Now’s the Time

It becomes increasingly clear the role that converts need to play in Islam in America. For far too long, those who have chosen to be Muslim have taken a back seat to those who’ve hailed from Muslim lands. This “at the back of the bus” mentality can be blamed on no one other than ourselves and we all — so-called converts and non-converts alike — suffer the consequences for it. On today’s edition of The Takeaway (heard here locally on 90.1FM WHYY), the host engaged three groups in a “spiritual conversation”, of “Muslim, Jewish, and Christian millennials who are keeping, losing or reinterpreting their faith”. The Jewish counterparts talked about how, even if they held somewhat non-traditional views on Judaism, still strove to have a Jewish identity rooted in principle and practice. The Muslims, on the other hand, who were interviewed openly opposed base tenets of Islam, such as abstaining from eating pork, drinking alcohol and extra-marital sex. One would ask these “Muslims” and oneself, what is it that actually makes you Muslim? The host and the writers of the show have gone for the okie-doke of Islam by ethnic proxy: Afghani, South-Asian and Iranian. Once again, the media has completely ignored Blackamerican Muslims (who are both born-Muslims and converts, who make up a significant percentage of Muslims in America) as well as those groups (whites, Latinos, Chinese-Americans, Jews, etc.) who choose Islam as their faith and way of life. In a twist of irony, most of the Muslims who would constitute the above group complain of hegemonic domination, leading to their ostracization from the Muslim community. And yet they employ similar tactics to speak authoritatively on Islam for no other reason than their ethic backgrounds, squelching out the narratives of those who’ve chosen Islam willingly and all the strictures therein, to the best of their abilities. Simply put, Blackamerican, Whiteamerican and other non-Arab/-Persian/-South-Asians do not constitute bona fide Muslims and are off of the radar of the media and their interviewees.

In my opinion, the only way to break this monopoly is for “converts” to speak out and speak out loudly. Not only to the media but to our own communities, who to be frank, often adopt us as mascots (or as I have said to Imam Suhaib Webb: avatars) to root and cheer for “their religion”, while many of us continue to live isolated, frustrated and disenfranchised lives. But, as Charlie Parker – one of America’s greatest artists once said: now’s the time. Now is the time for converts to, like our predecessors in that First Community which was comprised entirely of converts, take the reigns, and spearhead a change in the narrative of what is Islam in America: namely that it is American, and that it’s not solely tied to some foreign-born, alien, and even hostile, enterprise. This charge should not be done to the exclusion of those who came from abroad; many of their efforts are why folks like myself even heard of Islam. But it is high-time that we — and I believe we are the only ones who can do this (partly because we already possess the social- and cultural-capital to do so). To fail in doing so is to have those who are opposed to the religion of what Muhammad taught صلى الله عليه وسلم continue to speak for us in the public sphere. For I believe that is what the guests on today’s show are.

And God knows best.

Socially Irrelevant [?] – American Muslims & Race

The continued floundering state of American Muslims’ stance towards race is at once unsettling, disappointing and personally frustrating. To complicate matters, both immigrant and indigenous Muslims seem to be equally guilty of what Professor Sherman Jackson calls, “racial agnosia”. Much to my dismay, I continue to hear the mantra, “Islam does not do race” from the mouths of American Muslims. And while Islam may not, “do race”, in that it does not support a hierarchy of racial preference, it most certainly does “do reality”. Without a doubt, regardless of whether certain individuals perceive race-based thinking to be right or not, race is an integral part of the social landscape of America. By Muslims choosing to not recognize and come to grips with the historical and social forces that have shaped race in America, they will have little chance of abolishing the system they claim to oppose. For indigenous Muslims [and here I am placing more emphasis on Blackamerican Muslim, though not to the exclusion of other groups], they will only further ostracize themselves from their social counterparts, giving the impression that Islam is disinterested in social justice.

In one of Professor Jackson’s recent talks, he underlined a crucial element to the system of racism, specifically its white supremacist manifestation. This value system, at its core, is akin to what Muslim theology calls shirk, or the association of power and authority [not only partnership] with God. Jackson lays bare the role and function a value system such as white supremacy has at its apex; said values have been elevated in to quasi-ahistorical rankings. In other words, the values and proclivities, the likes and dislikes of whites [American or European] are no longer held to be those of a specific people from a specific time and place, but rather have been foisted “beyond history”, attempting to compete with the same place, as traditional theology sees it, Revelation comes from. In this manner of understanding, racism in general and white supremacy in specific represent a real challenge to Islamic theology, which is vehemently opposed to any form of idolatry, be it wood, stone, or man-made.

As I mentioned above, this ideology is not only peddled by foreign-born or foreign-imagined Muslims—who either refuse or claim to be incapable of seeing race [a short visit to the Middle East and South East Asia will reveal this to be overwhelmingly false]—but has been imbibed by a great many Blackamerican Muslims, who, in their desire to escape the “problem of Blackness”, have abandoned social stances that make them strangers within their own ranks. In conversations with other Blackamerican Christians, many view Blackamerican Muslims to be either out of touch with the social plight of today’s African-Americans, or even hostile towards any rhetoric that seeks to address racism. Where once upon a time—such notable Muslims as Malcolm X come to mind—Black Muslims were synonymous with the social and emotional struggles of other Blackamericans. Today’s Blackamerican Muslims, particularly those in urban settings, no longer seem to use Islam as a vehicle to lift themselves out of their social quagmires, instead being content to adopt Islam as a nouveau identité, whereby one can aspire to alternatives modes of validation and self aggrandizement, vis-a-vis, a new name, a new mode of dress, and especially any time spent “overseas”. The stances of these indigenous Muslims are bolstered from foreign-born voices, imbued with religious authority based on no other grounds than their proximity to so-called “Muslim lands”, who claim Islam is a religion that is free of race, that it simply, “does not do race”. What these two parties fail to realize is how crucial race is to the American story, the American narrative, and the collective psyche.

In a recent interview at The Immanent Frame, Nathan Schneider interviewed Muslim pundit, Reza Aslan. In it, Aslan articulates something crucial to the American social project: social narratives. Aslan says,

“Why is it that the vast majority of Americans are so pro-Israel? It’s because they have fully absorbed the Jewish narrative in a way that they haven’t when it comes to the Palestinian narrative. The story of Israel is a good story. It’s a compelling story. And it’s one that Americans get. But they haven’t had an opportunity to hear, let alone absorb, the Palestinian narrative.”

Narrative is everything in America. Without it, no one knows who you are; no one cares who you are. And in fact, without a narrative, the dominant culture will turn on the offending group as white blood cells do on an infection, treating the invasion as something that must be expelled. While American Jews are not completely safe from racist attacks [a la Mel Gibson], they have mastered the art of narration. American Muslims could learn a great deal from their religious counterparts. Given that Blackamericans are an intricate part of the American narrative, to cast aside this narrative in favor of an abstractionist approach to race is akin to committing social suicide.

Above all, American Muslims’ agnosia of the racial climate will only continue to beleaguer Muslims’ attempts at endearing themselves to the rest of American society, to say anything of contributing to it. This task should not be seen as something for “Black Muslims to deal with”, while immigrant Muslims continue to reap the benefits of a racially biased system: why else do Muslims that hail from the Middle East and South-East Asia, despite their swarthy skin tones, claim “white” on that little check box? How else would one explain the racist tendencies amongst immigrant Muslims towards Blacks if indeed their religion “did not do race”? In parting, consider this small factoid, provided by NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous, when interviewed on Roland S. Martin’s, Washington Watch:

“White people are 65% of the crack [cocaine] users in this country. Black people are 85% of people busted for using crack.”

If Muslims, immigrant or indigenous, are to remain relevant to America, they are going to have to have their eyes examined and their heads checked. They must confront the myth that whiteness is omni-benevolent, omni-wholesome, and omni-pure or risk becoming a marginalized, hostile foreign entity that must be treated like an invasive disease, to be expelled at all costs.

Extra Links

  • White Supremacy—The Beginning of Modern Shirk?: an audio lecture by Professor Sherman Jackson.
  • More Thoughts On the Exclucivity of Whiteness: how did the Founding Fathers conceive of whiteness?
  • Religion Gone Global — an interview with Reza Aslan at The Immanent Frame.

To Be Or Not To Bop

An excerpt from To Be or Not to Bop, Beboppers… The Cult [pp. 291-3]

To Be or Not To Bop Number seven: that “beboppers” expressed a preference for religions other than Christianity may be considered only a half-truth, because most black musicians, including those from the bebop era, received their initial exposure and influence in music through the black church. And it remained with them throughout their lives. For social and religious reasons, a large number of modern jazz musicians did begin to turn toward Islam during the forties, a movement completely in line with the idea of freedom of religion.

Rudy Powell, from Edgar Hayes’s band, became one of the first jazz musicians I knew to accept Islam; he became an Ahmidyah Muslim. Other musicians followed, it seemed to me, for social rather than religious reasons, if you can separate the two.

“Man, if you join the Muslim faith, you ain’t colored no more, you’ll be white,” they’d say. “You get a new name and you don’t have to be a nigger no more.” So everybody started joining because they considered it a big advantage not to be black during the time of segregation. I thought of joining, but it occurred to me that a lot of them spooks were simply trying to be anything other than a spook at that time. They had no idea of black consciousness; all they were trying to do was escape the stigma of being “colored.” When these cats found out that Idrees Sulieman, who joined the Muslim faith about that time, could go into these white restaurants and bring out sandwiches to the other guys because he wasn’t colored — and he looked like the inside of the chimney — they started enrolling in droves. Continue reading “To Be Or Not To Bop”

Health Consciousness and Religion

On November 15, I participated in a locally-held, national event co-sponsored by Jewish and Muslim student groups called Health Consciousness and Religion [https://www.ffeu.org/]. The event, held at Hillel on UPenn’s campus, was a talk about Kosher and Halal, and looking at both systems not just in their similarities, but in how their scope goes beyond the mundane boundaries of governing what a Jew or a Muslin can or cannot eat. Instead, such topics as environmental stewardship and low-impact eating were examined within the constructs of Kosher and Halal. I participated in a short talk with Rabbi Joel Nickerson, the Senior Jewish Educator/Rabbi-in-Residence at Hillel. Here are some of Rabbi Joel’s notes:

Humans will have meat for their food and they will kill to get it.

  • We started off as vegetarians in Genesis: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earthm and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” [1:29]
  • Yet, after the flood, in Chapter 9, humans are permitted to eat all food on earth, including animals, yet already with some restriction.

By viewing the Jewish dietary laws as an ethical system, we come to see that Judaism has worked out a system by which we can maintain our lust for animal flesh, yet not be dehumanized in the process.

This is done through 3 basic rules:

  • Choice of animal food is severely limited – startling how few animals there are to eat, according to Jewish law, with no restrictions on plants and fruits.
  • Animals may not be killed by just anyone – only a qualified few, whose skill and religious recognition of the slaughter process, are allowed to slaughter.
  • Ensures that those who slaughter do not become brutalized through regular killing.
  • Even after belong ritually slaughtered, blood must be drained before they can be consumed.
  • humans have the right to nourishment, but not to the life of others
  • Humans have the right to nourishment, but not to the life of others.

Bible’s method of taming killer instinct in humans is through dietary laws – not about hygiene. Bible goes to great lengths to offer rationale for dietary laws, focusing on the holiness of these commandments.

  • How do you define holiness?
  • Separation (from idolators and other cultures), emulating God

My thanks to Roxana and Penn’s MSA for inviting us out for the talk. We enjoyed and benefited from all of the student input as well as Rabbi Nickson’s words. It allowed us to look at how we eat as people of faith through a larger lens. We look forward to engaging in more efforts such as this.

A Religious World Divided? – Call & Response

I have had an interesting reaction to my previous post, A Religious World Divided?. I enjoy having this blog so that I can have a dialog with my fellow Muslims (non-Muslims are welcome to jump in, too!). It allows me, as a student of the social sciences, to examine the nature of some of our tendencies and reply with some of my examinations as well as your thoughts.

In response to the post, Tariq Nelson posted a piece on his blog concerning my post and in doing so, comments ensued. And while I greatly enjoyed the response, I feel compelled to single out one in particular and give it some additional thought and examination. The following thoughts and comments should be taken as constructive criticism.

Abu Noor al-Irlandee posted the following comment:

I love this cultural apostasy point but I know I have a different take on it than some.

My family accepted that me as a Muslim and we remain very close and I think that is beautiful and I would want that to be the case for everyone. At the same time, I hope there always remains as long as this country’s ruling structures are as oppressive as they are a sense that accepting Islam is an apostasy in the sense that one is rejecting the oppression and injustice of this society. I would want sometime to spell this out more at some point but just think about the converts to Islam in the Makkan period…there were some senses in which they were committing cultural apostasy and some senses in which they weren’t. I don’t long for a time when Islam is completely accepted in America because that would mean America has no fear that Muslims are going to threaten the structures of injustice that exist in America. Maybe that’s different for Blackamericans, because even if they are accepted as Americans, they are still usually seen as at least a possible threat, Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas notwithstanding. Speaking as someone who would fit the definition of a white American I hope there never comes the time when I would be acceptable to the white establishment…yes to cultural apostasy! Umar and Abu Sinan are you with me?

I would like to make a clarification as well as respond to the brother’s comments. While I am happy for this brother’s experience with his family accepting him as a Muslim, that was off of the point that I was making in my post. Families in general have a way of reconciling issues that the greater society cannot. Whether that be a homosexual family member or someone who has converted to Islam, one’s family will have a way of dealing and normalizing that issue where society may not.

As for the early community in Makkah, they did indeed commit cultural apostasy and the Prophet was keenly aware of this. He knew the sacrifice he was asking of his fellow Muslims, hence many kept their Islam a secret until much later. And yet despite the hardships that the Prophet faced from the Quraysh, he never lost his love of his people. It is clear, if one studies the Prophet’s biography, that he dearly cared for his people. Pagan, Jew, Christian, and all.

It is commonplace for Muslims today to draw parallels between the early Muslims and what we may face in today’s world, wherever we may reside. But we must also not loose site that we are not living in Revelatory times. In this I mean that while the early Muslims faced persecution from the Quraysh, we are not those Muslims, in those times, and our oppressor cannot simply be replaced as a representative of Abu Lahab or the Quraysh (i.e., the American government or greater society). Instead, to draw from the brother’s quote on Hudaybiyyah and the opening of Makkah (Fath-ul-Makkah), these should be seen as exercises in restraint, compromise and the ability to coexist with those who may have different religious tenements that you do.

al-Irlandee further added:

I don’t long for a time when Islam is completely accepted in America because that would mean America has no fear that Muslims are going to threaten the structures of injustice that exist in America.

I find this statement particularly troubling and if I may say so, ignorant as well as arrogant. The idea that Islam is something that America should fear is absolutely stupid and reckless on his behalf. And above all, where is Islam, and more to the point, Muslims, under any obligation to challenge the status quo? If you see Islam as some sort of “magic pill” for America to swallow and all its problems and issues will magically disappear then you’re even more ignorant that you have made your statements out to be. This may seem harsh but I find this brand of designer revolutionary rhetoric damaging and ridiculous, as well as highly convenient as it easily allows for the justification of a whole array of notions, such as not participating in society, not taking care of one’s responsibilities and so forth. I find this propaganda reminiscent of the the talk I often here at a coffee house near my residence. It is usually filled with white hipsters, replete with their tattoos and piercing, who talk vaingloriously about, “sticking it to the man”, while their father most likely is the man. If I may be so bold, this is commonplace for many white Americans, who in surrendering their Ellis Island ethnicity for a brand-x whiteness, feel they must compensate by acting out as chic revolutionaries.

While I agree with al-Irlandee that in some respects, Blackamericans are still viewed as a threat (especially when affluent, suburban whites come in contact with inner-city blacks) but I find it curious that al-Irlandee chose to single out Condoleeza Rice and Thomas Thomas as his two examples of blacks who are non-threatening. Is it perhaps that these two people also happen to embrace an ideology that conflicts with Mr. al-Irlandee (I’m not objecting to his objection with them – just that he chose them), therefore “selling out”? I would counter that Bill Cosby or Sidney Poitier would be perceived as no less harmless than Ms. Rice or Mr. Thomas but perhaps that they don’t represent “The Man”, they would not make the cut.

From examining al-Irlandee’s statements, it would seem that Islam is more about Revolution than it is about morality. And while al-Irlandee does mention “justice” it seems that it is a specific brand of justice, one which can only be brought about by Islam and “true Muslims” who reject America and all of her wanton moral depravity. As I stated in my post, revolutions do not have long shelf lives. They are often used as tools to achieve other means, perhaps means that in the end, will no longer coincide with the objectives of the revolution itself (the Cuban Revolution comes to mind). Again, I would ask for some type of justification on this stance from the Sunnah of the Prophet.

Another part of al-Irlandee’s response was his justification for not identifying as American and yet claiming some notion of “Irishness”. I would ask al-Irlandee if he was born in Ireland and even if he was, does he reside there? My intuition tells me that al-Irlandee is an Irish-American, who at best, can claim his heritage as hailing from that fair, green land. In what way are you able to claim being Irish when in all likeliness, you’ve been raised here in America. The food you eat is American. The language you speak is American English (not Gaelic or the Queen’s English). This stance to me seems to be an illegitimate excuse to not embrace what you clearly are (an American!) and simply get on with it. And as for the reference to, “hyper-assimilated Irish Americans” (I don’t know what “hyper” here means), rebel or protest people, to me, is “same thing, different smell”.

al-Irlandee continues in his response by stating that,

“…you will never catch me waving an American flag.”

I would ask al-Irlandee how and what do you consider adherence to being American? Does it necessitate waving a flag? Does it take some formal, outward action in order to be included within the fold of America? I would certainly say no. I have not waved an flags and yet I have spoken at the National Constitution Center, having participated in an interfaith reading of the Constitution. Would that in your eyes compromise my Islam? Or even my Blackness? I would say that you have some serious contemplation to do regarding your stance on being American as well as being Muslim. My point about immigrant Muslims being accepted into America and how it revolved around the two main modes of Americaness, mainly white or black, had nothing to do with white Americans embracing Islam (which, of course, they are welcome to do so). Rather, it had precisely nothing to do with that. Such a move would again only validate the stance of majority-white America in that Islam is something “foreign” or something that isn’t “white”. So my point is not that Islam is waiting for white America to convert en masse, which I think we all know ain’t gon’ happen this decade. Instead, White America needs to be able to accept Islam as its own entity, not in how it lacks some Euro-centric/Western component.

From looking at what al-Irlandee wrote, it seems as if there is not room to consciously object while still maintaining allegiance to the greater society, in which ever form that might take. al-Irlandee is correct that many Muslims, black, immigrant or otherwise, may have conscientious objections to many aspects of governmental policies, foreign or domestic (odd how domestic policy gets so little scrutiny for the Muslims here even though there a a system of mass oppression going on – perhaps this fits into the other end of the “us and them” ideology). There is more than one way to be an American – many ways that do not involve flag waving, Constitution readings or otherwise. I find al-Irlandee’s definition to be close minded. Instead, it seems to be a justification to have a pouting party. Incidentally, this same form of rhetoric is used by the Salafi movement here on the East Coast (which is preached to predominantly black populations) which justifies lack of education, joblessness and overall lack of societal responsibility.

My advice to those who adhere to al-Irlandee’s viewpoint is to do some soul searching and reexamine the points on which you are trying to stand on. That reexamination may even require you to rethink why you’re Muslim (not to leave Islam, but “why” you’re Muslim) and the inertia behind it that keeps it moving (or is it stagnant instead?). Being American and Muslim are not two things that need to be reconciled. Instead, perhaps your political and worldly ideologies need reconciling. So I reject the notion that I am “Americanizing” myself. To examine that word, it would mean to make something American that was not so in its inception. Being that I was born in Detroit, and raised by Nancy and Pierre Manley, two proud American parents, I cannot be AmericanizedI already am! Instead, as is the case with many peoples in America, we suffer from an identity crisis. Whether that be Blackamericans who struggle with stereotypical definitions of “blackness” to white kids who grew up in the suburbs, who feeling that they have no culture, attempt to latch on to other perceived cultures (hip-hop is one that I can easily conjure up).

And as I said earlier, it is not my intention to personally attack Mr. al-Irlandee. While I found some of his comments confusing or even offensive, I only intend to engage the ideology and in doing so, I used al-Irlandee as an example. You can see al-Irlandee’s comments here. The post on Tariq’s blog is here. And God knows best.