…is a lonely condition. That seems to be the overriding theme of all the thinking Muslims I’ve encountered over the years. It is not so much that we have withdrawn from society to stacks of books and hours of reflection. Instead, it is that we are in intricately linked in a global society that seems to lack human connection. Some scholars have pointed to the break down of communities as a result of western modernity. The growing isolation due to modernization, urbanization, break down of traditional family and community structure has actually given rise to fundamentalist (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and everything else beneath the sun) and New Age movements. Despite their allure, many of us have not abdicated our minds and free choice to join some organization or community that imposes group-think. Even though others like myself have chosen to be autonomous thinkers, we still feel the absence of real communities and suffer from various degrees of loneliness and isolation.
A lot of people I have spoken with have a general sense of disconnection from this thing that we call Ummah. I have had lengthy conversations with some Muslims where we all questioned the meaning of community and even Ummah. Some went so far to say that the concept of Ummah was now a pie in the sky. As for the American Muslim community, we didn’t see community, instead we saw a mass of lectures, meetings, boards, committees, and numerous individuals imposing their views on the ways in which we should live our lives. The complaints about the lack of community remind me of another friend’s insight. He used to talk about a tension between the individual’s desire to feel connected to others in a community and a desire to be free from the social censoring of the community that robs you of your individuality. It is some food for thought. Being that I love words, I decided to look up community to reflect on its most solid and agreed upon meanings:
1: a unified body of individuals: as a: state, commonwealth b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself c: an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location d: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society e: a group linked by a common policy f: a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests g: a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society
2: society at large
3 a: joint ownership or participation b: common character : likeness c: social activity : fellowship d: a social state or condition
Reflecting on these definitions of community, it is not entirely clear that being part of one will actually rid us of loneliness. For some people, the only way of assuaging the loneliness is by getting involved in real change. I’m happy about some initiatives that are aimed at solving problems that affect Muslim communities. They are social problems and I believe that they will help a number of individuals. But at the same time, all this work obscures the fact that the people who are disconnected and socially isolated will likely be the ones most tapped to do this work.
I used to attend one of the largest multi-ethnic communities, but at times experienced intense loneliness. In fact, these feelings have erupted in the middle of crowded rooms in gatherings or talks. In fact, I used to be extremely active in the Muslim community and at the end of the day, retreat to my isolated corner. I felt like I was doing meaningful work, but at the same time I suffered from the lack of real human connection. Even when I met and spoke to amazing people, I got a sense of the ephemeral quality of my relationships.
I have witnessed a general mood shift occuring within a growing number of Muslims over the past few years. Perhaps it is due to age, changing life phases, increased responsibilities, or even disillusionment, but many of my friends have phased out of going to Islamic events, like lectures, halaqas, conferences, and for women, even jumuah. Most of my friends graduated from college nearly a decade ago. The days of dawa committees and MSA conferences are long past. Our circles have tightened, often drawn closer to family networks and long time friends. Even those with families and who have maintained childhood friends experience loneliness. Perhaps this is the fate we face in the post modern age-increased isolation and disconnection. The only way we seem connected is through facebook where I read their favorite quotes, see links to youtube videos that amused them, and look at pictures of their kids. While my married friends seem to have busy lives, producing the next generation of American Muslims, my single friends are juggling a lot too. Many are overworked in their careers or in some demanding academic program.
The general sense I get is a growing isolation, especially if you don’t fit into one neat category or box. I personally don’t think that the solution this condition is in building more community centers or some initiative. Rather, I think it is in individuals. What people desire is fellowship and companionship. And that is developed over time as we create ethical friendships of mutual exchanges and trust. I think it is important for our spiritual and religious leaders to teach us to be better companions and friends. We can foster a sense of fellowship and through that, have actual communities that address the spritiual need to be connected, as opposed to being purely based on political and social interests.