Islam In Fact Does Do Race

اسمعوا و أطيعوا و إن استعمل عليكم عبد حبشي كأن رأسه زبيبة

الراوي أنس بن مالك والمحدث البخاري

من باب السمع و الطاعة للإمام ما لم تكن معصية

“Listen and obey, even if an Ethiopian slave is appointed as your leader and his head be like a raisin.” — related by Anas Bin Mālik, collected by Imām al-Bukhārī.

Last week I gave a talk at the University of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with CAMP-Philadelphia and the Muslim Student Association at Penn entitled, African American Contributions to Islam: Bridging the Gap. When the event was posted on Facebook, one brother responded, critiquing Islam’s involvement in anything “racial”:

“salamon ulaikum…i am attending…but I think this event is a bit racist and historically incorrect. Why are we focusing on ‘African American’ contributions to Islam. Correct me if I am wrong, but there were no ‘African Americans’ during the time of the Prophet. They were all Arabs. Not American, Not African. Only one African, Bilal, and his contribution was minimal compared to Abu Bakr (r) and Umar (r) and Osman (r) and Ali (r)” — Abdul Basheer.

The person’s comments enraged and offended many if not most who read his reaction. While being equally offended by the ignorance of the gentleman’s statement, I feel that his words reflect a broader audience, black, white, Arab, or in the case here, Pakistani, who continue to labor under the delusion that “Islam,” simply “does not do race” (Sherman Jackson). However, there are a number of Qur’anic, or as the case above, Prophetic narrations, that support that “Islam,” as Dr. Jackson said “does do reality”. I concur that Islam does not do racism, but it does do race, and in fact, Islam recognizes the ills of racially-hierarchical thinking and its pitfalls. In fact, if we continue our conversation with Abdul Basheer, we must ask ourselves, who was the immediate audience of the Prophet when the above hadith was uttered? If Mr. Basheer’s thinking has any credence to it—specifically the majority-Arab theory, then it becomes even more interesting that the Prophet would clearly demarcate this social space for non-Arabs. But without a doubt, this message was directed at the Arab majority that made up his beloved Companions, may God be please with all of them.

In the end it is clear that Islam does do race and that having discussions about race in no way jeopardizes one’s commitment to Islam. I believe this to be an integral part of the development and maturation of Muslims in their religious worldview. This is especially important if Muslims have hopes of engaging America in meaningful dialog. Any such interaction must engage America on her level, which will involve coming to understand what race is in America on America’s terms and not simply dismissing race in the name of some misplaced sense of religiosity.

“The absence of race [from society] enables the powers that be to hide their intentions.” — Dr. Sherman Jackson

Nationalism

  1. national spirit or aspirations.
  2. devotion and loyalty to one’s own nation; patriotism.
  3. excessive patriotism; chauvinism.
  4. the desire for national advancement or independence.
  5. the policy or doctrine of asserting the interests of one’s own nation, viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations.
  6. an idiom or trait peculiar to a nation.
  7. a movement, as in the arts, based upon the folk idioms, history, aspirations, etc., of a nation.

The Quba Institute

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”

Another Letter To My People

To say that we are living in difficult and troubled times would be an exercise in escapism itself.  Put aside economic depression and endless wars, for these are only symptoms of a greater social illness; an illness so perverse that it is killing us from the inside like cancer.  The culprit?  We are the culprits and the crime is a crime against Reality.  So far have we become detached from the true nature of Reality that we have had no other recourse than to foolishly attempt to make our own reality.  And man is a piss poor creator.

Less than twenty four hours from now, Americans will excuse themselves from work, class, and other obligations, to go and vote.  But vote for what, I ask?  And for whom?  These are not merely rhetorical questions, but real inquiries as to what it is we think we’re going to do?  Nor is this a clarion call to un-rock the vote.  It’s an honest-to-goodness petition to ask ourselves what it is we want and what it is we’re doing and is there any modicum of possibility that those choices will elicit the results we claim we so desperately want.  And yet if it is change we want, what kind of change?  Is it change for the better or for the worse?  2008 certainly did bring about change, but it hardly seems that things have gotten remotely better.  “Official” unemployment numbers threaten to crest the 10% mark (“the unemployment rate held at 9.6 percent”, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ web site, during the month of September).  However, anyone who’s spent a little time with numbers and statistics knows that data findings can be manipulated to almost any means.  Unofficial sentiment says that unemployment has gone beyond 10%, with some particularly hard-hit areas (like my native Detroit) are as high as 50%, as Mayor Dave Bing as attested (Melnick).  With staggering numbers such as these, how can we as a nation go the poles and elect officials from either side of the isle?  Finger pointing simply won’t do.  Quick glimpses at our social condition point to both political parties being equally guilty and equally incapable (let alone even having the interest to change the status quo) of making that change.  So again, who and what are we voting for and what do we think we’ll see?

To bring things a bit sharper into focus and to talk about this issue from a personal perspective, I want to highlight one aspect of our current illusory state: Black America.  There are so many points I want to touch on but one aspect that stands out from amongst the crowd is the damaging effect that liberalism has had on Black America.  In fact, I believe that the current brand of liberalism has had a detrimental effect on America as a whole, not because I am a conservative (which I do not adhere to, either), but because liberalism has been guilty of the very same crimes it accuses conservatism of.  Furthermore, in line with what Chris Hedges said in a recent article, I find liberals to be “a useless lot” (Hedges, Liberals Are Useless).  I know this language may sound unduly harsh, but it is how I feel nonetheless.  My truck with liberalism (perhaps neoliberalism works better here?) goes beyond Hedges’ critique, which includes a “bankrupt liberal intelligentsia” or the cynicism that is part and parcel of the attitudes many young people mistake today for being rebellious, and touches on something much more personal and insidious: the perpetuation of a post-slavery mentality amongst Blacks.

In order to help elucidate what I mean here, let me reference Tim Wise, author of a number of books on racism in the modern age such as Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, and Color Blind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, speaks to what I am aiming at here.  Wise manages to strike right at the center of liberal-based racism, which is no easy task being that (neo)liberalism struggles to maintain “a position of invisibility” (Dryer 39) as whiteness itself does.  Liberalism makes a very convincing argument based on supposed positions of equality and egalitarianism but in fact is one half of the coin that is American racism.  As Wise points out,

“many white liberal Obama supporters openly admitted that what they liked about the candidate was his ability to ‘transcend race’ (which implicitly meant to transcend his own blackness), to ‘make white people feel good about ourselves,’ and the fact that he ‘didn’t come with the baggage of the civil rights movement.'” (Wise)

Wise here lays bare the troubling and duplicitous nature of liberal race rhetoric: Blackness (and any other color or category for that matter) can be rendered harmless and acceptable so long as it is viewed as something to “get beyond”.  To be blunt, Obama appealed to the Change Generation not because he was a part of Black consciousness but because he seemed to be alienated from it.  His white heritage was seen as a means of finally moving beyond that troublesome social construct, race, and launching off into the realm of a post-race reality, something much more akin to how white Americans see themselves: “at once a sort of race and the human race, an individual and a universal subject” (Dryer 39).  This line of thinking has the same core values as tradition American conservative-base racism a la Jim Crow: Blackness is the problem, where here, instead of barring access to blackness as is the game play of American conservatism, liberalism only grants access so long as the black signifier is either left behind or is rendered irrelevant.

This modality of racism also bears the marks of a very subtle exceptionalism.  Barack Obama cannot be seen as part of the greater body of what is American blackness, but is seen as wholly exceptional.  This is part of the very same rhetoric of those would chastise Blacks on “not being happy with finally having a Black president” as if Obama has been the only qualifying candidate in the last four hundred years.  To see Obama as normal would run the risk of tainting him of the very same blackness that liberals are trying to strip him of.  The flip side to this is not only making Obama out to be exceptional but also to make the rest of Black America un-exceptional and thus un-qualified as an entire racial group for greatness.  Wise concludes that this process draws comparisons between Obama and The Cosby Show, a sitcom that was much beloved by white America which “despite [Bill Cosby’s] blackness”, it allowed white America the ability to “identify” with him (Wise).

As Wise further points out, the implications here go beyond personal biases and into the realm of social institutions.  Liberal attempts to create a colorblind society have been amongst the most debilitating to Blackamericans to acknowledge and wrestle with their own personal demons.  The outcome from this has been the enshrining and even “angelisizing” of Blacks, who as a result of their brutal history at the hands of whites, are deemed categorically noble despite any flaws they may have.  In doing so, Blacks have been nurtured and encourage to turn their intellectual and creative resources away from solving Black issues and instead into helping liberals maintain this status quo through actors such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson.  I mention the two men here not because of their lack of commitment to the Black Cause (at least on first blush) but because their efforts have been solely directed at maintaining a social way of thinking amongst Blacks that perpetuates victimization.  The only time color is seen is when there is some overt racial bias, such as a police shooting of Black teens or race-based attacks or slurs.  In the absence of obtuse acts of racism, the two activists are woefully silent on the issues confronting Blackamericans on a social, existential, intellectual, and even cosmological level.

To return to the political spectacle at hand, I must confess my own guilt involved.  I voted for Barack Obama in 2008.  I won’t delve into the details here but to summarize, it surely involved not only his great oratory skills, but also my own identity politics as well as the disillusionment I felt at the past eight years.  But there is one illuminating vision I have had come out of the last two years: This is no longer a nation by the people, nor for the people.  There is simply no way that the majority of Americans have asked to lose their jobs, have their homes taken from them, and driven into crushing debt.  And the actions of the current administration have revealed them to be an extension of a very evil and anti-human system that has and is, tearing the fabric of our society apart.  But the finger pointing can only go so far.  We must, as a nation, be willing to indict ourselves as being apathetic and greedy.  It is the apathy of liberalism again that I point to as half of the blame.  Despite all of its complex rhetoric, liberalism has proved to be toothless in the onslaught against the American public.  I was deeply saddened to see Yusuf Islam on stage with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  I believe I understand Yusuf’s intentions but as people of conscious, I believe American Muslims must stand up with the conviction and courage to see the playing field for what it is.  Allying ourselves with a party and a way of thinking, which at its heart, is no less despicable than the crass, overt racist conservatism we see amongst the Old South Resurrected (a.k.a., the Tea Party), is in my opinion a mistake and a disservice to the broader public.  If Muslims truly are people of the Middle Way, then both parties’ deceptions should stand out clear to us.  So long as we allow the senseless banter of a two-party rodeo show to continue without criticism, we may be a guilty third party.  The conservative party seeks to scare the populace to death with the threat of terrorism and immigration while the liberals turn serious issues of the day into mere entertainment, the gravity of the topics is drowned out from the laugh track.  Chris Hedges sums it up here:

The rally delivered a political message devoid of reality or content. The corruption of electoral politics by corporate funds and lobbyists, the naive belief that we can somehow vote ourselves back to democracy, was ignored for emotional catharsis. The right hates. The liberals laugh. And the country is taken hostage (Hedges, The Phantom Left).

Islam is first and foremost about Reality, about Truth, as these are the names of God, both capable of being distilled from the name, al-Haqq, one of God’s 99 names.  Islam sees reality itself contingent upon God and at once pointing towards the Truth.  When we are in the state we are in now, where reality—most properly here our understanding of reality—is based not on God, not even on scientific empiricism (which can be just as tyrannical) but rather on illusion and imagery.  “Reality itself has been converted into stagecraft”, as Hedges puts it (Hedges, Empire of Illusion 15).  All of pop culture bears this out.  At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, man is a piss poor creator.  Yet, in light of our social grip on reality being lost, what other recourse could we have taken?  As Daniel Boorstin warns us, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them” (Boorstin 240).  Fingers on both sides of the liberal/conservative isle have pointed to the cultural media engine which churns out image after image, practically making slaves out of young people who are coerced into hopeless attempts to live up to these illusions; body image, wealth, prestige, beauty, self-worth.  The list goes on and yet neither side has been able to offer an effective countermand to the system that produces them which leaves me to think that if they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.  And yet, in order for Muslims to even having a chance of being part of the solution, we will have to finally answer the question as to whether or not we will get serious about America.  It has to go beyond slogans and flag waving (a recent picture showed an American Muslim woman with a sign that read, “I am a Veteran.  I am an American. I am a Muslim.”) and get down to a real, honest and committed conversation where American Muslims will offer up their human and economic capital for the salvation of the society.  Anything less will result as the victims of rabid conservatism or perhaps even worse, the perpetrators of liberal apathy.

So when you vote tomorrow, think about what you’re really doing.  Are you simply exercising your rights as an American, or are you acting as a God-conscious person.  A purveyor of truth or too afraid to bite the hand that’s feeding you (today).

“The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 12).

يريد الله ليبين لكم ويهديكم سنن الذين من قبلكم ويتوب عليكم والله عليم حكيم

God desires to make things clear to you and to guide you to the correct practices of those before you and to turn towards you. God is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

والله يريد أن يتوب عليكم و يريد الذين يتبعون الشهوت أن تميلوا ميلا عظيما

God desires to turn towards you, but those who pursue their lower appetites desire to make you deviate completely.

يريد الله أن يخفف عنكم و خلق الإنسن ضعيفا

God desires to make things lighter for you. Man was created weak.

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تاكلوا أمولكم بينكم بالباطل إلا أن تكون تجرة من تراض منكم ولا تقتلوا أنفسكم إن الله كان بكم رحيما

O’ you who profess belief in God!, do not consume one another’s property by false means, but only by means of mutually agreed trade. And do not kill yourselves. God is Most Merciful to you [Qur’an, 4: 26-29].

Sources & Links

A Letter To My People

In the past two weeks, I have had a number of conversations with Blackamerican friends and colleagues (Muslim) who have expressed dismay of the present state of Black America. I commiserated with them, expressing my own turbulent thoughts. I thought I might share a few of these thoughts here. Just as a note: these thoughts are the culmination of ideas based upon my personal experiences, observations, conversations, research and scholarship, and as a concerned citizen. I welcome any feedback and constructive criticism. However, if your words are nothing other than vitriol, save the electrons, as I will not be posting them.

And God knows best,

In a recent talk I had mentioned that Black folks have steadily become the most secular people in the United States. This surprised many people, especially other Black folks, who thought of themselves and other Black folks as being particularly religious. However, when I directed them to look at their lived realities, the social and existential conditions, the proof was in the pudding. Continue reading “A Letter To My People”

Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.