In this episode, I clarifyy some points in my article, The Unrecognizable Islam of Reza Aslan, about the boundaries of belief and asks some important questions for our community to consider.
In this episode, I clarifyy some points in my article, The Unrecognizable Islam of Reza Aslan, about the boundaries of belief and asks some important questions for our community to consider.
In 2016, I wrote several articles about what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls, “the credibility gap”. One of them was entitled Interpretation In Free Fall. In it I discussed an embarrassing exchange between Kayleigh McEnany and Reza Aslan, in which the two battled over authoritative claims about Islam. Here we are again with yet another example of Muslims being academically and publicly dishonest about Islam. Samina Ali’s Tedx talk, delivered at the University of Nevada, attempts to reduce hijab to essentially class and culture (Ali also fails to situate the topic of hijab, or headscarf, within the broader topic of ‘awrah, or nakedness, which is where the Qur’an and the Prophet situate it). According to Ali, if a women came from a noble enough station in society, she would not be publicly molested and thus is the raison d’être for hijab. What we have here is another 5-minute (well, 17-minute) gloss-over of a topic that requires far more finesse and skill than perhaps Ali is capable of bringing to it. At the risk of sounding elitist, I must say I found Ali’s assumptions to be full of holes, presumptions, and just downright sloppy.
What is most striking about pundits of Ali’s ilk is their complete ignoring of the Prophetic tradition with hadith like,
المرأةُ عورةٌ وإنَّها إذا خرَجتْ استشرَفها الشَّيطانُ
“The woman’s body is ‘awrah (i.e., nakedness), so when she goes out, Shaytan attempts to take a peek.”1
These sources are typically dismissed in favor of what is exclusively mentioned in the Qur’an. This is done so, not for academic or hermeneutical purity, but for ideological reasons. It also allows such pundits to obfuscate their lacking credentials so as to mask their inability to discuss their chosen topics in-depth. Ironically, what is equally striking is how Ali’s 17-minute video is almost completely comprised of nothing other than non-Qur’anic sources! How is it that such sources are disqualified from the conversation, let alone from having any authority, while they are invoked with impunity to support attacks against those very same authority claims? Sadly, this is another example of zero-credibility authority. What really begs answering from the likes of Ali is how do you: pray, pay zakah, make Hajj or ‘Umrah, etc.? None of these are explained in any detail in the text of the Qur’an. Should we then abandon qiyam, jalsah, ruku’, and sajdah (standing, sitting, bowing, and prostration) as actions to perform in Muslim prayer given that their validity and method is solely and explicitly found in the hadith literature?
What ultimately baffles me is why do such Muslims even bother with Shari’ah, in that Shari’ah is essentially a post-revelatory enterprise to understand and codify what God intended through the demonstration of His Prophet in audience of the his Companions. Why not declare oneself a non-Shar’i Muslim (for the record, I am not advocating this!)? Instead, what we have — again — is an attempt to warp and bend Shari’ah to fit various agendas, such as liberalism (which rejects all authority external to the self, including God, His prophets, etc.), individualism (the embodiment of liberalism), or in this case, what appears to be some botched Marxist critique of Muslim/Qur’anic sexual ethics.
1. Recorded in Ibn Hibban’s Sahih (5598#), narrated by ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud: المرأةُ عورةٌ وإنَّها إذا خرَجتْ استشرَفها الشَّيطانُ وإنَّها لا تكونُ إلى وجهِ اللهِ أقربَ منها في قعرِ بيتِها/”The woman’s body is ‘awrah (i.e., nakedness), so when she goes out, Shaytan attempts to take a peek. She will not be closer to the Face of her Lord than when she’s in the middle of her home.”
On Saturday mornings at Middle Ground I teach a class entitled, The Dr. Sherman Jackson Reader, in which we explore his various articles, books, and essays. Currently we are reading his piece, The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism & Atheism On The American Mosque. In it, Dr. Jackson reminds us of a point that is not only worth considering but also provides some strategy in how Muslims might address the challenge of liberalism as well as to how we might address our own community members who have been enchanted with its claims.
Undoubtedly liberalism (in distinction to liberal thought) is one of the biggest challenges facing (American) Muslims today. Many Muslim leaders, thinkers, and intellectuals have taken to deconstructing its theories, some better than others. And while this is all fine to do I find one overarching aspect missing to these critiques, namely the setting up of liberalism and Islam as equals or peers. I do not mean equals or peers in a hierarchical sense: That Islam is better than liberalism or vice versa. No, what I mean here is the false-equating that essentially we’re talking about two things in a manner which implies they are of the same species. As Dr. Jackson points out, liberalism,
“…aspires to [be] a political theory, not an overall philosophy of life. In other words, its primary aim is to regulate relations between individuals and the state and between individuals and each other in the political sphere. In theory, therefore, liberal commitments need not govern life outside the political realm.”
This point is very important as we contrast it, liberalism, to Islam (and to any religious tradition for that matter) which, at its core, is a truth-claim. These two things are very different animals and their differences must be accentuated, not dulled, if there is to be not only any meaningful critique of liberalism by American Muslims, but also any reconciliation between Islam and liberal thought.
Liberalism, by process of dissemination, often takes on the psuedo-form of a truth-claim, undoubtedly the source of what mucks up the waters of our understanding. As Dr. Jackson says again,
“…even if political liberalism does not set out to be an overall philosophy of life, it turns out to be virtually indistinguishable from such in terms of its actual effect, not only in the political sphere but everywhere.”
It is this masquerading of political philosophy as a truth-claim that is one half of the issue. We receive notions of a “liberal life” through various American institutions such as schools, universities, and even government agencies, as well as popular culture. But if liberalism is guilty of masquerading as a truth-claim, many Muslims are equally guilty of masquerading Islam as only a political ideology, the other half of our issue. As we shall see, it’s not that Islam cannot have political assertions, as it were, but that any such assertions are secondary to its truth-claims. Simply put, Islam may have something to say about political/secular/mundane things, and it may not. The result of this conflation leaves American Muslims, more often than not, talking past liberalism as much as they are attempting to speak to it. In doing so, American Muslims unwittingly give a misplaced credibility to the notion of liberalism as a truth-claim by treating it as such, versus addressing it for what it is: a means of negotiating the individual with either other individuals, or the State.
The reason for this conflation, in my opinion, is likely due to the fact that many American Muslims themselves (leaders included) have been coopted by, or, bought into, liberalism, as manifested by younger Muslims who “see little value in anything beyond the ability to pursue personal interest”, according to Dr. Jackson. In many ways this is a re-articulation of the “unmosqued” generation-X Muslims who often feel estranged in Muslim spaces that do not cater to their every whim.
What is muddling up the contention between these two (political philosophy versus truth-claim) is as much the fault of liberals as it is Muslims (these two camps are not mutually exclusive). To address the Muslim perspective, all too often modern Muslims, influenced by liberalism and secularism, attempt to take Islam into arenas it is not meant to go. For example, let us have liberalism ask the questions, “What is a good life?”, “Where do we come from?” as well as, “What’s for dinner?” As a political philosophy, whose main goal and objective is to negotiate the individual against other individuals/the State, liberalism would have nothing to say to any of these three questions in as much as it remains truthful to being a political philosophy.
Let us ply the same questions to Muslim scripture and tradition. If we ask, as Muslims, “What is a good life?”, or “Where do we come from”, there are numerous Qur’anic verses and Prophetic narrations (hadith) that can adequately address these inquiries, at least from a Muslim point of view. However, when it comes to “What’s for dinner?”, the same truthful commitment (liberalism above) has to be equally applied now to Islam, if Islam is to remain a truth-claim: Muslims must concede that neither the Qur’an nor the life of the Prophet can adequately tell us “What’s for dinner”.
The contrast here is important: liberalism, a philosophical commitment which privileges the self as the “ultimate decider” of authority, would be unable to render an answer as to what to put on your dinner plate. In essence, its response would simply be, “what ever you like”. Islam, as a truth-claim, while being able to tell us what we cannot eat, or what is impermissible to drink, is not the same as telling us to choose a Whooper over a Big Mac, let alone whether we ought to even eat a cheeseburger in the first place. My point being, all too often we drag things into areas that they have no means to speak authoritatively on. The result in this case is to reduce Islam to a secular or political ideology, incapable of speaking to the question at hand. In the case of liberalism, when we move it beyond the pale of negotiating our realities, we make it a false truth-claim. And as for Islam, we reduce it to a false secular/political ideology. The danger here with Islam (and religion in general), is that if I can coerce or force Islamic sources to articulate that a Whooper is “what’s for dinner”, then my eating a Big Mac is not simply me exercising my right to choose one over the other, but is in fact a move against the Will of God.
So where does this leave American Muslims in their stance towards liberalism? The first is to advocate that liberalism be treated as a thought process versus a truth-claim. In fact, many of liberalism’s claims (autonomy/self-law vs. heteronomy/external-law) can be demonstrated to not be truthful to itself! As a crude example, when one stops at an intersection, obeying tacit commands from a traffic signal displaying “red”, we stop. This is most certainly an external authority that inhibits our freedom (of movement), yet liberals express no qualm over stopping at a red light or decrying their individual rights of self-determination/movement have been infringed upon. While some liberals would claim this is nothing other than what John Rawls argued in what he called “public reason”, when it comes to something a bit more sophisticated than traffic rules, Rawlsian liberalism* often privileges the rich over the poor, the powerful over the powerless. What it does show is that (American) Muslims need not be entirely opposed to liberal thought: as yet to date I am unaware of any Muslims filing complaints about traffic lights impinging on their religious or secular freedoms. In fact, this turns on its head the common misnomer that “Muslims are not compatible with the West”, “democracy”, or other such nonsense. What American Muslims can do is demonstrate the fallacy of the ‘ism in liberalism: (American) Muslims can commit to the common good, as (truth-claiming) Muslims, while still calling into the question the scope to which liberal thought is applied, especially in instances when it does not render a common good.
In the end, this moves American Muslims to a much better social position by which they can engage their fellow Americans, even those who do not share their truth-claims to La ilaha ill’Allah, “There is no god except God”. It also preserves Islam (and religion in general in America) as a truth-claim, saving their religion from being misused, misapplied, and mishandled, and instead, used and applied towards answering the most enduring and meaningful questions.
* Rawls feared that people might not be able to find enough common ground to resolve their differences. If A is able to invoke his ideology against B, B will fear that he cannot get a fair hearing and walk away from negotiations, leaving the conflict outstanding, perhaps to the tune of violence. As a solution, Rawls proposed that all parties be made to argue their positions on the basis of what he called “public reason,” and that only arguments based on public reason be accepted. Public reason is not indebted to or based on any of the competing parties’ concrete ideological commitments; rather, it draws upon what they all share in common. For example, Muslims, Jews and atheists might disagree over the authority of the Qur’ān, but they can all agree to ban crack-cocaine, based on the mutually shared value of health-preservation. See the rest in Dr. Jackson’s article.
Religion As Part of a Good Life. A khutbah delivered on January 20th, 2017.
“The Good News for the soul may appear as so much Bad News for the intellect; free-thinking is the last thing to be expected in reading a religious document.” — Charles Grey Shaw
I have always found those who espouse “free-thinking” as nothing other than intellectual smugness and prejudice against those of faith. Critical to that smugness has been an assumption that faith — implicating the faithful — is expressed and lived under a regime of compulsion. In as much as this animosity is directed towards religion in general — a child of the Enlightenment — it is assumed to apply doubly so towards Islam, the quintessential pre-Enlightenment religion.
In the article, Lindsay Lohan May Have Made Her Worst Life Choice Yet, dated January 18th, 20171 and published on the website The Hill, Robert Spencer, noted Muslim bigot and pseudo-intellectual, has taken to trolling those who choose (or those who appear to choose) to become Muslim. Lohan, who has led a life full of tabloid sensationalism, publicly expressed empathy towards Muslims (though her conversion is as of yet, unconfirmed) which in turn irked Spencer. In the view of Islamophobes, why would a white western woman want to give up her freedom? Doesn’t a modern, secular, post-Christendom West have all Logan, and any white women for that matter, could need? It would seem these attributes, Lohan’s femininity and whiteness, were what exercised so much outrage in Spender and continues to enrage the Islamophobe cottage industry. And it is for these two qualities that Islamophobia reveals itself to be nothing other than a modern articulation of white supremacy.
The intersection of whiteness and femininity are nothing new. In fact, it’s as old as America herself. Many Southern defenders of slavery were not only committed to theological interpretations of Christian scripture to justify slavery but many also fought against its abolition on the grounds of preserving white womanhood. White supremacists treated any attack on white womanhood to be an equally committed attack on the South as a whole (and vice versa). As W. J. Cash wrote in his The Mind of the South,
“…the central status that Southern woman had long ago taken up in Southern emotion — her identification with the very notion of the South itself. For, with this in view, it is obvious that the assault on the South would be felt as, in some true sense, an assault on her also, and that the South would inevitably translate its whole battle into terms of her defense.”2
Indeed, if we fast forward nearly seventy-five years, we find this ideology just as enduring as it was nearly a century ago. Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine black Christian parishioners, justified his massacre in part (as related to the whole of America!) to the preservation of white women, saying,
“I have to do it,” he reportedly said as he reloaded his gun five different times. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”3
The so-called Islamophobe industry is inseparable from white supremacy as we see above and it will only be dealt with accordingly and efficiently when it is called as such. Additionally, Spencer’s words reveal that he is not only committed to white supremacist ideology, but also to Orientalist ideology. Spencer is only able to see Muslims, those who empathize with them as well as those who might aspire to be Muslim, as irrevocably Other than him, and the West. As Walter G. Andrews comments in his review of Thierry Hentsch’s Imagining the Middle East,
“Westerners—have created our selves, our Western selves, by creating an Orient in relation to which we are the West.”4
Spencer has fallen into the all-too-familiar trap of the “clash of civilizations” trope. His objection to Lohan’s (speculated) embracing of Islam is not rooted in, for example, theological disagreements (these would be perfectly acceptable), but in a rejection that is committed to Islam being the total opposite of western civilization. In other words, if Lohan has become a Muslim, she has ceased to be a westerner. Spencer objects to her choice of finding other truths outside the truths as expressed in the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition (her words, as he quotes them, are, “to find another true meaning”). It would seem that Spencer is denying that Islam and, vis-a-vie Muslims, can neither hold nor express any truth-claims; that is the sole purview of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Would he also then deny truth-claims to the Chinese, the Japanese, or any other non-JC tradition? If his objection is rooted in so-called acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims, then not only would he be obliged to discount the Chinese and the Japanese in their truth-claims, but Spencer would also have to forfeit the Judeo-Christian tradition itself in its truth-claims as their have been uncountable acts of violence perpetrated against others (Native Americans, Asians, African-Americans, etc.). This brings us back full-circle to his support of white supremacy as a value system: whites/westerners, and only whites/westerners can commit acts of violence and still retain their humanity, worthiness and claims to truth and beauty.
What is also worthy of note is the difference between how the Islamophobe community has treated Lohan’s (speculated) conversion with that of pop-star, Janet Jackson’s. Pamela Geller, a fellow peer of Spencer’s in anti-Muslim circles, berates the new Muslim as a “has-been rock star” who has been “bought” by the Islamic world5. Geller’s words are ripe with many white supremacist and racist overtones. While Spencer berates Lohan for being duped, Geller’s racist assumptions, rather, assert that Jackson, who is African-American, is owned, not simply by her husband, but by the entire Muslim world. Why is Jackson understood here to have been “bought” where Lohan is not? The allusion to blacks as slaves cannot be missed in Geller’s rant, whereas Lohan is simply described as having lost “her moral compass … long ago”. Jackson, according to Geller, is simply fulfilling her slave-heritage whereas Lohan is guilelessly misinformed.
Spencer also commits one of the most common offenses of his ilk, which is that of intellectual sloppiness peddled as academic authority. Spencer has chosen to ignore the scholarship which challenges his claims on Qur’anic interpretation; Muslim as well as non-Muslim scholarship. Spencer reveals his ignorance of traditional Muslim scholarship as well as his arrogance in disregarding it when speaking to a number of verses in the Qur’an. One example, is his claim to the Qur’an sanctioning “wife-beating”6 as found in Chapter 4, verse 34. The command in question is, in the Arabic transliteration, “wa darabahunna”. Spencer chooses to ignore centuries of scholarship that adamantly declares that the verse is not a sanction for a man to beat his wife. And most strikingly of all, there cannot be found any evidence to support the Prophet beating any of his own wives, even though several were known to have spirited and defiant attitudes. Not only can such an account not be found in the defenders of the Prophet but also none can be found in the statements of his enemies, who spared no quarter or opportunity to badger or delegitimize the Prophet. What is more at work here again, is the same white supremacist and Orientalist ideologies at work which impugn non-whites and Muslims as inherently violent and sexually rapacious.
That Lindsay Logan finds value where Spencer finds devaluation only speaks to the reality that Islam itself confirms: not everyone is going to find truth in the Qur’an. That some white western women may come to see value in Islam undoubtedly rings the bells of alarm in white supremacist and Islamophobic camps. Claiming that, “Lindsay Lohan likely doesn’t know that any of this is in Islamic teaching” is nothing other than prejudice and absurdity masquerading in academic robes. It will take more than cherry picking a few Prophetic narrations out of context — out of historical understandings, to pass muster as legitimate scholarship. But Spencer’s words should rally Muslims to the call of addressing yet another incident of “credibility gap”, as coined by Dr. Sherman Jackson. For in the absence of our community striving to push for academic standards (which is not the same as everyone liking Islam or agreeing with Muslim truth-claims) we will continue to be impotent in the struggle for making our voices, and most importantly our intentions, not only heard, but understood.
To say that our thoughts are not entirely our own, as American Muslims, would be something of an understatement. There are tremendous forces being applied to our community: some political; others societal. Others yet, philosophical. And within all three of these are the proverbial carrots I’ve mentioned before, dangling in front of our eager faces. Of those carrots I want to speak on here is our attitude towards the poor, how it’s been influenced by aspirational whiteness and American mythology, and how we’ve adopted attitudes towards aspects of our own community, and the American poor in general, that is distasteful as well as undermining, both in terms of our perception in America and most importantly, in the sight of God.
Most American Muslims would fall within the designation of, as Amitai Etzioni puts it, “illiberal moderates”1, though given Etzioni penned this thoughts in 2007, I wonder how thoroughly the label “illiberal” would apply versus a more direct, “liberal”. Ruminations aside, my point is to say that a majority of American Muslims would in essence consider themselves moral conservatives. However, given the fact that ever increasing numbers of American Muslims are educated and reared in a liberal society, steeped in racism as well as American mythologies about the salvific nature of “hard work”, it is easy to see how those of a morally conservative stripe can still espouse assumptions about the poor, especially poor Blackamericans.
That immigrant Muslims were and continue to be baited by white aspirationalism is nothing unique to immigrants. Almost every racial and ethnic group that migrated to the States has had the same incentive to buy into whiteness. In fact, this goes a long way to explaining the attitude many American Muslims have towards the poor. Buying into whiteness has always been a package deal, requiring one to also adopt their attitudes towards the less fortunate, an attitude that vilifies them more often than it seeks to empathize and uplift the poor. And this tendency to impugn the poor is found in liberal as well as conservative political rhetoric in America. Whereas traditional conservative rhetoric would seek to ensconce black inferiority in genetics, liberals would often focus on the so-called cultural inferiority of blacks in America, nothing other than a veiled attempt to re-articulate “theories about racial differences in culture, values, and even intelligence”2. I conflate black and poor here because this is also part and parcel of whiteness and its conclusions about black folks in America, conclusions many immigrant Muslims willingly accept: blackness and poverty are one and the same; to be black automatically connotes poverty.
I would like to take a moment to highlight the flaws in these conflations and assumptions regarding race (blackness in particular) and poverty. First is to look at the source of poverty and disadvantage in the black community3. As Thomas Sugrue writes in his groundbreaking 1996 work, The Origins of the Urban Crisis,
“whites, through the combined advantages of race and residence, were able to hoard political and economic resources—jobs, public services, education, and other goods—to their own advantage at the expense of the urban [predominantly black] poor (brackets mine).”4
This glaring fact of a “forgotten history of actions” turns on its head the guilt and responsibility whiteness assumes black folks had in their own condition, asserting that poor blacks are the sole responsible party regarding their social condition. Immigrant Muslims, vis-a-vie aspirational whiteness, bought into this hook, line, and sinker. Ignored is the responsibility that “policymakers, large corporations, small businesses (particularly realtors), and ordinary citizens” had in the making of an urban black poor. While whites may be the original creators of this myth, immigrant Muslims have largely “reinforced racial and class inequalities” by towing the party line of whiteness and its attitudes towards Blackamericans. Ironically, American immigrant Muslims, and their descendants, are now having their narrative reshaped by similar external forces.
To help contextualize this phenomenon, so it is not to be misconstrued or mistaken for anti-immigrant Muslim bashing, I will point out some factors that led to this misstep. First that comes to mind is the American educational system itself. Given that many American Muslims, the children of immigrants, were educated in American public schools, this goes a long way as to why an alternative narrative was never presented to non-black American Muslims. The American public educational system has a long track record of having been complicit in forwarding a variety of myths that circumscribe the black experience in America. Far from being historically accurate, the public education system, as often a PR wing of American white supremacist society as not, has either ignored the plight of Blackamericans and how they have been the targets of American public and political policies that have led to the breakdown of the black family (a favorite talking point of liberals and conservatives alike), or have downplayed the impact of those policies on black American life in contrast to an ever more hopeful—and abstract—progressive rhetoric which seeks to pave over the injustices inflicted on the poor and black America, as inconvenient tragedies. Instead, the public education system often accentuates—in a deafening tone—American public policies that supposedly alleviated and overturned the centuries oppression directed towards blacks, like emancipation or the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1964. No mention is made of how whites, through mostly legal means, systematically privileged themselves of innumerable resources such as jobs, public services, education, to say nothing of the redlining practices that barred countless Blackamericans from homeownership, as one example, one of the principal pathways to wealth-building.
If the American public education system was inept, if not downright dishonest, then the private system of Islamic schools have been doubly worse. In fact, many so-called Islamic schools failed to not only provide adequate representational education reflecting American realities, they were inept at education overall. In addition to a subpar education, most American Islamic schools tended to be heavily immigrant in terms of their population. Given the aforementioned aspirational whiteness rife amongst American immigrant Muslim communities, it is no surprise that the children of these immigrant Muslims would not learn a counter narrative to the ones given them at customs.
It is clear to see the reason by which immigrant American Muslims bought into an attitude and view of blacks-as-poor as well as to the American poor period. However I am not satisfied to let our community off the hook. There has to also be something terribly decadent in this world view as well, for it is incontestable that the American Muslim community is generous. The question is: Who is the worthy recipient of American Muslim generosity? Why is it that American Muslims have been so willing to send money abroad and not to their neighbors. I know many will argue that this shift is changing and there may be some evidence of this, particularly in the younger generation. I sincerely hope this to be the case. However, my point in writing this is to also illustrate how the broad American Muslim communities conceptualization of poverty, who’s worthy and who’s not, also speaks volumes to the division between the so-called immigrant community and the Blackamerican Muslim community. I believe a significant portion of this contention is rooted in racist assumptions that American immigrant Muslims have bought into about the conflation of blackness and poverty as well as perspectives American liberals and conservatives have on poverty in general.
That many American immigrant Muslims bought into the inferiority of blacks (remember, for sake of argument here, blacks and the poor being synonymous) has been personally and communally confirmed through my engagement as a Blackamerican Muslim, as well as many other Blackamerican Muslims, in our community. Many believe these assertions (in large enforced, if not given to them, by whites) are justified, the proof before their very eyes when they gaze upon black (urban) America. In fact, this was a major contributing factor to me writing the essay in response to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s comments at the Reviving The Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto, December 2016. In his comments, Shaykh Hamza made reference to “black-on-black crime” as well as to the “breakdown of the black family” while making no reference to the external forces which have worked night and day for centuries to actualize this violence and breakdown. I make reference again to Shaykh Hamza because he represents to a large number of American immigrant Muslims, the paragon of piety and acumen. And yet, despite his personal and professional accomplishments, it revealed, as I said, “that religion is not an unconscious or automatic inoculation against the vicissitudes of racism”. In fact I would contend that Shaykh Hamza himself has been a victim of the American public education system and liberalism, one in which he was educated, the other he was reared in according to his own statements. The latter akin to what Sugrue calls “the strange career of New Deal liberalism that simultaneously empowered African Americans while perpetuating race-based inequalities in American life”5.
Another contributing factor to American immigrant Muslims buying into white-inspired notions of black inferiority is the promise of the American economy, more specifically to the faith that if they worked hard, as have so many other immigrants had done so (or so goes the myth) that their hard work would be rewarded, economically speaking. And to a large degree—the extent to which American immigrant Muslims were allowed to assimilate into whiteness—this proved to be true and thus confirming their “faith”, making it even more difficult for many American immigrant Muslims to, “see that racialized inequality [in America] is, at core, a political problem”6 and not one of inherent racial or cultural deficiencies.
It is from here, a faith in the promise of America through hard work and the social benefits available to American immigrant Muslims vis-a-vie whiteness that an attitude was adopted, an attitude contradictory to the view as articulated in the Qur’an. This new view in America tended to view the poor in general, and blacks in particular, through a lens of condemnation. A view and a belief deeply rooted in the white American psyche which articulated “that unemployment and poverty are the fault of poor people and their deviant attitudes and behaviors, not the consequence of macroeconomic changes that have gutted urban labor markets”7. It is because of this adopting of the one of the greatest of all white (conservative as well as liberal) mythologies in America (hard work) I believe American immigrant Muslims tend to donate to foreign causes. Many will counter that this is due to the nostalgia many American immigrant Muslims harbor for homelands, though in the face of recent tragic events in America, events which implicate American immigrant Muslims (certainly more than it does Blackamerican Muslims) specifically, the speed in which American immigrant Muslims were able to raise funds for the victims of San Bernardino, for instance, was astounding. Yet other urban organizations which also seek to fundraise for various charitable causes, causes that obviously would benefit poor black and brown populations (some of which are Muslim!), the same expediency and generosity is lacking. The obvious difference being that American Muslims are, one, not implicated in their poverty, and two, the above mentioned prejudices towards black, brown, and poor populations are in full effect.
I would like to revisit Sugrue’s assertion that Americans, rooted in the mythology of whiteness and hard work, fault the poor as their own worst enemies. For in this regard American immigrant Muslims are not alone. I have also witnessed many Blackamerican Muslims look upon their fellow black non-Muslims as “deviant”. It is here that I feel Muslims have also shown themselves to be susceptible to another American virus: pride. It is ironic that many Blackamerican Muslims will consider themselves superior to non-Muslim blacks while living in the same squalor. I am aware of certain arguments related to communal belonging and salvation in the Here-After but I cannot turn a blind eye to this indifferent attitude our community takes towards the poor, doubly so Blackamericans, who, as Dr. Sherman Jackson has attested, has been American Muslims’ “Banu Hashim”. Neither is it, in my opinion, religiously sustainable to harbor such condescending attitudes towards the poor given the Qur’an explicitly states that the poor have a right to a portion of our wealth,
“Truly, human beings are insatiable from the moment they’re created, for they’re worried when misfortune comes, yet greedy when times are good. However, it’s not the same with those who are inclined to prayer, who are diligent in their devotions and who know that there’s a claim on their wealth from the poor who ask and from the poor who are held back from asking.” Qur’an 70: 19-25
Similarly, the Prophetic traditions are filled with innumerable exhortations towards caring for the poor. This is but one example,
أَنَّهُ كَانَ يَقُولُ شَرُّ الطَّعَامِ طَعَامُ الْوَلِيمَةِ يُدْعَى لَهَا الأَغْنِيَاءُ، وَيُتْرَكُ الْفُقَرَاءُ، وَمَنْ تَرَكَ الدَّعْوَةَ فَقَدْ عَصَى اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ صلى الله عليه وسلم.
Abu Hurayrah relates that the Prophet said, “The worst food is that of a wedding banquet to which only the rich are invited while the poor are not invited. And he who refuses an invitation to a banquet disobeys Allah and His Messenger .” Sahih al-Bukhari, 5177
Returning to the point above, it is critical for American immigrant Muslims and their descendants as well as Blackamerican Muslims to know that issues related to the poor in America, to urban black American, cannot be explained away simply as the result of pathological behaviors, especially not because of the lack of work ethic, or other such irresponsible and racist jargon, without addressing the elephant in the room which is white supremacy, anti-black racism and the structural, political, and public policies that have led to the breakup of black families, economic disenfranchisement, as well as other forces external to black America and the greater American poor. But this change of attitude in our community will only have a chance of manifesting if American Muslim leadership becomes educated and trained on the realities that exist in America: its history, its policies, etc. And as can already be validated, such an educational endeavor will not merely be an act of piety or kindness, but will also provide the education, knowledge, training and means for all American Muslims to understand what is being enacted upon them, especially American immigrant Muslims, from a political and public policy point of view.
American Muslims must stand with the poor. Not because it makes good PR, not because it makes us feel good about ourselves or helps to pacify our guilt, but ultimately because it pleases God. It is the right thing to do. We must not abandon the poor in this country to a system and rhetoric that would have them believe that the cause and solution to all of their problems and woes start, and end, with them.
1: Etzioni, Amitai. Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, 2007.
2: Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1996. Pg., xxxvii. Read the intro here.
3: Poverty is not solely a black issue though the African-American community has doubtless been hard hit as well shall see through public policy.
4: Origins, xxxvi.
5: Origins, xxxvii.
6: Origins, xxxvi.
7: Origins, xxxvi.