No Growth – No Surprise

Squeaky wheels gets the grease. There are some in our community who are attention seekers. They want a lot of attention and we obliged them. Perhaps if we work actively to steer our converts (so they can move beyond conversion into “being” Muslim) and other members of our community towards operationalizing their Islam, we could nip all of this in the bud. It’s no coincidence that some can rise to popularity in this age of social media and blogs (I myself have a well-read blog). It provides an (unhealthy for some) outlet for those who struggle with narcissism (a disease of our age).

For those of us who personally know converts who leave Islam, you’ll often see there was no progression, no growth of who they were as a person (not only as a Muslim) during their stint in Islam. I hold us a community (fard kifayah?) partially to blame: we have no expectations on ourselves other than beards, hijabs, and bummery (yes, that’s a word). This is also where, again for those of us who do know these converts, we should be challenging them by asking, “why did you spend x-number of years jumping from lily pad to lily pad instead of learning how to swim in the big pond?” What do I mean? Salafism, Sufism, progressivism, this ‘ism and that ‘ism. Some even claim that Islam, vis-a-vie, Muslims, are incapable of competing in the marketplace of ideas. How ironic that in making this statement (which in to some degree may actually hold a bit of validity) thet indict themselves! Obviously is you spend your life committed to the Cult of Personality and not to establishing a relationship with God and His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم then you can’t expect blood from a turnip. This ordeal is bigger than any one personality; I see the same issue happening now with the UnMosqued people (which is interestingly enough, also taking place online via social media. Just go on Twitter and look for the hash-tag #unmosqued – also see #remosqued). People are whining and complaining about the predicament of our mosques (some true – some maybe not so much) but that’s it. It only amounts to complaints. Folks are unwilling to be that change they want to see in their mosques and communities. Case in point, I was just asked by a young Muslim this morning:

“Why did you want to become an Imam and grow closer and become an important part of your Muslim community? This MSA is my first ever Muslim community and I just can’t help be feel that maybe I just wasted my time by joining it.”

I am not chiding this person but as you can see, many struggle with seeing validity in their lives and the easiest and most convenient target for their frustrations is the Muslim community (an abstraction). My reply was:

“In short, because I like people, because if I don’t, who will. Because I have the necessary skills and talents, in sha’Allah. And because I don’t see it as a waste of time.”

For every commentator on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, we should be asking critical questions, not simply refuting this or that particular person’s misguided reasons for leaving Islam. What can we do, right now, today, tomorrow, this month, this year, to make our community a beacon of light and hope, where folks (myself included!!) can be rehabilitated, where we can help reinforce our children’s love of Islam (and themselves!). Where Islam becomes a lived-in reality, a way of life, not simply a collection of do’s and don’ts (we need more do’s!!).

In a closing observation, I want to say this about converts, who often look for validation and a sense of belonging. For some, this is sought in the Black community (for others with Arabs or South Asian community). This is why for some, even in their demeanor, they attempted to co-opt Black vernacular, body language, urban modes of dress and even derogatory aspects of Black urban behavior. In essence, they seek acceptance from and by African-Americans. This is often the base because their his whiteness is perceived as an immutable barrier to BEING black. Why else do so many feel so comfortable in weighing in on issues with in the black community such as black masculinity. What is not addressed is they own perception of whiteness and how its seen as emasculation personified (look at the critiques of Nuh Ha Meem Keller, Hamza Yusuf, Joe Bradford and others by white converts). Some pursue their Islam through Salafism in its urban, Blackamerican form, not Arab or Desi Salafis (for they do exist in abundance). And even when Salafism “disappointed” them, their next “lily pad” they jump to is often Sufism (the sign of an imbalanced mind – this is nothing to do with those groups in particular); but not just any expression of Sufism (Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Shadhili) but the tariqah which is predominantly black: the Tijani Order. The issue here is seeking acceptance from personalities and groups of people: African-Americans in this case here, instead of dealing with their obvious identity crises and (erroneous) misgivings of being white (which for many white converts, they seem to feel — and indeed may be encouraged to feel — is in jeopardy of discrediting the authenticity of their Islam) has more to do with their apostasy than anything else in my opinion. You’ll notice that theology (tawhid) is often left out of the discussion and the reason being is that for many new converts, theology may not play a major role in the decision to convert (I know it didn’t in mine — I had no idea what tawhid was when I became Muslim. All I knew was my best friend since I was 5 years old became a Muslims, so I became a Muslim — the important part is that I eventually grew as a person which allowed me to grow in my Islam). The major reasons initially may fade over time (boyfriend, girlfriend, marriage, etc.) and if people grow in themselves then such things as tawhid, Sunnah, etc. may become the defining points in why they stay Muslims.

Food for thought.

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

Humanitarianism, Activism, Media, Religion: A Public Panel and Media Project

The SSRC (Social Science Research Council), in conjunction with the Center for Study of Democracy, is going to be holding a panel discussion on the distinctions and similarities between religious and secular medias. Panelists will include Birgit Meyer (VU University Amsterdam), Charles Hirschkind (University of California, Berkeley) and Peter Redfield (University of North Carolina). In particular, I am curious about Hirschkind’s talk on The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (2006), in where he will explore how a popular form of Muslim media [i.e., the cassette sermon], has profoundly transformed the political geography of the Middle East over the last three decades. While Hirschkind’s work looks primarily at the Middle East, I think it would be equally pertinent in both Salafi and Sufi circles in the States [I continue to witness the prevalence of the cassette sermon here in Philadelphia amongst the Blackamerican community].

If you have a chance to attend, it will be Thursday, October 23, from 6-8pm in the library at Columbia University’s Casa Italiana, located at 1161 Amsterdam Avenue. For more info, see the SSRC’s web site and blog. Let me know if you have notes from the event [I am teaching that evening and cannot attend].

Apology Theory – The Cycle of Inferiority

You know, it’s tempting to give in to the various conspiracy theories out there. I mean, when you look at events that are unfolding before us these days, it really seems as if this is so scripted, so purposeful, that it’s just gotta be a conspiracy.

I’m gonna warn you right now – this post may ramble a bit, but, like any chase worth the take, just try and stay with me.

I was leaving class yesterday evening when I picked up a copy of the Financial Times and on its cover was a picture of Iranian Muslims signing up to volunteer themselves as suicide bombers in the event of a U.S. or U.K. attack. My first reaction is, “God damn. Here we go.” Is this for real? It’s as if we’re caught in some really bad Apocalyptic, Orwellian B-movie countdown sequence. The U.S. continually threatens Iran; Iran makes these insane, chest thumping reactions which seamlessly seem to fit and play into the rhetoric of the Islamophobes here in the West. [Ding]. That’s where the light goes on that says, “Don’t let ’em fool you, brother, it’s a conspiracy.” Conspiracy? How, you may ask. Well, am I the only one that wonders how does some one like Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, come into power and precisely at the right moment? It’s as if someone in either the White House or some D.C. think tank said, “Enter stage left, Mr. Ahmadinejad.” I feel that if I look close enough, I can see the markers on the ground so he doesn’t step out of focus for the camera man. The Greeks couldn’t have written a better Comedy/Tragedy (well, yes, actually, they could have). But on a serious note, this is disturbing and I will try to illustrate why I think so.

Islam is on the defense. There can be no doubt about this. Muslim scholars and intellectuals have been in a virtual horse race since 9/11 to preach an almost Ghandi-like message to the world that Islam is “a religion of peace”. “Islam means peace”. “Muslims are peaceful people and the vast majority simply want to live out their lives in a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, be the Christians, Jews, or other”. And while this may certainly be the case for large numbers of Muslims here in the West and across the world, there are consequences for this rhetoric. I will try to lay out a few in the following paragraphs.

To begin, I am not trying to ignite a debate on the “meaning of Islam”. To be reductionist if I may, Islam means many different things to many different people – and many of these people (present company included) may indeed be entitled to their interpretations. So for the sake of this post, I will accept a person’s definition that Islam is a religion of peace. What I’d like to do is examine the potential externalities of such an outlook. For more information on permissibility in Islam, I highly recommend Dr. Sherman Jackson’s article, From Prophetic Actions To Constitutional Theory.

If one says that Islam is a religion of peace, then this would, to many people, mean that the objective of the religion is to establish peace versus peace being a side effect of the practice of Islam. We must also look at when such slogans are used. While I do not proclaim to be a historical scholar in any fashion, when Islam did exist in a state of peace with its neighbors (say, Muslim Spain for example – I am simplifying for the sake of argument) there are not any identifiable records that Muslims went around to their Jewish and Christian neighbors and said, “Islam is a religion of peace”. The fact was that for the most part during that epoch of when Muslims ruled Spain, Muslim, Jew and Christian coexisted without significant strife until much later (the Inquisition and expulsion of Muslims). So my question and counter argument is that if Islam’s mission statement, as it were, was that of a religion of peace, why did we not see or hear it then?

Well, we are most certainly hearing it now. And I believe that it is out of a reaction to specific events in modernity and because of generalized events in history that Muslims feel that Islam is peaceful, that Muslims wish to live in peace and that the rug has been yanked out from many of us and all we wanna do is set the rug back in place. The only problem with trying to put the rug back in place is that the place in which it used to fit has changed in shape and dimension. Perhaps the rug no longer belongs there or we’re told that it no longer belongs there.

Like other peoples throughout history, Muslims now suffer at their (our/mine) own ignorance. Muslims have become emotionally reactionary and anti-intellectual despite long traditions that would counter the latter. So how do Muslims justify sloganizing Islam as a religion of peace and perhaps more importantly, what happens when one gets his foot caught in the bear trap of apology? The Muslims, like any good animal caught in such a trap, must do one of two things: moan horribly about one’s wound until infection and disease bring about a painful death. Or bite off the crippling limb to escape the confines and inevitable death of the trap (a potential third option is to wait for someone to come along and free you, indebting them to you; some would say this is the current situation – you decide). As it stands currently, gangrene is setting in. But while the disease threatens to lay the animal low, a small contingent seeks to triage the caught limb and apply a tourniquet in preparation for amputation.

Apology in the modern sense (not in the classic Greek sense) is a defensive position. And once one starts apologizing, it is hard to gain back ground – to regain respect, because one will inevitably be seen as inferior to the one whom you attempt to apologize. It also has the potential to be cyclical – once it starts it’s hard to stop. In my humble opinion, if Muslims are to regain footing in the public arena, they (we) must stop apologizing for the misgivings of small minorities that have been given undue authority to speak for the Muslims as a whole. And devil’s in the details. No other religious majority group in the West (i.e., Christians and Jews) are taken to task when extremist minority groups decide to act upon interpretations they come to (which their majority co-religionists do not share) and do something that is considered abominable (many groups come to mind here: the IRA, the Basque separatists, and Israeli settlers come to mind). Neither British Protestants, Irish Catholics, Spanish separatists or Israelis would call these other groups “extremists” because of the actions of a few Irish, British, Spanish or Israeli participants. And yet, when a group of Muslims acts on their own, all Muslims are communally held responsible for their actions and therefore can even be held legally responsible, vis-a-vie Guantanamo Bay. Muslims, regardless of their lack of affiliation with any known terror groups, are being held in detention, without rights or access to due legal process, simply because they’re Muslim (the travesty continues that many of the Muslims in Guantanamo have been proven innocent but have yet to be released as in the case of two Chinese Muslims that were acquitted of any involvement in terrorist activities and yet remain detained permanently).

I had mentioned that the practice of apology by the Muslims has engendered the perception of inferiority. This is especially true in our modern context. Recent polls have shown us that roughly 50% of Americans have a negative view of Islam, post 9/11. Talk radio and entertainment news shows (not by any means true or accurate) consistently mock Muslims and Islamic traditions. The satirical caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) could well be used as further proof that Islam suffers from an inferiority complex (as well as the reactions of Muslims to the cartoons) in the public arena.

The way that I see an apologetic stance driving an inferiority complex is simple (for the sake of this post): parties that are indentured or indebted to another are put in a stance of inferiority. This debt allows the superior party to not only subjugate the former but it leaves the potential for the latter to remake or re-determine the former’s worth and value. Such is the case with Islam in the West. By being put on the defense (I believe this is in effort to seek peer-level recognition from their Christian, Jewish or non-Muslim Western counterparts), Muslims are subjected to ridicule they would normally not have to accept. But precisely because they are open to apology, non-Muslim thought process is allowed to come in the fold and out of context, dissect, examine, ridicule or even condemn Muslims on theological, secular and humanitarian levels. Classic examples that come to mind of this is that “Islam is an evil religion”. “Islam seeks to dominate the entire world and subject all non-Muslims to horrific, blasphemous deaths”. “Islam is a system and modality of oppression, especially for women.” All of these should sound familiar. It is my belief that these criticisms come partly from the Muslims allowing themselves, in misguided or misplaced hope of gaining favor from their Western counterparts, to fall into a tar pit of apology.

A second consequence of the apologists is the enraging of the radicals and extremists. For those who are disenfranchised, in many ways, the Muslim who apologizes and explains away the ills of his or her religion ignites the ire in these groups almost to a further extent that does the West. The apologists are seen as both corroborators, conspirators and innovators (bid’ah/بدعة) of the religion. In a sort of Manichean way, any Muslim who seeks to “water down” the religion in trade for gaining forgiveness, respect or other from the infidel, is seen as someone who is corrupting the religion. This then gives rise to the call for the “true believers” to rise up and defend Islam from both without and within.

Not to toss the Salafis in to this conversation for no good reason, but they are an example of a group in which I have had first-hand experience listening to their rhetoric in which various groups of Muslims who have tried to at once condemn violence committed by Muslims or even just defend wearing of headscarves by women (hijab), and who through various means are seen as “selling out” (shaving of the beard, not adopting the Middle-Eastern style of dress code, etc.) are described as hypocrites, innovators and it is then incumbent upon the “real Muslims” to take up this charge to rite their wrongs. I am not saying that all or any Salafi groups here in the States have gone to the extremes that either the 9/11 hijackers did or what is happening in Iran with suicide bomber volunteers, but is does present the possibilities of a slippery slope.

So with the issue of apology tackled, I will now examine the other options I spoke of: triage, amputation and rehabilitation.

Using the word triage may seem a bit dramatic but in many ways the Muslim world, in its various locales and manifestations, is like a body that has suffered trauma. Some of that trauma is akin to the blunt trauma of colonialism. Other trauma can be more subtlety diagnosed as psychological. Either way, I find the medical analogy applicative so bear with me.

As with any medical condition, the symptoms must be analyzed so that they cannot just be treated but will hopefully lead to the cause of the problem so that the appropriate diagnosis and treatment can be made. In the case of the Muslims, this is as varied as disease is, depending on when and where the Muslims are. For this post, we will deal with Muslims in the States.

To make a concise summary for the sake of argument, Muslims here are caught between two competing histories. The history of the West (especially for indigenous converts) and the history of Islam in the East. For indigenous Western Muslims, we are often told that our innate Westerness is some how inferior and inherently unIslamic. Much of this opinion is informed by peoples who have generationally suffered at the hands of colonization and radical nationalist movements in their native countries. In a manner, this superior/inferior dialog between Muslims in America leads to its own form of apology on behalf of American Muslims (to their foreign Muslims coreligionists), but this is for another topic.

To say that the challenge facing Muslims here in the West is the reconciliation of these two histories is to make a grand understatement. Muslims in America must find a way of having that all-important conversation with the Sacred Tradition if they are to have a legitimate legacy here in the West (see Dr. Sherman Jackson’s speech at the Western Knight Center For Specialized Journalism – watch the video). Potentially, out of that conversation come a sense of self, so affirmed, that theoretically, never again would Western Muslims need find themselves delivering apologetic hand-outs (and simultaneously quelling the ire of the extremists).

This process of having a dialog with the Sacred History is what I would term the rehabilitation period. It is where the Muslims here in the West could heal and recoup from the effort that it will have taken them to reach this lofty, but not unobtainable, goal. This process will require both academic and intellectual endeavors as well as grass roots application of those endeavors. But above all, it will take honesty. Muslims in America will need to be honest with themselves in order to have and benefit from the dialog. And in addition, in order to have that dialog, Muslims will need to stop apologizing, so that they may hear what that Sacred History is saying. And like any other dialog, one cannot carry on two conversations at once.