How to Contribute to the Ummah of Muhammad

Here’s a short podcast on an issue I feel is facing Muslims, particularly the Muslim youth and converts: how to contribute to the Ummah of Muhammad s without having to dedicate one’s life solely to acquiring so-called Traditional knowledge. Muslims seem to either pursue careers and academic interests that have no conversation or relevance to their religious tradition, or they go to the opposite end and want to, as a friend of mine says, “sit in the masjid all day long.” This podcasts discusses this topic.

Further Reading

Dive! – a documentary on food waste.

 

Getting Serious About Our Islam – More Thoughts on Tradition

Over this winter break I had a chance to engage in a number of good dialogs with my wife and friends about what’s going on right now with Muslims, American Muslims in particular (though, as it was recently pointed out, some of this is equally pertinent to Muslims living in Europe). From those talks sprang a reference to the article in which Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, from the Nawawi Foundation, was interviewed regarding Muslims, tradition, and dress. I read over the article again and thought I’d just point out a few brief points, as I felt they were relevant to the last post.

To be specific, Dr. Abd-Allah’s article highlights the dichotomy that exists between Muslims of so-called “Tradition” and its ever-increasing counterproductive results. Dr. Abd-Allah highlights a key issue facing Muslims, namely that of the burden that Muslim women are currently carrying: Identity. Abd-Allah points out this burden is “way too heavy”, and that it in effect reverses the very objective (Maqāsid al-Shari’ah/مقاسد الشريعة) that the Divine Law is trying to aim us towards:

When a Muslim woman in a scarf is coming out into public and she is totally exposed, the man is now in hijāb. He is in hijāb. She’s not in hijāb. She’s wearing a scarf yes, but if we know what hijāb really is, the man is in hijāb because he’s hidden. You can’t see him, you don’t know if he’s a Muslim or Hindu, you don’t know if he’s an Arab Muslim, an Arab Jew, an Arab Christian or just white. The man is in hijāb. That is what hijāb means – he is hidden from the public eye. She is not. She is the one who is absolutely out there, everybody knows it, so that’s hard for her to bear. Continue reading “Getting Serious About Our Islam – More Thoughts on Tradition”

Getting Serious About Our Islam – More Thoughts on Spiritual Maturity

كرم المرء دينه ، ومروءته عقله ، وحسبه خلقه

“The nobility of a man is his religion, while his manliness is his discernment, and his regard is his character.” Abu Hurayrah via al-Bayhaqi in his as-Sunan al-Kubra.

Some time back, I wrote a small article which turned into a khutbah, a halaqah, and some subsequent blog posts talking about the need for a spiritual maturity on the part of Muslims in American; to come of age, as it were.  While the words were initially met with approval, I still feel they fell somewhere short of the mark.  I continued to talk and lecture from the classroom and the minbar, and was dismayed at what I witnessed: A living disconnect, a living dysfunction amidst Muslims, both young and old, immigrant and indigenous.  There seemed (and still seems) to be a lack of reification of Islam’s values—things such as devotional prayer, the Oneness of God, love for the Prophet and so forth—a process to bring them into play in daily life.  Islam’s values have largely become locked away by Muslims in a plastic, sterile vocabulary that seldom goes beyond the perfunctory “Qur’an and Sunnah”.

In order to not render myself guilty of my own claims, let me be specific.  I cannot account for the number of Jumu’ah prayers I have attended where the rank and file come in their most drab, their most dingy clothing.  Ripped jeans and T-shirts are a common sight.  Middle-aged men attend Friday prayer dressed in sweats, jeans, and all articles of mundane clothing.  Young men (perhaps someone can correct me but I see a much better response from Muslim women, young and old) attend prayer in the shabbiest of clothing, often with holes in them (some I am sure are purposely done for the “cool” factor); their backsides are frequently exposed, revealing their underwear or worse, their nakedness (my parents lovingly endured the many phases of my youth, but I hardly think nakedness would have been one they would have allowed).  Let me make something clear here, these critiques are no solely leveled at “’hood Muslims”.  I have witnessed the same behaviors at Ivy League universities amongst the Muslim Student Associations (MSA’s).  Muslim students attend prayer dressed in the same foppish T-shirts and jeans, or even worse, shorts, with their thighs exposed1.   For some reason, there is an unspoken dispensation given for students to show up as they like.  Not only are these Muslims detached from the tradition of honoring their religion, as Abū Hurayrah indicates, but their prayer itself may be invalid.  Over and over again I see men going into sajdah (prostration) with their shirts hiked up, exposing their back sides and often, a bit more (let your imagination fill in the blanks or the proverbial “cracks”).  What is even more disparaging is the hypocrisy I have been witness to by some of these very same brothers who are quick to turn their gaze on a woman who is not “properly covered”, or even worse, happens to wander over into the men’s section.

So what is at play here?  Or more importantly, what is at stake?  One observation that stands out clearly is not only a lack of appreciation, but a lack of indoctrination of Muslims into the tradition of Islam (small “t”): Muslims have been conditioned to respect and venerate the vocabulary of Islam: Salah, Qur’an, Prophets, Shari’ah, etc., but have seldom been invited to take ownership over these principles, let alone bring them down off of their abstract shelves and put them into play in their own lives.  The results of this schizophrenia has been the near-complete separation between the utterance of a venerated principle (i.e., “Sunnah”), and its enactment on the part of that very same person.  How else does one explain the recitation of such neo-slogans as “having to return to the Sunnah” while praying with one’s underwear showing or attending Friday prayer in one’s play clothes?

The landscape of American Islam is an ever changing kaleidoscope of slogans, cliques, personalities and the like.  This is not so much of a railing critique as it is an acknowledging that Muslims in American (and indeed outside America given American culture’s viral nature) should not expect to remain immune to this phenomenon de facto by nature of being Muslim.  Case in point has been the emergence of “Traditional Islam” onto the stage of American Muslim imagination.  This neologism is very close to becoming a brand name versus signifying anything concrete.  Muslim organizations across the board have adopted its use as a means of granting themselves legitimacy.  It’s not that these organizations may not indeed have claims to legitimacy (as indeed, most if not all do in some way or another) but rather it’s the manner in which this terminology disarms their target audiences of truly benefiting from the teachings they have to offer.  As it stands, “Traditional Islam’s” pedagogy fails to impart to its target Muslim audience, “you need to live by and enact these codes, these edicts, these moral injunctions, in your life”.  All too often to the contrary, targets of Traditional Islam are deceived or misled into a false sense of quietude, by which their lives are magically transformed into being better Muslims, ignorant of the disconnect articulated above, to speak nothing of the crushing loneliness that many Muslims continue to experience, as confessed to me time and time again.  The neologism itself has changed shape via the canopy and backdrop of the American Muslim canvass: Salafism, Sufism, and even in its plain clothes form, Traditional Islam.  I chose to make this distinction as I am not overly biased against one group or another.  To the contrary, I would hope these groups would reanalyze their approaches and rethink their success rates, for the issue is ubiquitous, as has been confirmed from friends of mine who are active in all the aforementioned circles.

Last month (November 2010) I wrote a short piece about the function that story telling plays in the Muslim tradition, one which is dying out.  Similarly, despite the fact that Muslims today have more cataloged access to this so-called tradition, it is dying out as a lived practice.  In fact, we can see the same stance and relation Muslims have today towards “Traditional Islam” as they do towards the Qur’an and Sunnah: Adoption of modes of dress, that are presumed to be more authentically Muslim, supersedes implementation of Muslim tradition; attempts to revive art forms such as calligraphy (of which I happen to personally be a fan of); in sum, a treasure hunt of bygone relics of a former, more nobler or “quaint” epoch.  To the extent that one can excavate these relics, one has become more and more a proponent of “Traditional Islam”, despite whatever gnawing and nagging feelings of isolation and detachment exhibited in so many who are in pursuit of it, not to mention personal character defects that lay at odds with value systems found in the “Qur’an and Sunnah.”  What is being missed here about tradition is precisely that thing which tradition is trying to get at: Acting upon one’s values, not simply memorizing and reciting them.  When the veneration of values become detached from the practice of those same values, the results are reminiscent of the Prophetic narration in which Muslims, despite their numbers, are akin  to “froth, such as is found on a torrent of water”2.  What Muslims are missing today—those on the pedagogical side of the “Traditional Islam” isle as well as those seeking it—is tradition’s power to root and cement the seeker in a reality that reflects his or her beliefs, publicly and privately.  I am reminded by H. P. Lovecraft’s observation on tradition.  He muses:

In a cosmos without absolute values… there is only one anchor of fixity…, and that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally and pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time and space.  (Schultz and Joshi)

Tradition in Islam (arguably in other arenas as well) does more than simply tell us where, how, and in what order to place our footsteps (proverbial and literal), but also affirms that we are doing so to garner the pleasure and reward of God Almighty.  In as much that Traditional Islam (as a brand) claims to evoke the legacy and authenticity of the Prophet [s], its power ultimately rests in its ability to acclimatize it (i.e., the Sunnah) to our locality.  To return us to our example about Friday etiquette, how and in what way will Muslims enact the Prophet’s edict to “wear their best clothes”3?  This, to date, has been mostly patronized by literal interpretations of wearing a thobe, vis-a-vie the hadith’s word, ثوب (the word “thawb” has been understood by many scholars to be representational of clothing in general, a word that is capable of encompassing a variety of styles).  In the absence of a tradition that confers agency, not simply administers it, the non-thobe wearing crowd appear to see little to no value in dressing well for Friday prayer, donning instead the same disheveled look (i.e.,  T-shirts, jeans, and the like).

I see this tension—a clash of temporals—a phenomenon akin to what Dr. Sherman Jackson dubs “juridical empiricism”4 , that act by which (religious) communities—Jackson’s “Believers”—form a “last-ditch effort to find refuge from the deluge of modem secularism”5.  Jackson continues, “Every serious commitment to Islam … assumes that meaning is restricted to the strictly lexical sense of words and that allegorical, figurative, or metaphorical interpretations are most often attempts to escape or distort the true meaning of scripture6 (Jackson).  I have heard from Muslims, both immigrant and indigenous, that wearing a suit is “imitating the kāfir”; the necktie is the “noose of civilization”.  Another example of the “forest ‘fore the trees” syndrome found in the current “Traditional Islam” dilemma, is the adoption of the fez (a hat worn by Muslim men throughout the Muslim world), a hat, that despite its origins who lay outside Revelatory Islam, has been adopted as a bona fide symbol of authentic Muslim identity7.  What has been lost in time is the appropriating power of Muslim tradition, in this case, the appropriation of the fez, originally a “foreign object”, as an appropriated Muslim head piece, to condone and convey identity and agency (two areas American Muslims are in desperate need of).  In other words, Muslim tradition at some point in time conferred upon the red felt hat a degree of symbolic Muslimness; an identity piece.  The question that begs answering is why has this process arrested?  One could possibly make the case that it is still struggling to stay alive, as seen in the city of Philadelphia, where Blackamerican Muslims have attempted to fuse Middle-Easten modes of dress (thobe) with American urban footwear, namely Timberland boots.  This stylistic look has become iconic and symbolic of Islam amongst Blackamericans in Philadelphia.  It is now, in the local culture, an authentic expression of Philadelphia Islam.  The questions is, can this envelop not be pushed to include, or in the spirit of the fez, co-opt, other modes of dress as well?  It is a gut feeling of mine that many Americans in the broader cultural context object to Islam, not on theological grounds, but on aesthetic ones (i.e., they do not wish to dress like “foreigners”).  If American Muslims are going to get serious about da’wah, then they will have to contend with these issues, not simply calling those who don’t mind changing up their wardrobes.

Putting aside the great sartorial debate for a moment, I want to turn back to tradition itself, and more specifically what tradition means to young Muslims as well as what it means to be young and adult in American society.  In a 2007 interview conducted by Andrea Longbottom, she asks Dr. Robert Epstein, author of The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007), about his views on the teenage brain and behavior:

I struggle with [teens’ capacity to make sound judgments and decisions] as a parent of four offspring.  That strong tendency we have to want to protect—there’s a reason for that, absolutely.  But the best thing we can do for young people is to give them the tools they need to be independent and to make those decisions.  There’s only so much you can learn by advice from others.  Most of what we learn in our lives comes from experience.  You give your sons and daughters the best advice you can, and then you give them the tools they need to become independent.

If you give them incentives and opportunities to join the adult world, that’s not the same as setting them free.  You’re not pushing them off a cliff.  What you’re doing is saying, “I’m going to welcome you into the adult world.  If you show me you can do this, then you’re going to join us.” You’re not pushing them toward oblivion—you’re pulling them with you into the world of responsible adulthood.  Given the choice between being infantilized in the frivolous world of teen culture and joining the adult world, I believe most teens will pick the latter.  (Longbottom)

Epstein highlights some key items I think every Muslim in America shout stop and take stock of: “incentives and opportunities to join the adult world.” It has been articulated by numerous other cultural analysts, but the fact America at large has an issue with the transition from childhood to adulthood is hard to overstate.  The fact that the video game industry, at nearly $20 billion dollars annually, a stunning figure in comparison to such (former) titans as General Motors, continues to enthrall and dazzle young adult males between the ages of 15 and 40.  Video games are just one example of the many components of modern culture that “infantilize” young people into a practice of frivolity, Muslims again not being immune. Modern society and culture, on a global scale, deifies youth to such an extent that there are few incentives to be found in popular culture for youth to “grow up”.  For me, I see tradition, in all its various articulations as far as Muslims are concerned, as a vehicle which leads and coaches one through life, informing one on how one comes to decisions, especially the journey from child to adult.  Tradition is that which (should) give options: Sometimes one may take the “traditional route”, meaning that you follow an example of those informed ancestors that came before you, such as the Prophet [s], the Companions, Scholars, etc.  Other times, one may need to interpret the reality one faces for which one’s tradition does not have a “lexical” response to.  In this scenario, one strives to move in the spirit of one’s tradition, aiming to achieve the same goal (see Jackson’s example about opening a window, fetching a fan, turning off the lights, and pouring a glass of water) one would hope to achieve were there a “lexical” example; where a textual application could actually apply.

Epstein also highlights the importance of those who are the current key holders and gate keepers to accompany these young adults into their world of responsibility and tradition.  Here it is especially critical for Muslims to spend more time amongst Muslim youth, specifically those of the imamate and leadership positions.  Doing so will require a paradigm shift in how American Muslims envision and imagine the role of the imam and the masjid.  Muslims must come to put trust in their youth, aiding them in making good decisions, thereby establishing a trust between the generations.  This trust is best earned by being there with these youth as they learn to make those decisions, side-by-side in journeyman fashion, with their adult counterparts leading them, not herding, or worse, chiding them when they make their inevitable mistakes.  In doing so, Muslims will foster an environment whereby they may truly become protectors of one another8. The consequences of not doing so are already readily apparent, as we have, are, and may continue to “wrong ourselves” as Surah al-Tawbah, verses 70-71 proclaim9.

It is my hope that this article does not convey any latent or secret hostility I have towards the Muslim tradition or any Muslim organization who seek to avail themselves of it.  To the contrary, I have endeavored to learn and study the Muslim intellectual and spiritual traditions, a vocation that has been going strong for fifteen-plus years.  It is my hope and wish that it can be made available to Muslims such that their daily lives are impacted and enriched by its endorsement.  To be sure, there has been some impact on the rank and file Muslim by these various organizations.  I only advocate doing a better job, not to deride them for not doing any good whatsoever.  It is also my hope that as adult Muslims, we can step up our game, and demonstrate through actions and words, what a living Islam looks and acts like.  Through this holistic approach, we may actually be able to redeem ourselves in the sight of God, and put forth a better example to the broader Muslim public the transformative and healing power of Islam.

Footnotes

  1. الفخذ عورة الراوي: عبد الله بن مسعود المحدث: البخاري – المصدر: التاريخ الكبير
    جلس رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عندنا وفخذي منكشفة فقال أما علمت أن الفخذ عورة الراوي: جرهد المحدث: أبو داود – المصدر: سنن أبي داود
    خلاصة حكم المحدث: سكت عنه [وقد قال في رسالته لأهل مكة كل ما سكت عنه فهو صالح

    ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud relates, “the thigh is part of the ‘awrah/private parts”, related in al-Bukhari’s al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr. In Sunan Abū Dawud, Jarhad relates, “The Messenger of God sat down with us and my thigh was exposed so he said to me, ‘Did you not know that the thigh is part of the ‘awrah/private parts?’.
  2. أنتم يومئذ كثير ولكنكم غثاء كغثاء السيل — see Abu Dāwud’s Sunan Abī Dāwud, #4297.
  3. ولبس من أحسن ثيابه — see al-Haythumī’s Mujma’ az-Zawā’id, Vol. 2, #177.
  4. See Sherman Jackson’s, Literalism, Empiricism, and Induction: Apprehending and Concretizing Islamic Law’s Maqāsid al-Sharī’ah in the Modern World.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Just to set the record clean, I happen to own several fez’s as I am quite fond of their style.
  8. والمومنين والمومنت بعضهم أولياء بعض — Sūrah al-Tawbah (9), verse 71.
  9. ألم ياتهم نبأ الذين من قبلهم قوم نوح وعاد وثمود وقوم إبرهيم وأصحب مدين والموتفكت أتتهم رسلهم بالبينت فما كان الله ليظلمهم ولكن كانوا أنفسهم يظلمون والمومنين والمومنت بعضهم أولياء بعض يامرون بالمعروف وينهون عن المنكر ويقيمون الصلوة ويوتون الزكوة ويطيعون الله و رسوله ألئك سيرحمهم الله إن الله عزيز حكيم — Sūrah al-Tawbah (9), verses 70-71.

Friday Prayer/Jumu’ah Resources

  • إن يوم الجمعة يوم عيد و ذكر، فلا تجعلوا يوم عيدكم يوم صيام، و لكن اجعلوه يوم فطر و ذكر، إلا أن تخلطوه بأيام
  • “Friday is an ‘Eid/Holy Day and a remembrance therefore do not make your Holy Day [Fridays – not Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr] a day of fasting.  Make it instead a day of “fitr” — a day of charity and feasting, unless you connect it with other days.” Related by Abū Hurayrah from al-Suyūti’s al-Jāmi’ al-Sagīr.
  • من اغتسل يوم الجمعة ولبس من أحسن ثيابه ومس من طيب إن كان عنده ثم أتى الجمعة فلم يتخط أعناق الناس ثم صلى ما كتب الله له ثم أنصت إذا خرج إمامه حتى يفرغ من صلاته كانت كفارة لما بينها وبين جمعته التي قبلها
  • “The one who takes a bath on Friday, wears his best clothes, perfumes himself if he so has it with him then attends the Friday Prayer without stepping on the necks of the people, then prays as God has proscribed it for him, then listens attentively to the Imam from the time he comes out until he [the Imam] finishes his prayer, it serves as an expiation for what was between this Friday and the previous one.” Related by Abū Sa’īd in Abū Dāwud’s Sunan Abī Dāwud, #343.

Extra Reading and Sources

Storytelling

To say that Muslims have been just as equally affected by modernity, the modernity that many Muslims claim to abhor, would be a feat in understatement.  In fact, the sooner that Muslims come to grips with this reality the better chance Muslims will have at confronting modernity. Muslims could proactively (vs. reactively) decide on what aspects of modernity they can negotiate, and what aspects are indeed a real threat to their Muslim identity.  One such aspect of modernity is the individual.  There are a number of new theories floating around in the minds of Muslims regarding the individual and individualism.  Many Muslims decry religious authority and seek to be “free agents”, navigating their Islam and modernity with the tools of reason and intuition.  The Qur’an and Sunnah are seen as a threat to individuality; both are interpreted via a nouveau ijtihad.  Before delving into a possible critique of this choice, we should perhaps look at the formation of individualism and its effects on Muslims today in their relationship with Islam’s sacred sources.

To be concise, I thought I might provide a reading of the situation through examining Walter Benjamin’s article, The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.  Benjamin provides some insightful criticism of the modern age: “The art of story-telling is dying out.  With it also dies the human capacity that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences.  The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away”.  Indeed, storytelling (as well as art, though that is another subject entirely) is dying out and with it goes the traditional method by which Muslims and most pre-modern cultures related wisdom, not just solely information.  In tradition-based cultures, experience functioned as the repository of wisdom.  With the advent of the information age, experience, as Benjamin says, “has fallen in value” (Benjamin 1).  A critical difference between information [خبر] and wisdom [حكمة] in the Muslim tradition is the component of transience, the movement of wisdom from the teacher to the student.  Even on a communal level this translated as the wisdom of the Prophet [s] and his understanding—what elicited God’s pleasure and displeasure—on such subjects such as God’s nature and edicts.  This, in many ways, is what the spirit of the following hadith is getting at: “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error” [إن أمتي لا تجتمع على ضلاة] – related by Anas Bin Malik.

A major challenge facing Muslims today is the challenge of distance.  By distance here I mean the distance that is felt between them and the sacred sources of the religion.  Most attempts to close or bridge this gap have resulted in pan-nationalism in the historical Muslim world or as an identity crisis in American Muslims.  For many Blackamerican Muslims, for example, great efforts have been spent to try and adopt the dress and mores of immigrant Muslims as a means of closing the gap of authenticity.  For the most part, neither group has been very successful in making the Muslim tradition and its sacred sources speak to them with meaning and agency in the American context.  Some of this has to do with the pressures that have been exerted on Muslims from the dominant culture.  Secular America, often as hegemonic as so-called fundamentalism, looks upon religion as something archaic and outdated.  For a religion whose tradition is linked with storytelling, this is especially problematic:

“More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences” (Benjamin 1).

“Embarrassment” here sums up to a great degree how many Muslims are feeling about their religious sensibilities.  Scientism (an extension of secularism) has fought to secure its place as the only means and method moderns can come to “know anything”.  Traditions of knowledge which do not solely rely upon empiricism are deemed retrograde and backwards.  Despite the fact that science has not come to be the panacea it claims to be — the world’s problems seem to only mount in the face of the salvation science is supposedly capable of bringing — many Muslims still feel a tremendous pressure to capitulate to its dictum.

To summarize, the Muslim tradition places great importance on experience.  This is reflected in the ijazah system of certification.  In essence, one gets one’s ijazah from one’s teacher, who presumably has not only the requisite knowledge but also experience, so that one will go on to teach others that same topic; one will continue the tradition of storytelling.  Such teachers know the story and the narrative which such knowledge both comes from and speaks to.  Benjamin’s insight here speaks to the modern predicament, where Muslims feel as if they have arrived at this quandary out of the blue:

“Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible.” (Benjamin 1).

Benjamin’s remarks speak to the disconnection and loss that many Muslims feel as the world has become less and less moral.  It certainly has left us with the feeling we have arrived at this crossroads “overnight”, though in fact, it has been the slow erosion of values and morals over many years and decades.  Indeed, I have heard many Muslims comment in dismay over the lows “never thought possible”, both inside and outside the Muslim community.

What I am trying to get at here is more than simply deconstructing Benjamin’s essay for deconstruction sake.  The purpose is to look at the current state of Muslims in America and ask some hard questions.  What does our Islam mean to us and are the means and methods of making Islam real, relevant, and meaningful to us, successful.  Prophetic tradition, starting as an oral one, has placed a high value on person to person exchanges of story, knowledge, and experience.  This is similar to what Benjamin has to say here:

“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn” (Benjamin 1).

It would seem to be this type of mouth to mouth exchange that many Muslims are beleaguering nowadays.  This helps explain the rise of “traditional knowledge” or “traditional Islamic knowledge” as a buzzword.  However, most of these institutions still rely upon a method of teaching that does not quite bridge that gap.

To return to the theme of reading, it is my theory that modern Muslims have turned to reading the Qur’an in the manner and method in which they read novels.  I use the word novel here, not as a stand-in for “book”, but literally, as “novel”.  Benjamin purports,

“The novelist has isolated himself” (Benjamin 3).

The novel is also, as Benjamin says, “devoid of council”, something many Muslims are sorely in need of today.  “The novelist isolates himself and does not come from oral tradition nor goes to it”.  Some may see Benjamin’s commentary as a Romantic rant, longing for “simpler times”.  I do not see it as thus; for me, “oral tradition” is synonymous with “lived-in” and “pro-human”, and thus, I see it as an alternative method of articulating what the Sunnah of the Prophet was about: council:

أكان للناس عجبا أن أوحينا إلى رجل منهم أن أنذر الناس وبشر الذين ءامنوا أنلهم قدم صدق عند ربهم قال الكافرون إن هذا لسحر مبين

“Is it astonishing to men that We sent Our inspiration to a man from amongst them?  That he would warn mankind as well as give glad tidings to the believers that they are considered by their Lord truthful, sincere?  Those who reject faith say, ‘This is clear sorcery’.” [Qur’an 10: 2].

The tandem of Prophet and Revelation provides that direct, oral relation, the transference of knowledge and wisdom to, not a readership, but a living community.  In this light, the Qur’an, a book whose name can also be said to be “The Recitation”, indicates that it is not simply any book, and most certainly not a novel.  One of the primary characteristics of the Qur’an is that it is a revelation that came down to a human community amidst their history, not in isolation.  My goal in saying this is not to provide the definitive way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an, but to introduce and remind that in order to come to know the Qur’an (and the Prophet, and God), one must not be tempted to read it as a novel amongst other novels.

There are a couple of characteristics of the novel that are worth mentioning here that Benjamin draws our attention to.  First, is the notion that the novel is almost always about, “a particular character, event, or situation”.  This helps to affirm the notion of the novel as isolated.  The Qur’an reveals itself not as a singular event, not about a singular character, and its situation varies from chapter to chapter (sometimes even within it).  This has led many to criticize the Qur’an for being inconsistent; some Muslims even find it difficult to follow.  I believe this is partly in due to the influence of modern literary standards which are largely based off of reading and interpreting novels. Second, is the sense of closure.  Benjamin says, “The novel terminates itself from our memory through the complete closure of the book”.  Not to be confused with “making our minds up for us (something modern and post-modern literature abhor from doing), there is still a closure when the last words are read.  The Qur’an has been and is, continuously rehearsed and recited.  It lives where Muslims live (or ought to, I would argue).  It challenges and compels its adherents to “reflect” and “ponder” its “ayāt”, or signs.  Muslims, if they hope to extract meaningful and relevant interpretations from the Qur’an, they may need to reconsider just how it is they are approaching Islam’s sacred sources.

Experience is king, someone once wrote.  It certainly seems to be for Benjamin as well.  This finds easy correlation in reading the life of the Prophet.  As was mentioned above, the Prophet and the stories of the Prophets and other stories in the Qur’an are in fact translated into experience for us.  This is best understood through the famous narration: “His character was the Qur’an” [كان خلقه القرآن].  By this, Muslims are “counseled” (also known as “nasīhah”/نصيحة) by the Prophet’s life, his understanding and relating of God’s Message.  In the absence of this, historically detached Muslims devolve into lonely individuals who are no longer capable of “speaking exemplarily”, as Benjamin says, to their most important concerns, chief amongst them a dignified existence that will allow them to negotiate what modernity needs and what God wants.  The lonely individual’s existence gives them no counsel, leaving them anxious as well as impotent.

It is obvious from Benjamin’s article that he is not only lamenting the loss of stories, he is also subtlety calling for the return or rebirth of storytellers.  In the Muslim context this is the shaykh, the ālim, the imām, the griot.  It is through the tradition of the Muslim storyteller that the characteristics of the religion are retained.  Without Muslim storytellers, those who have dedicated their lives to the continuity of these stories, how else will Muslims preserve that critical aspect of their identity?  The tendency has been in modern times to prop up a few rock star imāms who draw crowds of individuals who often return home feeling just as isolated and lost before attending said event.  I believe if Muslims are truly invested in their futures here, it will necessitate them developing scholars, leaders, storytellers—“master craftsmen” in Benjamin’s words—who will live in and amongst their communities, keeping the story alive and meaningful to Muslim communities.

The hope for developing Muslim storytellers is to help restore the connectivity amongst Muslims.  It will also allow the healing and holistic aspects of the message of Islam to be delivered to Muslims with greater efficacy.  As Benjamin states,

“Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak” (Benjamin 3).

For me, Benjamin touches on one of the great challenges facing Muslims in America: The disconnect between generations.  It is not authenticity that challenges generational understanding but rather the ability for the older, “more knowledgeable” generation, to be receptive to the realities facing young American Muslims today.  There is a dire need for a Muslim leadership—religious or otherwise—to be emotionally connected and concerned with younger Muslims today.  Benjamin says, about counsel,

“[it] is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding” (Benjamin 3).

I see this as another means of “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error”.  Benjamin is also astute in pointing out one of the natures of counsel:

“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom”,

as well as,

“To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story” (Benjamin 3).

Against the allegations that religious knowledge equates religious tyranny in the Muslim world, this system allows those who have dedicated their lives to the story, the Message of Islam, to walk hand in hand with those who profess Islam as their religion, facing the trials and tribulations of life as one community, as one Ummah.  After all, when the Prophet [s] was questioned as to what religion (“deen”) was, he replied, “sound advice, sound advice, sound advice” [إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة].

Reading

Extra Viewing

  • Thanks to the link from brother Omar. See his comments below. It fits well into the discussion.

A Wakeup Call

The last several weeks’ events have showcased the utter dismay, confusion, and chaos that the American Muslim community is operating under.  The recent affairs regarding Colleen Renee Rose, also known as Jihad Jane, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, and Sharif Mobley, present for us a number of disturbing and urgent dilemmas currently facing American Muslims.  It should be staggeringly clear by now that if Muslims in America do not take steps to deal with these issues, the downward slope will only become more and more slippery.

There are many topics or bullet points I can think of when it comes to the aforementioned issues that Muslims face, but I will attempt to list what I have observed to be the most critical ones, as well as hopefully, some ways we can move to address these crises.  First amongst these thoughts is the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community.  In a recent conversation with a brother, we both lamented on the fractured structure of authority in the Muslim community here in the states.  The reason for this is varied and all the sub-points are beyond the aim of this article, but I would like to point to a couple of social factors that I feel have led to this.

The impact of literacy on the modern world has had a plethora of wide-ranging effects and consequences.  The results in the Muslim context had had no less impact than it did for modern Europe and America.  There are, however, a number of delicate points to this observation I would like to briefly illuminate upon.  Amongst them, has been the tendency to view the Muslim world as “behind” [Robinson 233] the Christian world, in terms of literacy, and in reality, technology.  The unquestioned stance of many Orientalist scholars has been to assume for the West and by proxy, Christianity, a tract or trajectory that the West was “a head of the game” if you will.  Seen from the position, Islam and by proxy Muslims, could only be seen as lagging behind.  Robinson, however, eludes to a number of important points that deserve considerable reconsideration:

“…the origin of the negative Muslim response to printing lay much more deeply than this. The problem was that printing attacked the very heart of Islamic systems for the transmission of knowledge; it attacked what was understood to make knowledge trustworthy, what gave it value, what gave it authority.”

The method of transmission of knowledge in the Muslim world has been orally, passed from teacher to student.  This system necessitates and places tremendous weight and value on the presence of learned and responsible teachers.  The first amongst this transmission of knowledge was the Qur’ān itself [Robinson 235].  From here, this transmission of knowledge of the Qur’ān set a precedent for how knowledge would be transmitted period for Muslims:

“The methods of learning and of transmitting the Qur’ān laid their impress on the transmission of all other knowledge” [Robinson 235].

Robinson continues by quoting one of the great Muslim thinkers, Ibn Khaldun, from his seminal work, al-Muqaddimah:

“The Qur’ān has become the basis of instruction, the foundation of all habits that may be acquired later on” [Khaldun 421].

In this light, it is clear to see that traditional Muslim learning placed an equal if not heavier weight on the necessity of a teacher to transmit knowledge, not merely information.  Without the authority of a teacher, the pupil could very well run the risk of reading the work, but not understanding the what the book said.  While the discussion on this part of the topic deserves much greater attention, I am forsaking it for the time being to simply highlight and underscore the role and distinction that Muslim authority, scholarship and thinking played in the development of Muslim thought and behavior.

You may ask how the relates to the initial point above: the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community.  I would venture to say it has been precisely the uncritical adoption of methodologies and modes of thought, both from the Western secular perspective, which desacrilizes knowledge, reducing it to “information”, as well as from the modern Muslim world, which despite its claims to classical scholarship, simply does not deliver on this.

As to the desacralization of knowledge, this to a great extent is what has happened when Muslims have rejected the role of the teacher-student transmission, and have assumed that they would be capable if not better off, to understand Islam by themselves.  This has been facilitated by the rapid growth of literacy, especially in the modern Western context where Muslims are much more likely to be literate in their own respective vernaculars.  With no criterion to hold themselves to, Muslims have abandoned traditional methodologies for modern secular ones.  The result has been the nearly complete dismantling of religious guidance and authority in the Muslim community.  In my opinion, this has been doubly so in America, where Muslims have been living fractured lives, at times best held up through socio-ethnic bonds.  As Muslims have dispersed and assimilated into American society, so has the tradition of attachment to real human teachers as guides.  The result has been a buffet of sorts: pick and choose without any consequence or consideration as to whether what you’re putting on your plate is good for you.  After all, at a buffet, it’s all food, isn’t it?

The recent obsession with American Muslims with “traditional” or “classical” Muslim knowledge can been as both positive and negative.  I cite positive in that some Muslims have come to realize that modernity is not the be-all and end-all solution to their woes.  And while not all systems of knowledge in modernity are fully bankrupt, as some Muslim scholars have contended, it certainly cannot be imbibed without some measure of scrutiny.  The negative aspects have been similar to those cited above, namely, the uncritical acceptance of packaged goods.  If it looks like and sounds like it’s traditional, then it is.  While the contents of the package may indeed included elements of traditional knowledge, the system of delivery is most obviously modern.  I do not use modern here as an epithet, but rather as a critical observation: modernity is not equipped to deliver on the moral, ethical, religious, or spiritual needs of Muslims [for more on this topic, please see Dr. William Chittick’s, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul].  In order to be “traditional”, Muslims in America would have to establish communities in which there are dedicated teachers who can pass on and take responsibility for the knowledge that pass on.  It is this latter part that may have saved our brother Sharif Mobley from his current fate.  Brother Mobley, as do so many other young Muslims feel, out of a lack of fulfillment, that they must travel abroad to learn sacred knowledge.  Not only is it problematic that the assumption that these destinations do in fact contain sacred knowledge simply by proxy of their location in the historic Muslim world, but that such endeavors are not fraught with danger and peril.

In a recent Friday sermon, Mufti Imam Anwar Muhaimin commented on very concerning condition that many young Muslims labor under: a linguistic or cultural inferiority complex.  The American Muslim community, to paraphrase the Imam, has provided woeful substance to our young brothers and sisters; substance to feel that they are and can be legitimately Muslim here in America.  That we have the infrastructure to provide to them the sacred knowledge they wish to learn.  The results from this quietude on the part of the Muslim community in America for the past ten to twenty years, as my wife has put it, has been the development of a linguistic and cultural inferiority complex.  Perhaps if there could be the establishment of more real living and breathing scholars and teachers in America, then perhaps our youth would not have to trek off to the unknown places of the Muslim world, where we cannot assure that what they will be learning will be a of a benefit to them, either in this life or The Next.

It is my belief, that if we do not work to develop a crop of active and legitimate American Muslim scholars, not just rock star imams, but live-in teachers, then what we have witnessed will only be the beginning of a very long and unattractive nightmare.  To my Muslim brothers and sisters: please help to develop authentic Muslim scholarship, leaders and teachers in your own communities.  We are in desperate need of this, not simply doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  We are in need of teachers who will, in exchange for the support and cooperation of their respective communities, teach and lead a new generation of Muslims who are so very desperate for the knowledge of Islam, for their lives here and now, as well as for their lives in the Hereafter.  Living teachers, living examples, who will take the appropriate and responsible track in how they teach and propagate Islam and the next generation of Muslims.

Citation

Francis Robinson, . (1993). Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print. Modern Asian Studies, 27(1), 229-251.

The above photograph was taken by my father, Pierre Manley. It is the Amtrak train station in downtown Detroit, Michigan. © 2010.