I was honored to have participated in a new media program: Muslims and Mental Health series. This episode explores legacy building in the African-American Muslim community. It examines issues of community mental health and how elders in the community are setting the tone for coming generations. We explore what the strengths and weaknesses of the community are. What works well and what could use improvement. What resources are needed in terms of human and material capital to make this community functional and healthy.
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)
The following are notes from a talk I gave as part of the Chaplain Chats series on February 21st, 2012, at the University of Pennsylvania. You may listen to the audio here:
Why the apparent connection between Blacks and Islam? What does Islam deal with in terms of Black America?
- The continued struggle of Blackamericans to “settle upon a self-definition that is functionally enabling and sufficiently “authentic”;
- The power and influence of white supremacy and its value system as a “seminal force of the contemporary global cum American sociopolitical order;
- The hegemony of modern, Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims.
- Blacks relate to Islam as blacks [i.e., “oppressed people”] and there is nothing unique or interesting about the link between BAM’s and Islam.
- Blackamericans often saw a liberating agent in Islam that was not there for them in Christianity. Ironically, it was not present for Muslims living in the Muslim world either. The following is from the South African Muslim Judicial Council during the reign of apartheid:
“Has the [apartheid] government forbidden the worship of Allah? Has the government closed down or ordered the demolition of any mosque in a declared white area? If our government has ordered our Muslims to desert the faith of our forefathers, then our ulema would have been the first to urge us to resist, even to the death.” Slavery, Civil War and Salvation by Daniel L. Fountain.
What is Black Religion? Def: “a pragmatic, folk-oriented, holy protest against anti-black racism, an orientation shared with many, though not all, Blackamerican Christians and Jews.
Challenges of Islam & Black Religion
- Post-immigration, many Blackamerican Muslims founded it difficult [and still do!] if unable to address their cultural, political and social realities in ways that were effective in an American context and simultaneously recognized as validly “Islamic” on the other.
- The proclivities of immigrant Muslims who were assumed to be the inheritors of a “super-tradition of historical Islam”, rendering all of their cultural practices as normative if not desirable.
- Such norms as the thawb have been subsumed under the “Sunnah”: والقوعد من النساء التى لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناح أن يضعن ثيبهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who are past child-bearing age and no longer have any hope of getting married, there is nothing wrong in their removing their outer clothes, provided they do not flaunt their adornments” Qur’an, 24: 60.
- “America … produced the distinctly racial understanding of difference.” “American whiteness has always reigned as the most prized public asset a citizen could own.”
- 1965: U.S. immigration law renders Muslim immigrants [Middle East/SEA] as legally “white”.
- Universalisms are ultimately neither as transcendent nor as enabling as they might like to be imagined. Such universals only serve the psychological and or material interests
- Human rights, freedom, beauty, good, “Islamic”.
- FU: to speak in universal terms but from a particular cultural, ideological or historical point of view. “’Human,’, ‘Islam,’ ‘justice,’ and the like are all taken, thus, to represent not particular understandings but ontological realities that are equally esteemed and apprehended by everyone, save the stupid, the primitive, or the morally depraved.”
- To give obeisance or risk castigation.
- Immigrant Islam “universalizes the particular”.
In the collapse of these heterodox groups in the face of historical Islam, most Blackamerican Muslims were forced into retreat, having no option other than to concede the authority immigrant Muslims possessed because of their lack of mastery over the Sunni Classical Tradition.
Taking Ownership: the function of the heterodox groups
- They transformed—if not the creed certainly the “idea” of—Islam for Blackamericans and allowed them to lay claim to it in a way that historical/Traditional Islam had/has as of yet to do.
- This, more than anything else, I believe what has grafted Islam onto the broader psyche of Blackamericans, rendering Islam a valid religious choice amongst the possibilities of Blackamericans.
- In the collapse of these heterodox groups in the face of historical Islam, most Blackamerican Muslims were forced into retreat, having no option other than to concede the authority immigrant Muslims possessed because of their lack of mastery over the Sunni Classical Tradition.
Blackamerican Muslim History
- First Resurrection: from slave times to 1975 with the death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
- Second Resurrection: from Elijah’s death until the divided leadership of Farrakhan and W.D. Muhammad.
- Third Resurrection: the mastery of the Sunni discourse. The 3R seeks to “thwart the power and pretense of false universals”. Still waiting.
Lessons & Take Aways
Why/how did Islam fail to convey itself to modern Blacks unhampered/unmolested?
“The argument goes that Africans, unable to speak one another’s languages or being of rival cultures and living together on disparate, isolated farms, could neither fully maintain nor successfully pass on their traditional cultures to future generation. Therefore, with each passing generation, more and more of the slaves’ African heritage disappeared or became incomprehensible to their American-born children. Whites, seeing African cultures as uncivilized or the breeding ground for rebellion, accelerated this process of cultural disintegration by prohibiting most public displays of the slaves’ ancestral customs.” Slavery, Civil War and Salvation by Daniel L. Fountain.
Scarcity of resources available to Blacks led to the decline of African religions [Islam included].
In regards to assimilation [versus indigenization]:
“Given the increased vulnerability of Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, there is a perduring temptation among many immigrant Muslims to seek acceptance by mainstream America in exchange for a domesticated Islam that can only support the state and the dominant culture and never challenge these. This entails an attempt to identify Islam with the proclivities and sensibilities of the dominant group. On such a reconciliation, however, Blackamerican Muslims who feel penalized, threatened, or devalued by the dominant culture are effectively called upon, now in the name of Islam, to abandon protest and the legitimate aspects of Black Religion and acquiesce to the indignities implied by white supremacy.”
CAMP Philadelphia is organizing a panel on the topic of African Americans and their contribution to Islam. The event will feature yours truly as the keynote speaker as well as spoken word artist, Seff Al Afriqi, author of a new volume of poetry entitled, A Gathering of Myself. The talk will also feature a panel discussion, “Bridging the Gap”, with members diverse cultural backgrounds, in which Muslims and non-Muslims can exchange thoughts on the topic of Islam in America, Islamophobia. The talk will be held this Sunday, Feb 27th, from 3-5:30pm in Griski room, Houston Hall, on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. Sign up on Facebook as well for any changes/updates to the event.
The panelists, organizers, speakers and artists are as follows:
Salima Suswell is the current President of the CAMP – Philadelphia chapter. Between 2007 and 2009, Salima served as an advisory board member. Salima is a Senior Litigation Specialist with the United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania and over the past ten years worked as a Senior Litigation Paralegal for several prestigious national law firms. In addition to her duties with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Salima is the Founder and CEO of Evolve Litigation Solutions, LLC., which provides litigation services and staffing in the Delaware Valley area.
Adnan Zulfiqar is the Law & Policy Fellow at Annenberg’s Center for Global Communication Studies. Among his activities he sits on the board of Masjid Quba and is also a member of the Zones of Peace Taskforce and the Administrative Committee of the Religious Leaders Council of Philadelphia. Adnan received his B.A. in Religion and Anthropology from Emory University, his M.A.L.S. in International Affairs from Georgetown University and his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Penn.
Carolyn Baugh, originally from Indiana, is in her final semester of graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where her focus is gender issues in early Islamic law. She holds a master’s degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Penn (2008) and a degree in Arabic and Arab Literature from Duke University. She currently serves as Interfaith Fellow and Campus Minister to the Muslim Community through the Office of the Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.
Margari Hill-Manley is an educator and writer with an MA in history from Stanford University where she specialized in Islam in Africa and Muslim social networks. She earned her BA at Santa Clara University where she specialized in European Islam and Medieval-Renaissance Studies. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to Islam, African history, and Black American Muslim communities at universities across the nation and has traveled extensively in the Middle East as a student and researcher. Her blog, “Margari Aziza,” has been featured in international magazines and noted as one of the outstanding female blogs for the 2008 and 2009 Brass Crescent awards. She is currently a high school instructor in Philadelphia where she teaches writing and grammar and literature from around the World.
Seff Al-Afriqi spoken word artist Seff Al Afriqi, author of a new volume of poetry entitled, “A Gathering of Myself,”. beyond the mechanics of what makes a great poem. He delves into the most important factors, the rhetoric, the truth, the healing, the content, the conviction, and the person
Philadelphia, after five years, continues to tantalize me with the hope and potential it has for American Muslims. There simply is no other city in the States that has the down home feeling of Islam that Philadelphia has. I believe that is saying something given that I grew up within a 45-minute drive of one of the larger Muslim populations in the United States: Dearborn. The contrasting difference between Dearborn, Michigan, and Philadelphia, is that the population in question here is an indigenous one. There isn’t anywhere you can go in Philadelphia and not see the presence of Muslims: The hospital; the bus or public transportation [many Muslims work for SEPTA]; the University; all walk of life from menial to professional. But it isn’t just ubiquitous nature of Muslims in Philadelphia, it’s also their impact on the greater non-Muslim population. It is often noted and joked about that, as far as the Black population goes, you cannot easily distinguish who is and is not Muslim in Philadelphia. Non-Muslim Black men dress in that decidedly distinct Philadelphia Muslim fashion: thick beards, short pants, Timberland boots, etc. Even non-Muslim Black women imitate Muslims here [on the way home from work I sat on the bus with a woman who wore what appeared to be hijab. She greeted me with, “as-Salaamu ‘alaykum,” noting my dhikr beads. At the end of the conversation, she said she wasn’t Muslim but had many Muslims for friends]. And while I do feel that the indigenous identity has been compromised here by certain movements whose imagination is planted somewhere, as one scholar put it, “hovering over the Atlantic”, I still feel comfortable in branding Philadelphia as the United States premier city for Muslims. Continue reading “The Quba Institute”