Are We Dropping the Baton?

Much of social media can be a slosh of one-liners: a blur of detached quotes and images. Total chaos. But once in a while a post comes along that does make you stop and reflect. The Islam & the Third Resurrection Facebook group posited the following question:

“Why does it seem like the majority of all the black American Muslims are 55 and up? Why weren`t they able to successfully pass Islam on to their children?”

This is a prescient question, one deserving our undivided attention. And while not wanting to universalize, this also reflects a comment I made during my interview with sister Heather Laird when asked about the differences, if any, between the challenges facing the Blackamerican/indigenous American-Muslim community and the immigrant community:

“It’s like a different album cover but the songs are still the same.”

This question cannot be answered in any single, simple term. It’s as complicated as the folks who made the problem itself. I tried to address some of this in the interview (timeline about 16:00) but if I were to begin an attempt to answer this question, it would be an accusation against the older generation that they thought “it was all about them”. They largely built nothing for succeeding generations: very few institutions by Blackamerican Muslims (masajid, schools, other spaces) and dysfunctional mosques and schools by immigrants. In both cases, the few places that were built were devoid of any purpose and back by little if any human capital.

Additionally, these two communities have stifled any and all creativity in their children. As a result, Islam was mainly reduced to a reactionary theology, devoid of real character building, absent of moral conviction, that painted God as little more than a great big cop in the sky, ready to punish anyone who drove 65 in a 55 mph zone, with their pants too long, their beards too short, and the hijabs not wrapped tight enough (or absent all together!). Our inclination to protest (something present in both the Blackamerican experience as well as the immigrant one) has gotten the better of us: we protest to the point that we even proverbially picketed our children. And with all of the alluring secular options to just bounce out and live lives as “good people”, they were failed to be led to see how, in any way, that religion adds value to life.

So let us ask God for guidance, to come to our senses, and try to right the ship before it’s too late for us all.

Chaplain Chats – Islam and Blackamerica

The following are notes from a talk I gave as part of the Chaplain Chats series on February 21st, 2012, at the University of Pennsylvania. You may listen to the audio here:

Why the apparent connection between Blacks and Islam? What does Islam deal with in terms of Black America?

  • The continued struggle of Blackamericans to “settle upon a self-definition that is functionally enabling and sufficiently “authentic”;
  • The power and influence of white supremacy and its value system as a “seminal force of the contemporary global cum American sociopolitical order;
  • The hegemony of modern, Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims.
  • Blacks relate to Islam as blacks [i.e., “oppressed people”] and there is nothing unique or interesting about the link between BAM’s and Islam.
  • Blackamericans often saw a liberating agent in Islam that was not there for them in Christianity. Ironically, it was not present for Muslims living in the Muslim world either. The following is from the South African Muslim Judicial Council during the reign of apartheid:

“Has the [apartheid] government forbidden the worship of Allah? Has the government closed down or ordered the demolition of any mosque in a declared white area? If our government has ordered our Muslims to desert the faith of our forefathers, then our ulema would have been the first to urge us to resist, even to the death.” Slavery, Civil War and Salvation by Daniel L. Fountain.

What is Black Religion? Def: “a pragmatic, folk-oriented, holy protest against anti-black racism, an orientation shared with many, though not all, Blackamerican Christians and Jews.

Challenges of Islam & Black Religion

  • Post-immigration, many Blackamerican Muslims founded it difficult [and still do!] if unable to address their cultural, political and social realities in ways that were effective in an American context and simultaneously recognized as validly “Islamic” on the other.
  • The proclivities of immigrant Muslims who were assumed to be the inheritors of a “super-tradition of historical Islam”, rendering all of their cultural practices as normative if not desirable.
  • Such norms as the thawb have been subsumed under the “Sunnah”: والقوعد من النساء التى لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناح أن يضعن ثيبهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who are past child-bearing age and no longer have any hope of getting married, there is nothing wrong in their removing their outer clothes, provided they do not flaunt their adornments” Qur’an, 24: 60.
  • “America … produced the distinctly racial understanding of difference.” “American whiteness has always reigned as the most prized public asset a citizen could own.”
  • 1965: U.S. immigration law renders Muslim immigrants [Middle East/SEA] as legally “white”.

False Universals

  • Universalisms are ultimately neither as transcendent nor as enabling as they might like to be imagined. Such universals only serve the psychological and or material interests
  • Human rights, freedom, beauty, good, “Islamic”.
  • FU: to speak in universal terms but from a particular cultural, ideological or historical point of view. “’Human,’, ‘Islam,’ ‘justice,’ and the like are all taken, thus, to represent not particular understandings but ontological realities that are equally esteemed and apprehended by everyone, save the stupid, the primitive, or the morally depraved.”
  • To give obeisance or risk castigation.
  • Immigrant Islam “universalizes the particular”.

In the collapse of these heterodox groups in the face of historical Islam, most Blackamerican Muslims were forced into retreat, having no option other than to concede the authority immigrant Muslims possessed because of their lack of mastery over the Sunni Classical Tradition.

Taking Ownership: the function of the heterodox groups

  • They transformed—if not the creed certainly the “idea” of—Islam for Blackamericans and allowed them to lay claim to it in a way that historical/Traditional Islam had/has as of yet to do.
  • This, more than anything else, I believe what has grafted Islam onto the broader psyche of Blackamericans, rendering Islam a valid religious choice amongst the possibilities of Blackamericans.
  • In the collapse of these heterodox groups in the face of historical Islam, most Blackamerican Muslims were forced into retreat, having no option other than to concede the authority immigrant Muslims possessed because of their lack of mastery over the Sunni Classical Tradition.

Blackamerican Muslim History

  • First Resurrection: from slave times to 1975 with the death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
  • Second Resurrection: from Elijah’s death until the divided leadership of Farrakhan and W.D. Muhammad.
  • Third Resurrection: the mastery of the Sunni discourse. The 3R seeks to “thwart the power and pretense of false universals”. Still waiting.

Lessons & Take Aways

Why/how did Islam fail to convey itself to modern Blacks unhampered/unmolested?

“The argument goes that Africans, unable to speak one another’s languages or being of rival cultures and living together on disparate, isolated farms, could neither fully maintain nor successfully pass on their traditional cultures to future generation.  Therefore, with each passing generation, more and more of the slaves’ African heritage disappeared or became incomprehensible to their American-born children.  Whites, seeing African cultures as uncivilized or the breeding ground for rebellion, accelerated this process of cultural disintegration by prohibiting most public displays of the slaves’ ancestral customs.” Slavery, Civil War and Salvation by Daniel L. Fountain.

Scarcity of resources available to Blacks led to the decline of African religions [Islam included].

In regards to assimilation [versus indigenization]:

“Given the increased vulnerability of Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, there is a perduring temptation among many immigrant Muslims to seek acceptance by mainstream America in exchange for a domesticated Islam that can only support the state and the dominant culture and never challenge these. This entails an attempt to identify Islam with the proclivities and sensibilities of the dominant group. On such a reconciliation, however, Blackamerican Muslims who feel penalized, threatened, or devalued by the dominant culture are effectively called upon, now in the name of Islam, to abandon protest and the legitimate aspects of Black Religion and acquiesce to the indignities implied by white supremacy.”