Interpretation In Free Fall

Muslims need to ask themselves: how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam? Many of us will point to ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and other forms of bigotry in an attempt to explain this phenomenon. But in reality this is much more akin to the Sudanese proverb, as Dr. Sherman Jackson reminds us, while we curse the elephant we only gaze at his shadow.

All too often we look for explanations outside of Islam instead of within. By Islam I mean the Muslim community. We assume the cause of this effect can simply be reduced to others not liking us. And while it is undoubtedly true that anti-Muslim sentiment has much of its roots in white supremacy, its efficacy is mainly due to the swinging barn door of interpretation that lets in all manner of riffraff. A riffraff that is just as likely to be composed of unqualified Muslims as much as it is of unqualified non-Muslims.

In a more obvious display of what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls the credibility gap, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic speaks about ISIS in his article, What ISIS Really Wants,

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

The first mistake Muslims most often do is attempt to discredit the validity of non-Muslim (in this case, Wood’s) claims; this is a severe mistake, because as in this case—as is the case in almost all claims made about Islam—Wood’s credentials and capabilities are never called into question. What gives Wood the qualifications and credentials to speak authoritatively on Islam? When I attempted to find any information on his background I saw that he graduated from Harvard; the extent of his academic credentials seem to only go so far as being a “lecturer in political science at Yale University”. In what field Wood took his degree is not clear. What is clear is that Wood, and many like him, have written extensively and authoritatively on Islam for some time. And we must move beyond just individuals like Wood, to the bigger implication: publications such as The Atlantic, and The New Republic also required no qualified background to write authoritatively on Islam. Before I address what I mean by proper qualifications and credentials, let me turn my gaze from the elephant’s shadow to the pachyderm himself.

One of the darlings of the media (particularly those of a more liberal bent) and of the Muslim community itself (excluding the majority of scholars and leaders) is Reza Aslan. Aslan’s notoriety stems from interviews where he is often seen as defending the faith from a rogue’s gallery of anti-Muslim haters such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, to more recent conflicts with Donald Trump supporter and political commentator, Kayleigh McEnany, over what portion of the Qur’an is considered a legal document:

McEnany’s comments, stating that the Qur’an, according to Michael Flynn (a retired general from the United States military), who quotes Andy McCarthy (Andrew C. McCarthy III is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York)—whom McEnany describes as “very respected” and who has written “extensively” on [the Qur’an]—as saying,

90 percent of the Qur’an is in fact a legal doctrine; it is Shari’ah. He’s not saying that as an insult to the religion but that it (the Qur’an) is in fact structured differently than a typical-type Christian religions or Jewish religions, the way those books are structured. So that is what he is meaning academically.”

There is much here to unpack. The claims about the percentage of the Qur’an which is considered to be “legal doctrine”, how Christianity’s or Judaism’s holy books, and the manner in which they are “structured”, are assumed to be normative (thereby Islam’s holy book, by being different than these two, is presumptively labeled as abnormal), and finally and perhaps most importantly, the claims to “academic” qualifications to make such proclamations, all beg to be scrutinized. And it is the last claim, the petition to reference academic credentials as a justification, that Reza Aslan calls out Kayleigh McEnany as well as Andrew McCarthy and Gen. Michael Flynn. But there’s an absurdity going on here right before our eyes. An absurdity ignored because it strokes the broken and shattered egos of so many Muslims today: Reza Aslan himself is unqualified to speak authoritatively on Islam. Aslan reveals his own lack of qualifications with the ridiculous statement concerning the number of verses in the Qur’an,

“I mean, no offense to Kayleigh, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to either the Qur’an or the Bible. About 120 verses of the Qur’an have to do with legal matters out of tens of thousands.”

According to the most common riwayah (narration) of the Qur’an by Hafs, the Qur’an contains 6236 verses. Aslan’s statements of “tens of thousands” is disturbing as well as inaccurate, and in Aslan’s case, is nothing new. He has repeatedly uttered factually incorrect or even heretical statements about the Qur’an and Islam in general. But the issue at stake here is not simply the mistakes of one unqualified pundit, but moreover, how did Reza Aslan (and others like Zuhdi Jasser) get to be placed in positions of authority and representation? The answer may be a difficult pill for our community to swallow.

If we return to our opening question, how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam, the answer is as simple as it is painful: we, as the Muslim community, enable it, because we do it as well! That we think there can be two separate standards for speaking authoritatively on Islam as well as representing the Muslims is a living definition of hypocrisy. In truth, this devolves down into little more than some form of cultural protectionism, stemming from a legacy of colonialism where Muslims were subjugated to non-Muslim rule. As a reaction, even Muslims who either by doctrine or practice (of which certainly Aslan would fall into) do not seem to have any serious commitment to Islam outside of a cultural relationship to it, fall victim and prey to this tendency. It is also, in my opinion, why so many Muslims of an immigrant background are guilty of facemasking non-immigrant Muslims from positions of prominence, both within the Muslim community and on the broader public stage in America. To continue with our sports analogy, the most common reason a player commits a facemask is because they are simultaneously trying to prevent an aggressor from tackling them or taking the ball away, all the while trying to gain yardage; the facemask penalty applies equally to the offense as well as the defense.

Just as the diagnosis for this issue may be difficult to swallow, so will the remedy. The issue of credentials and qualifications cannot be discussed without also asking what is the role of the (unqualified) individual in interpreting Islamic sources, and more importantly, what is their scope? I am not making a clarion call to say that individual Muslims cannot read the Qur’an—indeed even interpret some aspects of it on their own—but what has to change is the scope to which individual unqualified interpretations are made. The difficult truth is that there is no other way to combat anti-Muslim hatred, whose equally unqualified practitioners utilizes Islamic sources, other than demanding a standard across the board that will equally apply to Muslim and non-Muslim alike. This may sound grandiose and even unattainable but I provide at least one plausible tactic: unqualified Muslims (those who have not received adequate training and are also not recognized by the Muslim community to be legitimate representatives) refuse to engage the media. Those who infract this rule will face social stigma from the Muslim community. We can bring this to bear on a very uncomfortable truth: the very same methodology that Reza Aslan advocates (see above tweet) is precisely the same method that ISIS and other extremist groups use to concoct their own interpretations of Islam. While the results of ISIS may be different than those of Reza Aslan and his ilk, the tactics and methods are the same. When the question is asked, “who speaks for Islam?”, the answer should be, “someone qualified”.

Chaplain Chats – Islam and Blackamerica

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”.

False Universals

  • 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.”

Prophetic Love: A Look At Obedience to Prophet Muhammad

Love.  There are so many synonyms, so many names and inflections in this one little word.  We are encouraged to extol the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم.  And yet despite this, I see an increasing disconnect between Muslims and what and who the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم represents.  As a Muslim educator for over a decade (approaching two!), it would seem that the most neglected “science” amongst Muslims is the biography of the Prophet (referred to as the sirah) صلى الله عليه وسلم in particular and history in general.  The result has been a notion, not of a man who lived a real life with real pain (and love), real wins and real losses, but that of an abstract figure whose emulation remains elusive, like the remembrance of a dream upon waking: the harder you struggle to concretize that memory the more it fades away.

In observation it is clear that we as a community need to re-establish the humanness of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم: to re-assert that he lived and died, that he ate and drank, laughed and cried, married and buried spouses and children.  In order to do so, I will share some observations from the opening of Surah al-Hujarat, the Forty Ninth chapter of the Qur’an:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تقدموا بين يدى الله ورسوله واتقوا الله إن الله سميع عليم

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not put yourselves forward in front of God and of His Messenger; and have taqwa of God. God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” – Qur’an, 49: 1.

Here, I have noticed a tendency that when we as Muslims discuss the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and his legacy, we have lost a sense of reverence for his station. How quick are we to battle one another (let alone those outside our faith) about this or that point from his Sunnah.  Far too often we “raise our voices” as means of browbeating or intimidating others into accepting our provincial points of view regarding this or that argument.  But development of love for the Prophet عليه الصلوات والسلام starts with recognizing the space, rank, and station that his voice still retains to this day, one thousand four hundred and thirty two years after his demise صلى الله عليه وسلم.

God continues in the Qur’an with:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا ترفعوا أصوتكم فوق صوت النبي ولا تجهروا له بالقول كجهر بعضكم لبعض أن تحبط أعملكم وأنتم لا تشعرون

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet and do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another, lest your actions should come to nothing without your realizing it.” – Qur’an, 49: 2.

Developing a love and appreciation for who God’s Final Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم is starts with humbling yourself to his legacy.  This should not be confused with taqlid*, or “uncritical imitation” in matters that demand us to think.  It may be a great struggle to accept the primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم I one’s life; we all have different struggles.  But if one accepts that God sent Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم as the only infallible source of guidance, then perhaps from here we can lower our voices, not simply out of disrespect (hence the “do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another”) but also so we can hear what it is his Sunnah is saying to us.

Though obvious to some, I believe it bears repeating: the Prophet’s legacy/Sunnah صلى الله عليه وسلم is for our benefit, meaning that its adherence or rejection in no way reflects on the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, nor his status as God’s Beloved and Noble Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم.  We can see this in the next verse, where God says:

إن الذين يغضون أصوتهم عند رسول الله أولئك الذين امتحن الله قلوبهم للتقوى لهم مغفرة وأجر عظيم

“Those who lower their voices when they are with the Messenger of God are people whose hearts God has tested for taqwa. They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.” – Qur’an, 49: 3.

We should never think that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has truly departed from us: as he said, “I have left you two things … God’s Book and my Sunnah.”  It’s this point I want to drive home: Islam is a living religion with a living practice with a living legacy.  While God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم did depart from this life as we know it, nonetheless, we are commanded by none other than God to send salutations on him in every two units of prayer:

السلام عليك أيها النبي ورحمة الله وبركاته

“Peace be upon you!, O’ Prophet, and God’s mercy and blessings.” – Muslim prayer, al-Tashahhud.

So not only is it for our benefit, but with everything in Islam, obedience brings about reward: “They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.

So before we are so sure, so confident about whether this or that thing is simply culture (wearing hijab or growing one’s beard for instance) we need to investigate the Messenger’s relationship صلى الله عليه وسلم to that thing. Nor should we dismiss a thing lightly simply because it is only mustahibb or “loved” by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. This type of assumption can also be a “raising one’s voice above the Prophet” صلى الله عليه وسلم. It will prove extremely difficult for us as Muslims to grow our love the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم if we continue to dismiss what was endeared by him so easily صلى الله عليه وسلم.  It is this assumption, in my opinion, that illustrates the lack of primacy that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has in our lives; our fall from grace if you will.

In closing, consider the follow account by ‘Ubayy Ibn Ka’b رضي الله عنه. To me, it beautifully sums up the station and primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in the life of a Muslim.  It elucidates a type of emotional relationship with God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم that left me personally feeling a bit selfish and self-centered (I’m always asking God about me).  And yet, through putting the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم before myself—may God’s promise be true—I will have all of my needs, all of my wants, all of my anxieties attended to by the One Who Responds as well as forgiven by the One Who Forgives. For me, this is the syllabus for Islam 201.

كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إذا ذهب ثلثا الليل قام فقال يا أيها الناس اذكروا الله اذكروا الله جاءت الراجفة تتبعها الرادفة جاء الموت بما فيه جاء الموت بما فيه قال أبي قلت يا رسول الله إني أكثر الصلاة عليك فكم أجعل لك من صلاتي فقال ما شئت قال قلت الربع قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت النصف قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قال قلت فالثلثين قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت أجعل لك صلاتي كلها قال : إذا تكفى همك ويغفر لك ذنبك

“The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to stand after two thirds of the night had passed and would go out to the people and say: ‘O’ people!, remember God, remember God! The First Blast has already come; the Second Blast is to follow it. Death has come, death has come.’ ‘Ubayy said, ‘I said: O’ Messenger of God, I pray for you often but how many prayers should I make?’ He [the Prophet] said, ‘as many as you wish.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘I said, “a quarter?”.’  He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He said: ‘I said, “two thirds?”.’ He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘If I dedicate all of my prayer to you?’ He said: ‘Then your needs will be satisfied, and your sins forgiven.’ — recorded by al-Tirmidhi in his Sunan.

*Taqlid is a term used to describe many things though usually it refers to imitating or following a practice in Islam. In modern times, taqlid has become something of a pejorative though it is good to remind oursevles that for somethings, we can only follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and not simply make up our own way to pleasing or worshiping God (for this, see Dr. Jackson’s article, Towards Empowering the Common Muslim). An example of taqlid in which we have no choice but to follow exactly what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us are the three units of prayer for Maghrib: as to why they are three and not four, no one can say. But if one wishes to prayer Maghrib (and one must prayer Maghrib in order to complete the five canonical prayers) then one must follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and any deviation from it would be considered unsanctioned innovation (bid’ah).