“Blindly Following Ancient Customs and Traditions doesn’t mean that the dead are alive, but that the living are dead” Ibn Khaldun
On the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in which close to 3,000 innocent lives were lost, I can’t help but ask myself: how far we have come, what lessons have we learned and where will we be going. In particular, the threat and spectrum of violent extremism continues to evolve in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. America is now faced with a plethora of groups, including an emergence of revitalized domestic ethno-nationalists, anarchists and the evolving Islamist based transnational extremists alongside homegrown self-starters.
American Muslims are diverse, and divided along racial, class, ethnic and political lines. But all have felt the brunt of extremism on all fronts. Some in the American Muslim community have felt the impact of the rise of religious bigotry, in which many Muslims have been the subject of institutionalized suspicion. In addition, American Muslims have faced a rise in anti-Muslim hatred and have lived through the wrangling over immigration policies directed against people originating from Muslim-majority nations, which appears xenophobic at best. Despite real and legitimate justification for concern, there is also another side of the debate worthy of further inquiry.
Let us start with the highly acclaimed solo album by the American R&B singer of the 90’, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: an album with particular resonance for the American Muslim community. Lauren Hill’s work explores the issues of blackness, religion, corporate materialism, and status quo perceptions of beauty and identity. The title of the album was borrowed from the famous Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History and the author of the famous 1930’s book, Miseducation of the Negro. In many, if not most African American homes throughout America, this book is required reading. It played a significant role in the African American struggle to claim and then reclaim their identity, meaning and purpose all while negotiating this space of being Americans while recognizing their hyphenated lineage to the African continent. The journey towards an understanding of place, home and homeland has been a constant feature of the African American experience. It is quest for meaning and eventual place of acceptance that has poignant resonance for the American Muslim community.
For both Hill and Woodson, this tradition of purposeful independence of thought and the experience of finding new ways of expressing themselves in relation to their place in the American experience offers valuable options to the American Muslim community. Historically, the first wave of Muslim immigration to America came in the form of enslaved Africans from West Africa in the plantations of the American South. Some sought to preserve the rituals and practices taught back in their countries of origin, while seeking to survive in the New World. Subsequent to this first wave of enslaved Africans, the early American Muslim community has developed in various waves including: Black nationalist movements infused with Islamic syncretic traditions (i.e. Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam, etc.); Sunni Orthodox Movements (i.e. Darul Islam, Sufi orders, National Muslim organizations); and more recently Immigration from Muslim Lands (i.e. the 1952 and 1965 Nationality Acts which brought to America, thousands of Muslims from the Middle East, Southasia, etc.)
In this amalgamation of the American Muslim community, various opinions, views and perceptions have shaped both the private and public rhetoric of who or what constitutes being Muslim in America. Let’s be clear, no one viewpoint represents all American Muslims. Rather, particular groups, individuals and organizations offer a public platform to provide a particular narrative or viewpoint. Those perspectives will naturally be influenced by the traditions and rituals deriving from the country of origin of each individual or organisation. Sometimes, they will promote ritual, textual and literalist interpretations of religious texts and practices which are often culturally determined than religiously required. It is important more than ever to emphasise the breadth of this diversity. A pre-packaged and cookie cutter approach to American Muslim communities can miss out on other Muslim communities who offer equally compelling and insightful narratives in what it means to be an American Muslim—some of which trace their origins from America’s inception.
Increasingly, American Muslims in their vastness, recognise that a re-thinking of Muslim legal and religious interpretations and identity that are rooted in the American experience are long overdue. Individuals like Dr. Sulayman Nyang and the late Fazlur Rahman and Imam WD Mohammed, the patron saint of American Islam have advocated for this development. In some instances, they have been challenged for promoting this rich tradition in Islam that encourages renewal and revivalism. To the contrary, their ideas and interest have been about deeply balancing between the spiritual, the legal and the current state of affairs of being Muslim in Western societies, all while staying true to the rich Islamic normative traditions. The more quickly American Muslims recognize that Riyadh, Khartoum, Lahore, Fez, Cairo or elsewhere in the Muslim world are not the only places of gravity for Muslims, the sooner American Muslims will be in a position to play a unique role in showing Islam in America’s contribution to civilization and to all of humanity.