The American Muslim Journey – Reflections By A Former Student of Knowledge

isa-dixonThe following essay is a reflection on the phenomenon of going abroad to study Islam by a close friend of mine, Isa Abdul Haqq Dixon. A Philadelphia native, Isa gives us some important food for thought on how and why many of us feel compelled to go abroad to study, as he puts it, “REAL Islam”. I hope his words will serve as both a wake-up call to those who feel it compulsory to study abroad in order to gain “authentic” knowledge. It is also my hope to spark a rejuvenated conversation that will provide inspiration to all of us to realize that Islam can be learned, and more importantly, lived!, right here in America. Enjoy,

By Isa Abdul Haqq Dixon

As an American Muslim, most of us have these desires to go and study Islam abroad in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the religion. I had those desires ten years ago and decided to pursue them by going to study in Damascus, Syria. Going to Syria opened up my eyes to the reality of being a black man in the world. I remember when I was talking to Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller and he said to me, “If you are patient then you will benefit tremendously”.  This is a true statement, but one has to ask himself, is it really worth it. I never knew how hard we had it as black people living in the past until I went overseas to study. Sometimes people ask me, “How was it living in those countries?” My response to them is usually, “It was like being in Birmingham, Alabama in 1965”. In truth it wasn’t all bad because I was actually afforded the opportunity to study with some great ‘ulama’. I also met some really nice people, the majority being from the States or England. After experiencing this culture shock, I came back to the states only to begin contemplating those same desires once again. This time I thought to myself, “Maybe that was only Syria that made me feel that way. I am sure Egypt will not be like this”. So me being a so-called student of knowledge, I purchased my tickets and moved my family to Egypt to pursue REAL Islam! Or at least this is what I thought foolishly once again, only to experience the same type of behavior from the Muslim world. While it was not quite as racist as Syria, I have to be honest and say that religiously, it wasn’t as beneficial as Syria either.

As time went past I made the decision to return to the States for good. Upon returning I found it was not as easy to find a job as it was a couple of years ago when I left. The requirements were changing within my industry and in order to compete, I had to return to college and complete additional academic studies. Now as a man, who has matured and has taken the blinders off, I can sit back and ask myself the question honestly, “Was it really worth it”? I would have to be perfectly honest and say, “no”. Going overseas to study, I believe, can be a beautiful experience for someone who is young that has his or her parents supporting them along the way. But for someone who is older, and has some major responsibilities, it is not the best road to take. Ironically, I found that in going overseas ended up studying the same information that I already learned here in the States. The only difference was that I was hearing it in Arabic. I began to realize that many people only go overseas because they want to rack up names of shuyukh on their resumes or they just cannot financially hack it living in the States.  I found that the same issues that we have here in America, Muslims also have over there. The problem is that many of us don’t speak Arabic well enough that we don’t even realize what is going on over there.

Living abroad as a student is not the same as living abroad as a working man or woman. One simply does not reap the same benefits. I feel it is time for us as American Muslims to stop these delusions of grandeur, especially for us men, on the need to validate ourselves by going overseas; those days are gone. Gone too are the days of people standing in line waiting to hear scholars talk about Islam in Madison Square Garden or when people would purchase Islamic lectures on tape at the store, blasting them out their car window, riding in their cars. It is time for us to grow up and realize that Islam can be learned anywhere. One does not need to go thousands of miles away from home to study about madhabs or tasawwuf.  As American Muslims, particularly African-Americans, we don’t have much financially going for us and thus must constantly rely on immigrant Muslims to build our religious institutions and environments for us. In essence, we have excluded ourselves from the building process of Islam in America by spending our formative years either overseas or in dreams of doing so. We have to be honest with ourselves: ”If you are not a student of knowledge here, then you will not be one elsewhere”. To build a Muslim community requires Muslim scholars, doctors, sociologists, computer programmers, teachers, accountants, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, lawyers and a whole cadre of other skills and talents. Dr. Sherman Jackson put is best when he said,

“We need all professions to build a strong functional Muslim community”.

Let’s start practicing the religion and stop preaching it. If you cannot help build a community where you are, move somewhere else and help them do it there. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf advised us,

“Don’t wait for an event to change. You have to change now”.

The reality is either you are going to be part of the solution or part of the problem. You decide where you stand!

Sufism for Non-Sufis? Reactions from Ibn Taymiyya

A quick look at how Ibn Taymiyyah, often dubbed as “Shaykh al-Islam,” looked at Sufism. As Dr. Jackson demonstrates, he was not opposed to Sufism, lock, stock and barrel, as many who would use his name to refute Sufism might imagine. Sufism for Non-Sufis is part of the Summer Reading List 2012.

Thinking Islam Anew

Muslims often imagine society’s ills as society-minus-Islam. This results in a reductionist understanding of modernity that often disarms Muslims of the very tools that could help navigate the waters of modern life. They think in Utopian ideologies where the solution is imagined to be society-plus-Islam, where neither the former nor the latter are conceived as entirely different ecologies altogether. For more as well as some thoughts on devotional education regarding Traditional Islam, listen to the podcast below.

A couple of quotes from today’s reading of Postman’s Technopoly that grabbed my attention:

“Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?”

“A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?”

Extra Reads

Neil Postman’s book, Technopoly, is on the Summer Reading List 2012.

Cordoba Academy.

SeekersGuidance.

SunniPath, which now appears to be Qibla.

How to Contribute to the Ummah of Muhammad

Here’s a short podcast on an issue I feel is facing Muslims, particularly the Muslim youth and converts: how to contribute to the Ummah of Muhammad s without having to dedicate one’s life solely to acquiring so-called Traditional knowledge. Muslims seem to either pursue careers and academic interests that have no conversation or relevance to their religious tradition, or they go to the opposite end and want to, as a friend of mine says, “sit in the masjid all day long.” This podcasts discusses this topic.

Further Reading

Dive! – a documentary on food waste.

 

More on Time: A Khutbah

In my previous khutbah, I discussed the importance of time and time management, as well as time as an object, so that we might think about the “times” we live in. All the above falls under an even larger umbrella, and that is the umbrella of religious literacy. To know and understand time and its importance to the Muslim is to increase one’s awareness of God and increase one’s understanding of Islam and its objective with mankind, God willing.

To step back a moment for before addressing the topic of time head on, I would like to bring our attention to the role that scholarship and learning plays in developing a sense of time. We often hear new buzz words such as “tradition”, both upper and lower cases being used. It is not my desire to contest the existence of an “Islamic tradition” [though I prefer Muslim as it is not quite so atemporal/ahistoric as Islamic], rather quite the opposite. But in order for that tradition to be operational, we must examine our relationship with it. I thought it would best to examine the meaning of tradition, as it relates to Muslims, by looking at it through the prism of another scenario. Below is a quote from the 19th/20th century philosopher, John Dewey:

When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human condition under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.

— From John Dewey’s, Art As Experience. This speaks volumes to me on modern Muslims understanding of pre-modern law [Shari’ah].

If we were to substitute Dewey’s “art” for our “tradition”, we can begin to imagine some of the problems and challenges we are faced with, many of which are by our own hands. Indeed, “Traditional Islam” has attained the status of “classic”, from which it has become quite stagnant and “isolated” from our very own lives. No longer a means of tools by which we interpret and navigate our present reality, “Traditional Islam” has become an operational substitute, relieving us of the burden of having to act, think, and behave as responsible, God-conscious Muslims. This neologism is complete with an aesthetic appearance: one’s burden to think and act with traditional morals and values is even further removed by simply allowing us to dress “traditionally”, even when most of us have no historical relationship with such modes of dress.

Dewey’s words are even more relevant in this passage:

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.

— John Dewey, from Art As Experience. Again, the analogy that can be drawn between Islamic law/studies and what Dewey calls “art” here is intriguing.

I find Dewey’s “artistic objects” a fine substitute for our “traditional Islam” as a means of diagnosing a crippling condition I see prevalent amongst Muslims today: the operational ability for Muslims to think proactively and creatively has been “separated” from our “conditions” and “experiences”; a proverbial wall has been erected around “tradition” that has the opposite intended effect: It renders the significance of that tradition “opaque” to use. We can neither see through it, into it, nor around it. Instead of a tool to a broader means, it has been supplanted as the end. Once “remitted” to this separate realm, our primary means of acting in accordance with our reality that will both please God and make our lives easier, is “cut off” with the “materials and aims” of each and every human [read Muslim] effort, undergoing and achievement. It will be necessary to see the pitfall in this so that our aims and efforts at making responsible and intelligent uses of time are not for naught.

Key Words

  • لهو/to amuse, dally, waste time, engage in excessive pleasure.
  • غفلة/heedlessness
  • زين – تزيين/to embellish, adorn, make-believe, sham, pretense, shave/put on makeup/زينت نفسها
  • عمل و أعمال و فعل و أفعال/Actions [af’al] can have the ability to take on acts of worship but they can also but non-acts of worship whereas Deeds [a’mal] have a distinct inclination towards acts of worship as they are tied to the “intention” to do so:
  • إن بطش ربك لشديد – انه هو يبدئ ويعد و هو الغفور الودود – ذو العرش المجيد – فعال لما يريد
  • قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم إنما الأعمال بالنيات و إنما لكل امرئ ما نوى
  • و هم على ما يفعلون بالمومنين شهود و ما نقموا منهم إلا أن يومنوا بالله العزيز الحميد الذي له الملك السماوات والأرض و الله على كل شيء شهيد

Time marches on, marches towards us, but how attuned are we to this fact?

اقترب للناس حسابهم و هم في غفلة معرضون (۱) ما ياتيكم من ذكر من ربهم محدث إلا اِسْتَمَعوه و هم يلعبون (۲) لاهية قلوبهم و أسّروا النجوى الذين ظلموا هل هذآ إلا بشر مثلكم أفتاتون السحر و أنتم تنصرون (٣) قال ربى يعلم القول في السماء و الأرض و هو السميع العليم (٤)

Mankind’s Reckoning has drawn very close to them, yet they heedlessly turn away (1). No fresh reminder comes to them from their Lord without their listening to it as if it was a game (2). Their hearts are distracted. Those who do wrong confer together secretly, saying, ‘Is this man anything but a human being like yourselves? Do you succumb to magic with your eyes wide open?’ (3). Say: ‘My Lord knows what is said in heaven and earth. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ (4). [Qur’an: 21: 1-5

ألهاكم التكاثر حتى زرتم المقابر كلا سوف سيعلمون ثم كلا سيعلمون

You are distracted in excessive accumulation until you visit the graves!

In the tafsir of these verses, it can mean that you either do so all your life until you “visit the grave” or that you take competition/bragging/مفاخرة to such an extent, you have to go and visit the graves of your dead as did Banu Sahm and Banu ‘Abd al-Manaf. We must be careful with what we do with our time. We will be held accountable.

Time is also critical to Muslim development. We have to not only be concerned about “impending doom”, but with how we spend our time preparing for that doom. As I mentioned in the khutbah, fear as it is discussed in the Qur’an, is not like Hollywood fear, where the victim of anxiety or dread is rendered immobile, but instead is meant to propel us into action. Actions that will bring about a favorable outcome on the Qiyamah. And while we must spend time learning and studying in all manner of so-called secular topics so that we can have a trade or a profession, so too we must spend time learning and knowing our religion so that we have a broad-based understanding of life’s function and role, not simply to memorize the rights and wrongs of Islam. This latter part is critical to the development of a healthy Muslim identity, something to which Muslim thinker Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas discusses in one of his works:

Knowledge of the truth about the world of empirical things can indeed be achieved and increased through inquiry made by generations of mankind. But true knowledge has an immediate bearing on the individual man as it pertains to his identity and destiny, and he cannot afford to suspend his judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations.

Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future by Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas.

Al-Attas’ acknowledgement of the role that sacred [here I am fine with the use of “traditional” so long as it’s understood as an operational imperative, not a laundry list] knowledge plays in the development of the Muslim is crucial. But I think just as important is his observation of the “immediate bearing” such knowledge can and should have on a Muslim. I see this as particularly valuable to the convert, who did not grow up in an “Islamic environment”, and is in need of such knowledge to be immediately beneficial to their growth and development as a Muslim. Convert or otherwise, the lesson here is none of us can, as Shaykh al-Attas says, “afford to suspend [our] judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations”. In other words, time is of the essence and we must all efforts to acquire such knowledge a priority in our lives, one way or another.

Time passing and making actions seem good to them.

تالله لقدَ اَرسلنا إلى أُمَمٍ من قبلك فزين لهم الشيطان أعمالهم فهو وليهم اليومَ و لهم عذاب اَليم

By Allah, We sent Messengers to communities before your time, but Shaytan made their actions seem good to them. Therefore today he is their protector. They will have a painful punishment. [Qur’an: 16: 63]

It is a real temptation to make one’s deeds and actions fair seeming. But as I noted above in the key words section, zayyana/زين – تزيين is thematically connected to the embellishment and self-delusion of deeds. Its root has much in common with the following actions: to adorn, make-believe, as well as to put on makeup, all of which are a means of deception, one way or another. We may not like to think of it [and I am not starting a fiqh war – for more on beauty and makeup, please see or listen to Ustadh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali’s lecture, The Fiqh of Beauty] but when we apply makeup or dress ourselves in a certain way, in part [if not in essence] we wish to imply that what’s in front of us may be better than what is really there. Likewise, in the Qur’an, those that seek to delude themselves and/or God are do so by attempting to make their deeds seem to be better than what they truly are. If left unchecked, this state of the heart can lead one to doom, as is the case of the unnamed group in s. Yusuf, verse 12:

و إذا مس الإنسان الضر دعانا لجنبه قاعدا اَو قائما فلما كشفنا عنه ضره مر كأن لم يدعنا إلى ضر مسه كذلك زين للمسرفين كانوا يعملون

And when a calamity touches mankind, he calls out to Us, upon his side, laying down or standing. Yet when we have removed his affliction, he proceeds upon his way as if he had never been accosted. In this manner whatever the indignant one do seems fair pleasing. [Qur’an: 10: 12]

As we can see in the two above examples from the Qur’an, zayyana/زيّن and ‘aml/عمل go hand in hand, at least in how we try to deceive God and ourselves. This is important as ‘aml/a’mal [عمل و أعمال] are almost always associated with religious practice and deeds, whereas fi’l/af’al [فعل و أفعال] can be religious or neutral.

لقد كان لكم في رسول الله إسوة حسنة لّمن كان يرجوا الله و اليوم الآخرَ و ذكر الله كثيرا

Surely in the Messenger of God is an excellent excellent example for the one that hopes to meet God, and has hope of the Final Day and remembers God abundantly. [Qur’an: 33: 21]

May God Almighty grant us success in this. Amin.

Listen to and download the audio here.