The Presumption of Privilege

As Islam continues to sputter along in its American context, post-9/11, various Muslim organizations and groups seek to capture the eye of the masses [who are starting to look more and more like glazed donuts by the minute] by inviting them to “return to Tradition”. I have not noted the capitalized “T” without purpose. Tradition, as it is being marketed currently, is a mono-narrative. Moreover, one might even call it a counter-narrative to the one that is equally applied by the West to Islam/Muslims, in any given time or space. But this concept of Tradition is playing out to be more than simply going back to previously forgotten sources or methods. It is also being linked to privilege. A privilege that takes the form in not only in what economic access can provide but a privilege of ideals. A Believers’ country club, if you will. But one of the main issues with this exclusivity is not solely in the gated mental communities that it fosters but the very idea that Tradition is a panacea. That so long as what is being passed along is stamped with the seal of Tradition, it requires no further investigation, contemplation or scrutinization. But is this truly [the?] tradition? And to what point or end is this tradition to accomplish? What avenues is this tradition to navigate for us? Or are we instead being taken for a ride. Islam in America and more directly, Muslims in America are in dire need for a viable, conducive, productive, creative, indigenous Muslim culture. But how do we get to there from the pre-packaged Tradition we’re currently being offered?

As some of you read before, I had been doing a bit of light reading before heading off to ‘Umrah. Upon my return I decided to put aside some of the heavier bits in favor of what’s been published in magazine format. Two articles piqued my interest: the Summer 2008 edition of The American Scholar, with an article by William Deresiewicz entitled, Exhortation: The Disadvantage of an Elite Education, and Great Neighborhoods, by Mark Hinshaw in the January 2008 edition of Planning. American Scholar deals mostly with issues through a social science perspective, while Planning is a journal in the vein of city planning [The magazine of the American Planning Association]. The two articles are not directly linked and yet, after reading both of them, their impact in tandem drew me to consider the current state of contemporary Muslim education and direction in America [again…].

There is a peculiar handshake between the parties of tradition and authority. Those who are seated are or have seated themselves as the key masters and gate keepers of tradition grant themselves a great deal of authority. An authority, that once imbibed by the target audience, is not easy to regurgitate. Its authority rises from the idea that tradition cannot be made but rather found, and more importantly, bestowed. Those that wish to belong can only do so as long as there are invited. It is precisely this type of exclusiveness that many of the traditionalists are offering American Muslims. Ensconced in the robes of this vernacular, calls towards Traditional Islam continue to rise. But we must ask ourselves: to what, for what, and by whom are we being called?

Let me state again for the record that I am not against the idea of tradition. In fact, I have talked, written and in general, worked towards the formation of a viable Muslim culture in America in my own small way. One can simply substitute tradition for culture in this case. Nor am I averse to the intellectual history of Islam. A quick perusal of this blog will vindicate any accusations. Neither am I unique in this clarion call. Notable scholars such as Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship and Dr. Sherman Jackson, just to name a few and all potent scholars in their own right, have spoken on this necessity. But one of the caveats of tradition is that it can also take on a self-sanctioning pathology, where in stead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes a means and an end. The pitfalls of this phenomenon can be clearly observed in the so-called Muslim world. But for the sake of this argument, I am not interested in how Muslims articulate their cultures in the historical lands of Muslims but rather the process of transference. In as far as the Traditionalists look at it, America and by proxy all Muslims within it are rendered helpless and incapable of manufacturing and creating a vibrant American Muslim culture – a culture that not only speaks to the histories of those Muslims in America but even more importantly to their present and their future. Taking their point of view, at the very best, culture can be imported from overseas and draped on the shoulders of modern day Muslims but in no way do they recognize American Muslims as possessing any form of agency. With the script pre-written, Muslims in America will have to settle for acting in someone else’s play – never becoming stars in their own right.

In this interplay of tradition and privilege, the Traditionalists often see themselves as an object of desire. That in fact, their own interpretation of culture is fit for all peoples, in all times, and all places. And conversely, anyone who resides outside of their cultural expression do so at their own choice. It is here that I found Hinshaw’s comments pertinent:

I imagine that many people consider their own neighborhood a pretty fine place. After all, people live where they are comfortable with the physical surroundings and the neighborhoods.

Hinshaw precludes that who ever lives in a neighborhood does so at their own discretion. The possibility that people often live where they can and not where they would like to is completely glossed over in Hinshaw’s treament of the topic. And yet, for anyone who has done even the most rudimentary examination of inner city populations will realize that the people that reside within these spaces do so not out of choice but rather from the lack of it. To assume that inner city blacks, for example, “are comfortable with the physcial surroundings and the neighborhoods” in which they live in is woefully ignorant [ironically, I found this magazine at my place of work, the University of Pennsylvania: School of Design, in their City Planning department]. This presumptuous rhetoric smacks of the same song mentality practiced by the Traditionalists. They are just as much out of touch with the times as a city planner that assumes all people are happy with where they live. And yet, one of the claims of tradition is that it is supposed to be grounded. Grounded in some sort of existential, historical narrative. So what, precisely, is the current trend of Traditional Islam grounded in?

The theme of being out of touch is central to my critique of Traditional Islam [not to be confused with the intellectual tradition of Islam]. At least in the way it is marketed and packaged. By disarming its adherents of any means of agency, a homegrown, authentic articulation of Islam, driven by a healthy, grounded American Muslim culture, can never develop. Part of this syndrome is due to the fact that many of the institutions of Traditional Islam are out of touch with the development of such a culture. In fact, it may not even be an agenda point. I was reminded of this current situation by William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, where Deresiewicz speaks on his inability to communicate with his plumber:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Socks cap, and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness.

Deresiewicz argues that it was his Ivy League education that did not provide him with the social skills to speak with people “below him”?. That because the plumber is assumed to not have the same amount or level of educational [a safe assumption, no doubt, as Deresiewicz has over a decade of Ivy League education], that not only can he not come down to the plumber’s level but the plumber cannot also ascend to Deresiewicz’s. In my many dealings with students and even some teachers of Traditional Islam, there has been a heavy tendency to practice intellectual elitism. And unlike Mr. Deresiewicz’s education, which undoubtedly took many years and lots of hard work, in the Muslim context, it seldom takes having a bit of Arabic under your belt and a few classes with the right scholars. Thus, by crafting a nomenclature around Tradition, those who fail to ascend to its lofty towers will be left to serve as the plumbers of the Muslim world [the fact that the world would suffer tremendous more for a lack of plumbers than a lack of intellectuals but this fact is not explored], at least academically speaking. There has also been the similar tendency of assumption that Muslims of non-preferential backgrounds [especially Blackermican or non-college educated, hence the lack of their numbers in their circles] lack the basic fundamentals of understanding this form of Islam. Indeed, central to the approach is an almost complete absence of the gifting of intellectual ownership of one’s understanding in Islam. To put in summary, if one wishes to understand Traditional Islam, one must keep paying the subscription fees or face having oness service shut off.

One of the key ways in which a viable culture might take roots here in America is that if Muslims in America begin to take intellectual ownership of their religion and their education in the religion. This process is being hampered by the exclusiveness of Traditional Islam as well as the celebrity of Traditional Islam. It’s add-another-fork-to-the-dinner-table mentality will only seek to impede this process. We need less secret handshakes and more psychological spaces opening up, especially given the last decade or so that indigenous Blackamerican community has gone through. Issues such as man/woman relationships, civic engagement, and education, just to name a few, are in dire need of revamping and retooling.

It is one of my supreme hopes that Muslims in America will wake up and realize that they have the tools to create a healthy, vibrant American Muslim culture. For anyone who thinks that having an American Muslim culture is not a major hurdle on the way to arriving in America need only look to our foreign brothers and sisters. For better or worse, it is their culture that allows them to alleviate many of the anxieties of quotidian existence that plagues so many Muslims in America. An anxiety that is rooted from the fact that they can take no solace in not having to consult an imam, shaykh, 15-volume tome of Bukhari or the like, just to simply figure out if you can cross the street, tie their shoes or go see a movie. It is this culture that could allow many of us to simply “be” to a greater degree versus “trying to be”?. And yet, as we work towards the development of this culture, God willing, we must be shrewd of our embrace of it. For as we have seen, it is apt to have a mind of its own. Culture should serve us towards our goals and ambitions, not making us slaves to the rhythm or at the very least, lower our monthly subscription fees.

9 Replies to “The Presumption of Privilege”

  1. Pingback: Indigenous “Traditionalism”
  2. Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah

    I pray that you are in the best of health & imaan.

    This is a short message to notify you that this entry has been selected for publishing on, a venture to highlight the best of the Muslim blogosphere. Please visit the site to find out more about our initiative.

    May Allah bless you for your noble efforts.


  3. Salaaam alaikum all,

    Marc, thank you for writing this piece. I believe that your analysis is not just food for thought. We shouldn’t just digest and sit on it. These are some critical ideas that we American Muslims really need to engage with. We need to read up on it, discuss it, write about it, and then do something about it. We have to consider what are the implications if we continue the course we are going in as American Muslims. And then we have to figure out a way to change that course so that we achieve a better outcome.

    Here’s my meager attempt at the first part:

    Marc you made a very important critique of all the various incarnations of “traditional” Islam, whether that is Salafi, Sunni, or even the Sufi groups. I believe that a number of groups are calling towards tradition as a way to show that their spin on Islam is more authentic than the rest.

    Many of the traditions that they are deploying developed within a specific set of historical, social, cultural, and even political contexts. How they were deployed changed over time and through space (over 1400 years and over 4 continents). Yet, many of these traditions and institutions that are being transposed without a deep critical analysis were once a synthesis of Islam and local institutions and customs. Not all of the local institutions and customs work well with the current condition of many Muslims in the West. This is why there is dissonance and stagnation.

    Have you ever noticed that history is not a well developed field within the Islamic sciences? I don’t think it was accidental. Not to be conspiratorial, but rather it reflects the resistance of many of our scholars to historicize. Instead, they try to depict certain beliefs and practices, especially those that deal with the transmission of knowledge and authoritative interpretation of Islam, as timeless and not without change. By freezing Islam, they fail to do what had once made the very traditions that were once successful in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The key was taking universal concepts and adapting them in practical ways to improve the spiritual and material life of Muslims in a given circumstance. This is why there was all a space in Islamic law for ‘urf (local customs).

    As for those who are following so-called traditional programs, I think they are right in their critique of modernity and the fallacies of progressive movements (and yes even our progressive Muslim friends). But I do think that a number of people are using various forms of traditionalism to check out of reality. You have people with real problems like mental illness, addictions, and social pathologies who no longer get treatment because their sheikh told them to recite some wird. You have people who no longer strive to improve their lives or their communities. Instead, they focus on become talib al-‘ilm and do nothing but sit around and learn basic texts that were once memorized by adolescents in pre-modern Muslim societies. While feigning piety, they became increasingly elitist and often condescending and arrogant. They form special clubs not aimed at increasing the general education of Muslims everywhere, but trying to, at the most, monopolize authoritative voice or, in the least, silence dissent.

    I will leave one last thought. It is high time that we really begin to interrogate concepts such as “tradition,” “culture,” “authenticity,” “authority,” and “legitimacy.” I mean, not just on a Webster like sense of just looking them up in a dictionary, but in a real way using the intellectual tools that we are blessed with in the West–critical thinking. We need some serious analysis of these terms, and not just leave it up to materialist scholars who have an axe to grind with Islam. This is where we can build a bridge between East and West by drawing upon the rich intellectual traditions of the societies that we draw our identity from as Western Muslims. I think it is high time that we began to take into account Western methods of historical, social, and cultural analysis and build a firm basis in our understanding of Islamic sciences. This should not just a thought experiment, but we should also be interested in creating vibrant social, intellectual, and cultural institutions that can add to the richness of our shared Islamic heritage.

    sorry for the ramble…

    Wa salaam,

  4. ASA, Marc I must say a very insightful and thought provoking piece. Before the day is over I plan print and read again. Margari’s comments was just as insightful! I pray Allah reward you both.

  5. As salaamu alaikum, Bro. Marc and thank you for this interesting commentary on Traditionism. And thank you Aziza for introducing me to this delightful website.

    Please forgive me if I flout convention but I’m an old-head and completely new to this blog concept. I was born in the ’50s & I’ve been Muslim for 32 years. Time grows short for me. So I tend to cut to the chase.

    First, the whole point of Islam is submission – the submitting of one’s ego to the will of Allah. Elitism is the direct opposite of this. In fact, I will go further and say that elitism based in racial arrogance was the cause of Shaytan’s fall.

    So the people who engage in Traditionism with the goal of excluding others are far astray from our faith. Rather than engaging them, I tend to say “Peace” and leave them.

    Over the years, I’ve found that true seekers gravitate to “clear water” once they’ve tasted the muddy variety. They leave the mosques, literature, teachers and companions that only give them “cardboard Islam”.

    The rest need to be where they are for their own development and Allah will move them if and when they are ready.

    Second, we should never confuse wisdom and intellect with intellectualism. Our Prophet (a.s.) was ummi – illiterate – but the wisdom he gained and the model he set is the pattern for nearly 1.5 billion people.

    Today’s intellectualists maybe have a following of a thousand or so. Their ability to utilize media just makes it seem as though they have a broader scope.

    I also notice that most of them only reach particular age groups. Once people mature in their Islam, they tend to move on from the teachers whose egos are so large that they dwarf the development of their students.

    So what should we do? I say we take the model of Prophet Muhammad (a.s.) and begin to build alternatives everywhere we are. As a community, American Muslims, particularly African Americans, have been very timid. Creativity attracts. The word is powerful. The Word is powerful. Alhamdulillah!

    It will be the visible strength of our attraction and our influence on American culture and society that will change the way the world sees our little community. As long as we have an enclave mentality, only the heartiest seekers will find us. These blogs are a beautiful beginning.

  6. As salamu ‘alaikum,

    Marc, this was on-point! Alhamdullilah I share many of your sentiments regarding ‘Traditionalism’. It is reassuring to know that there are others that are on the same page.

    Keep up the good work Insha Allah.


  7. Salaam Alaikum & Ramadan Mubarak

    Sister Maragari

    You didn’t ramble at all!

    In particular:

    But I do think that a number of people are using various forms of traditionalism to check out of reality. You have people with real problems like mental illness, addictions, and social pathologies who no longer get treatment because their sheikh told them to recite some wird. You have people who no longer strive to improve their lives or their communities. Instead, they focus on become talib al-’ilm and do nothing but sit around and learn basic texts that were once memorized by adolescents in pre-modern Muslim societies. While feigning piety, they became increasingly elitist and often condescending and arrogant. They form special clubs not aimed at increasing the general education of Muslims everywhere, but trying to, at the most, monopolize authoritative voice or, in the least, silence dissent.

    SS: This is exactly why I quit one Tariqa in my area. During the time I was grieving my mother I spent about 3 years in the Unitarian Universalist Church. I took a 16 week course from NAMI ( National Alliance of Mentally Ill) This was a care giver course. What I learned in that course shocked the socks off me sister. Being around mentally unstable people who don’t seek professional treatment will make you depressed and anxious. Saying this to say, I couldn’t bond or befriend many of the BAM’s in that Tariqa becuase they were being misadvised about professional treatment. You can no bond or build anything with some one who has a clear break from reality, and is unable to manage their own life. Its harsh buts its a fact of life. Dont stop commenting sister, I love you for the sake of Allah.

    Sister Seeking

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