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”
Masjid Qubā’, in West Philadelphia, is proud to offer its Qur’ān Reading Circle. The reading circle focuses on reading the Qur’ān with a discussion in English. Starting March 19th, I will be participating in and leading the Qur’ān Reading Circle every 3rd Friday of the month. Other leaders will be Imams Anwar and Anas, may Allah preserve them both, as well as my wife. For more information, please contact the Masjid Qubā’.
The last several weeks’ events have showcased the utter dismay, confusion, and chaos that the American Muslim community is operating under. The recent affairs regarding Colleen Renee Rose, also known as Jihad Jane, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, and Sharif Mobley, present for us a number of disturbing and urgent dilemmas currently facing American Muslims. It should be staggeringly clear by now that if Muslims in America do not take steps to deal with these issues, the downward slope will only become more and more slippery.
There are many topics or bullet points I can think of when it comes to the aforementioned issues that Muslims face, but I will attempt to list what I have observed to be the most critical ones, as well as hopefully, some ways we can move to address these crises. First amongst these thoughts is the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community. In a recent conversation with a brother, we both lamented on the fractured structure of authority in the Muslim community here in the states. The reason for this is varied and all the sub-points are beyond the aim of this article, but I would like to point to a couple of social factors that I feel have led to this.
The impact of literacy on the modern world has had a plethora of wide-ranging effects and consequences. The results in the Muslim context had had no less impact than it did for modern Europe and America. There are, however, a number of delicate points to this observation I would like to briefly illuminate upon. Amongst them, has been the tendency to view the Muslim world as “behind” [Robinson 233] the Christian world, in terms of literacy, and in reality, technology. The unquestioned stance of many Orientalist scholars has been to assume for the West and by proxy, Christianity, a tract or trajectory that the West was “a head of the game” if you will. Seen from the position, Islam and by proxy Muslims, could only be seen as lagging behind. Robinson, however, eludes to a number of important points that deserve considerable reconsideration:
“…the origin of the negative Muslim response to printing lay much more deeply than this. The problem was that printing attacked the very heart of Islamic systems for the transmission of knowledge; it attacked what was understood to make knowledge trustworthy, what gave it value, what gave it authority.”
The method of transmission of knowledge in the Muslim world has been orally, passed from teacher to student. This system necessitates and places tremendous weight and value on the presence of learned and responsible teachers. The first amongst this transmission of knowledge was the Qur’ān itself [Robinson 235]. From here, this transmission of knowledge of the Qur’ān set a precedent for how knowledge would be transmitted period for Muslims:
“The methods of learning and of transmitting the Qur’ān laid their impress on the transmission of all other knowledge” [Robinson 235].
Robinson continues by quoting one of the great Muslim thinkers, Ibn Khaldun, from his seminal work, al-Muqaddimah:
“The Qur’ān has become the basis of instruction, the foundation of all habits that may be acquired later on” [Khaldun 421].
In this light, it is clear to see that traditional Muslim learning placed an equal if not heavier weight on the necessity of a teacher to transmit knowledge, not merely information. Without the authority of a teacher, the pupil could very well run the risk of reading the work, but not understanding the what the book said. While the discussion on this part of the topic deserves much greater attention, I am forsaking it for the time being to simply highlight and underscore the role and distinction that Muslim authority, scholarship and thinking played in the development of Muslim thought and behavior.
You may ask how the relates to the initial point above: the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community. I would venture to say it has been precisely the uncritical adoption of methodologies and modes of thought, both from the Western secular perspective, which desacrilizes knowledge, reducing it to “information”, as well as from the modern Muslim world, which despite its claims to classical scholarship, simply does not deliver on this.
As to the desacralization of knowledge, this to a great extent is what has happened when Muslims have rejected the role of the teacher-student transmission, and have assumed that they would be capable if not better off, to understand Islam by themselves. This has been facilitated by the rapid growth of literacy, especially in the modern Western context where Muslims are much more likely to be literate in their own respective vernaculars. With no criterion to hold themselves to, Muslims have abandoned traditional methodologies for modern secular ones. The result has been the nearly complete dismantling of religious guidance and authority in the Muslim community. In my opinion, this has been doubly so in America, where Muslims have been living fractured lives, at times best held up through socio-ethnic bonds. As Muslims have dispersed and assimilated into American society, so has the tradition of attachment to real human teachers as guides. The result has been a buffet of sorts: pick and choose without any consequence or consideration as to whether what you’re putting on your plate is good for you. After all, at a buffet, it’s all food, isn’t it?
The recent obsession with American Muslims with “traditional” or “classical” Muslim knowledge can been as both positive and negative. I cite positive in that some Muslims have come to realize that modernity is not the be-all and end-all solution to their woes. And while not all systems of knowledge in modernity are fully bankrupt, as some Muslim scholars have contended, it certainly cannot be imbibed without some measure of scrutiny. The negative aspects have been similar to those cited above, namely, the uncritical acceptance of packaged goods. If it looks like and sounds like it’s traditional, then it is. While the contents of the package may indeed included elements of traditional knowledge, the system of delivery is most obviously modern. I do not use modern here as an epithet, but rather as a critical observation: modernity is not equipped to deliver on the moral, ethical, religious, or spiritual needs of Muslims [for more on this topic, please see Dr. William Chittick’s, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul]. In order to be “traditional”, Muslims in America would have to establish communities in which there are dedicated teachers who can pass on and take responsibility for the knowledge that pass on. It is this latter part that may have saved our brother Sharif Mobley from his current fate. Brother Mobley, as do so many other young Muslims feel, out of a lack of fulfillment, that they must travel abroad to learn sacred knowledge. Not only is it problematic that the assumption that these destinations do in fact contain sacred knowledge simply by proxy of their location in the historic Muslim world, but that such endeavors are not fraught with danger and peril.
In a recent Friday sermon, Mufti Imam Anwar Muhaimin commented on very concerning condition that many young Muslims labor under: a linguistic or cultural inferiority complex. The American Muslim community, to paraphrase the Imam, has provided woeful substance to our young brothers and sisters; substance to feel that they are and can be legitimately Muslim here in America. That we have the infrastructure to provide to them the sacred knowledge they wish to learn. The results from this quietude on the part of the Muslim community in America for the past ten to twenty years, as my wife has put it, has been the development of a linguistic and cultural inferiority complex. Perhaps if there could be the establishment of more real living and breathing scholars and teachers in America, then perhaps our youth would not have to trek off to the unknown places of the Muslim world, where we cannot assure that what they will be learning will be a of a benefit to them, either in this life or The Next.
It is my belief, that if we do not work to develop a crop of active and legitimate American Muslim scholars, not just rock star imams, but live-in teachers, then what we have witnessed will only be the beginning of a very long and unattractive nightmare. To my Muslim brothers and sisters: please help to develop authentic Muslim scholarship, leaders and teachers in your own communities. We are in desperate need of this, not simply doctors, lawyers, and engineers. We are in need of teachers who will, in exchange for the support and cooperation of their respective communities, teach and lead a new generation of Muslims who are so very desperate for the knowledge of Islam, for their lives here and now, as well as for their lives in the Hereafter. Living teachers, living examples, who will take the appropriate and responsible track in how they teach and propagate Islam and the next generation of Muslims.
Francis Robinson, . (1993). Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print. Modern Asian Studies, 27(1), 229-251.
The above photograph was taken by my father, Pierre Manley. It is the Amtrak train station in downtown Detroit, Michigan. © 2010.
Saturday, December the 5th, the Quba Institute will be presenting it’s 2nd-Annual Fundraising Banquet from 5 – 9pm. Quba Institute has been a leader in Islam in Philadelphia, helping to develop and grow the Muslim community here in Philadelphia. I personally have benefited tremendously from Imams Anwar and Anas. More than I will ever be able to repay. The theme is of this year’s banquet is, “Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders Today”. I hope you will be able to attend if you’re in the area.
Location: Regal Ballroom, 5411 Oxford Ave, Philadelphia 19104.
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You may purchase tickets online via
Eventbrite or via PayPal. General Banquet Tickets are $50.00 each, with a special discount for seniors: $45.00 each, as well as for students: $35.00 each (ages 13 – 18 years old). They are also providing Family Banquet Packet Banquet Tickets at $150.00 per packet (2 adults and 2 youth tickets). A savings of $20.00. The guest speaker will be Dr. Sherman “Abd al-Hakim” Jackson. For more information call 215-473-8589 or e-mail Quba at email@example.com. If you cannot attend, please consider donating to the Quba Institute [see the orange button on the right-hand side]. Quba’s 60+year legacy is a testimony to the endeavors, dreams, and supplications of the Muslims in Philadelphia. I pray Allah grants them another 60 and more successfully. Amin.
Hope to see you there, God willing.
National Public Radio recently did an interview of Imam Anwar Muhaimin of Masjid Quba here in Philadelphia as well as yours truly, asking how and why Blackamericans, despite the phenomenons of 9/11 and more recently, the FBI raid in Detroit, are drawn to Islam. I spoke at some length with the gentleman from the Associated Press, as did my wife, about the continuing evolution of Islam in the Blackamerican experience. You can read the article here. Even though AP did mention the part about Blackamericans being drawn to Islam for many of the social reasons, it did leave out some of the points I tried to elucidate concerning the breadth of reasons why Blackamericans come to Islam: social, spiritual, and otherwise. In other words, the reasons are as vast as there are people coming to it. Perhaps in the future this point can be discussed further at length.
Hat tip to Safiya for putting the AP in touch with us.
Update: Since the article seems to not be on NPR’s web site any longer, I’m going to insert it directly here.
JESSE WASHINGTON, AP National Writer
By now, Sekou Jackson is used to the questions: Why does he need to leave a work meeting to pray? Don’t black Muslims convert to Islam in jail? Why would you even want to be Muslim?
“It’s kind of a double whammy to be African-American and Muslim,” said Jackson, who studies the Navy at the National Academy of Science in Washington. “You’re going to be judged.”
Jackson’s struggle may have gotten harder when the FBI on Wednesday raided a Detroit-area warehouse used by a Muslim group. The FBI said the group’s leader preached hate against the government, trafficked in stolen goods and belonged to a radical group that wants to establish a Muslim state in America. The imam of the group’s mosque, a black American named Luqman Ameen Abdullah, was killed in a shootout with agents.
Although the FBI was careful to say those arrested in Detroit were not mainstream Muslims, it has accused other black Muslims of similar crimes, most recently in May, when four men were charged with plotting to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down a military plane.
Yet the Muslim faith continues to convert many average African-Americans, who say they are attracted by Islam’s emphasis on equality, discipline and family.
“The unique history African-Americans have faced, we’re primed for accepting Islam,” said Jackson, 31, who grew up in a secular home and converted to Islam when he was about 18.
“When someone comes to you with a message that everyone is equal, that the only difference is the deeds that they do, of course people who have been oppressed will embrace that message,” Jackson said. “It’s a message of fairness.”
It was a message of black pride in the face of dehumanizing prejudice that launched Islam in America in the 1930s.
Created by a mysterious man named Wallace Fard, the “Lost-Found Nation of Islam” strayed far from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, but its mixture of self-reliance, black supremacy and white demonization resonated with many blacks. Some 30 years later, Malcolm X began the African-American movement toward traditional Islam when he left the Nation of Islam, went on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that all whites were not evil.
In 1975, the Nation split into two factions: a larger group that embraced orthodox Sunni practices, and another, led by Louis Farrakhan, that maintained the Nation’s separatist ideology.
Today, it is difficult to determine the number of Muslims in America. A 2007 Pew survey estimated 2.35 million, of whom 35 percent were African-American. Lawrence Mamiya, a Vassar College professor of religion and Africana studies and an expert on American Islam, said Muslim organizations count about 6 million members, a third of them black.
Most African-American Muslims are orthodox Sunnis who worship in about 300 mosques across the country, Mamiya said. The second-largest group follows Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which has about 100 mosques in America, abroad and U.S. prisons, Mamiya said.
He said the third-largest group is the Ummah, founded by Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the black activist formerly known as H. Rap Brown. The group has about 40 or 50 mosques. The organization targeted in the raid near Detroit was part of the Ummah, the FBI said.
“The vast majority of African-American Muslims are using the religion to strengthen their spirituality,” said Mamiya, who has interviewed many black Muslim leaders and congregants. He said the number of black Muslims is growing, but not as fast as before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Few white Americans convert to Islam “because the tendency is to view Islam as foreign,” he said. “For African-Americans, it’s part of their African heritage. There’s a long tradition (in Africa). … It moves them away from the Christianity they saw as a slave religion, as the religion that legitimized their slavery.”
Margari Hill was a California teenager seeking an antidote for nihilism and widespread disrespect of black women when she found Islam in 1993. A few years ago she began covering her hair with a hijab, or head scarf.
“I wanted to be thinking about humility and modesty,” said Hill, a 34-year-old teacher in Philadelphia. “I decided it would help me be a better Muslim and a better person.”
She also is attracted to Islam’s family values and the egalitarian message embodied by the prophet Muhammad’s “last sermon,” which according to Muslim scriptures says that no Arab, white or black person is superior or inferior to members of another race.
Hill’s ex-husband, Marc Manley, said that many blacks who have struggled with crime, drugs or alcohol are drawn to Islam’s regimented lifestyle, which includes prayers five times a day.
“Especially in the urban context, it provides a vehicle for African-Americans to deal with those ills,” he said. “It provides a buffer or a barrier.”
Muhaimin was born into a Muslim family after his parents embraced Islam in the 1950s. He grew up in Saudi Arabia, “but was very clear from a young age that I was and am an American citizen.”
“America is my country, I love the United States,” he said. “I don’t agree with everything our politicians do in our name, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a citizen of this country.”
On the Net:
Margari Hill’s blog: http://www.azizaizmargari.wordpress.com
Marc Manley’s blog: http://www.marcmanley.com
The Quba Institute: http://www.qubainstitute.com
(This version CORRECTS that FBI raid was on warehouse, not mosque.)