Why Our Efforts to Rally Together Fail

I came across Elisa Tamarkin’s Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, as she reflected on the thoughts of Samuel Morse, the pro-slavery inventor of telegraphy and co-inventor of Morse Code, that should give Muslims pause to consider why we still struggle to come together as a community in America:

“…democracies come together not through language and abstract principles but through the prepolitical feelings we experience toward symbols and works of art.”

If one substitutes “democracies” for “Muslim communities” while leaving “language” and “abstract principles” while exchanging “prepolitical feelings” for pre-Islam feelings and experiences, one can gain some insight as to why we continue to not gel as a community. Of course “symbols and works of art” can be substituted for “the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم” (deliberately avoiding such slogans as “Qur’an and Sunnah”).

Continue reading “Why Our Efforts to Rally Together Fail”

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