about the challenges those coming out of this experience will face. To speak from experience, one of the major factors that allowed myself and my two older brothers to avoid the trappings of urban black life was a solid, two-parent house hold. This is something that many Blackamerican urban families are lacking. Not only this, but there has been a discernible lack of focus on building family in many urban Blackamerican centers. As my friend and I observed, community in the modern American-Muslim vernacular has been rendered a mostly abstract concept: it has as of yet to take a recognizable form and thus, to date, has frustrated many a Muslim’s attempt to be a part of one. Personally, my thought is that this is because most of the rhetoric that is espoused by American-Muslims tends to go in one of two directions: the aforementioned abstract community and the individual. The latter tends to produce, with all possible respect, things like UnMosqued, where the opinion of the individual is elevated beyond mere concerns to dictating policies. Instead, I believe the most important building block for the community is not the individual, but the family. By accentuating the family (encouraging stable marriages, nurturing children, limiting childhood to children versus extended adolescence, etc.), Islam may in fact be able to deal with the systemic challenges facing Black-(and others)-Americans.
this myopic focus has also created a false essentialism between blackness and poverty. That to be truly black is to be truly poor (again with ‘hood as the vernacular). The result, with the above observations in mind, has also systematically ignored the Blackamerican middle-class. God’s Messenger said, “The best from amongst you in pre-Islamic times (jahiliyyah) are the best amongst you in Islam if they comprehend it*” (agreed upon).
I know this will seem an odd recipe to many but I feel, when we look at America, one of the greatest aspects of Islam that will provide Americans with a foothold to begin grasping what Islam is all about, is its intrinsically middle-class values. When I say middle-class here I am referring to those American values which prioritize the family, security, and safety. Solid middle-class morals and ethics which have a strong, if not always properly executed, attachment to helping the poor and the less fortunate. Another good friend of mine, Malik Shaw, and I have often lamented about the state of Blackamerica and the number of children who are casually born out of wedlock and that, once upon a time not so long again, this was unacceptable to middle-class America, black or white. Let me be clear: I am well aware of many of the issues of modern middle-class life, which has wondered from its center and is slowly being solely concerned with procuring a life of no inconveniences (spiritual as well as existential). That being true, I still believe that articulating Islam in this vein to middle-class America: white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., will prove, God-willing, a more efficacious method of calling people to God. I will end and summarize with a quote from ‘Abdal Hakim Murad, from a talk he delivered entitled The Way Forward:
“We can curl up in a prickly ball, like a frightened hedge hog, and curse and damn everything around us, because it happens not to know ‘la ilaha ill’Allah‘, or we can start to activate the Prophetic capacity, which says that ‘laysa sawa’ ‘, ‘they are not all the same’ [Qur’an, 3: 113]. There are amongst the Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, upright people.”
“They are not all the same. There is a community among the People of the Book who are upright. They recite God’s signs throughout the night, and they prostrate.”
And God knows best.
*Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was asked, “Who are the most honorable of the people?” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The most honorable of them in God’s sight are those who protect themselves from His chastisement. They said, “We’re not asking you concerning that,” to which he said, “Then the most honorable of the people is Joseph, God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s friend (khalil, Abraham).” They said, “We do not ask you about that either.” The Prophet said, “Do you ask about the virtues of the Arabs?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Those who were the best amongst you in the pre-lslamic time are the best amongst you in Islam, if they comprehend.
Here it is. My 9/11 post. I had been avoiding this issue, not because I haven’t had thoughts on it, but primarily because I haven’t really had the venue to speak my mind. But while laying on my couch, giving Pnin a cursory reading before my term begins, an e-mail flashed across my iPhone and a very long and complicated conversation jumped off inside my head. Here is the short form.
In truth, I had not wished to address 9/11 for a number of reasons. First, after having spoken with my father and agreeing with him, I feel the imagery surrounding 9/11 and its veneration is insensitive to those who did lose family and loved ones. Over and over, for a decade, these families have been forced to have their loved one’s final moments played out, over and over again, with little to no regard to the sanitizing and sterilizing effects it has on the masses [repeatedly witnessing the deaths of nearly 2,800 people] not to mention the agony of seeing your husband, your wife, your son, your daughter, your neighbor, mowed down and destroyed needlessly. We could do with a lot less instant replay and a lot more reflection. While this post is not the time nor place, I must repeat it again: Technology is not neutral.
Another reason, not wholly unrelated from the previous sentence’s final thought, is the lack of sound and critical dialog over the entire phenomenon of 9/11 and what spawned from it. No, this is not a clarion call for conspiracy theories: I admit, there are things about the “how” of 9/11, but if we’re honest [Muslims] we don’t have to strain ourselves to come up with the “why”. This is not an indictment of Islam: I am a “practicing”, 5-times-a-day-praying, Ramadan-fasting, zakat-paying, House-of-God-visiting Muslim. I do not subscribe to such popular buzzwords as “Islamic” terrorism [as there were no orders to terrorize in the final Revelation that was sent to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him]. But, sadly, there are some Muslims who do seek to instill unjustified fear into the hearts of folks simply because they can’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag.
This lack of dialog however, should not be seen as something isolated to the tragic events of 9/11. In truth, America has abandoned intellectual discourse in the public sphere a long time ago. This is aided by technologies such as sound bites, 24/7 CNN-style “Situation Room” nonsense, where meaningful information is massacred into entertainment [another plug for technology is not neutral]. But to help put this philosophical and ethical crisis into the broader context, I will talk about 9/11 from the perspective of tolerance and belonging.
Tolerance: a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.
That is a dictionary definition of tolerance. But that is no longer what tolerance means in America. Instead, diversity has come to be seen as the antithesis of democracy, of tolerance, and thus, unity has devolved down into a make-shift uniformity. You can be diverse in America, so long as you’re just like me. Only problem is, who gets to define “me” [what ever happened to “we” by the way]? From what I can tell, it’s a particular strain of whiteness to be frank. A strain of whiteness that would like to harken back to the pre-Civil Rights days, when Whiteamericans didn’t have to live under the yoke of racial suspicion, but that’s another story for another day. So how do we maintain one of our civilizational core values of diversity when everything we do threatens its very existence?
One of the proofs that we are sadly rolling downhill to the formation of a monoculture is in the adoption of Islamophibic rhetoric by Blackamericans [and other “minorities as well]. Blackness has been on the ropes ever since 1964 and now it looks to be down on one knee; the ref’s count stopped at 6, but one more body blow like that and…
You see, it’s very difficult these days to adhere to Blackness [or any other category that defies the false universal of white values]. Even our President, who no doubt was partially elected by some of his constituents because he was black, dares not discuss race openly. He was seen as a chance to change what had seemed written in stone. And yet, as has been in the [sound bite] media lately, there has been a great deal of dissatisfaction on how this President speaks on race, let alone addresses anything near it with a ten-foot pole. Why am I talking race? Weren’t we just discussing 9/11? Yes, we were, and we still are. You see, 9/11 has put Muslims in a very nasty little corner [albeit, one they helped decorate, if not create]. One must pledge allegiance to the Flag, unwavering allegiance that cannot afford to include any criticism of the State Power: after all, we do not wish to bite the hand that’s feeding us [our own hand], right? Can we mourn all of those who died on 9/11? White? Black? Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist? Can we also mourn those who died as a result of 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the former, that was shown to have had no links to the 9/11 perpetrators? The simple answer is: No.
The greatest public tragedy of losing Martin Luther King Jr. was not his cowardly assassination, but was the assassination of everything he truly stood for. While he did call for and hope for the day when “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls”, he was not calling for the abolishment or abandonment of blackness [race] nor the abolishment of diversity, in order to bring that dream to fruition. King was very much invested in black self-worth and dignity. Sadly, once his face was immortalized on that postage stamp and built a thoroughfare through every ghetto in America with his name on it, the nuances of his speech have long been lost. I say this because the same tragedy that had been enacted upon King is now being enacted upon Muslims and upon America as a whole: the insidious attack on diversity. Decriers of Muslims inability to assimilate to American society often evoke King’s words to demonstrate the “innate” goodness of America: See! Black folks and white folks can all get along [I’m thinking of a name here now, someone who lived in L.A.]. It’s these MOOZ-LUMS who hate democracy and hate our values. And yet we also find Muslims co-opting King’s language as a weak demonstration of our supposed support [I do believe we support it, it’s just I think the gesture is weak] of King’s/America’s values. But when diversity is re-defined as that which makes us incompatible, then how can truly function in a society where, all rhetoric aside, we are all quite different [ethnic/racial/religious groups]? This is why, as I try to tie up a loose end here, I see Blackamerican politicians rallying to the banner of anti-Muslim sentiment: If diversity is the problem, and I’m black, then where else do I have to go [thought Herman Cain]? A ha! If I abandon my Blackness [in the name of post-racial, multi-racial etc.] and flock to the banner of uniformity [a.k.a., the false universal], then I might just have a place in this new fantasy land [that is, again, until these white folks take a second look at me and realize I really am black – but there’s time to squabble of the spoils of victory later].
In end and in short, Muslims must return to the proper dialog of diversity and shout it loudly. The current dialog on religion in America wishes to root itself in our Abrahamic faiths and yet none of us [Christians, Jews, or Muslims] refers to ourselves as Abrahamites, or refers to our religion as Abrahamity. No, we are Christians [of one stripe of another], we are Jews or we are Muslims. We should feel comfortable, we three, to speak and articulate our distinctness without feeling we are abandoning our shared values [including Abraham being a central figure to our three faiths]. Perhaps then, when we respect [our own and each other’s] diversity and not see it in opposition or contradiction to unity [finding mutual values that we can raise above the fray], perhaps then, perhaps just then, we’ll all mourn as one, the dead of 9/11 and the death of bigotry.
From Adam to Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad—all Prophets have been preaching the universal message to mankind across time and across the globe. The universal message being brought down to mankind since the beginning of time: is the the oneness of God [also known as tawhid]. The biggest religions today claim to follow this divine message, but what does it mean exactly? Marc Manley, a Muslim writer, educator and khatib, will give a lecture on the meaning and significance of the universal message each Prophet brought to the world. From one part of the world to another, from one Holy book to another—it all commanded the worship of God alone. You are invited to learn how the divine proclamation is prevalent in today’s society in an intellectual learning experience that holds great value on the world today.
The event will be held on April 18th, at 6pm in MacAlister 2019. For more information, please contact Drexel’s MSA or see the Facebook event page.
Many thanks to Thomas and his class at the William Penn Charter School – an educational institution built on Quaker values, for inviting me out to speak on Islam again. I have spoken before at William Penn and am always impressed with Tom’s class. This term, Tom was teaching a class centered around the theme of Peoples of the Book. The main text they were reading for the class was Karen Armstrong’s piece.
I spoke on the concept of the People of the Book, namely Jews and Christians, and how they were spoken of in the Qur’an and mentioned in the Sunnah but I also elaborated on the cultural knowledge of the pagan Arabs and what they knew of in terms of stories from the Torah or the Bible. A great deal of Orientalist scholarship has tried to paint the Arabian peninsula as being more isolated than it was. More recent scholarship counters that despite paganism and idolatry being a prevalent practice amongst the Arab tribes of Arabia pre-7th Century, the narratives of Moses, Jesus and Abraham, just to name a few, were known to these Arabs and thus were relevant to them. We also examined how not only is Islam seen by other religious traditions but more importantly, how does Islam see itself in the context of the People of the Book.
Continuing about the legacy of Biblical stories in the Arabian peninsula, without their cultural familiarity of these stories the Qur’an’s relevancy would have been greatly dimmished, hence giving rise to new and alternative scholarship that suggests the Arabian peninsula was more connected to its neighbors, primarily through trade, than has been previously suggested.
I also fielded questions from a number of students, with topics ranging from 9/11 [a perennial question] to how do Muslims negotiate marriage with non-Muslims. We also discussed the role that religion plays in informing social and cultural participation in religion. One of the students, whose family hails from a historical Muslim country, described his family dynamic which consisted of three generations in his household: his grandfather, his parents and he and his siblings. The grandfather still practiced, praying 5 times a day and so forth with the student’s parents being more lax in their religious consistency and finally the student, who said that he didn’t not think much about religion at all. All three generations seemed to function under one roof but more to the above point about culture, we had discussed whether or not, if his family had stayed in their country of origin, would he have been more apt to have had some form of communal practice. By coming and staying in America [i.e., his identity forming here] and his parents not being full-time practitioners, their religious practice tapered off to reflect their environment, where there were no secondary or tertiary enforcements to inform his religious consciousness.
We also discussed the phenomenon of Islam in the Blackamerican community. As a case point, illustrating the mass familiarity Blackamericans have with Islam, one of Blackamerican students in the course stated his grandfather was a Muslim. A brief talk was given to the unique status that Blackamerican Muslims hold as an indigenous American community, whose door is [currently] open to Islam and Blackamericans can freely choose to be Muslim without having to sacrifice anything in the public sphere.
I look forward to going back again. I congratulate Tom on running such an informative course for his students to learn about the many religious traditions we have in America.