Islamic Education – Not Just For Muslims Anymore [?]

I greatly enjoyed Dr. Sherman Jackson’s keynote address at the 2009 fundraiser for the Quba Institute. In it, he touched on some key, if not entirely new, points about the nature of education as it relates to Muslims. To a greater extent, his talk was focused at Blakcamerican Muslims and specifically the need for us to address the detriment or dystrophy of education in our ranks and religious proclivities. I have a number of thoughts regarding it as well as expounding on them, but that will have to wait for a few moments as I am in the thick of finals. In the meantime, a short article by Stephen Schwartz entitled, “What Johnny Needs to Learn about Islam”. It was published in the Weekly Standard [Volume 015, Issue 12]. The excerpt below followed by a link to the full article. Something to chew on.

“In the past, American textbooks were prone to two great pitfalls: Either they dealt with Islam superficially or they presented it in the manner preferred and promoted by well-funded defenders of Islamic extremism. A hallmark of that latter view is an emphasis on the unity of Islam, which is portrayed as simple, monolithic, and benign. The wide range of belief and practice between Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Islam, to name only the best-known variations, is downplayed, and the problems of Islam, especially violent jihad, are simply left out. Some of the current efforts at revising textbooks successfully avoid these mistakes.” Read the full article here.

Where To Turn To When Returning To Spirituality

 

There has been a great increase in interest in spirituality from the Muslim community over the last several years. Published manuscripts of this or that teacher, new translations of Ibn ‘Arabi’scosmology as well as lesser known, more esoteric authors have hit the shelves of book stores in waves. The Muslim readership in the English-speaking world are hungry for spiritual sustenance. But is this hunger being fed? That is the question I would like to ask.

This new call for methods and practices on Muslim spirituality have not been solely limited to print. Many neo-Traditional institutions have found themselves in demand, holding numerous seminars across the United States and Britain, calling for returns to a spiritual practice of Islam. And while I laud these efforts, I will illustrate how some of these mediums may not actually be accomplishing their goals: to help engender a spirit of God conscious amongst the rank and file believers. And finally, to go beyond just critique, I will try and offer a few meager suggestions myself.

It goes without saying that Islam is a religion that has a strong historicaland spiritual practice, what some may call Sufism, Tasawwuf, or mysticism, found in all corners of the earth, where ever Muslims have traveled to. It is linked with many of the great intellectual and philosophical figures in Muslim history (the aforementioned Ibn ‘Arabi, Mulla Sadra and of course, the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali). Many if not most of these spiritual traditions have survived up to the present day, from Africa to Asia, the Balkans to the Middle-East, in various turuq (plural of tariqah, or a Sufi brotherhood). And now that Islam has arrived on America’s shores, what will its spiritual tradition look like? Is there one at all? Proto-Islamic groups, such as the Nation of Islam, had their roots in a “holy protest” against white supremacist values and socialinjustices; spirituality was not a primary or even secondary focus of their experiences as Muslims (note: I am obviously aware of the doctrinal differences between orthodox Islam and the problematic theology of the NOI, but for the purposes of this article, I will refer to them nonetheless as Muslim here) in America. Following the popular demise of the NOI in the face of Muslims hailing from the historical Islamic world, again, we see most Muslims in America primarily concerned with existential matters: education, employment, assimilation. And while these are all necessary matters, they cannot sustain a community over the long haul alone. So why the recent interest in spirituality? And more importantly, how will it shape itself in this unique context, addressing the many various needs of the American Muslim community? These are some of the questions that beg many answers.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the last severalyears attending, photographing, and observing many religious functions of Muslims in America. Many of these, whose objectives are a call to spirituality and the return to a more focused spiritual life. The significance of this shift coming post 9/11 cannot be ignored, as it helps us to see who’s interested and why. To be more direct, calls for a return to spirituality have been championed primarily by immigrant-supported groups. By supported I mean groups either led by leaders or more importantly, support financially by immigrant Muslims. Many, though not all of these Muslims tend to come from more affluent backgrounds, having both more formal education than their Blackamericancounterparts as well as the disposable income to support such groups and even the human capitalto volunteer and assist in their implementation. This should not be thought of as a critique versus merely an observation. In fact, it is because of the lack of both economic and human capital that many indigenous [and here I am referring to Blackamerican] institutions have yet to fully take flight. So the question I ask myself is in what way, in what role, will indigenous Muslims have a role in shaping the future of the development of spiritual practices. But before attempting to answer such a question, first we must look at what are the current practices and trends on the ground and what does the triage call for.

Like any thing else in the American Muslim experience, divergent groups will have divergent needs. The spiritualneeds and practical implementation of any such developed practices will have to vary from community to community. The trials and tribulations of immigrant Muslims may indeed be very different from those of BlackamericanMuslims, regardless if they are low-income urban Blacks or educated, upwardly mobile. It is the different histories of the two communities that will drive (or ought to be) and dictate the spiritual needs of the communities. What I believe should be paid more attention to is that bothcommunities have a real need for such a return. And while this has been felt by the immigrant Muslim community, in large, this has either been ignored by the Blackamerican population, especially in urban settings, where there is a palpable mistrust of such practices as deviant, or not fully articulated into a “need”, and thus practice. But there has been a small groundswell of interest in more independent-minded BlackamericanMuslims, many of whom I have been in contact with and have discussed this very same topic. For them, the question is not “if”, in terms of spiritual practice, but “how” and “by whom”, and in what way. Many of us have toured the travel circuit, attended the lectures and workshops but have yet to be left with a feeling of a workable plan. A functional spirituality that gives meaning to their private lives as Muslims. That bring them closer to God.

With two possible tracks articulated, the question now turns to the institutions themselves. How are they, if at all, prepared to deal with the multiplicity of backgrounds, cultural proclivities and the like of the above groups. The traveling workshop has left many with just a taste of what might be possible, but with no solid or tangible means to pursue these practices further. Many have stated they do not feel they can learn or accomplish much in a one-day or two-day talk, often of which the topics seem more like a talk show format than something truly topical. Should we be asking more and/or different formats of dissemination from our Islamic higher institutions of learning? Many would seem to think so. And given that time and money are of limited supply, many of these attendees feel that their money, time, and resources could be put to better use for better results.

To be certain, a great deal of this difficulty is brought about by modern life itself, which at many times can seem and feel antithetical to the betterment of the human being. Time constraints, inflation, taking more to obtain less, all add to the stress and detracted interaction of not only Muslims from one another, but to all peoples caught in this bind. And while the Internet has made the dissemination of information doubly more proficient, it has yet to prove to be truly capable to mimicking the experience of bona-fide human involvement. In short, both short seminars and web casts are poor substitutions for proper teachers and real companionship (suhbah, the word from which the word Sahabah (the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وسلم companions) is derived). And it may be true that the greater aspects of spirituality are those demons we all rankle with on the inside, there is also an outer aspect that involves companionship with our common man. And in our case specifically, with other Muslims. I myself saw the proof of this when interviewing many of the attendees at conferences such as MANA and ISNA or even talks by Zaytuna. They all attested to the fact that the greatest benefit from those conferences wasn’t the talks, wasn’t the shopping at the bazaars, but it was just the honest-to-goodness social interaction with other like-minded Muslims. I believe this to be step one in commencing our journey towards a healthy spiritual practice. We must come to know one another. And there is plenty of evidence that we, as an American Muslim collective, still do not know one another as well as we should.

“O’ mankind! Without a doubt we created you from a single pair of man and woman and made you of various sorts and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” al-Hujaraat, 13.

As for the second step of this journey, we, both the rank and file and the administrators of such institutions, must constantly ask, “is this serving our purpose?” Is this what we need? Along with a new generation of imams, who will need to be trained in more than just Qur’anicrecitation, our next generation of scholars and community educators must need be multifaceted, trained in many areas of expertise, capable of on-spot cultural analysis, assessing that the community needs, what they’re facing, and how best to prepare them for the world in which they not only live in, but for one they want to live in, and of course, for the life to come. Perhaps in there lies a hope for divergent communities to come together, utilize and celebrate the genius of our communities, and not just sending our best and brightest off to study medicine and engineering. I encourage many of my Blackamericanbrethren to take a second look at the intellectual and spiritual history and tradition of Islam and not right it off as just “bid’ah“. With all of the difficulties that Blackamericans face, especially those coming out of urban backgrounds, we need to deliver to them an Islam that is more than simply an conglomerate of rules and regulations. More intelligent ways of saying “halal” and not just “haram”, without giving up or into the demands of the dominant culture and yet not completely disassociating ourselves from it. Without a doubt, we need a return to spirituality, but we can ask for and receive better.

And God knows best.

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].

An American Muslim In Post-Christendom

As of late I have been given over to thoughts pertaining to Christianity and Christendom [definitions forthcoming] and how it has affected myself as well as society, in my opinion, on such topics as cosmology, God-concept and how we think about religion as a whole. These thoughts come from my thirty four years, sans three of four years of early childhood, in observance of how I have come to think of God as well as the many interactions and reactions that I have witnessed people have when conversing about God and religion.

First, I should introduce the notion of Christianity and Christendom as two very separate and distinct entities. One does not equate the other. In fact, I hope to point out some similarities between the evolution of Christendom out of Christianity and such neologisms as Islamic this or Islamic that [especially things like “Islamic society”, etc]. Recent research into early Christian Gnostic literature has shed an amazing amount of light on early notions of what constituted Christian belief, both in terms of exegesis and practice. This bears a striking resemblance to early Muslim thought regarding creed and practice as well. They both share a commonality that can best be summed up as “agree to disagree”. In other words, there was no single, overriding authority that could claim a hegemonic orthodoxy and excommunicate others as heretical. How funny it is that we should be living at a time when such early questions should come around again – what remains is how will we answer them. Shall we answer them as the Early Communities did, fostering a real sense of diversity or inclusion, or give way to narrow-minded viewpoints [yes, I am avoiding fundamentalist here as I believe this word has been striped of any linguistic meaning given the media’s indulgent misuse of it]. Time will tell.

Like it or not, many of us here in America, and certainly in Europe, have gown up in the shadow of Christendom. Much of our understanding of God and religion has come from what we have absorbed passively from this environment. Like a sponge, we soaked up what lay around us, not giving too much thought as to whether it was worth digesting or not. This should not be thought of as something base or vile but rather the function of culture. One of the primary functions of culture is that we don’t have to think, process, and answer every minute detail of our lives. It is always on auto pilot, filtering and processing all that we come into contact with, especially in our formative years. This cultural process is conceptual as well as highly iconic and visual. For example, whether many people believe it or not, the classic Italian paintings that depict God as an old white man in the clouds reaching down to Adam has been exceeding potent in informing many of us on our visualization of God. In fact, through many conversations with people who are atheists or non-religious, many of their verbal objections have included rejection of such “ridiculous notions”. But we should be careful to not cloud our judgment that what we see now in a sort post-Christendom should not be taken part and parcel for Christianity as a whole. This same cautioning should be applied to so-called Islamic or my preference, Muslim societies. History has proven to be a powerful matchmaker for politics and religion. Constantin’s embracing of Christianity as the imperial religion of the Roman empire was done so at the exclusion of many other teachings and interpretation’s Christianity. This process has been repeated time and again across the globe and throughout time and including almost all religious traditions.

It is certain, that in Europe, Christianity developed in a vary iconic manner; meaning that the visualization of God and the Bible affected religious thought – an affect that we have inherited right down to today. It has shaped and defined the conversation of God/religion in our socio-cultural context to an extent far greater than we are aware of. As church historian Hugh McLeod puts it, “most Christians learnt and practiced their faith in the context of ‘Christendom’”. McLeod continues, “That is, they lived in a society where there were close ties between the leaders of the church and those in positions of secular power, where the laws purported to be based on Christian principles, and where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, every member of society was assumed to be a Christian.” [Caputo, John D. and Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pg. 4.].

So why all this talk on Christianity from an American Muslim convert? Well, to be sure, these very same perceptions played a part in my own conversion to Islam, even if it were more passive than vehemently active. To be certain, I was not thinking about the Sistine Chapel when I wandered into the mosque one fateful day but nonetheless, such iconic renderings by Michelangelo impacted my choice to refute such concepts of an “old white man in the clouds”. And if I had these experiences I am bound to think others may have had them as well. Indeed, such “rejections” are not the domain of Muslim converts alone. I have had several conversations with other Christians who have sought out earlier renditions of Christ’s teachings that predate all of the great Italian painters. I have found their journey akin to many American Muslim converts who, usually attracted more to Sufi-style teachings, have looked to return to an early understanding of Islam, one that is uncluttered by the intervention of institutional authority, be it state sponsored or a school of thought that has wedded itself with a state supporter, much akin to the Constantinian edict which set up a particular interpretation of Christianity as the orthodoxy whilst banning others as heretical [it should be confused that I am against a school of thought in any way as I adhere to the Maliki school of Muslim thought]. In many ways, this process of establishing orthodoxy can be said to be the nemesis of modern day diversity. For in the face of orthodoxy, how can there be room for multiple, valid interpretations?

There is much talk these days about an Islamic reformation. That the Islamic world is in an upheaval and much like its Christian counterpart, all of this blood and conflict can be attributed to this transformation. While I do not find this opinion to be completely baseless I am critical of the thought of simply seeing the historical struggle of Muslim thought, growth, and development through the lens of Christianity. Indeed, I think much of the problem of misunderstanding Islam on the part of non-Muslims is this tendency to see Islam not for what it is but for how it is or isn’t Christianity. This misunderstanding can certainly be linked to the above mentioned issues such as iconic visualization and residual understanding of living in a post-Christendom society. I do believe that Muslims are in a state of flux and change. What seems to make this seem so dramatic is that Islam and Muslims have been thrust on to the world stage by process of media attention. The idea that Islam as a religion and Muslims as various people have been some sort of sleeping giant that has suddenly chosen to cease its slumber is as clumsy as it is unobservant. Modernity is a talented trickster and can often seem to pull rabbits out of our hats. To the contrary, Islam and Muslim thought have been in a constant historical flux since the death of the Prophet. This reformation is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, from Malaysia to Yemen. From the Xinjian province in China to Detroit Michigan, Muslims have not simply been victims of history but have been drivers of this vehicle as well. In this case, the tree does make a sound in the forest. The question is not where there is some one to see it fall but rather who do we give importance to as the observer. Spock’s comment to the marine biologist in Star Trek IV sums of the falling of the tree: when she asks how he knows if Gracie (the humpback whale) is pregnant. She insists, “Nobody knows that.” Spock’s reply was, “Gracie knows”.

Modern interfaith dialogs seem to be stagnated at a simple, “can’t we all just get along”. What seems sad to me is the great wealth of experience that other religious traditions have to offer. Much of the early Gnostic approaches bear a clear resemblance to much of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has oft-repeated in his many publications and speeches. That true diversity isn’t a clumsy redefining of diversity as uniformity but rather the real possibility of coexisting and even socially supporting theories that may seriously contradict one’s own core beliefs. It is my sincere hope that more American Muslims will turn their thoughts inward and reflect on our very unique and rich experiences growing up in a post-Christendom society. And that even though we’ve chosen another path to pleasing God, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That there are still viable opportunities to engage other communities and to really add something meaningful to the social discussion on religion.

And God knows best.

Thoughts on Hellfire and the Influence of Christianity on Islamic Thought.

Earlier this week I received a very pleasant correspondence from a fellow blogger who was able to glean something useful from this Blog (thank God! I feel like I’m getting carpal tunnel sometimes…). In return, I visited his blog, where in his post he discussed some “issues” with Hell/Hellfire. It is a topic I have been meaning to post. So here it is. I’d advise reading his post first and then the following might be understood in context.

Thank you, Michael! I have had something of a writer’s block for a month or so and this really got my juices flowing.

Enjoy,

Michael,

Thanks for the kind words. It has given me much food for thought. I will leave a few crumbs that feel out my proverbial mouth here for you to also chew on (ok…, I’m laughing now as that seems disgusting that you’d chew on crumbs that fell out my mouth but I won’t edit it anyways!!).

One of the points that you made that gave me something to think about and in truth, has been something I’ve wanted to write a new Post on is this concept of Hell and Damnation. It is very difficult to speak on any for of religion in the English-speaking world without also importing some indelible stamp of Christianity on that dialog. What I am saying, in a sense is, that if one wants to talk about religion, that talk is heavily influenced by the very Christian notion of what does or doesn’t constitute religious thought. So, in my opinion, much of the religious thought from the English-speaking world is conducted by how Christianity (mostly Catholicism and Protestantism) sees religion. Buddhism or Islam is not comprehended in how it functions as a Cosmic-processing system but rather in a more subtle way in which ways its proclivities differ from Christianity as a marker. This should not be understood as a knock against Christianity. Indeed, it should be a note in our collective psyche as to how deeply ingrained Christianity influences our understanding of religion – this especially goes for practitioners of non-Christian faith systems!

Much of Islamic thought from the English-speaking world (meaning both from non-Muslim academics and Muslims alike) tend to fall within these invisible guidelines of religious dialog. My long winded example is Hell/Hellfire. While my aim is not to white wash the Qur’anic take on Hellfire, it is in my opinion that these verses are not meant to solely “frighten” the listener but rather, in keeping with other topics in the Qur’an, they are meant to over-awe the reader/listener. In fact, I believe the notion of God in Islamic thought, from “fundamentalist” to esoteric Sufi thought, is/was originally meant to over-awe. Indeed, through much of my own personal research in pre-Modern Muslim texts, one can find a lot of proof for this understanding (I might even take a stance that this was the original position that God intended with much of the Qur’an but that’s another post). But the influence of modern Catholic/Protestant thought, which does paint a very specific picture of Hell tends to define for us this topic in way that it’s very difficult to approach or have a differing understanding than that which we have culturally absorbed. If one takes the time to read, and read carefully (and perhaps my understanding is heavily influenced by my returning to the original Arabic and its 7th Century linguistic understanding), then one may arrive at an understanding similar to this: shock and awe vs. cringing and fear. Am I making Hell into a fantasy realm? No. It is not my agenda to make a more appealing version of the Qur’an, but rather, it is an understanding that done through trying to step back out of my own cultural milieu and viewing it without tinted glasses.

Thanks, Michael,

And God knows best…