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.

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9 thoughts on “Resetting the Moral Compass

  1. Assalaamualaikum sis:
    I really enjoyed reading this post as it complicated the question at hand and did the much needed work of bringing the humanness of it all back into the center of our thinking. I commented on Jamerican’s blog that you were accurate to guide us away from too much concentration on the private parts into a more broader (global) sense of what is ethically awry in our contemporary moment.

    I am most intrigued by the thoughts that end this post. I get the feeling that at the same time that you are invested in raising our individual and collective sense of worth you also seem to be introducing an element of humility into your construction.

    I am not big or very comfortable with bashing people-Muslim or non-Muslim. Yet I feel like constant critique and judgment has been substituted for true concern, love and respect for others. It is really no holds barred when it comes to someone feeling (and hear I am talking directly about Muslims) that they have the right to ridicule, demean or chastise another brother/sister all in the name of so-called speaking to the right. I find it to be terribly boring and as your post states-it doesn’t work.

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  2. “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?”

    SS: Allah is the Greatest: I agree 110% that Allah’s will for us is beyond complete human comprehension. You speak of Muslims struggling with faith; I’m one of those individuals. To be honest, I’ve been struggling with submission to Allah since the day I took my shahada. I can’t imagine any human declaring an unwavering, all penetrating depth of submission to Yal-Quddus. When I was “young” and “dumb” I got mixed up with that crazy salafi Movement. My experience with them left me emotionally drained, mentally overwhelmed, and spiritually dead. I found that I needed something deeper beyond “threats of fire and brimstone” or promises of “flowing drinks without the hangover, and the houris”. I can only speak for myself, but what helped me was focusing on what I believe to be the “spiritual” psychology of Islam {tawasuf}. I also stopped limiting myself to quench my spiritual thirst, as well as my longing to experience the daily presence of God to just Islamic sources or Muslims. Sister Azizah, I’m saying all of this to say—it’s easy to become a modern day Pharisee but in my heart, I sincerely believe that Islam is the middle way with timeless values. I sincerely believe that Islam is the middle way because the law and the psychology were created to be interdependent because humanity at its best is interdependent. I sincerely believe that in our ethnic community we have gone from one extreme (shunning people) to another (accommodating pathology). I have struggled with my ego and my flesh for many years, and expect to always do so. May I share something else personal? Do you know what truly concerns me about the fitnah (yes I mean that in the Qur’anic sense) in our ethnic community? Better yet the world? Why do we expect not to suffer or struggle against our own ego and flesh? Why do we expect to subordinate our life and the life of others (precious babes) to our ego’s and our flesh? Why is not seeing the face of the Almighty, Yal-Aziz in the hereafter satisfying and fulfilling? Are we always living for this world or is there another world where we can be with the Master? Where did this idea that life is a rose garden, and that we don’t half to suffer come from? Why is suffering always being viewed as something negative with out merit? How could any Muslim not be motivated by experiencing the presence of God daily and the opportunity to experience it physically eternally? What happens when Prozac, talk therapy, late night booty calls, a wall full of degrees, and BMW don’t pacify people anymore? What’s gong to fill the void then?
    Could it be that parents have neglected to guide the child toward a personal relationship with Allah therefore its not enough to sustain them? This is very frightening to me and I’ll be sharing this with my hubby tonight.

    “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/Masjids/Temple.”

    SS: Very good point. But lets not forget that it was the Muslims who really got the reel of the enlightenment spinning for the West, what is the harm in looking at what exactly it was they were learning, practicing, and living to find out why?

    Good post.
    Glad you are blogging again.
    Mary Ann

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  3. Salaam alaikum dearest Mary Ann,
    I’m so touched by what you write. I really think you should have your own blog. You are so insightful and your writing is beautiful. If not, I just will have to paste all your piercing commentary into a few posts. I hope more people hear what you have to say. I’m definitely going to hit you up with an email so we can build some more.

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  4. Wa alaikum salaam sister,

    I’m willing to do what ever I am able to do to reach out and touch the hearts and minds of people. I don’t mind being a contributing writer, but I don’t have the time to maintain my own blog. I actually had a homeschooling blog going for a minute but my workload is increasing these days!

    I also wanted to share something else personal, and I’m planning on posting this response on AR’s and JM’s blog as well:

    I’ve been an open book on the Muslim blogsphere sharing intimate details of my past both good and bad as well some of my deepest feelings. I think now would be the appropriate time to share a bit more in hopes of touching the mind and heart of any Muslim (practicing or not) who is sincere in their efforts to serve mankind. I want you all to know why I’m so passionate about this issue.

    I am one of those “bastard” children Cosby speaks of. In fact, I’m the third generation of those “bastard” children Cosby speaks of. I know what it feels like to grow up with out a farther, and I know what it feels like to belong to a mother who had children by different men. Although in my mothers case she didn’t have an even playing field because she was mentally ill and taken advantage of by perverts. I grew up in the foster care system in the Midwest. I lived in 17 foster homes many bad but some good. I lived with Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish families. I lived with whites, blacks, and a few Asians. Some foster homes were affluent and some were not. I witnessed sexual and physical abuse in some foster homes on a daily basis. I watched my mother give birth to a still born baby; I watched our family being torn apart as my siblings and I were placed in separated foster homes, and I’ve had my education interrupted several times.
    When I speak about this issue, I’m not speaking from some “self righteous” or “highly educated” position: I’m speaking as an adult child of a broken childhood.
    I’m speaking from real pain, grief, and loss. Many of you educated professionals, especially: social workers, physicians, educators, and clergy members never consult people like me; instead you rely on controlled studies, and text books. I stopped reading parenting books written by Black Professionals such as physicians, social workers, and educators because they have accommodated the sin of conception outside of marriage, and gleefully teach parents that men are not needed to parent, protect, and provide for their own children. Many of the black professionals have been trained in socialist colleges who have manipulated their minds by teaching that collectivism is always the solution for every problem instead of getting to root. This is why I said earlier that having a college degree is completely worthless when an individual has low maturity and life skills quotient, and as a result makes a decision that negates many of the benefits associated with being credentialed. (sorry for the compound sentence)

    I tried to explain earlier on AR’s blog that our community has never experienced healing as a whole, and that we have fallen completely apart through generational decay. I said that because, this is exactly what happened in my biological family (I am adopted). Racism has had a direct impact in our ethnic community particularly those of us who have origins in the south. My great-grandmother was an Indian from the Choctaw tribe. The oppression was so horrendous that she married a black man to escape the poverty-particularly the starvation. To hold her new family together she became a Jehovah Witness but lost her children when her husband died. My grandmother was a single mother, and my mother and her siblings were molested, and beaten by the so called “village” we preach about returning to. My mother and her siblings ended up being adopted out by distant relatives who used them to work their farm: I’m talking about growing up in a shot gun house, eating dandelion soup, and having no shoes to walk to school in. No plumbing, no electricity, having to use an old outhouse. This is why I nearly cursed that republican blogger out for suggesting that merit is the standard when that isn’t the reality.

    I am the first child of my mother to be married, a home owner, and soon a college graduate. My other sibling did not make it out so well and rejects any type of help.

    To conclude this ramble, and to reach out to touch your hearts, I want to share how I came to realize ONE of many solutions to the problems in our ethnic community.

    You all know my mother passed away from breast cancer-but that wasn’t the first time I’d lost her, and I was just beginning to get to know her as a person with out the confines of the dam (pardon me) state interfering. Watching this woman who hid behind trees to watch us get on the school bus, ate banana peels so we could eat the banana when we were homeless, and spent her ever dime on us only to see some sick foster parents give it to their children instead of us, watching my mother die, and take her last breath, brought a tremendous degree of grief, loss, and pain BUT what came out of that experience was this:

    I made the decision that I was not ONLY going to live for this world
    I made the decision that I was not ONLY going to live for myself
    I made the decision that I was not ONLY going to strive to be comfortable if meant displeasing God, harming others, and was not beneficial

    I encourage others in what ever way you can to see what you can do. None of us can expect to serve others if our goal at the end of the say to is to always serve our own ego and our own flesh. We half to help each other get beyond living for ourselves and this world ONLY at the expense of truth, peace, and justice.

    As a Muslim, Christian, Jews, if we find that: experiencing the daily presence of the Almighty; seeing the face of the almighty in the hereafter; and having the hope for being reunited with loved ones in the hereafter does not make us happy, does not inspire us to be Great and do Great than the problem is not the Master or his Will, the problem is that we have not yet reach a level in our spiritual growth and development where we have made the decision fully aware of the CONSQUENCES that accompany it: that is to live for God instead of our own desires, and mortal comforts.

    Salaam
    Mary Ann

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  5. Asslaamualaikum-
    I have to agree with Margari- I love reading your thoughts Mary Ann. I second the call for your own blog : )

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  6. Salaam,

    I think for the Blackamerican Muslim there needs to be, as Dr Jackson wrote in his book the Third Ressurection, a practical tassawuf. Which emphasizes, what you mentioned of morals and ethics.

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  7. Assalamu Alaikum,
    Wonderfully expressed conclusion Habibty!
    Hugs!
    Insha’Allah we meet one another in person before you leave Cairo! Keep me updated as to your pending departure date, insha’Allah.
    Ma’Salaama.

    Like

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