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.”

Now That The Sugar High Is Gone

 

– and other collected thoughts on the MANA conference.

So, here we are, a full week after the successful MANA conference and we’re already starting to see the mud slinging around the Muslim blogosphere. I was beginning to think real change had in fact come from this conference. But don’t mistake my sarcasm for critiquing MANA. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In fact, I would like to again extend my thanks to MANA for hosting their first conference. God willing, this is just the first of many more successful conferences.

So what should we expect from a conference such as this MANA conference? Should we emerge from it to find the streets paved with gold? Or as Conan so once eloquently put it:  “to hear the lamentations of the women”? Perhaps – or perhaps not. I will have to say in defense of MANA I certainly encountered many happy and motivated faces of those who attended the various workshops. And while I didn’t attend any myself I have it on good account that they were well constructed and of value.

It is precisely that last word, value, that keeps bouncing around and around inside my head as I ponder our current condition. If we do not value ourselves then I think very little will change. And from what Dr. Jackson had to say during his speech, that seemed to be one of his underpinning points – we as Blackamerican Muslims are in a unique vantage point, one where Allah has chosen us to be in this spot, this place, and this time, as the receptacles and carriers of Islam to this part of the world at this point in Time and History. So the enduring question is: what we gon’ do?

But to bring us back to the opening point, I’ll speak about some reactions I’ve observed about the conference. One in particular criticism smacks of one of the very issues the conference sought to address: disengagement. Disengagement is the word best word I’ve been able to find to describe the current mood of many Muslims around the country. Instead of seeing Islam as a system of access, it’s been co-opted as an illegitimate excuse to not participate. To help render my point perhaps such colloquialisms will sound familiar:

“Naw, akh. I quit my kafir job – it was too much dunya.”

“I dropped out of college to get a real education in the deen.”

And the perennial crowd pleaser

“I’m going overseas to study in Yemen or Syria so I can get that haqq.”

These should all be familiar to many of us. And while they might produce a giggle or two out of some of us, I believe they speak to an undercurrent in the Blackamerican Muslim pathology that continues to hinder and plague many of our communities from emerging out of the quagmire and starting to produce and participate. In fact, my biggest criticism of these folks is that that is all they do! Arm chair criticisms seldom produce anything and are for the sole benefit for lazy Negroes to sluff off, if you can pardon my French. It is not my aim to take potshots at my fellow Muslims but I do believe we have to starting calling figs, figs. In a conversation with a close friend of mine today, we both lamented at the criticisms that were leveled at the conference, specifically in reference to MANA inviting members of the Nation of Islam to the conference. The meat and potatoes of their argument rests in the fact that these people do not have the correct ‘aqueedah and therefore we should just toss the baby out with the bathwater [again?]. How dangerous and slanderous is this. MANA is the only organization that I’ve seen that has taken serious steps to extend the Nation an olive branch to try and bridge the gap in terms of dogma, but also to say, “hey, we as Blackamerican Muslims wish to express our solidarity with our fellow Black brothers and sisters and that we’d like to address the various maladies that attacking our communities”. Please note this: I am not a member of MANA. Nor do I speak for them. Rather, this is how I interpreted their gesture. But to dive in a bit further about this notion of correct ‘aqueedah, let’s ask our selves: “Hmm”, what would Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم do?”

Despite the efforts of many a pundit on the left and right, from within and without Islam, Islam is not an ahistorical process or entity. It’s inception was born and lived out in the context of 7th Century Arabia. Its characters and actors were real human beings who lived through a lot of real History. Yet, Muslims themselves tend to be woefully ignorant of this fact. The cultural and historical setting of 7th Century must be fully appreciated to fully comprehend all that was going on to understand Islam itself. Alas, this appreciation has been misapplied to a crude mimicking at best. In other words, the setting of Muhammad’s 7th Century Arabia is routinely ignored and instead we have Muslims [Blackamerican in the case of this article] in the 21st Century trying to live like Bedouins, having completely missed the examples that God has tried to lay out for us. Examples? Dress code is interpreted to mean one must wear thobes, robes, and turbans to be “authentically Muslim” – for those of us of opt to done a suit are condemned for imitating the kafir. Moral rectitude? Honesty? Had work? These have fallen by the way side or are totally ignored all together. How else can you explain large populations of Muslims that live complacent lives in areas that are dominated by poverty, crime, and drugs. And let’s not even toss in the Muslims who are participants in the above activities.

But this disconnection goes beyond wardrobe selection. The Prophet himself is severely misunderstood. Muslim education is sorely lacking in providing Muslims an accurate, historical account for his life. In a recent criticism, one Muslim found fault with MANA for having Akbar Muhammad on the panel discussion. The brother’s criticism was thus:

I think to myself: What the heck is a man that OPENLY says that Fard Muhammad is his god who appeared in Detroit in the 1930’s (for those wanting proof of their current beliefs it is here) and that a “Messenger” came after Muhammad ibn Abdullah (pbuh), doing here on a panel for Muslims that believe in tawheed and the finality of Prophethood and Messengership?

The brother continued:

This was a tragic and completely avoidable sore point of the MANA Conference Weekend. I must also admit that I was appalled and saddened that Imam Siraj referred to Elijah as Honorable. It was all very disappointing and I was hurt to witness this spectacle.

And more:

If we return to the days wherein we lacked clarity regarding tawheed and shirk, we will certainly accomplish nothing even if we solve the many undeniable social problems plaguing us.

Plus:

Sadly, in the end, Siraj lent legitimacy to an irrelevant and illegitimate (not to mention weird) movement.

And concluding with:

Finally, I can only imagine how alienated white Muslims must have felt with the invitation of a man who believes that whites were created in a laboratory by a big headed scientist.

Taking it back to my point about the historical Muhammad [pbuh], how can we explain the Prophet’s behavior in the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah or his invitation that extended to the Quraysh? Indeed, it is an incontrovertible truth that the Prophet’s Message could not have been delivered without the aid and help of shirk-committing, idol-worshipping, kafir Makkans! Yes!, indeed the Prophet collaborated with these “kafirs” on numerous occasions – his flight from Makkah was aided by a boding, idol-worshiping Makkan! And of course there’s the Prophet inviting the idol-worshipping Arabs even when Islam was in a position of power and authority. Never did the Prophet ever make is Message “an Islam thang”. When one steps back and looks at the Prophet as a man, as a human being, one theme that runs through is life is that he was a man who was truly troubled about his people and loved his people and wanted the best for his people. Now if the Prophet could engage in this, and he most certainly had the “correct ‘aqueedah” [for if the Prophet ain’t got it, who do?], then why can’t we do the same? As Blackamerican Muslims, we should feel free to invite, engage and work with members of our community, even if they don’t have the “correct” ‘aqueedah. In my opinion, this is just plain niggardly. And as my friend poignantly pointed out, “what have you done to help out your fellow man/neighbor” in comparison to what the Nation has done? ‘Aqueedah or not, Akbar Muhammad is someone who cares about the plight of Blacks – can you say the same? This isn’t poker and all deeds are cards on the table – no bluffing.

The bewilderment continues as I examine the brother’s post. Imam Siraj’s use of the title, “Honorable”, seems to be a point of contention. But when was the Prophet ever ungracious, even to people that killed his loved ones, slandered his wives, and tried to take his life? Never! If I address the Pope as his Holiness, does this mean that I recognize him as divine or that I believe Jesus is the son of God? This 3rd grade analysis has got to go! And I don’t know how this in any implicates any of the MANA members in condoning shirk. As a member of an interfaith counsel, if I sit and talk with a bishop about improving Christian-Muslim relations, does this mean I’ve condoned the Trinity? More holes than Swiss cheese. Siraj’s engaging Akbar in no way compromises his tawheed or Islam. And since when did a Black conference worry about alienating [just] white folks? I suppose that a Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican Muslim might be equally uncomfortable but I guess those are just throw away groups [?]. And why is it that we as Black folks cannot engage on a subject that might have great benefit for our community without being labeled as nationalists or abandoning our religion?

But let me temper my ending words here; I do not wish the brother any ill will. Indeed, it is my hope we can find common ground. And we need not look any further than our Prophet’s sunnah for the example of finding common ground? If there’s one message that I came away with from the conference it is this: we’ve got a lot more work to do. The road continues down the bend. No rest for the weary. I pray God grants us a beneficial understanding of our noble master and Prophet and that his Message was not in vain – that it sinks into our hearts and minds and allows us to partake in greater engagement and like him, knock down all barriers and return all of our hopes, fears, likes and dislikes to God and not resting them on the proclivities of any other.

And God knows best.