Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.