Resetting the Moral Compass

Jamerican Muslimah wrote a thought provoking piece recently titled, Morality and Black Americans, Morality and Black West Indians. For me, the article raised some important questions. AbdurRahman also wrote a piece, One Word on CNN”s “Black in America”: MORALITY further highlighting the importance of this topic in regards to the Black community. Drawing on JM and AR’s articles, I will explore some of the major questions surrounding morality and its relevance to the Black American Muslim community and its engagement with the broader social mores. First, I think we need to get a clear sense of what morality is. I argue that even for many practicing Muslims, concepts like virtue and ethics have been largely ignored, at the detriment of making morality an empty concept. I hope to touch upon the reasons why people in the beginning of the 21st century face particular challenges to becoming moral human beings. I hope to end this brief article with possible directions to go in resetting our moral compasses as individuals.

Jamerican Muslimah’s article points to the reality that morality is becoming a largely outmoded concept in the Black American community. She writes:

I’m just concerned about the direction my people (non-Muslim and Muslim alike) are moving in. I am concerned about HIV/AIDS, broken families, fatherless and motherless children, drugs, senseless murders and so on and how they are affecting the BA and BWI community. And I am even more concerned about the fact that people seem comfortable in their immorality.

Jamerican Muslimah offers useful solutions, including a paradigm shift and mentoring. Importantly, she also pointed out that this general moral climate effects Black American converts. Many converts continue the same negative patterns, but under the guise of a religious cloak. This includes the exploitation of women, backbiting, discrimination, and idleness (I don’t mean that in a Benjamin Franklin type of way, I’m talking about brothers who won’t work but hang out in mosques all day talking while allowing their wives to collect welfare).

If even our co-religionists fail to heed sound advice, then how do we expect any practical solutions or call for righteousness to reach the broader society? Would the call to morality fall on deaf ears? Aren’t people turned off by the judgmentand moral indignation of the righteous? They are also turned off by the inconsistencies of many religious people. Many people relish in the scandals which expose the cracks, fractures, blemishes of others. Above all, they enjoy the fall from grace of any religious or high principled person. It is affirming that we’re not so bad. By our own actions and shortcomings, we inspire others to turn away from being moral and follow their own whims regardless of who it hurts.

Muslims are frequently concerned about public acts of immorality and encourage concealing sins and wrong doings over airing them out. Within the Catholic community, confession is private. Some Protestant traditions, however, encourage testimonials as a cathartic moment releasing the guilt from the hearts of prodigal sons and daughters. But the secular testimonials on day time talk shows have encouraged airing all our dirty laundry. Initially it was cathartic for a society where so many suffered shame and stigma. But then the confessional society spun out of control. We are now celebrating licentiousness, consumption, greed, and pettiness. Our television beams the pornographic gaze of violence and sex right into our living rooms. Watch groups point to the increasing vulgarity and violence in music, television, film, and video games. Religious groups are often linked to these watch groups, making a call for morality. I believe that for a large part, most religious leaders are truly concerned with the pain and hardship that people are suffering. I think they are also concerned with the growing materialism that makes people less human to each other. As JM points out, the need to change our condition in even more pressing in the Black community because of the dire consequences of the social breakdown that is linked with the loosening social mores. I agree with JM, we need to reset our Moral compass. And the first person I’m going to start with is me.

Being a stickler for definitions, I decided to look up the term morality, to come up with a clear definition of what I’m talking about when I speak of resetting the moral compass. First, I turned to Webster Online:

Main Entry: mo·ral·i·ty
Pronunciation: \mə-ˈra-lə-tē, mȯ-\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural mo·ral·i·ties
Date: 14th century
1 a: a moral discourse, statement, or lesson b: a literary or other imaginative work teaching a moral lesson2 a: a doctrine or system of moral conduct bplural : particular moral principles or rules of conduct3: conformity to ideals of right human conduct4: moral conduct : virtue

Main Entry: 1 mor·al
Pronunciation: \ˈmȯr-əl, ˈmär-\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin moralis, from mor-, mos custom
Date: 14th century
1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior c: conforming to a standard of right behavior d: sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment e: capable of right and wrong action 2: probable though not proved : virtual 3: perceptual or psychological rather than tangible or practical in nature or effect

I then turned to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition. The article opens stating that the term morality can be used descriptively or normatively.

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or,
[a.] some other group, such as a religion, or
[b.] accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

So according to the the definition, morality is either a code of conduct, such as the ten commandments. It can be defined by a society, such as the concept that discrimination based on race is wrong. Or we can take a more concrete example of morality discourses during modern times, such as slavery.

Morality is a guide to personal conduct. Is it a sense of fulfillment? The sense of security we derive from abstaining from things that are pleasurable but can have some serious drawbacks? Sense of self worth from abstaining from ephemeral pleasures, harming ourselves or others? But what motivates us to moral individuals? A desire to be a good person It is a sense of shame and social censure? Is it religious belief, such as the sense of divine punishment and reward? For us Muslims, we are taught that we should be moral because of divine reward and punishment. But what about those Muslims who are struggling with faith? What happens when people aren’t motivated by threats of fire and brimstone or by over flowing drinks without the hangover and the houris? I’m not trying to make fun of Qur’anic descriptions of the hereafter, since I believe what Allah has in store for us is beyond what our feeble minds can imagine. But at the same time, how can we talk about concepts that seem so distant when most people feel like they are living in hell?

While morality is often linked to religious values. Virtue has been an important trait for spiritualists and materialists alike. The Greeks often thought about virtue. So once again, I turned to good ole Webster:

Main Entry: vir·tue
Pronunciation: \ˈvər-(ˌ)chü\
Function: noun Etymology: Middle English vertu, virtu, from Anglo-French, from Latin virtut-, virtus strength, manliness, virtue, from vir man — more at virile
Date: 13th century
1 a: conformity to a standard of right : morality b: a particular moral excellence2plural : an order of angels — see celestial hierarchy3: a beneficial quality or power of a thing4: manly strength or courage : valor5: a commendable quality or trait : merit6: a capacity to act : potency7: chastity especially in a woman

Skipping the definitions based on a man’s virility and a woman’s chastity (seems like that leads to some other social contradictions), I think it is important to focus on commendable qualities or traits. This is what I think is important to teach young people or anybody who is looking for peace of mind and self development. We have to begin emphasizing the importance of virtue and ethics.Some Muslim thinkers criticize ideas introduced during the Enlightenment that shaved away at the foundations of religious doctrine as the basis for encoding moral behavior and Postmodernism which demolished any claims for universal moral codes and even Truth itself. While many people place the blame of our social ills in the hands of materialist philosophers who helped spread Enlightenment ideas, many of these materialist philosophers lived more ethical, consistent, and austere lives than many of our flamboyant leaders who call people to morality under the Church/Masjid/Temple. When I brought up ethics and virtue to a brother, he mentioned that they were lacking in the Muslim world. While I do see virtuous conduct, along with lots of moral browbeating and shaming, in the Middle East and Muslim communities in America, it is clear that we have failed to develop a system of ethics. I had heard that some scholars from al Azhar were responding favorably to the idea of developing a system of Islamic ethics.

I believe the concept of virtue and system of ethics is an important starting point to resetting our moral compass. I don’t have a complete road map for reforming a broken spirit, let alone an entire community. But I know that we’re not going to get there by only using codes. And we have to start with the individual. We need to teach people to take pride in developing themselves as whole persons. We need a growing awareness of where we are, what voids are we trying to fill when we engage in negative behavior. We need to provide people with the tools to break destructive habits. We have to teach people to take pride in self conditioning, in goal oriented behavior without a sense of superiority over others. At this day and age, we have to take holistic approaches to developing our communities. Our community leaders have to become equipped to engage with the social problems that effect our spiritual development and the spiritual growth that can help bolster us as we face the challenges of our times.