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 []. 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.

If There Was Ever A Good Time…

Incubation [in-kyuhbey-shuh n]. The act of incubating: To sit upon (eggs) for the purpose of hatching; to maintain at a favorable temperature and in other conditions promoting development, as cultures of bacteria or prematurely born infants; to develop or produce as if by hatching.

All of the above can easily be applied metaphorically to our condition and situation as Muslims in America. Like a collective group of mother hens, we’re sitting on our eggs. But if we do not soon act in our best self-interest, we will loose our eggs through negligence and heedlessness. Every day, every month that passes by, I think to myself: “What are we waiting for?” Our situation only becomes more grim as the hours slip by. I do not say these words lightly or for the sake of dramatization. I say them because we’ve only seen the Hollywood version of how bad things can get. Yet we have no screen writers to script us a happy ending. No, that happing ending will have to be done with our own hands. But first, we’ve got to get off our duffs — intellectually, politically, socially and more — or our eggs will never hatch and we will go the way of the Dodo bird.

The American Muslim front has been hit by periodic waves of violence, public embarrassment, and anxiety post 9/11. The Fort Hood killings are just the latest ripple. Responses in Muslim circles have varied from the typical apologetic to denial, with a few bright spots of insight in between. Yet, this seems to have done very little to motivate Muslims to act with more agency, with more foresight and responsibility that it has led myself to some very disturbing conclusions, the summary of which is that we, as American Muslims, have no clue what we’re doing here in America. I base my conclusions on 18 years of observation in the Muslim community, from Detroit to San Francisco. From Madison to Durham to Philadelphia. The last locale proves the most troublesome for me, as I have lived in Philadelphia for almost five years now and I find the Muslim community here to be the most disturbing. Not disturbing based on media-drive hype and hyperbole – I’ve come across no radicals or al-Qaeda suspects. But I have and do encounter large numbers of Muslims, many young but not exclusively, who are just riding the current in front of them, heedless to the environment they are in. And if that current should dash them on the rocks, they seem mostly content. But if they should also become mired on the river banks making no action, having no determinacy of how they sail down the river, I observe the same level of complacency.

Complacency is one of the key words I would use to describe one of the major maladies plaguing Philadelphia’s Muslim community. And while the issues that Philadelphia rankles with may differ in scope and intensity from other locations, I do believe them to be indicative of national crises. I also see much of the complacency here a communal trait passed on generation to generation by the leadership here – a leadership that seems much more interested at times in being served versus giving service. The mode of leadership here is predominantly charismatic, and while charisma will always have its part and place in any community, I do not believe it can be the only qualifier if the community is to be successful. I am well aware of the fact that these words will do little to endear me to certain audiences here in Philadelphia, but as one who steps up on the minbar on a weekly basis, I have to be frank and honest. I also speak these words because I want to see the best possible future for Philadelphia and the rest of American Muslims.

In an article I read today on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, Reuel Marc Gerecht’s article, Major Hasan and Holy War, spells out the typical conservative, Islamophobic rhetoric we have come to find common place in the discourse on Islam in America. Yet we cannot simply dismiss these missives as the handiwork of Muslim haters. Muslims here must come to see that we also play a hand in how we wrong ourselves by having not made the best choices for our community. Nor are we making them now. E-Baad recently posted an article by Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University in which Professor Mamdani asked some very good questions:

Is our world really divided into two, so that one part makes culture and the other is a prisoner of culture? Are there really two meanings of culture? Does culture stand for creativity, for what being human is all about, in one part of the world? But in the other part of the world, it stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity, whose rules are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and museumized in early artifacts?

When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act. After that, it seems they just conform to culture. Their culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates. It seems just to have petrified into a lifeless custom.

I believe these are some very prescient questions we need to ask ourselves. Is the culture we’re promoting [if any at all] conducive to a healthy and dignified Muslim life in America? Or have we marginalized ourselves where meanings are found not within ourselves or in how we interact with our world in negotiation with our transcendent values but within a stagnant, museumized collection of ritualistic actions that are devoid of or separated from the sacred values of our religion.

As Professor Lehman suggests, modern secular society only receives its values and agency from its cultural, creative process. A process in this regard constructs its own social/civic/secular religion. It is from this paradigm that we get notions of “freedom” and “equality” and yet, they seldom materialize on all playing fields [the fact that the plural must be flatted to the singular in this matrix is another conversation]. In other words, the production of culture as it stands now sees history and tradition as wholly problematic, a pariah, that, in order to flourish, all aspects and remnants of said historical and traditional processes must be jettisoned. Not only are Muslims just as guilty here as is secular America, they are also just as guilty in mummifying their own religious practices and significances. It would be wrong to think that it is only the Orientalist academy and a few Washington think-tanks that perceive Muslims to be ahistorical, apolitical, but Muslims themselves do a fine job of promoting this false reality as well. I would claim that the majority of debates in the Muslim community are grounded in arguments that suffer from the same ahistorical and apolitical realities. Ironically, the latest trend we see now in American Islam is the reifying of Traditional Islam. This construct is presented and packed such that one need only done the proper attire and converse in the appropriate dialect and all of one’s troubles will be solved. Additionally, one can easily feel more pious than one’s counterparts, who are just simply Muslim, most likely uneducated Salafis or worse. I am dramatizing this specific point here to make another: neither progressive or conservative proclivities achieve the balance needed for the dialog and action America Muslims need at this juncture. Neither does either have a monopoly on the understanding of the religion. And like our examples above, the former [progressive Muslims] lean towards dispatching [Muslim] history entirely, where the viewpoints and attitudes of the past are rendered secular [i.e., they are empty of any transcendent value]. On the other hand, such conservative expressions [both Traditional Islam, Salafism, and even Sufism to some extent] sacrilize all of Muslim history, where the attitudes and viewpoints of antiquated communities become sacred themselves, almost transcendent, where departing from their opinions is equated with departing with Revelation.

Both Muslims and American society [if not many parts of the modern world] struggle with this problem: appeasing the present and appeasing the past. And it is a dichotomy that is easy to become ensnared in, especially given the nature of modern discourse being particularly Manichaean. For Muslims, and for the America public, Islam does offer some potential insights into seeking a way out of this ensnarement. Muslim history is ripe with great minds that saw this very specific model and attempted to broker deals that would allow them to appease the ahistocial, transcendent values of Islam while leading dignified and compromising lives [not compromised!] in their current contexts.

There are major storm clouds on the horizon. The future in America, for Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is unclear and filled with much trepidation and speculation. Past derelictions must be corrected, with a clear manifesto of what waters we’re charting and where we’re sailing to. This coming of age has already arrived upon us, and if we wish to be successful, we must act swiftly, creatively, and decisively, with courage and steadfastness, if we are to flourish, not simply trying to cling to a rock – such imagery makes good postcards but we do not want to be that lone Bonsai tree waiting for an unfortunate moment to dislodge us permanently.

Read Reuel Marc Gerecht’s article here. Additional reading about Muslims in the military here. Mahmood Mamdani’s article here. “Going Muslim” by Tunku Varadarajan.

My Blind Date With The Federal Bureau of Investigations


We live in a tumultuous world were fantastic events can impact the daily realities of ordinary citizens. Events unfold before our eyes that can forever tarnish our sense of perception if we’re not careful. These are the words that come to mind as I had my interview with the FBI this afternoon. From their side, they may see an incident that raises suspicions, whether they’d like them to be raised or not. On my end of the deal, being scrutinized by the government can be a very uncomfortable situation to be in. Fortunately for both parties involved, we had a few laughs and then went on about our ways. If only all such encounters between divergent parties could be so humorous.

The back story to this short and simple. Recently, for a class assignment, I had photographed some public transportation installations belonging to SEPTA, including a trolley, the trolley tunnel, and the trolley tracks. I can imagine I hear chuckles already – as well we should all chuckle! The following day, I exited the same trolley stop [the same stop I use every day to go to work] only to be greeted by three separate law enforcement agencies: SEPTA, UPenn police, and the Philadelphia Police Department. My initial thought was that they were, “really after someone”, as they were out in force. Little did I know they were looking for me. A brief search ensued, in which I was searched, my contents were searched and then I was questioned by the officers present. After about 15-20 minutes, my story was confirmed and cleared that I was simply a student doing class work and that my appearance had, “raised some red flags”. The officer in question nearly blushed as he apologized, fully aware of what his words were implicating. I laughed with him to diffuse the situation and informed him I understood and that he was only following his procedures. I was discharged there shortly thereafter and thought that the incident was behind me. Little did I know I had popped up on an even bigger radar.

The story unfortunately does not get much more intense from here. The following day, I received a phone call from a detective at the FBI asking if he might schedule an interview with me. Slightly alarmed, I asked what it was he was curious about, at which he explained that he had been informed by the local authorities of the “SEPTA incident”, and that he would like to gather some more information. I agreed and proceeded to seek advice as to how to proceed. It’s not every day that one has a blind date with the FBI.

Through the help of a friend, I contacted the ACLU [of which I would urge other Muslims to consider supporting as this is a wonderful institution], who graciously provided me with an attorney from one of Philadelphia’s top law firms. I spoke with my attorney, who gave me sound counsel and with his advice in hand, we prepared for our meeting. The interim time between the phone call and the interview was filled with nervous speculation. What was it they could want from me? I lead a boring life of blogs and books. Yes, I’ve traveled to Saudi Arabia but so do many other people. Could that be it? Are they fishing for something? Soon enough I would have my answers.

I met with my attorney an hour before the interview and went over various points in detail to prepare myself for any questions they FBI might have. We were prepared for a full-court press. My tie was ironed, my blazer pressed. I was ready. At 11am sharp my phone rang. It was the detective. He said that “they” were ready to meet me. “They”, I thought. There was no mention of more than one officer. Despite this surprise, I put on my poker face and proceed to the interview.

From here, the story concludes with a small chuckle and then fizzles out. Both detectives were courteous and cordial. In the span of about three or four minutes, they asked me much of the same questions the local law enforcement officials had asked: what was I taking pictures of? Why? I provided proof of student ID and explained my course work. The next part was the most uncomfortable part and yet the most humorous – and in that order for the agent and myself. He asked where I was born and then my nationality. I informed him I was born in the United States and that I was African-American. Our eyes met for a moment and then I burst out with a short laugh and said, “I’m not from the Middle-East”. The detective, who seemed exceedingly happy to have made it over this uncomfortable hump replied, “Well, I wasn’t trying to imply anything but you know…, these days. We get a lot of phone calls about Middle-Eastern guys. It takes up a lot of our time”. Myself, my attorney, and the two agents all shared a laugh at how uncomfortable this post-9/11 situation has made people and the types of social avenues it can force us to go down. In short, the detectives were nice people who were only following Bureau procedures and in no time flat I was seeing them and my lawyer to the door.

In conclusion – cooperate. We live in times where many may feel that their liberties are being infringed upon and that’s why we have organizations like the ACLU. And yet, there are realities on the ground, whether we like them or not, and only but talking with one another can we hope to understand each other’s goals and objectives better. And yes, I am glad I’m a black guy! What a civil liberty that’s turning out to be.