Annual Islam In America Lecture Series

Yep. It’s that time again folks. Mark off your calendars and get ready for Dr. Sherman Abdul-Hakim Jackson with Dr. Omar Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship, Dr. Jamilah Carter and Professor Amir Al-Islam. The Importance of Culture in Creating a Paradigm Shift, Saturday, August 26th 2006, at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Law. Lecture starts at 12:00pm. Tickets are $30. Seating limited. You know the drill. Contact the International Muslim Brotherhood or call (215) 473-8589 for more details. Hope to see you there!! Last year’s was fantastic.

Yours truly will be there taking snaps for IMB. See you there.

The Seerah With Dr. Sherman Jackson – Seeing Love In Action

I am so tired right now but I had to put this down on pen and paper (or pixel and electrons if you will). I will comment at greater length as to the details of Dr. Jackson’s two-day session at NYU (especially as I’ve only seen one day so far) but I’d like to speak on Dr. Jackson as a whole and what he means to me.

I know I’ve written an awful lot about Dr. Jackson here and even he may think my words are misplaced but I will say that we, meaning American Muslims, are so blessed, so fortunate to have someone like him that I want to take a moment to personally thank him.

The session I spoke of is the two-day session on the Seerah of the Prophet: The Makkan Period. Never before have I had the biography of the Prophet laid out before me. One of several epiphanies that I had during this course is that there needs to be a serious, scholarly re-working of the Muslims understanding of the Prophet. By this I mean we need to have the language and the method in which the Prophet is presented to us re-tooled to fit the times in which we live. For many of us (and myself until recent) I believe/d the Prophet is/has been made into an unhuman figure. What do I mean by unhuman (not inhuman!)? I mean that we often hear ourselves quoting the fact that the Prophet never made a mistake even though we have Qur’anic proof that he did:

He frowned and turned his back when the blind man came towards him. How could you tell? He might have sought to purify himself. He might have been forewarned, and might have profited from Our warning. But to the wealthy man you were all attention: although the fault would not be yours (the Prophet) if he remained uncleansed.{Qur’an: 80 v.1-5}

This is not some play at words – the Prophet was a real person, a real human being. He did make a mistake. The difference is that God never allowed the Prophet to perpetuate a mistake or more clearly, what ever mistakes the Prophet may have committed would be/were corrected before his death. This, in my opinion, is a more correct way to look at the عصمة (‘ismah) or infallibility of the Prophet.

As Muslims, we need to ask ourselves, why do we have these perceptions? Should we have them? And how can we begin a process of (as Yoda put it so eloquently), “unlearning what we have learned.” For me, I see many Muslims are afraid to tackle these issues. Some thing by looking at the Prophet in this light, it opens the door of capitulating to the Orientalist or Islamaphobes perception of the Prophet. But, as per Dr. Jackson’s advice, instead of worrying how others outside of our religious fold define the Prophet, perhaps we should concentrate on how we define him. If we remove our desire for outside validation, then perhaps so many of our phobias will fall away.

It was this and more that Dr. Jackson brought to us. The Prophet came alive for us. Though we could never walk in his shoes, we certainly could empathize with him. The Prophet was a man who loved his people: idolators, Jews, Christians, Muslims, all of them. And he showed this love in how he carried out his prophethood.

The Prophet was also a man who also experienced deep sorrow. Never wanting the mantle of prophethood, Khadijah, his first wife and if I may be so bold, his big love of his life, was his rock and corner stone when his received Revelation. Khadijah was the first Muslim. And when she died, the sorrow that he must have felt was immense. I could only imagine what it must have been like. A message delivered to you in which no one else is aware of. And the only person who trusts and believes you, who bares your children and comforts you, is one day taken from you (all the while, hostility is growing towards you and your movement and there’s no backing out of it – how do you back out of delivering God’s message?). When Dr. Jackson said that the Prophet had to come home to a lonely home after 25 years of marriage, the deep sorrow the Prophet felt at Khadijah’s death, overwhelmed me. As I sat and pondered these thoughts on the bus back to Philadelphia that evening, I started to weep. I imagined being in love and having that great love taken from you. Coming home and not having that person be there. I thought of my father and what it would mean for him to come home and not have my mother there and I just kept crying.

I’ve often heard stories of Muslims weeping when they thought of the Prophet and until then, I could not conceptualize it (also, added to the fact that men do not cry comfortably about anything in our culture!). But that night, for the first time in the nearly 15 years I’ve been Muslim, I grasped the humanity of the Prophet, what his Message was, the sacrifices he gave and then could fully understand the meaning behind صلى الله عليه وسلم (May God send peace and blessings upon the Prophet). For this, I am eternally grateful to Dr. Jackson.

I will put up shortly some notes from Dr. Jackson’s lecture there. It’s still in a distillation process for me. So be patient and stay tuned.

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.

Race & Religion – The Dialog Has Begun

Again, thank you to all of you who have taken a moment to comment on this issue. I am humbled that the response is as large as it has been and that it’s been a balance from both sides. It is my wish to continue this dialog and to carry it from a secular point of view into a forum where it can also mix a little bit with religion. So both sides have a say. I am intrigued to see the interplay of the social issues that certain groups face while still being a part of the seem spiritual group. Racism means many things to many people (or at least that’s what I gather). The racism that I may experience as a Blackamerican (tip of the hat to Professor Sherman Jackson) will not be the same as someone who’s Arab or Pakistani or Albanian (oh, yes. The Albanians are white but they do suffer from racism as well – now wouldn’t that make an interesting post/subject?).

And finally, how will Blackamerican Muslims use Islam as a vehicle to combat white supremacy and institutionalized racism? What tools can we extract from Islam and the Prophet’s Message to use in our fight for equality? I don’t know, but I’m sure some of you will have some ideas on that. Feel free to share.

P.S. I really appreciate it when you link to me – it allows me as a writer (albeit a semi-pro/amateur one) to reach a bigger audience. So in return, leave your link as well and I’ll return the favor. Thanks.