The Evolution of Muslims in America

With yet another PBS documentary under its belt, American Islam would seem to be on the up and up. There are a number of hip-hop artists affiliated with Islam to lesser and greater degrees, thus, many see this as the “coming of age” of Islam in America. Seen as giving the American Muslim youth something to identify with, many seem to be reluctant to call out and name hip-hop for what it is. Two isles have formed where individuals either decry hip-hop as a spiritually bankrupt and corrupting enterprise while others say it has positive messages at its root. I will clearly state that I find hip-hop as it is expressed to be incompatible with a healthy Muslim practice but I am not using this opportunity to roast but rather make this one addendum: while we may denounce hip-hop as not being conducive to a healthy Muslim experience we must allow for the evolutionary process of people as they try and make moves towards understanding and living their Islam.

This idea of evolution may seem an awkward expression, especially given the word’s [ma sha’Allah] unfortunate or highly charged history in the English speaking world. I am not speaking of that flawed theory presented by Charles Darwin but rather the aspect that while people may start at point [A], and hope to arrive at point [C], there is a wide swath of [B], the evolutionary path that all of us tread on in one form or another. If we can come to understand and appreciate this we have a greater chance of actually allowing more people to make it to point [C] without being waylaid or ambushed along the path.

Part of what may help to make this idea better known to Muslims is that, one, it is a type of pedagogical technique practiced by the Prophet [s], where he allowed people to grow into their Islam, all the while not sacrificing one iota of the transcendent values of the religion he sought to teach. It is not wholly necessary here to delve into excessive examples but we are all familiar with the many examples where the Prophet [s] withheld punishment or judgment on persons who had character flaws or issues because he saw it as a progress [another highly charged and misused word] of their Islam, that they would eventually get to point [C] if given an opportunity to develop.

One of the ways in which we as Muslims [and especially as those in leadership positions] can help to bring this to fruition is to walk that solid line between understanding and condoning. Extend a hand but a firm one – one that is not afraid to give sincere nasihah [keeping it real in the modern vernacular] to those who are still in that early stage. Along with this comes the need to give people the education and tools to realize the true nature of Reality – for when people unveil [kashf] the inner nuances of what it is we object to, they will have, God willing, the toolset to come to similar conclusions. What is happening currently, is that people who do not have that spiritual training and maturity, are often demonized to such an extent that they are banish from any thought of coming to terms with what they do [their mu’amalat] and how they can come to realize its detriment to their health as Muslims [mukashafah]. If we, as both leaders and as a community claim to be inheritors of the Prophet [s], then we must examine our kulliyat and question if we’re letting the kullu shay [every little thing] get in the way of the big picture.

Two small pieces caught my eye regarding this topic. One, was rapper Lupe Fiasco reciting al-Fatihah at a concert.  For many Muslims this causes two reactions: [a]: total dismay, as the Qur’an is something Holy and should not be used for such purposes – that Its Message would be lost amongst the din a crowd enthralled at the performance of a star. [b]: total enchantment, for this is what some see as finally an opportunity to blend their personal or secular likes with the transcendent. The other piece was Suhaib Webb’s response to the proposition of hip-hop, where he stated,

“I was brought into Islam through the Hip-Hop world. That being said, once I became Muslim and started studying, I realized that in order for me to develop and grow as a Muslim I would have to amputate my relations with Hip-Hop and its community. I realized that the Qur’an and Hip Hop simply don’t mix.”

Webb articulates the difficulty that he has had in trying to sign off on hip-hop, but, as a sign of his own maturation as a Muslim and future leader, is that he had to make a tough decision and label hip-hop for what it is. But for me, the more important lesson here is that while Suhaib Webb was able to call hip-hop out for what it is he never gave the impression that those that do still engage in it [particularly here I assume he means listeners but perhaps performers as well] would be “amputated” from the community. In other words, stand firm on recognizing hip-hop, the “thing” and not the people, is corrupt at its core, whereas people can always be reformed, God willing.

To summarize, we have to do a better job of lending a helping hand while not compromising our core principles. We have to start to offer real, sincere, and alternate solutions, solutions with efficacy, not simply sloganized dogma. I think more Muslims who have a genuine love of their religion, if given the proper tools, God willing, will come to unveil hip-hop for what it is, and work to salvage their souls. Something all of us, hip-hop connoisseurs or not, strive to do.

Where To Turn To When Returning To Spirituality

 

There has been a great increase in interest in spirituality from the Muslim community over the last several years. Published manuscripts of this or that teacher, new translations of Ibn ‘Arabi’scosmology as well as lesser known, more esoteric authors have hit the shelves of book stores in waves. The Muslim readership in the English-speaking world are hungry for spiritual sustenance. But is this hunger being fed? That is the question I would like to ask.

This new call for methods and practices on Muslim spirituality have not been solely limited to print. Many neo-Traditional institutions have found themselves in demand, holding numerous seminars across the United States and Britain, calling for returns to a spiritual practice of Islam. And while I laud these efforts, I will illustrate how some of these mediums may not actually be accomplishing their goals: to help engender a spirit of God conscious amongst the rank and file believers. And finally, to go beyond just critique, I will try and offer a few meager suggestions myself.

It goes without saying that Islam is a religion that has a strong historicaland spiritual practice, what some may call Sufism, Tasawwuf, or mysticism, found in all corners of the earth, where ever Muslims have traveled to. It is linked with many of the great intellectual and philosophical figures in Muslim history (the aforementioned Ibn ‘Arabi, Mulla Sadra and of course, the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali). Many if not most of these spiritual traditions have survived up to the present day, from Africa to Asia, the Balkans to the Middle-East, in various turuq (plural of tariqah, or a Sufi brotherhood). And now that Islam has arrived on America’s shores, what will its spiritual tradition look like? Is there one at all? Proto-Islamic groups, such as the Nation of Islam, had their roots in a “holy protest” against white supremacist values and socialinjustices; spirituality was not a primary or even secondary focus of their experiences as Muslims (note: I am obviously aware of the doctrinal differences between orthodox Islam and the problematic theology of the NOI, but for the purposes of this article, I will refer to them nonetheless as Muslim here) in America. Following the popular demise of the NOI in the face of Muslims hailing from the historical Islamic world, again, we see most Muslims in America primarily concerned with existential matters: education, employment, assimilation. And while these are all necessary matters, they cannot sustain a community over the long haul alone. So why the recent interest in spirituality? And more importantly, how will it shape itself in this unique context, addressing the many various needs of the American Muslim community? These are some of the questions that beg many answers.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the last severalyears attending, photographing, and observing many religious functions of Muslims in America. Many of these, whose objectives are a call to spirituality and the return to a more focused spiritual life. The significance of this shift coming post 9/11 cannot be ignored, as it helps us to see who’s interested and why. To be more direct, calls for a return to spirituality have been championed primarily by immigrant-supported groups. By supported I mean groups either led by leaders or more importantly, support financially by immigrant Muslims. Many, though not all of these Muslims tend to come from more affluent backgrounds, having both more formal education than their Blackamericancounterparts as well as the disposable income to support such groups and even the human capitalto volunteer and assist in their implementation. This should not be thought of as a critique versus merely an observation. In fact, it is because of the lack of both economic and human capital that many indigenous [and here I am referring to Blackamerican] institutions have yet to fully take flight. So the question I ask myself is in what way, in what role, will indigenous Muslims have a role in shaping the future of the development of spiritual practices. But before attempting to answer such a question, first we must look at what are the current practices and trends on the ground and what does the triage call for.

Like any thing else in the American Muslim experience, divergent groups will have divergent needs. The spiritualneeds and practical implementation of any such developed practices will have to vary from community to community. The trials and tribulations of immigrant Muslims may indeed be very different from those of BlackamericanMuslims, regardless if they are low-income urban Blacks or educated, upwardly mobile. It is the different histories of the two communities that will drive (or ought to be) and dictate the spiritual needs of the communities. What I believe should be paid more attention to is that bothcommunities have a real need for such a return. And while this has been felt by the immigrant Muslim community, in large, this has either been ignored by the Blackamerican population, especially in urban settings, where there is a palpable mistrust of such practices as deviant, or not fully articulated into a “need”, and thus practice. But there has been a small groundswell of interest in more independent-minded BlackamericanMuslims, many of whom I have been in contact with and have discussed this very same topic. For them, the question is not “if”, in terms of spiritual practice, but “how” and “by whom”, and in what way. Many of us have toured the travel circuit, attended the lectures and workshops but have yet to be left with a feeling of a workable plan. A functional spirituality that gives meaning to their private lives as Muslims. That bring them closer to God.

With two possible tracks articulated, the question now turns to the institutions themselves. How are they, if at all, prepared to deal with the multiplicity of backgrounds, cultural proclivities and the like of the above groups. The traveling workshop has left many with just a taste of what might be possible, but with no solid or tangible means to pursue these practices further. Many have stated they do not feel they can learn or accomplish much in a one-day or two-day talk, often of which the topics seem more like a talk show format than something truly topical. Should we be asking more and/or different formats of dissemination from our Islamic higher institutions of learning? Many would seem to think so. And given that time and money are of limited supply, many of these attendees feel that their money, time, and resources could be put to better use for better results.

To be certain, a great deal of this difficulty is brought about by modern life itself, which at many times can seem and feel antithetical to the betterment of the human being. Time constraints, inflation, taking more to obtain less, all add to the stress and detracted interaction of not only Muslims from one another, but to all peoples caught in this bind. And while the Internet has made the dissemination of information doubly more proficient, it has yet to prove to be truly capable to mimicking the experience of bona-fide human involvement. In short, both short seminars and web casts are poor substitutions for proper teachers and real companionship (suhbah, the word from which the word Sahabah (the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وسلم companions) is derived). And it may be true that the greater aspects of spirituality are those demons we all rankle with on the inside, there is also an outer aspect that involves companionship with our common man. And in our case specifically, with other Muslims. I myself saw the proof of this when interviewing many of the attendees at conferences such as MANA and ISNA or even talks by Zaytuna. They all attested to the fact that the greatest benefit from those conferences wasn’t the talks, wasn’t the shopping at the bazaars, but it was just the honest-to-goodness social interaction with other like-minded Muslims. I believe this to be step one in commencing our journey towards a healthy spiritual practice. We must come to know one another. And there is plenty of evidence that we, as an American Muslim collective, still do not know one another as well as we should.

“O’ mankind! Without a doubt we created you from a single pair of man and woman and made you of various sorts and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” al-Hujaraat, 13.

As for the second step of this journey, we, both the rank and file and the administrators of such institutions, must constantly ask, “is this serving our purpose?” Is this what we need? Along with a new generation of imams, who will need to be trained in more than just Qur’anicrecitation, our next generation of scholars and community educators must need be multifaceted, trained in many areas of expertise, capable of on-spot cultural analysis, assessing that the community needs, what they’re facing, and how best to prepare them for the world in which they not only live in, but for one they want to live in, and of course, for the life to come. Perhaps in there lies a hope for divergent communities to come together, utilize and celebrate the genius of our communities, and not just sending our best and brightest off to study medicine and engineering. I encourage many of my Blackamericanbrethren to take a second look at the intellectual and spiritual history and tradition of Islam and not right it off as just “bid’ah“. With all of the difficulties that Blackamericans face, especially those coming out of urban backgrounds, we need to deliver to them an Islam that is more than simply an conglomerate of rules and regulations. More intelligent ways of saying “halal” and not just “haram”, without giving up or into the demands of the dominant culture and yet not completely disassociating ourselves from it. Without a doubt, we need a return to spirituality, but we can ask for and receive better.

And God knows best.

Imam W. D. Mohammed and The Third Resurrection by Dr. Sherman Jackson

It is my pleasure to present a most erudite article regarding not only the passing of Imam WD Mohammed [may Allah grant him Paradise] but a clarion call to the entire America Muslim community as to the milestone we’ve reached and where we ought to be heading. Enjoy.

Imam W. D. Mohammed and The Third Resurrection
by Sherman Abd al-Hakim Jackson

The passing of Imam W.D. Mohammed, may God have mercy upon him and grant him Paradise, has brought the Blackamerican Muslim community face to face with a reality that it has been more comfortable with ignoring than coming to terms with. Imam Mohammed’s death has signaled the end of the era of charismatic leadership in which the rank and file can look to a single leader to settle all major questions and chart the Community’s course for the future. Rather than being decided by a single voice, that future will have to be negotiated by the collective understandings and perspectives of the Community’s learned. This implies, of course, general agreement on who is learned and what the rules of engagement are. If the criterion is set too high, it will marginalize valuable voices and confirm an already widespread distrust of religious knowledge and those who claim to represent it. If it is set too low, it will open the Community to the ravages and abuses of those who think that the role of religion is to sanction their and or the dominant culture’s every undisciplined whim and passion.

In the years leading up to his death, Imam Mohammed strove mightily and with great farsightedness to empower his Community to carve out a dignified existence for themselves, to transition to what I have referred to as the “Third Resurrection,” whereby, individually and collectively, the Community is able to negotiate American reality in light of the Qur’an and Sunna. For the most part, however, the Imam had to go it alone, with few contributions from Blackamerican Muslim scholars outside his own movement.

Here we come to an embarrassingly sad fact about the state of Blackamerican Islam. For decades, Blackamerican Muslims have been venturing abroad to learn Arabic and the Islamic religious sciences. Yet, this has translated into little benefit and even less interfacing with the Community of Imam W.D. Mohammed – despite that community’s historically unique role in indigenizing Islam among Blackamericans. When we think across the spectrum of the most noted Blackamerican Muslim scholars – from myself to Zaid Shakir, from Aminah Wadud to Aminah McCloud – what we see is a veritable brain-drain out of the Blackamerican community into discourses and activities whose primary beneficiaries are not Blackamerican Muslims and or whose primary focus is not Blackamerican Muslim problems or concerns. Of course, there are exceptions, both in terms of individuals who contradict this description and in terms of some of the activities of the scholars named. But the fact that these are exceptions points to the reality that I am trying to describe: Blackamerican Muslim scholars have a closer relationship with the immigrant community than they have with the community of Imam W.D. Mohammed.

To be fair, there are understandable reasons for this: 1) it is easier (and safer) to direct the Islamic sciences to the realities of the Muslim world and by extension the perspective of Muslim immigrants; 2) Muslim immigrants have more financial wherewithal to support such activities as lecturing, teaching and writing; 3) the immigrant community has a greater ability to validate scholars as scholars; and 4) the media (which plays an enormous role in setting the Muslim agenda in America) tends overwhelmingly to focus on immigrant issues. Beyond all of this, however, there lurks a far more subtle, sadder and less talked about reality that has for decades plagued the relationship between the followers of Imam W.D. Mohammed and the rest of the Blackamerican Sunni community.

I remember Philadelphia in the late 70s and early 80s, when Imam Mohammed was in this midst of his history-making transition. Those of us converts who had been blessed with greater access to (what we thought was) traditional learning would deride the way members of the World Community of Al-Islam in the West recited al-Fatihah, joke about how they gave salaams and relish their inability to keep up with us on all of the irrelevant minutia on which we so self-righteously prided ourselves. We were better than them; for we were real Sunnis, not half-baptist wannabes. For all our – knowledge, however, we were completely devoid of wisdom and even more ignorant of the Sunna of Muhammad (SAWS). Of course, our high-handed arrogance would produce over time an understandable counter-arrogance. To the Imam’s community, we were confused, self-hating Negroes, wannabe Arabs, fresh off the back of the bus onto the back of the camel. If what we displayed was what the so-called Islamic sciences were supposed to be about, they would have little use for them. Ultimately, this would lead to a quiet resentment, mistrust and even hostility, not only towards us but also towards the so-called Islamic tradition that we so dismally (mis)represented. Of course, there were those from Imam Mohammed’s community who managed to transcend some of this alienation. But this was far more the exception than it was the rule.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that Philadelphia was no anomaly in this regard, that this was a fairly widespread phenomenon across the country. The death of Imam Mohammed, however, has now forced us all to take collective responsibility for this toxic state of affairs. Imam Mohammed may be succeeded by another leader; but he is not likely to be replaced; for who could fill his shoes? The new leadership, therefore – not unlike Blackamerican Muslim leadership in general — will have to find ways to spread greater Islamic literacy among the rank and file, to empower them to engage the religion on their own, in order to enable them to sustain their commitment to it. As for the rest of the Blackamerican Sunni community – especially the scholars – I pray that Allah will inspire us and show us the way to mend this relationship. And I ask Allah (and the followers of Imam Mohammed) to forgive me for whatever I may have contributed to our mutual estrangement.

This is not time for a blame game; there is enough blame to go around – on all sides. The time now is for us to put all our “hidden differences” aside and come together to work for the glory of God. In concrete terms, perhaps this year’s MANA conference in Philadelphia could be the starting point of a broad-based dialogue. And if not the MANA conference, perhaps the conference held by Imam Mohammed’s community next year could be the forum. The important point is that we find a way to move beyond where we are now, that we come together in safe space where we can air our differences, establish bonds of mutual respect, identify our common objectives and strengths and renew our commitment to upholding the truth, as Allah says, “even if against ourselves.”

In the meantime, may Allah shower his mercy upon our beloved Imam W. D. Mohammed. May He keep him firm in the grave and raise him among those who have earned His pleasure. May He reward him richly for all that he has done and sacrificed for Islam in this land. And may He bless and guide us to overcome our insecurities through strengthening our bond with Him. May He empower us to conquer the evil whisperings of our souls and grant us the resolve to resist the temptations of Satan. And may He gift us the wisdom to prepare ourselves for a Day on which neither wealth nor progeny will avail, and none shall be spared save those who come to God with a purified heart.

Dr. Sherman Abd al-Hakim Jackson is the author of Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection. He is a co-founder, Trustee, and Core Scholar of the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM). ALIM is an institution dedicated to empowering Muslims through the development of Islamic Literacy; the application of critical thinking to the building blocks of Islamic Knowledge, Thought, and Character. ALIM currently provides intensive instructional programs targeted at those desiring a critical understanding of their faith and the place of that faith in modern world. Dr. Sherman Jackson is the King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity .