The Trouble with Our Criminal Justice System

Documentary Teaser for Prison Blues by Mustafa Davis.

MuslimARC organized a panel on Muslims and the New Jim Crow, a standing room only event where over 200 people ended the event with a direct action. The deaths of Black, Latino, and Native Americans by police or in police custody has raised attention to the problem in our criminal justice system. Here is an article that I’ve written on criminal justice reform:

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African-American father of six, was killed by a police chokehold and nearly a year later, New York City settled a lawsuit by his family for $5.9 million. Over the past year, protests erupted in Ferguson, MissouriNew York,Baltimore,Los Angeles, and numerous other cities where black people have been brutalized by police. Live tweets, live streams and pictures highlighted the militarization of law enforcement. The outrage against police brutality has galvanized activists, community leaders and concerned citizens across the country, and has spurred Muslim coalitions such as Muslims for Ferguson and Muslims Make It Plain. Activists Carmen Perez,  Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory, along with 100 protesters completed a nine-day  #March2Justice from New York to Washington, D.C., in April to highlight the problem of police oppression.  But their long journey reflects the difficult challenge that we, as Americans in general and as Muslims in particular, have in addressing the real problems of policing in this country.

If the Muslim community is going to truly deal with policing, then we must address the criminal justice system as a whole. We must delve deep into the issue and make abuse and oppression in our criminal justice system our issue. We must allow our faith to inform us into peaceful action by engaging with others and calling for action and reform where it is needed.

Certainly, Muslim-American communities have made inroads into conversations about these abuses. However, stumbling blocks remain. Often Muslims will argue that law enforcement is getting a bad rap. In one news story, a relative of a Muslim woman, who was rescued by police after an arson, argued that police officers have the worst job in the world. He said, it was because “people hate you, but when they get in trouble you’re the first person they call.”

In one off-the-record meeting at a Muslim community center with the FBI, a non-black Muslim community leader compared law enforcement with Muslims, saying that both are stereotyped because of the actions of a few.  Many Muslim national organizations and advocacy groups have issued statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter protesters. When the Islamic Society of North America issued a statement about the escalation of violence during the Baltimore uprising, activists and organizations pointed out that ISNA’s focusing on the destruction of property downplayed the role of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

The controversy over ISNA’s statement about Baltimore demonstrates how social media has helped to shape conversations about police brutality and the justice system. Muslim media platforms and national organizations are beginning to engage when previously, only a few urban-based organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America and Inner City Muslim Action Network, addressed the justice system and programs for the formerly incarcerated. But times are changing.

For example, the 15-year-old murder conviction of Adnan Syed, which was detailed in a podcast “Serial,” has sparked the imagination of people across the country, as well as South Asian and Arab Muslims. These same Muslims  raised over $100,000 to support his appeal. Syed’s narrative of being a child of immigrants, a model minority youth wrongfully convicted with thin evidence because of Islamophobia continues to captivate the country. Many people, who follow this story often fail to link Syed’s fate with that of many Latino and black people, who have also been wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Project has exonerated numerous men, who served decades in prison, and some of them only getting their names cleared long after their executions. Yet, some people still believe that justice is blind and support a kind of Muslim exceptionalism when it comes to how members of the Muslim community are treated by the criminal justice system.  In contrast, when a black Muslim is accused of a crime, many Muslims will distance themselves from the case.

For black Muslims, systemic racism and Islamophobia intersect in the most powerful ways in state surveillance, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Some recent cases highlight this reality, such as the killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah, who was shot 20 times by federal agents during a raid at a warehouse in 2009; the case of Usaamah Rahim, who was killed by police while waiting at a bus stop in June; the case of Marcus Dwayne Robertson, who was arrested and jailed on tax fraud and illegal gun possession and about to be accused of terrorism based on his e-book collection but eventually set free for time served for previous charges. These men were all black and Muslim. Yet most Muslim leaders and organizations didn’t give these cases the full court attention afforded to non-black Muslims affected by law enforcement or the prison system. This implicitly extends such mainstream racism well into the Muslim community.

The same implicit bias that causes officers to be more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than a white person also leads to racial disparities in the viewing, prosecution and sentencing of cases. Studies have shown that race also factors into the severity of the punishment, and even skin color and phenotype play a factor, considering that dark-skinned people receive longer and harsher sentences.  Such a stark reality is also underscored by the fact that Dylann Roof, a white man who murdered nine African-Americans attending church in Charleston, South Carolina, was later apprehended alive and then taken to Burger King; while African-American Usaamah Rahim was shot to death at a bus stop without having committed any crime.

Moving beyond the headlines and the latest hot spots, the Muslim community must address police misconduct as part of a larger broken system. This entails addressing policies and practices.   In the book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander demonstrates how communities of color are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, and activists such as Mariame Kaba have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about racial injustice in the criminal justice system.  The prison industrial complex  (PIC) is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry to use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Prison abolition activists argue that the PIC perpetuates the flawed belief that imprisonment is the solution to social problems such as substance abuse, homelessness, illiteracy and mental illness.   Further, the “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push low-income children out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Schools are more likely to punish young black boys and girls more severely, charging them with crimes and sending them into the juvenile court system than their white counterparts for the same offenses. Our society is more apt to invest in prisons rather than education or preventative measures, such as substance abuse or rehabilitation programs.

The Sentencing Project estimates there are 2.2 million people in American prisons. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. Over the past three decades, the population has increased over 500%. Many people are in prison for nonviolent offenses. More people are coming to see these policies as costly and ineffective. Reflecting this changing tide, on July 13, President Barack Obama cut the sentences of 46 drug offenders.  In his speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Obama said, “We spend $80 billion to keep people in prison.”

For more than 20 years, I have heard Muslims cite the Hadith, “Feed the hungry, visit the sick and set free the captives.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Hadith 552) America’s incarcerated community is held captive, and former offenders often suffer from a lifetime of stigma and discrimination.

Our communities, however, are often hands-off when it comes to prison populations. They limit support to distributing prison dawah (proselytizing) while leaving rehabilitation and reentry programs cash strapped.   The Muslim community, as a whole, has done little to advocate for progressive reform of the criminal justice system.

There are exceptions. We can look to local efforts as models and amplify their work. For example, the Latino Muslim Association of America (LALMA) and Islah LA worked with faith-based community organizers, LA Voice, to help pass Proposition 47,  which reduced nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors in California.

Our national Muslim advocacy organizations and lay people across the country should support current criminal justice reform efforts. One place to start is by supporting the Ban the Box campaign, which seeks fair employment for people with past convictions. As individuals, we can donate our time or resources to help build capacity for organizations working on police brutality and the criminal justice system by taking part in faith-based organizing, joining multiethnic coalitions or supporting organizations doing grassroots work.

Muslim Americans, as a community, cannot allow for injustice to fester in our justice system and expect to receive justice for ourselves. Whether calling for criminal justice reform, supporting prisoners’ rights or advocating for changes in policing, our faith must inform our actions.

 

Read the original  published at Islamic Monthly.

Letter to Imams

Muslim Anti-Racism Coalition launched this week and many joined the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #BeingBlackAnd Muslim. My Storify of the event explains the idea’s conception, the lead up and phenomenal response. AlJazeera’s The Stream covered and summed up conversation. In her article Being Black and Muslim, Hind Makki, one of the founders of MuslimARC  wrote:

I’ve often said that the three largest challenges facing American Muslim communities are misogyny, racism and sectarianism, which is why I’m proud to be one of the founding members of Muslim ARC.

Like Hind Makki, I’m so honored to work with Muslims of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, denominations, and orientations  of faith came to address racism. This Black History Month, we hope to deepen our conversation with three more hashtags. In addition, on Feb. 20 Twitter Talk with African American Muslim leaders, Dawud Walid, Amin Nathari, Amina Wadud, and Donna Auston.

FliersLarge

And reflecting our move from social networking activism to a grassroots movement, we are asking you to help us by appealing to our imams and khateebs to dedicate at least one khutbah (Friday Sermon) dedicated to intra-Muslim  racism. MuslimARC is focusing our anti-racism khutbahs on Friday Feb. 21st, the anniversary of the iconic Black American Muslim leader Malcolm X. Please share  our letter to imams with imams, khateeb and  local communities. You can email the letter to your local community leader from the website or download a pdf here.  Here is our letter below. Please share widely.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

February 14, 2014

Assalaamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh

We are contacting you on behalf of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC)[1] with a khutbah request for Black History Month. From the time of our Noble Prophet ﷺ‎, anti-Black and anti-African racism has plagued Muslim societies and communities. As you are aware, these beliefs go against the messages that are at the heart of our Holy Qur’an and Prophetic traditions.

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.

—Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, The Last Sermon.

One way that we can raise awareness regarding anti-Black racism today is by continuing to educate ourselves and others. If you have not already, would you please consider speaking about Black Muslim history and anti-Black racism in the ummah during your khutbah on Friday, February 21st? As an imam, you are a central figure in many Muslim communities and are thus specially positioned in your community to address these important topics and begin a conversation in your city about an issue that is often not thoroughly addressed. We ask that you take this opportunity to highlight our ethical responsibilities as Muslims to challenge ethnic chauvinism and tribalism.

In the interest of strengthening our brotherhood, we are providing you with a list of topics that we think merit particular attention given what we have observed in our ongoing conversations on social media and with Muslim organizers and activists across the country.

Among the topics that can be explored are as follows:

  • How the Prophet ﷺ specifically dealt with incidents among Sahabah (examples: the hesitancy of some companions to follow Usamah bin Zayd into battle, the Prophet’s ﷺ suggesting the marriage of Usamah to Fatimah bint Qays, and the refusal of Abdur Rahman bin ‘Awf to marry his daughter to Al-Miqdaad bin “Al-Aswad” but Bilal later marrying the sister of bin ‘Awf)
  • Reminding the believers that the use of racial slurs and name-calling are prohibited in Islam (today, in many Islamic schools and other segments of Muslim society, terms like “abeed”, “akata”, “adoon”, “jareer”, and/or “kallu” are frequently used to refer to Black individuals [2])
  • Muslim viewpoints on standing for justice, against oppression, and the duty to strive to rectify any wrongs we see being committed (for example, to speak out when we hear a racial slur being uttered)
  • Our strong tradition of standing with the most marginalized members of society, and reflecting upon how anti-Black racism continues to marginalize Black Americans [3]
  • Bringing attention to issues currently impacting Black Muslims both in the US and abroad, and including these Muslims in your dua (examples: police brutality and the frequency of extrajudicial killings of Black Americans in the United States,[4] including that of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah,[5] and the grave injustices faced by Black Muslims in the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Somalia)
  • The importance of practicing what we preach with regards to community unity and participation (examples: non-Black Muslims welcoming Black Muslims as potential spouses for themselves and their children; ensuring that all Black Muslims feel welcome and included in our masjids; and guaranteeing equal opportunities and treatment in our leadership positions)
  • Analysis of and reminders regarding the Prophet’s ﷺ Last Sermon
  • Our responsibilities towards challenging the nafs and examining where we may improve our adab and akhlaq when it comes to racist tendencies
  • Influential Black Muslims in Islamic history (examples: Luqman the Wise, Bilal (RA), or other lesser known Sahabi and Tabi’een)
  • The work of influential contemporary African or Black American Muslims such as Imam Warith Deen Mohammed
  • Lessons from the struggles of African Muslims brought as slaves to the Americas, such as Omar Ibn Said, Ibrahim Abdur Rahman , or the 19th century community of Muslims on the Sapelo Islands

Lastly, we would like to note that February 21 is the day El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) was assassinated in New York City, NY in 1965. As he noted in his Letter from Mecca after completing Hajj, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.”[6] His life left a profound mark on American society and continues to inspire Muslims around the world. Still today, nearly 50 years after his death, Muslims of all backgrounds note the role his words have had in calling them to Islam and/or strengthening their imaan.
Thus, giving a “Black History Month Khutbah” is a beautiful way for Muslims nationwide to explore and discuss – together – the legacy of Africans and African American Muslims and their contributions to the ummah. We humbly request that you join us in this initiative so that we are better able to hold fast to the message of unity and brotherhood in Islam.

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.—The Holy Qur’an, Surat Al-Hujurat, 49:13

Please do not hesitate to contact MuslimARC if you have any questions or to let us know that your congregation will be participating. We are also more than happy to provide you with resources for your khutbah. We encourage you to record your khutbah, if able, and to send a copy or link to the recording to info@muslimarc.org so that others may benefit from your words.

JazakAllah kheir,

MuslimARC,
The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative

Email: info@muslimarc.org
Website: http://www.muslimarc.org
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/muslimarc
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/muslimarc
Tumblr: http://muslimarc.tumblr.com


[1] MuslimARC is an organization working to find ways to creatively address and effectively challenge racism in Muslim communities. Online at http://www.muslimarc.org.
[2] Dawud Walid, “ Intra-Muslim Racism: Confronting Ethnic Slurs and Racism Among American Muslims” January 19, 2014 from http://www.altmuslimah.com/b/mca/4893/.
[3] 11 Facts About Racial Discrimination, http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-racial-discrimination.
[4] Rania Khalek, “Every 28 Hours an African American is Extrajudicially Executed in the U.S.” April 15, 2013 http://raniakhalek.com/2013/04/15/every-28-hours-an-african-american-is-extrajudicially-executed-in-the-u-s/.
[5] Dawud Walid, “Year Anniversary of Imam Luqman Shooting Today” October 28, 2010 from http://dawudwalid.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/year-anniversary-of-imam-luqman-shooting/.
[6] Malcolm X, “Letter from Mecca” April 1964 from http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/let_mecca.htm.

The Relevance of Black American Muslim Thought

The Muslim American community is held together with the belief that there is no God but the One True God and that Muhammad is His prophet.  Muslims share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage, and death. As one of the most diverse faith communities, Muslim Americans come from various ethnic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds.   Sometimes there are various articulations of Islam  due to different political, cultural, and religious orientations. Over the years, many Black American Muslims have been at the forefront of articulating Islamic thought for the growing American Muslim community. But this seems to have changed as a dominant narrative has taken over.

Some estimates go as far to say that there are 5 million Muslims in America. According to census data and information provided by mosques and community centers, Muslims in America make up .5% of the total population in America. Keeping it conservative, that equals just under two million. This still represents a significant number. CAIR reports that the ethnicities of mosque participants can be broken down to 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% sub-Saharan African, 2.1 European (i.e. Bosnia) 1.6% White American, 1.3% South-East Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian, and .6% Latino/Hispanic. Other reports indicate the number of Black Americans may be even larger. Regardless of the numbers, there is no clear ethnic majority in American Islam. But these numbers raise some important issues: Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? These questions have often been central to a debate that has emerged about the Black American/immigrant divide.

In America, there is fierce competition over resources which has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims. Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. There is little press coverage or interest shown in the media on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families. Sylvia Chan-Malik uses the term, “foundational blackness” to describe how contemporary Islam in America can best be understood by transnational affiliations that link gender, class, and religion, but also with its relationship with blackness.   However Black American Muslim foundations go back further, with memories of African Muslims enslaved in the America, even predating the formation of the United States. There are  also Sunni communities dating back to the 60s, such as Dar al-Islam movement. Some communities have origins much earlier, such as Quba Institute with roots in the 1930s Izideen village in New Jersey. Yet, consistently, there continues to be a portrayal of Islam as a foreign religion, with only internationalist interests. For over a century, some Black Americans have looked to African cultural legacies, addressed local issues, and have maintained transnational networks and ties, to articulate religious thought that is African, Islamic, and uniquely American.

While it is true that Black American Muslims were often drawn to Islam in an attempt to articulate their own cultural identity outside of the dehumanizing ascribed identity of Black inferiority, Black American Islam is thoroughly embedded in the American tradition. From the proto-Islam movements of the early 20th century, to the Black separatist movements of the 1960s, heterodox communities, and orthodox communities with leaders from or trained abroad, many Muslim communities sought to address social ills in America and globally. In particular, racism, economic and social inequality, economic exploitation, and family instability are on the main agenda of many Black American Muslim leaders. Before 9/11, some of the most prominent voices in American Islam were African Americans, including Warith Deen Muhammad and Siraaj Wahaj. Their status as citizens afforded them the privilege to critique American society and foreign policy, without compromising their Americaness. The protest tradition of many leaders helped forge a space for the next generation of immigrant and descendant of immigrant Muslims Americans to assert themselves in the public sphere. Following the events of 9/11, there has been an increasing silencing of Black American Muslim voices: a combination of little to no media acknowledgment of BAM’s as well as a systemic neglect on the part of immigrant Muslims. Over time, Black American spokespeople were gradually eclipsed as national Muslim organizations with strong immigrant interests sought to assert their agendas and provide the dominant narrative of immigrants assimilating to American values.

In contrast to the hegemonic narrative that has rendered them invisible, Black American Muslims are  vital to the health of this diverse Muslim community.  They have also continued to make great strides politically, socially, and culturally. This includes two Black Congressmen, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, the growing prominence of intellectuals and scholars, most notably feminist scholar, Amina Wadud, and Aminah Beverly McCloud, who wrote African American Islam,  Sherman Abdul-Hakeem Jackson, and Zaid Shakir. There are also many young scholars, such as Jamilah Karim, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, and Intisar Rabb. There is a large wave of Black American Muslim leaders who have demonstrated mastery of Islamic sciences and have graduated from Muslim institutions of higher learning, including Abdullah Ali, who earned a degree from  Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes. Black American Muslims have made cultural gains including a feature length film, “Mooz-lum,” and prominent Hip Hop artists, including but not limited to Lupe Fiasco, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).  The Abdullah brothers shared their story of taking time off from from the NFL to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj). The fencer,  Ibtihaj Muhammad, was the first Muslim woman to compete for the United States in an international competition and win a medal. Black American Muslims are very much part of the fabric of America and often play a daily role in interfaith dialogue, as many of them have family and loved ones who are non-Muslim.

Black American Muslims have used their social capital to critique American foreign policy, Islamophobia, and erosion of American civil liberties. As a group, Black American Muslims are far from nativists, as many identify with and relate to  numerous international and transnational Muslim communities. They are much more likely to attend a mosque in which another group dominates, showing their willingness to assimilate into an immigrant dominant mosque. Black American Muslims participate anti-war protests, critique extra-judicial killings through drone strikes in Chad, Mali, Yemen, and Pakistan, raise money for war refugees in Syria and alleviate suffering in natural disasters in Somalia and Pakistan. Yet  pressing social issues in their home communities, such as economic inequality, street violence, and family instability, play a large role in their everyday lives. Crime, poverty, and marriage are common issues raised in the Black American Muslim discourse from the minbar to the lecture hall. These issues also shape their outlook, which in turn causes them to be empathetic to the plight of others at home and abroad.

Perhaps the flexibility of thought can be tied to the Black American  Muslim identity, which is comprised of multiple intersections.  They are connected to many faiths and ethnic groups as part of this nation building project that we call United States of America. They are connected to many faiths and people who were either forcibly or willingly migrated to other lands  as part of the African Diaspora. They find connections with people on the African continent, and Black communities in South America and the Caribbean. They are also connected to people all over the world in  a multi-ethnic global community,  ummah. These connections have given Black American Muslims a unique juncture to relate to and speak on various issues and causes. Black American thinkers continue to be influential in defining American Muslim thought, as they connect their day to day lives with Muslims globally.

It seems to be willful ignorance on the part of the media, scholars, and some organizations to overlook these important contributions and connections.  The occlusion of Black Americans despite the continual relevancy of Black American Muslim thought makes it especially important to document this  intellectual heritage.  Indeed, we must go beyond documenting the life histories of major Muslim leaders and begin to study transformations in Muslim American thought. I look forward to the next wave of scholars who study Black American Muslims, such as Donna AustonZaheer Ali, and others who will shed light on roots of Black American Islam. These scholars can help us look at the ways in which Black American Muslims drew upon their intersecting identities in their interpretations of textual traditions in ways that address their global and local issues. I look forward to future studies of our rich intellectual traditions and the insights  that these brilliant scholars can bring to the discussion about American Islam.

Nana Asma’u: A Spark Who Continues to Illuminate

Nana Asma'u-1

Living as a Muslim minority in the West, I have often felt frustrated by religious intolerance, but also from a community  that does not fully honor the rights that are accorded to women in Islam or provide many outlets for women to become scholars. This was the case in late 18th century West Africa, in what is now modern day Northern Nigeria, when  Uthman Dan Fodio criticized oppressive customs and encouraged female education. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio was a product of her father’s commitment to quality Islamic education for women. She became a legend in her own right and through her writings and education movement, ‘Yan Taru, she has inspired countless women for generations.

 

As a Nigerian with dual American and British citizenship, researcher Rukayat Modupe Yakub is aware of the legacy of Nana Asma’u. Rukayat points outs, “For so many Muslims Nana Asma’u is still unknown, but for those who are familiar with her she was an educator, writer and poet who was passionate about education, For this reason you find schools in places like Nigeria named after her.” In addition to her poetry and education movement, Nana Asm’au is also considered an Islamic leader who was known for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was fluent in Arabic, Hausa, and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. Like her father  and brothers Muhammad Bello and Abdullahi, Nana Asma’u was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. She wrote to keep her father’s memory alive in the minds of the people and in support of her brother Muhammad Bello’s  Caliphate. At 27, she was given the task of organizing her father’s corpus of works, all while overseeing a household of several hundred people and ensuring that they were provided for.

 

Jean Boyd gained access to her works in 1975 and later wrote The Caliph’s Sister, which provides a detailed biography of Nana Asma’u’s life and legacy. Jean Boyd collaborated with Beverly Mack to compile her poetry and religious treatises in Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864). The book compiles her impressive body of poems and treatises in Arabic, the Fula language, and Hausa. Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd also co-wrote a book which analyzes the social and political function of many of her poems titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. 

 

Rukayat says that Nana Asma’u continues to serve as an important inspiration because “She was involved in social work and had political clout, she was a mother and wife, sister of the head of state, daughter of a legendary a political and spiritual leader, she could have had any life she wanted but she choose to be of service.” Around 1830, Nana Asma’u trained a group of women to travel around the Sokoto Caliphate to educate women. Each woman in this cadre held the title jaji  (leader of the caravan) to designate their role as female leaders.

 

One hundred and eighty years later, Dylia bin Hamadi Camara is one such Jaji who explains, “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.” Jaji Dylia explains that the methodology of learning that Nana Asma’u develop still educates men, women, and children. In the United States, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable trust has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California with 33 women in intensive training and intensive seminars and classes which are open to the public.* Teachers like Jaji Dylia travel internationally and use email, teleconferencing, and text messaging to educate their students on classical Islam. Preparing for a trip to Guinea, Dylia stated her next goal is to translate Nana Asma’u’s teachings into French because the Francophone world has largely been unaware of this rich legacy. My hope is that we begin to learn more and more about the named and unnamed women who have been responsible for educating our ummah. They have passed on a rich legacy, one that reminds me that even when faced with the greatest challenges, we  as women can be brilliant and provide guiding lights for others.  

You can read find other stories of inspirational Muslim women, along with this one,  in   the February edition SISTERS magazine 
*Jaji Dylia updated us and told us that Yan Taru trust has chapters in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland , Florida and Massachusetts. She also has some students in Toronto who are not Yan Taru. She is currently in Benin, where she also has students.
To date, Dylia translated Tanbeeh l Ghafileen  and prays that Allah grants her the himma to translate even more in the future, insha’Allah.

 

The Critical Thinking Muslim

                                                                                                —Image from ModDB 

“Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used.” – Carl Sagan

The Muslim world possesses a wealth of knowledge, especially in regards devotional literature, theology, and jurisprudence, yet we have not transformed our knowledge into thoughtful and well-executed ways of addressing our most pressing needs. Muslim communities throughout the world face a plethora of problems: poverty, authoritarianism, civil war, neo-colonialism, occupation, sectarianism, sexual exploitation, corruption, social inequality, civil war, natural disasters, etc. Even American Muslims, who are largely shielded from these perils, are challenged. We face a number of issues: cronyism, crime, domestic violence, poverty, ineptly run institutions, sexism, tribalism, infighting, isolationism, Islamophobia, and an inability to address the needs of marginalized members of our community. The American Muslim community is increasingly literate, with unprecedented access to traditional scholarship and information. Islamic institutions of learning are filled to the brim. Although the American Muslim community is predominantly middle class and highly literate, we somehow still seem ill equipped and are stuck in a quagmire (Pew). We are unable to talk to each other, work together, and develop a common vision. That special something is missing and that something is Critical thinking.

As Muslims, the command to “seek knowledge” is almost like a mantra. But how often are we encouraged to think on a higher level, let alone think critically? This is especially important to think about considering how God speaks of comprehension and thinking in the Quran. Tafakkur تفكر is the reflexive form of the root فكر, which means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder, muse, speculate. Tafakkur means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder muse speculate revolve in one’s mind, think over, contemplate, and consider. It is mentioned in the Quran 17 times. In Surah A-Rum verse 8 Allah says:

Do they not contemplate within themselves? Allah has not created the heavens and the earth and what is between them except in truth and for a specified term. And indeed, many of the people, in [the matter of] the meeting with their Lord, are disbelievers. (Sahih International)

The word for “Intellect” is ‘Aql عقل, meaning sense, sentience, reason, understanding, comprehension, discernment, insight, rationality, mind, intellect, intelligence. The verb form that we will see commonly used in Qur’an is عقل to be endowed with (the faculty of) reason, be reasonable, have intelligence, to be in one’s senses, be conscious, to realize, comprehend, and understand. In the 49 references of the word in the Qur’an, God often speaks of the disbelievers who do not comprehend.
In Surah Baqarah verse 276, Allah says:

And when they meet those who believe, they say, “We have believed”; but when they are alone with one another, they say, “Do you talk to them about what Allah has revealed to you so they can argue with you about it before your Lord?” Then will you not reason? (Sahih international)

Another important Arabic word that corresponds to critical thinking is the word for logic, منطق which means the faculty of speech, manner of speech, eloquence, diction, enunciation, logic. All three terms, are important to consider when we think of critical thinking. And, I will discuss later, we will see how Muslim scholars employed critical thinking in their struggle to determine what God intended for us to do when an issue was not explicitly stated in the Quran or Hadith literature. Critical thinking implies:

  •  that there is a reason or purpose to the thinking, some problem to be solved or question to be answered.
  • analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information (CTILAC)

Without these two, we were seriously hamstrung. While having the faculty for critical thinking, our community has either ignored its tradition of critical thinking or underdeveloped due to reactionary thinking. As a result, we are a bit hamstrung by our own intellectual deficiencies. I say this with all respect, because we have many knowledgeable people, but they are not good problem solvers and their analysis and evaluation of information is lacking.
As a result, we hit a number of roadblocks. Many Muslims see Islam as a monolith and try to impose their rigid and authoritarian models on others. Our leaders are unable to come up with solutions to problems that were never imagined by classical or early modern legal and religious scholars. Individuals with little experience in non-profit development or leadership, build institutions with little understanding of how to meet social needs. And lay members of our community lock horns in heated theological and juristic debates that take away from a sense of fellowship and coherent communities. Our communities are fragmented by endless polemics where labels and plastic words substitute for real engagement with our differences and our commonalities. All of these problems come about because critical thinking in Islamic studies and devotional education is not something that is valued within our community. Despite our undervaluing of it, there is a great need for critically thinking Muslims, from your average lay member of the community, leaders, and scholars.

If we understand our own legacy of critical thinking and continue to develop critical thinking at all levels of devotional and Islamic education, Muslims will be better equipped to deal with our most daunting challenges. Before going into our legacy of critical thinking, it is important to understand how the term is currently used. The term “Critical Thinking” encompasses a wide array of ways of thinking and processing information. Scriven and Paul write, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” In my experience of teaching, from a high school to college level classes, the most important tool I have tried to help my students develop has been critical thinking. One of the best ways of seeing critical thinking in action was to have students write research papers with sound arguments. That is because “in essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.)” (Adsit). But I often found that most students lacked not only discipline and curiosity, but also an interest in developing their higher order thinking abilities. Instead, they often focused on trying to get the right answer, rather than learning to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. When students don’t think well, they don’t write well. Writing is a higher order level of thinking, but anyone can write without thinking, just as someone can speak without thinking on a subject. But eloquent and logical speeches and well written papers reflect disciplined critical thinking. And both can be subject to critique by others who are keen to see logical fallacies, misuse of sources, or failure to include other factors.

Critical thinking is something that develops with practice. It is something we have to train for. Scriven and Paul write that critical thinking is a set of skills that help us “process and generate information and beliefs.” They also a “habit,” or inclination based on intellectual commitment, “of using those skills to guide behavior.” Critical thinking helps an individual recognize the following:

i. patterns and provides a way to use those patterns to solve a problem or answer a question
ii. errors in logic, reasoning, or the thought process
iii. what is irrelevant or extraneous information
iv. preconceptions, bias, values and the way that these affect our thinking. that these preconceptions and values mean that any inferences are within a certain context
v. ambiguity – that there may be more than one solution or more than one way to solve a problem.” (CTILAC)

Critical thinking is not limited to subjects, so religious thinking has also benefited from critical thinking and in fact, our own tradition of scholarship shines due to our classical medieval scholars’ commitment to critical thinking. One very insightful friend of mine reminded me that we go to college and pay for the skills that our classical scholars had developed. While people outside of the academy have natural inclinations towards certain aspects of critical thinking, often those skills are sharpened and refined during the process of learning a discipline. There is a stark difference between the ways someone like Suhaib Webb discusses a topic, drawing on his years of study and a lay member of the community. People recognize disciplines such as astrophysics and medicine, but often experts on subjects involving in the human experience are not as respected. And people will delve into these subjects without the requisite critical skills or mental rigor to truly engage with them. I found this out as I went into graduate school and developed my field of expertise on Islam in Africa and African History. Friends and family members would discuss a subject and if somehow my view did not agree with theirs and I explained my stance, I would experience their resentment. I learned to be quiet for the sake of peace, even if a loved one was speaking on an issue they were largely ignorant about. Our own willful ignorance in our community is especially detrimental to developing critical thinking. This is especially the case in terms of how some groups of Muslims overlook the 1400 year legacy of critical thinking and scholarship that has allowed our tradition to maintain continuity without a central body or leader to guide it.

Before I took my first course on Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudents) at Zaytuna in the late 90s, I had no idea about the rich legacy of critical thinking in Islam. I learned about the skills qualified jurists needed to draw on the Quran, Sunna (Prophetic traditions), scholarly consensus, and qiyas (analogy) to come up with rulings on new issues. That basic class whet my appetite on the study of Usul al-Fiqh (Sources of Islamic Jurisprudence), which I later studied a bit in graduate school. Usul al-Fiqh is concerned with the source of Islamic law and methodology in which legal rules are deduced. Kamali explains that the process by which scholars use to deduce sources to try to understand Shariah, Holy Law, is ijtihad. (1). The rules of fiqh use various methods of reasoning, including “analogy (qiyas), juristic preference (istihsan), presumption of continuity (istishab), and rules of interpretations and deduction.” In essence, Kamali points out that Usul al-Fiqh provides standard criteria for deriving correct rulings from the sources (2). However this standard of criteria is now overlooked by many who use ijtihad to come up with convenient rules that can lead to one of two extremes: ultra-liberal positions based on Western inclinations and not on Quran and Sunnah or ultra-conservative positions that purport to be derived strictly from Quran and Sunnah but violate the spirit of Islam.

Before delving further into this discussion, I must admit that I feel woefully ill equipped to engage in any Usuli debate on some religious issue. However, I find that many Muslims will become locked into debates that were never solved by our most gifted jurists. Often lay Muslims, with access to translations of the Quran and volumes of hadith, in addition to treatises and polemics, will derive their own rulings on religious matters based on their understanding of a Quranic verse or a hadith. According to Kamali, historically “the need for methodology became apparent when unqualified persons attempt to carry out ijtihad, and the risk of error and confusion in the development of Shari‘ah became a source of anxiety for the ‘ulama” (4). As a champion of inquiry and free thinking, it is difficult for me to openly admit that I understand their anxiety. But the reality is that our community is struggling with a crisis of authority, and that is mainly who has the authoritative voice in interpreting Islamic law.

The independent, thinking Muslim may feel like he/she is engaging in critical thinking when approaching the highest sources. However, a critical piece is missing. Ebrahim Moosa writes “… untrained in the various exegetical and interpretive traditions, lay people are not aware that a complex methodology is applicable to materials dealing with law, even if these are stated in the revelation” (121). Most lay Muslims are not trained in the language or historical context to know whether a verse was a commandment to a specific group of people at a specific time or to all Muslims of all times. Nor do they always know whether a verse was simply a statement of fact at a historical moment. Similarly, Muslims will use a statement of the Prophet (s.a.w.) without any context or understanding if it was a religious injunction and apply it to their lives. While ignoring aspects of that scholastic tradition, they will draw on it to reject a hadith and say it is da’if (weak). Or they might draw on the polemical writings of a classical author to dismiss the ideas of another tradition. Yet, they often draw on these traditions in sloppy ways that result in more confusion. Sadly, this is because many of the polemical books were written, not for lay people, but for other people who have the requisite skills and training in evaluating and analyzing sources and discipline in reason and logic.

This does not mean that a lay member of the community solely rely upon someone else’s critical thinking, rather that we recognize our own limitations in our knowledge and training and leave open some room for ambiguity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so willing to condemn others if we don’t have the skills to even assess the validity of their stances. This requires humility which many, me included, often lack. Humility is an important part of sincerity, which is an important component of purifying our intentions before going about any endeavor. When I first converted to Islam and read my few dozen books, I felt a lot more sound in my knowledge than I do now. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know or my deficiencies in training. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The less arrogant I feel about my own knowledge and the more in awe I feel of those scholars who wrote without laptops and cut and paste. Even as we have unprecedented levels of literacy in our community, we must fight narrow mindedness and gathering up of information without being able to judge and assess or use that information for the greater good. And through developing our critical thinking, that Islam is more expansive, rather than restrictive and reactionary. Our greater comprehension through this intellectual struggle will be a truly enriching and humbling experience.

[Note: In order to keep this article digestible, I will continue to develop the themes in later posts to explore other aspects of critical thinking in our community. So, please consider this a part 1 of a longer series. ]

References
Adsit, Karen I. “Teaching Critical Thinking Skills”
http://academic.udayton.edu/legaled/ctskills/ctskills01.htm
retrieved August 13, 2011

CTILAC Faculty Critical Thinking & Information Literacy Across the Curriculum http://bellevuecollege.edu/lmc/ilac/critdef.htm11/18/98. Retrieved from Internet August 13, 2011

Foundation for Critical Thinking “Critical Thinking Professional Development for K-12” http://www.criticalthinking.org/professionalDev/k12.cfm
retrieved from the internet August 20, 2011

Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, UK, 2003

Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam” Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. One World Publication, 2003

Pew Research. “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” May 22, 2007

The Quran: Sahih International Almunatada Alislami; Abul Qasim Publishing House http://quran.com

Scriven, Michael and Paul, Richard. “A Working Definition of critical thinking by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul” http://lonestar.texas.net/~mseifert/crit2.html
Retrieved August 10, 2010

A Virtuous Life

Why is it that every khutbah, every lecture, and every conference plays out more like a pep rally where we are mere spectators and fans, instead of  the players who should be training and practicing for the big game? And we keep wondering why our team is losing. That’s because none of us are in shape, we can’t decode the playbook, worse, we don’t know how to land that shot. Okay, I’ll stop the sports metaphor because I was never good at team sports. The whole point is that our community life is not necessarily helping us truly transform, improving our conduct and living good, wholesome, and happy lives.  What constitutes happiness and a good life is an ancient question and people have come up with different answers. But the most consistent in their views have been philosophers and religious thinkers. Even during the ancient period, both have agreed that living a good life entails living a life of virtue. A virtuous life is not just about the ability to follow a rule book or  perform rhetorical dexterity to find legal loopholes to justify our means to that end. The dominant approach that Muslims have taken towards virtue is the rule book or laundry list approach. However, this approach is often self-defeating, making us focus on the virtue without exploring what’s wrong with us. This is the same approach that Muslims take to the sunnah, where we focus on traditions and practices that appeal to us, hoping to be cured of certain ills. Often, we are treating mere symptoms, rather than curing the disease.  It is time we begin a holistic approach to bettering ourselves, treating both the symptoms and eradicating the diseases that are destroying the quality of our own lives and our community life overall. Moral and personal development  should be the focus of living a virtuous life or good life. Living a good life is based on universal principles that we find in Islam, as well as many other faiths.  There are many tools  to achieve that end, many found in Islam, but also wisdom that we can draw from ancient sages, philosophers, and even insights from our own society. We should not ignore any tool that can help us with personal mastery.

While many Muslims are concerned with righteousness, we seem to be confused about what does that truly mean. And this is why we should begin to think about virtue and ethics to understand the big picture or (كلٌيات). Before we begin throwing around the term virtue and ethics, let’s first look at what do these terms mean:

vir·tue   [vur-choo] –noun
1. moral excellence; goodness; righteousness.
2. conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude.
3. chastity; virginity: to lose one’s virtue.

eth·ics   [eth-iks] –plural noun
1.( used with a singular or plural verb ) a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
2.the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
3.moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confide

As I stated earlier, religious thinkers and philosophers have mulled over virtue and ethics for thousands of years. Socrates dedicated the latter part of his life to the investigation the development of moral character. Plato recounts a dialogue that Socrates had with Meno about the nature of virtue. Meno asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught, whether it is something that someone can practice, or whether it is something that someone is born with. Socrates believed that there was a link between virtue and knowledge. Only, he believed that people aren’t taught things, they simply remember what their soul had forgotten. If this gets confusing, just remember that Socrates believed that the soul was immortal and that people were born over and over again. Therefore, they just had to remember what they knew before. But, let’s ignore this part of his philosophy and focus on his idea that in order for someone to be virtuous, that person has to have sufficient knowledge. Two arguments that back this up are as follows:

  1. All rational desires are focused on what is good; therefore if one knows what is good, he or she not act contrary.
  2. If one has non-rational desires, but knowledge is sufficient to overcome them, so if one is knowledgeable of goodness, he will not act irrationally. [7]

Socrates believes that no rational person would act in a way that was harmful to his/herself. Maybe people are mistaken in their knowledge? I guess Socrates didn’t account for atrocities like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. Harming someone else destroys our own humanity. So moving on to the next group of Hellenistic thinkers. The Stoics were sort of the inheritors of Socratic views on rational thought and virtue. They believed that human beings by nature were rational animals, and therefore it was natural to live “the life acording to reason.” Virtue was excellence and according to the divine law of the cosmos.  John Stobaeus the following as stoic goals in life:

  • Zeno: living in agreement
  • Cleanthes: living in agreement with nature
  • Chrysippus: to live according to the experience of the things that happen by nature
  • Diogenes: to be reasonable in the selection and rejection of natural things
  • Archedemus: to live completing all the appropriate acts
  • Antipater: to live invariably selecting natural things and rejecting unnatural things

Stobeaus goes on to define the four main virtues of the stoics:

Prudence: (concerns appropriate acts) knowledge of what one is to do and not to do and what is neither
Temperance: (concerning human impulses) knowledge of what is to be chosen and avoided and what is neither
Justice: (concerning distributions) knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person
Courage: (concerning standing firm) knowledge of what is terrible and what is not terrible and what is neither. [8]

These are all reasonable enough and can be found in many traditions, but who would like to live like a stoic, unaffected by passions or hardships? I suppose a lot of people, which is the appeal of Zen Buddhism for many people. Without going in uncharted waters (at least for me),  let’s move on to the lineage of philosophy and ethics within Muslim traditions.

Socratic thought profoundly influenced medieval Muslim philosophers, the Muatazilites. But I won’t go into the controversies surrounding their philosophical school, especially in their argument that one can derive God’s laws without revelation. Instead, I bring them up to point out that in using their Greek influenced dialectical methods, scholars like Imam Ghazali were able to safeguard and in many ways revive Islam. The strength of Islamic institutions and thought was in applying universal Islamic principles to local institutions or cultural forms to produce something that was relevant in societies across the globe and over 1400 years. But since Imam Ghazali was so successful in shutting down the philosophers that very few Muslims have ventured back in the territory of exploring virtue through reason, and not just solely from revelation and hadith traditions. The unfortunate consequence is that we are back to the laundry list approach to dealing with virtue in Islam. We are a community concerned with ethics, but without an ethical system.

A few western scholars have approached Azhari scholars over the need to consider ethical systems. Some of the traditional scholars were amenable to this idea, but perhaps we all lack the training in performing the task. That doesn’t mean that we can develop the requisite skills, especially with some effort.  I think this would be a fruitful direction to go in because over the past few years, I have often wondered how is that many religious people can do things that are harmful to themselves and others, but still consider themselves moral and receive no censure by the religious community. In many conversations with friends, peers, and loved ones, the answer came to the lack of  a consistent ethical system. The basic assumption is that if something is allowed in Islam that it is the right thing to do at any given point in time. People often overlook the question of whether something was right in one given circumstance could be wrong in another, and what guiding principles should we draw upon to determine a proper course of action. The salad bar approach to the religion undermines holistic development and moral consistency. Further, many adherents have used Islam to justify their own shortcomings, in effect deluding themselves with self righteousness. This is how we have people hiding behind, beneath, and under the guise of religion.

Recalling Socrates, I do think that even though many Muslims rejected the Greek influence in Muatazilite thought, they still seem to be influenced by his intellectualism.  Tariq Ramadan writes:

Islamic literature is full of injunctions about the centrality of an education based on ethics and proper ends. Individual responsibility, when it comes to communicating, learning and teaching is central to the Islamic message. Muslims are expected to be “witnesses to their message before people”, which means speaking in a decent way, preventing cheating and corruption, and respecting the environment. [9]

Muslims are obsessed with knowledge and knowing. We love books, classes, lectures, debates, pamphlets, websites, forums, podcasts and blogs that make us feel knowledgeable. The assumption is that correct knowledge leads to better practice.  The problem is that true knowledge is not just limited to thought or reason. But knowing how to act sometimes takes practice and constant strength training.

If you want to really know how to play basketball, you can’t just read a bunch of books. You have to get on the court, practice making shots, until your hand-eye coordination has figured out how to make that perfect arch to land the shot. At first, you must be very conscious of each action,  how to dribble, how to pass, rebound,  and with time things come natural. So, while Socrates believed that knowledge was the key to virtue, virtue actually comes from something you practice over and over again until you get it right. Of course, knowledge is essential, but one has to inculcate that knowledge so that we embody it. Action is essential in applying that knowledge. This is why Muslims perform salat, fast, go on hajj and are reminded to constantly perform remembrance. These actions reinforce the declaration of faith. And we do all of those things to achieve one important goal, pleasing our Lord.

You must be aware of the goal you are aiming, so that when you miss the shot you understand what you did wrong. If you have no knowledge of your goal and are unreflective, then you will keep making that same bad shot over and over. I admit, I slipped back into the sports metaphor and, honestly, I was never good at basketball. I’m a sore sport, but I have trained and gotten in shape for different reasons. Over the years, I have some modicum of self-discipline because of my deep commitment to self-development. I believe in setting goals. As Muslims, we should be aware of what our true goal is, and that is to be successful in this life and the hereafter. Outside of Imam Ghazali’s account of his spiritual crisis, I haven’t found too many detailed stories of how individual Muslims conquered their own shortcomings. So, I turn to my own cultural context to see who has developed systems of personal development, especially focusing on moral development.


Benjamin Franklin comes to mind not because I live in Philadelphia and there are statues of him everywhere, but rather because he created a self improvement program long before the self-help craze of the late 20th century.  Franklin’s list of virtues and his efforts to gain mastery over them are an interesting case study. Franklin listed thirteen virtues that he considered to be the most important and they are as follows:

1 . Temperance. Eat not to .  not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought.Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
11 . Tranquillity.Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

The thing that made Franklin so important in this area was his effort at tracking his progress on these virtues, with the aim of mastering each one.  I think it is important to note how self-reflexive he was in this process. This was all about personal accountability. At the end of the day, he’d do an inventory of his actions. If he violated one of the virtues, he checked it off. Initially, he had a lot of check marks. But over time, the check marks became fewer and fewer. Eventually he gave up the keeping a daily log, but he continued the path of self-improvement throughout his life. For some, this may seem a bit OCD. But for others, it may be a useful tool in taking inventory of ourselves. There are even people today who have a similar chart on their iPhones. You can download the chart and some people have incorporated similar charts in self-help programs.

Now this takes us to the self-help industry. According to wikipedia,  “the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, is said to constitute a 2.48-billion dollars-a-year industry [5]. Samuel Smiles coined the term “self-help” in 1882, in his book, Self-Help [4] While there are many controversies surrounding the self-help industry, and many valid critiques including the psycho-babble and placebo effect of some of the more dubious methods such as subliminal programming, there is great merit to self-improvement. People can transform themselves. One of the most powerful self-help programs, is Alcoholics Anonymous.  The thing that I find very telling of their success can be found in the  original Twelve Steps:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. [6]

First, the admit that they don’t have control over the urges, they turn to a higher power for help, they take a serious inventory of their own shortcoming, repent and try to make amends to those whom they hurt. Importantly, through the constant process of prayer and correcting wrongs, AA members can have a spiritual awakening. In many ways this is a process of repentance that can be found in Islam: leaving the wrong action, making sincere repentance to our Lord for sinning against ourselves and Him, and asking forgiveness of another person if we harmed him or her. Repentance is a great blessing in Islam, it is an opportunity to experience Allah’s Grace and Mercy. Many people have achieved spiritual awakenings after a fall from grace.

Still a believer is not to be content with cyclical sinning. We are all taught the three stations of faith: submission ( Ihsan إسلام), belief (Iman إمان), and finally perfecting faith (Ihsan إحسان). Only through self-improvement and refining can an individual achieve Ihsan. Ihsan is the highest state of faith, where we live our lives knowing God can see us, even though we cannot see Him. This type of consciousness keeps us on our best behavior. But to have this consciousness at all times, we have to go through spiritual and moral development. In Islam, the method of spiritual development is called Purification of the heart, some calling it Tazkiyyah and others calling it Tasawwuf. Without going into the controversies surrounding Sufi/Salafi polemics, let us just note that the term tazkiyya has Quranic roots meaning to purify. Tasawwuf is a term that came later and is often associated with institutional developments in mystical brotherhoods. Still, the purpose was the same, to purify and improve the moral and spiritual standing of the adherent.

There are a great many virtues listed in the Quran.  As pointed out earlier, many Muslims have created a laundry list of Islamic virtues.  There is no shortage of literature on traits that Muslims should exemplify. And these are are beautiful and useful in improving ourselves.  Muslim scholars are also concerned with what keeps Muslims from improving their station. Scholars, such as ibn Jawziyya and Imam Ghazali, have listed out several impediments to that refining process through tazkiyya or tasawwuf:

  • Neglect or forgetfulness
  • Submitting to one’s own passions (Nafs or Hawa)
  • Shaytan
  • Bad company or evil environment
  • Arrogance or self-delusion
  • Love of the material world
  • Despair

Or they can be found in the four poisons of the heart.

  • Excessive Talking
  • Unrestrained glances
  • Too much food
  • Keeping Bad Company [3]

Sometimes that list of Muslim virtues is so long that an individual can feel very overwhelmed.  Or we may think that avoiding one of the poisons  or overcoming one of the impediments will cure us from a spiritual or emotional ailment. The list approach may blind us from looking at what is really wrong with ourselves. This is why I felt that it may be appropriate to try to consider some patterns that can give us a big picture approach. The Quran tells us:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. [33:35]

This verse from Surah Ahzab is  a good place to start in trying to find key virtues: belief, obedience, truthfulness, patience, humility, charity, abstinence and moderation, chastity, and mindfulness of God. I also began searching in the Quran to find the names of people who God is pleased with and who are successful. The  most common names I found are:

مؤمنون Mu’minun- Those who believe

صابرون Sabirun- Those who are steadfast/patient

صالحون Salihun- Those who are righteous

مخلصون Mukhlisun- Those who are sincere

محصنون muhsinun- Those who are good-doers

متقون Mutaqun- Those who have taqwa (scrupulousness)

خشعون Khashi’un- Those who are humble

Who wouldn’t want to be among those whom the Creator is pleased with? Who wouldn’t want to be forgiven and receive a great reward from our Lord? I believe in the coherence of the Quran and the importance of coherence in our lives. This is why I think that it is important that we look beyond the laundry list approach and focus on the key virtues outlined in the Quran. These virtues can be guiding lights in determining our course of action, leading us to live richer, fuller and happier lives. This is why it is important to explore each of these terms, to consider how they can guide us not just to a moralistic life, but a virtuous life. Some of the explorations may lead to dead ends, but with patience, dialogue, and careful consideration, they may lead to something fruitful. I hope you join me in this journey, as my aim is to explore virtue in Islam in search of an ethical system.

References:
[1] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/franklin-virtue.html
[2] http://www.islamic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Tazkiyyah/station_of_muraqabah.htm
[3] http://www.islamic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Tazkiyyah/four_poisons_of_the_heart.htm
[4] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1882smiles.html
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-help
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program
[7]http://personal.ecu.edu/mccartyr/ancient/athens/Socrates.htm
[8]http://philosophy.ucdavis.edu/mattey/phi143/stoaeth.htm
[9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/feb/23/ethics-citizenship-islam

FOUR STATEMENTS BAM CONVERTS MAKE THAT UNDERMINE THEIR FINANCIAL SECURITY

Sorry for the long delay. It is not just that teaching is overwhelming, but I avoid writing when I feel negative about the current condition of the American Muslim community. I can’t even begin to talk about the abysmal state of Muslims abroad. I know there are hopeful stories and inspiring people, but sometimes I’m left speechless. I didn’t want to sound like a whining Muslim; on the flip side, I didn’t want to sound like a braggart by publicly taking stock of my accomplishments. My reticence is beside the point of this article. So, I’m going to go just for it and make a major splash back into blogging. I can foresee this causing some major problems, however I will refrain from wasting time in back and forth debating. I just have to speak my mind because we have to address our dire condition.

I see many bright young African American Muslims struggle finding their place in the community. Often, our place in a community is determined by how others see our contribution. Our Ummah is not color blind, nor is it class blind. And many of our immigrant brothers and sisters come from societies where class plays perhaps a larger role than ethnicity. So our relative position on the social economic scale factors into the respect that our brethren afford us. So, if we, as a community, are a destitute group, we will have little clout in the discussion on Islam in America. In our brethren’s minds, we are bringing nothing to the table. Many Black American Muslims are struggling economically, unable to finish school or find financial security. The common perception is that most African American Muslims come from impoverished backgrounds or are ex-cons struggling with reintegration in society. But this is not solely the case.

Contrary to popular perception, it is not only White American Muslims who have everything to lose by converting. Many Black American converts who come from Middle Class backgrounds are financially worse off than their parents. Many Muslim American converts, in reality, have made personal, economic, and career choices that have undermined their financial security. There are even second generation Black American Muslims who are worse off than their convert parents. But without an honest look, we may be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. First, we should understand that several of the people who were promised paradise were wealthy. There is nothing wrong with wealth, in and of itself. What matters is how we use it. Islam is not the new socialism. And perhaps some people read or misread Ali Shariati. Two, we should understand that secular education is important in our upward mobility. In fact, education is the primary reason why Muslims immigrated to America. So why should indigenous Muslims give up on America’s promise and become ineffectual? Why is it so few Black American Muslims are attending college for professional, advanced degrees, growing businesses, or finding financial security? And importantly, why have so many Black American Muslim initiatives faltered?
After almost 20 years, some of us are looking back at the choices we made in our personal lives and communities? What led us to make certain choices in our education and professional development? Where did we let others down? Where did we let ourselves down? What resources did we have to achieve important milestones in life? What networks and social ties did we fail to tap into? What sacrifices have we made in becoming Muslim. Did we make any misguided decisions? How can we repair the damage and create a better future for children and ourselves?

I developed a list to begin to explore these questions. This list is not to argue whether something is haram or not, but to discuss the influence of certain religious positions on our lives. What sacrifices are converts making that have a detrimental effect on our financial security? In the next few weeks, I plan on tackling some of these issues. I will show the fatwas that Western Muslims have received from scholars abroad. I will then try to find alternative positions that allow for some flexibility, or endeavors that, at minimum, try to address the challenges we all face in this society.

1. Don’t Deal non-Muslims (Kuffar), even Your Family and Childhood Friends.
This faulty thinking leads many young Muslims astray and alienates their family. Not only do we fail to listen to our family’s advice, thinking that they don’t have our best interest at heart, but we don’t build stronger ties of interdependence. You are not supposed to break family ties, but maintain them whether or not you share the same religion. How you treat your family and friends can have a huge impact on the so many people’s perception of Islam. But self-isolating ourselves can lead our family and friends to think we joined a Jonestown style al-Qaeda group. Importantly, while there are generous Muslims who are willing to provide a lending hand, your family is bound to sacrifice much more, offer you a place to live, or take care of you if your health falters.

Not only do they no longer have social networks that they can tap into such as fraternities, lodges, and professional organizations for contacts, but their old college and friendship networks become frayed due to lifestyle choices that our religions demands (i.e. no cocktail receptions or happy hour networking parties and mixers for networking events). Sometimes their classmates just don’t relate. Converts may even suffer strained relationships with their immediate and extended family. This can lead to them losing family financial support in school, marriage ceremonies, or business endeavors.

Second, we fail to form solid alliances with non-Muslims to achieve the greater good. Without a relationship of reciprocity, we find ourselves isolated an alone. Third, we often hire incompetent Muslims and foster paternalism. Some Muslims have an “I only patronize Muslims” policy. Meaning that they hire Muslim contractors who do shoddy jobs or rip them off. Out of aversion to taking your co-religionist to a kaffir court, many Muslims will just eat the loss, as opposed to making these businesses accountable. Also, our fear of backbiting will also keep us from slandering that Muslim who did a poor job or did us dirty by reporting them to the Better Business Bureau.

2. Your Education Will Corrupt You.
Basically, the only real education is sacred knowledge. Time and time again I have heard tales of bright Muslims not encouraged to finish school, but become students of knowledge. You can end up in a dusty place for a few months or wander aimlessly for a about a year. Unlike some of your Arab and Desi American friends who spend their year abroad, you likely did #1 and your family probably won’t help you out and get back on your feet. Honestly, we do need more scholars of Islam, and to be honest, Muftis and Fuqaha with a strong knowledge of minority fiqh and American society. However, does the community need thousands of young men and women with the equivalent of an elementary degree from a Muslim institution of learning abroad?

The irony is that many converts are discouraged from completing their secular education by foreign scholars and immigrants who are largely educated with college degrees. Immigrant children go to college. They become doctors, engineers, business professionals, executives, and doctors. Most African Americans don’t come from families with enough money to foot college tuition. Nor do many of us get a full on scholarship. The primary way that many African Americans finance their education is to take a student loan. And look online at the fatwa’s. Student loans are haram. The immigrant Muslim community in America is largely affluent. So, many have an option of not taking student loans. Very few Muslim organizations offer scholarships to off set the education costs. And Muslim lending institutions are primarily geared towards wealthy Muslim purchasing homes, not student loans. So, many Muslims shut the door to education
The reality is that we need men and women who have the skills and capital to help build our communities. We need skilled labor, infrastructure building, and strategic planning from people who are trained and educated. A higher education can help alleviate some of the greatest challenges our community faces. It will lead to better earnings, which will lead to stable living. Stable living leads to viable marriages, which will help build better neighborhoods. With the rubber stamp of “denial” Black American Muslims are left to flounder, unable to become contributing members of their community and society.

3. Don’t Plan Your Family or Get to Know Your Future Spouse, Because Allah is the Best of Planners
Black American Muslims suffer some of the worst divorce rates. Perhaps we should thank Allah that many of the marriages are religious, and not civil marriages, because if we knew the real statistics, we’d lose our minds. My rough estimate would be that 75% or more of African American marriages end up in divorce. The sad thing is that many of these broken marriages produce children who become scarred in the process.
Many converts have an idealized version of stranger marriages, arranged marriages, and even the marriage match. Depending on if the Muslim comes from a cultish community or not, he or she may be pressured into making an insane marriage choice. I have heard of a college age young woman pressed to marry a recently released ex-con. I have heard of a teenage girl forced to marry Middle Aged destitute man only to be a divorcee by the time she’s 17. I have heard of young men pressed to marry women they don’t know and have 3 kids by the time he realizes that his wife is mentally deranged. There are lots of crazy anecdotes. Many American Muslims marry really young, derailing their emotional and financial development. My young students are all proponents for youth marriages; however if they knew the challenges that they would face, they’d think twice.

Converts also come with our own cultural norms, which are contrary to the American Muslim norms of love and relationships, and emotional baggage. Some communities have a sit down. Others may organize marriage meet and greet, or even large conventions. There are online matrimonials, myspace, facebook, etc. But more often than not, the process of meeting someone is a nightmare. American Muslims have not yet developed the network to create opportunities for single Muslims getting to know each other. Also that baggage. It is impossible to just throw away our notions of love and marriage. Americans are used to a honeymoon period of dating and getting to know each other. Those wonderful memories of courtship and fun times create, at minimum, some nostalgia about those romantic moments. Even more destructive than our notions of love and romance is the greatest baggage African American converts bring into their Islam. And that is their promiscuity. This stems from our own insecurities, notions of manhood or femininity, and egos tied to sexual conquests. Few of us grew up with two happy, married parents. So, we don’t even know what to look for in a spouse. Many American Muslim marriages suffer from intimacy problems and love doesn’t always develop between the couple.

Muslims are sometimes discouraged form practicing birth control. With a tanking marriage and 7,8, 9, 10 kids, there are some serious financial implications.

4. Don’t Focus on the Dunyah, but the Hereafter.
Many see wealth building or social climbing as a worldly endeavor and they begin to make irrational economic decisions. There are two roots to this version of Black American asceticism: the first, stemming from the Black American protest tradition and the second stemming from abroad. In the protest tradition, middle Class values of education and career are White values. Some Black American Muslims transfer the notions of whiteness or “the man” into the unbelievers, “kuffar.” The motivation to reject this world and take on a life of poverty becomes a political choice, tied closely to identity politics. The second root of the Black American aversion towards higher education or professional careers is a foreign import. Some forthcoming studies show how the imposition of these ideas is both unintentional and intentional. Basically, some scholars who have little understanding of the social, economic, and historical condition of Black Americans discourage them from taking the one path to social mobility. These two factors combine to drive many African American Muslims into a faulty notion of asceticism. This form of asceticism, rejecting “worldly education” and “worldly careers,” is often a detriment to many Black American families.

The other problem with this statement is that it channels some of the most talented and charismatic, but maybe not so pious, members of our community into becoming religious professionals. Islam becomes the new hustle. Many of our brightest minds go into careers such as imam, public speaker, religious scholars, or teacher at an Islamic school, when maybe they would have been better as professionals, who donated their wealth and fundraising ability to create community centers and institutions. Instead of giving to the community, they are drawing an income from the community. Further, if we, as a community, discouraged our members from attaining a college degree, then we will have board members with no education, management, or organizational skills. Finally, while non-profit work is honorable, many Muslim non-profits pay a pittance. I’ve heard of Muslims going six weeks without pay from Islamic Institutions.

This list is not limited to African American converts. I know that other converts, and even children of immigrants, who get caught in this cycle. I hope that by bringing up these points we can begin to address these problems and come with some solutions. I work full-time in the Muslim community, and I may be rough and gruff sometimes, but I am solution oriented. My goal is to empower us to work for a positive change. Just like everyone else, I am tired of bemoaning the fate of Muslims in America. It is time we do something about it. While I think I have a few good ideas, I know many of you have many more. So, let’s get to work!