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.

The Lonely Planet: The Middle East and Beyond

For many years I considered traveling to the Middle East and Africa to some kind of far fetched fantasy. It was only after my circuitous journey through college and finally after being admitted into graduate school was able to realize my life-long dream of traveling abroad. Honestly, I truly feel blessed to make this journey. I wouldn’t trade my travel experiences for anything, however my travels abroad have marked some of my darkest, loneliest moments. I’m not alone. I’ve talked to a number of travelers and many have told me that loneliness and isolation is something you have to ride through when abroad. Even for those who haven’t been abroad, many of us have experienced the loneliness of the modern world. I have had many moments that I realized that so many of are living in our own lonely planets.

But back home, you can shout in the streets something and at least be understood. You can get in a car, bus, or train or easily pick up the phone and find someone to talk to. Sometimes you just want to call a friend and tell them a funny story about something that happened that day. But then, because of the cost of the call, the bad connection, and time difference, its so much harder to feel connected. It’s not only the language barrier and difficulties with communication, the time zones that separate you from everyone you know. It is the feeling that you could drop off the face of the earth and everything continues as normal, as if you didn’t matter. In reality, that’s how the world is, and we occupy such a small space in it. But feeling disconnected from the rest of humanity is the unfortunate side effect of traveling. Sometimes you can feel the pain when you’re reminded that life is going on without you back home. You realize that people are changing and you are no longer in the loop or privy to the important changes became home. That you’ve become a distant memory. Maybe you’re thought of as an anecdote in a dinner conversation. Or someone asks their self, “I wonder whatever happened to…?”

I didn’t feel like the rest of the world back home forgot me the first time I traveled abroad. But I felt the sharp pain of leaving my world behind, of the strained bonds with loved ones. My first experience aborad was in a pilot program organized by University of Arizona and Universite Moulay Isma’il in Meknes Morocco during summer 2004. There were about 9 students and two graduate assistants. For me it was a dream come true. I was so excited about the journey, the opportunity to see places and landscapes that I only imagined. And I did a lot of imagining from my text book readings, to my own creative writing. My friend gave me some words of wisdom, “Expect to see the best of the best and the worst of the worst.” Those were my expecations. But I could not really foresee what types of challenges I would face.

I caught the flu just before going to Morocco, got stuck in JFK, spending the night in a cold, dark, and eerie terminal. By the time I got to Morocco, I had this persistent cough that gradually developed into a major respiratory infection over the next few weeks. My luggage hadn’t arrived, and within two days I had succumbed to the gastro-intestinal hazards of travel. I had some challenging times in Morocco, it was both beautiful and heartbreaking. I never felt more isolated. I knew I was in a country with millions of people that I could barely speak to or who could even understand me. Even our residence that summer highlighted our isolation. Our residence were little cottages by the school of agriculture in the country side about 20 minutes outside of town. We didnt’ interact with Moroccan students and there were only a few families living near by. It was hard to join in conversations about their sheltered, idealistic lives. Others dominated the conversations and it was hard to find an opening. I knew none of them related to me. And if you can’t relate to someone, how can you like them? The tensions rose as they would make comments like, “They’re staring at us because we’re white.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m not white.” I was told that I said was being offensive when I visited the Marzouga and saw the evidence the ancient slave trade in the faces of the brown people. As I looked outside the window, I said to myself, “All these brown people….they’re beautiful!!” Realizing I was in a van full of white people who couldn’t relate to my whole sense of wonder of being in Africa, but at the same time seeing the counterparts to Black Americans in Diaspora. Unlike us Black Americans, the people in this region still had a distinct culture and identity. In the midst of my wonder, I realized I had to self censor. So awkwardly, I immediately followed up my two statements with, “Awesome!” (I know, I’m from Cali and I said it in a kinda like Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger) A few weeks later, someone told that they were deeply offended when they heard me say, “All these brown people, they’re beautiful! I feel at home!” I was deeply hurt, that my profound moment of wonder at a North African society heavily influenced by an influx of sub-Saharan Africans would be misconstrued. I felt alone then, that there was noone to share that moment.

I think after that, it was clear I was on my own. I began to withdraw and tried to ride each wave and not complain. I grew tired about the constant complaints, we all were tired of various things. And for me, I was tired of being isolated in a bubble of American students abroad. I often listened to my CDs. I stopped writing in my journal, hoping that time would provide the right perpective to make sense of what I was experiencing. At night I began to draw comfort by memorizing Qur’an. Thinks seemed to melt away when reciting Qur’an. I began to reflect and ponder the verses I memorized. And accepting that I had no one, opening myself up to the silence, an ineffable change happened. I felt like I was embraced by warmth and my heart was at ease.

During my second trip to Morocco I experienced a few days where I felt isolated. It is a lot more difficult to travel by yourself as a woman in the Middle East. In Morocco, if you walk outside as a woman, you’re asking for a lot of trouble. My first trip to Europe exposed me to a different type of isolation. I experienced many days of silence in during my week in Durham, England. The town was half empty. London can be a lonely place, you will sit alone and not one person will talk to you. Few people will even pass you a friendly smile.

But my most challenging period, happened last year. That was when I experienced my loneliest day ever, Christmas in Kuwait. In truth, it wasn’t because I missed Santa Claus and presents. Of course I missed my family and on that day. But after a traumatic event involving children and an injured pet, I had all my fears, suspicions, and doubts had been affirmed. I wrote about some of my struggles and isolation in Kuwait in my blog entries, Missing and How Am I Doing? My circumstances were trying and I sunk into a dark place in that basement apartment.

I was glad to leave the shining malls of Kuwait for the rat race of Cairo. Here, in the bustle and buzz, sometimes you avoid going out because it can be overwhelming. In a city of 20 million, you realize how small you are and how hard it is to stay connected with the friends in town. I met my previous roommate in America the summer before. At that time, she had left Egypt for good and I was actually sad because I was looking for contacts in Cairo. By November everyone was encouraging me to come to Egypt and I heard she was looking for a roommate. I had no idea how was I to get to Egypt. But then things began to unfold and I found some openings and opportunities. I met my friend in Alexandria and from there we searched for an apartment in Caior. Before I moved to the MIddle East, I had never lived with a Muslim woman. This sister became a dear friend and constant companion. She was so supportive and encouraging on so many levels. After the tensions with some of my friends back home, the loneliness of Kuwait, my roommate was a breath of fresh air. Her constant support and care helped stave off my feelings of isolation. I remained largely connected through the blogging community, my communication and links were mainly through stilted chats. But I was so busy in Cairo, working, taking classes at the French center, at al-Diwan, eating, washing and hanging clothes, and learning to navigate, that it was hard to dwell too much on home sickness. But when you travel abroad, there inevitably comes a time when your travel companions go away or some issue that could be solved swiftly at home drags on for days. Things run in unfamiliar ways. Sometimes even finding solid advice can be challenging. But traveling alone, you learn self reliance, creativity, and perseverance.

Looking back, I can think about a number of things I could have done to ameliorate the isolation. I’m a home body, and it is easy for me to sink into a funk without knowing its happening. Sometimes you just got to get out and take a walk. Make lots of friends where you are at. Even if it is a headache getting from A to B, foster friendships with people you get along with. Travel with people you know or trust. If you travel with people you’ve never travelled with, have a plan B and an escape plan C. Stay in contact with people back home. Guilt friends and family members into emailing or calling you. Don’t just focus on your adventures, but ask them how they are doing. Make phone, chat, or skype appointments with people back home. Develop a hobby. Keep a journal. Embrace the silence and enjoy spending time with yourself. Sometimes all it takes is to just keep breathing, breath because with every difficult comes relief.