Post Election Reflection

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On Tuesday November 8th, 2016,  many of us were frozen with anxiety as we awaited the results of an  unprecedented presidential race with the two frontrunners, Hillary Clinton running as the Democratic Nominee and Donald Trump as the Republican nominee.  Due to the Electoral College system, Trump is the fifth elected president to win while losing the popular vote (Pew). The reactions among Muslim Americans are varied, some with shock while others, including  the first Muslim American Representative in Congress, Keith Ellison  predicted that Donald Trump could win. His election was a culmination of a very bitter presidential campaign that exposed the dark underside of America’s racial, gender, and class politics. From a racial justice framework, I am gravely concerned about the President Elect’s statements about Black Lives Matter, Muslim Americans, and Latinos. The slogan “Make America Great Again,”while nostalgic about America’s past,  triggered many  People of Color, especially  African Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans who historically faced the brutality of white supremacy enshrined in law. It is foreboding when International Human Rights Watch calls for the President Elect Donald Trump to govern with respect for rights and ACLU preparing to sue if Donald Trump implements his proposed policies.

Many people who voted for Trump were concerned about immigration, terrorism, the economy, and crime, while supporters of Clinton were  concerned about inequality, gun violence and the environment as serious problems (Pew). Without a question, this election highlighted the racial divide in this country, as the majority of White americans including the majority of White women, voted for Trump. They often using coded language around immigration and criminality for people of color.

My work at MuslimARC focuses on  diversity and  cultural competence training and  racial justice education. We are committed to  amplifying narratives, and advocating for those who will be most affected by legislation and policies. We stand in solidarity with racialized groups, including  Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, advocating for equal protection under the law. We find strength in our diversity, in our common bond due to our multiple intersecting identities that connect us to all of humanity.

I am concerned about the safety, civil liberties, and as well as access to quality healthcare, and quality education.  The uptick in hate crimes and racial and religious intolerance against Muslim Americans are a deep concern. Yet, I will face my fears with courage. We continue to speak truth to power and not be swayed by the temptation to fall in step with this tide. We should not work to appease those who obfuscate the truth for their own benefit.  Instead, we should continue to shed light on the truth, in how corporate interests and elites pit us against one another.

Many of us have aspirations that this country could achieve its promise of equality and freedom, that we can right our historical wrongs, by setting a new course towards guaranteeing every resident dignity.Deepa Iyer beautifully articulates this vision for a multi-cultural society in We Too Sing America. Much of the anxiety about crime, immigration, and jobs comes from the  demographic shift sis this country becomes majority minority. I repudiate divisive rhetoric, condemn acts of racial and religious intolerance, and appeal to our highest values and aspirations for this nation. I know our journey will be long, that we will be tried and tested. But this work, is a crucible of our faith in action. My work is to train leaders from amongst the people most affected to be better equipped to hold those in power accountable.  In this moment, I  renew my intention continue this work, to strengthen my  resolve to institutionalize racial justice work in Muslim communities. I remember the chapter of the Qur’an:

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ

وَالْعَصْرِ

إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ

In The Name of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful 1. “By Time”, 2. “Surely Humanity  is in loss,” 3. “Save those who believe and do good deeds, and enjoin on each other truth, and enjoin on each other patience.

I know we will face many challenges, but we cannot be complacent or resigned. For my MuslimARC family, I have been so encouraged to see you change things with your hands, with your words, and with your hearts.  For my partners in MuslimARC and all the the various organizations I’ve worked with over the past three years, I am proud of  your civic engagement, of your activism, your service to humanity,  and your continual dedication to the Creator. I am honored to be on the right side of history, of bringing Mercy to humanity.

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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.

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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.

Launching of MuslimARC

The past week has been a whirlwind. I am pleased to announce the launch of a non-profit organization Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative

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The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) is a volunteer-driven education organization. Launched in early 2014, our members came together on the issues of anti-blackness and racism in Muslim communities after witnessing and/or experiencing too much of it. Together, we are working to build and collect the tools needed to creatively address and effectively challenge anti-blackness and racism in Muslim communities. We are a group made up of imams, teachers, parents, lawyers, students, artists, and activists of all backgrounds, including varying ethnic and religious identities. Collectively, we organize Twitter hashtag conversations, crawl the web for scholarly materials, network with clergy, write articles, take classes, and examine our own privileges and biases while researching teaching methodology and community workshop models for use by the general public.

I put together a Storify to tell our organization’s birth story.

And today, February 12, 2014, we launched our first twitter talk FliersLarge

Pilgrimage for Life

Pilgrimage for life
Like many converts, I was drawn to Islam’s egalitarian message. Through Muslim student groups on college campuses and community life in various masajid,  I developed close friendships with Muslim women from all parts of the world. We were brought together by our mutual love for Allah and His Messenger.  The bonds that I developed with some of them gave me a sense of real belonging and acceptance that I had not felt with my high school friends and even member of my own family. But there were also  times when those cross cultural encounters brought to light some unsettling realities of racism and colorism. But by addressing our shortcomings we can meet the challenge and create communities that are more closely aligned with the example set by our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

Although language and cultural differences can create challenges to forming social bonds, perceptions of race and ethnic identity can have the greatest impact on how well some women are received by a community.  When asked how her ethnic identity influenced her integration into the Muslim community, Keziah. S. Ridgeway, an African American  high School Social Studies teacher, responded that her outgoing personality helped bridge the cultural divide. She noted, “however, as time wore on I did realize that many of the people that I hung out with had biases towards people who looked like myself.”  Safiyyah, a white American convert, said that her ethnicity as an Ashkenazi Jew influenced her integration because some Muslims were suspicious of her and others denied her cultural identity. She added that by extension of her African American husband, she has experienced discrimination. “We rarely get invited to the homes of immigrant Muslims. This is despite the fact that the Muslims in our mosque know us very well, and that my husband and I are active in our mosque.” Some argue that this is old world thinking and they place their hopes on the next generation.

In many Islamic schools, students socialize along racial lines,   repeating the social patterns of their own racially segregated Muslim communities. The language that many of the Arab American students use alienates a number of African American students. Kezia highlighted the common usage of the word abeed (Arabic for slave) to refer to African Americans. She said,  “their parents use it on a regular basis to describe African Americans. To them it’s just a cultural term and many don’t understand why it evokes anger from their Black counterparts.” In a Michigan school, when two weekend school teachers disciplined a child for using the term, the parents came to the child’s defense. Islamic schools are often a crucible for race relations in our ummah.

The sad reality in our Islamic schools and segregated communities contrasts with the egalitarian message that we find in the Qur’an, which says:

“O Humankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into peoples (shu‘ub) and tribes (qaba’il) that you may know one another; truly, the noblest (akram) among you before God are the most pious (atqa) among yourselves; indeed, is God the All-knowing, the All-seeing.” (49:13).

The Prophet (PBUH) said during his farewell pilgrimage:

Oh humankind, your Lord is one and your ancestors are one. You are from Adam and Adam was from dust. Behold, neither the Arab has superiority to the non-Arab, nor the red to the black nor the black to the red except by virtue of piety (taqwa). Truly the most distinguished amongst you is the most pious

Yet, Muslims old and young are often stereotyped and categorized by their ethnic background and color of their skin.

Some have argued that the colorism and racism we find in the Muslim ummah is due to colonization. Yet, we can find even in classical Islamic literature racial hierarchies. Ibn Khaldun wrote disparaging of sub-Saharan Africans as lacking intellect. A famed Andalusian poetess, Hafsah Ar-Rukaniyyah  (1190-1191) asked Abu Jaffar how could he love a Black woman, ”Who is altogether like the night, which hides beauty/
And with darkness obscures the radiance of a face?” In the chapter on marriage in the Revival of the Religious Sciences,  Imam Ghazali wrote, “a black woman is better than a barren beautiful women,” implying that black women cannot be beautiful. Blacks were assumed to not have status in Arab society. This was reflected in some classical positions where a man could marry a black woman as a guardian. Their documentation  points to how Muslims fall short of our ideals. Blind acceptance of social norms and customs perpetuate ignorance and bias. Ethnic chauvinism leads to arrogance and robs us of our ability to see the inherent value and beauty of each human being.

Like racism, colorism is a blight in our community.  I found the traces of colorism in my students’ creative writing projects as they wrote about protagonists with skin as white as milk. Dark skin has been looked down upon in many Muslim societies through the ages. And now, there is a huge market playing into fears and insecurities.  Some halal and international markets in the US are stocked with bleaching cream. There are young girls who fear playing outside lest they become black and ugly.   Girls and women with curly and kinky hair struggle with issues of self worth and shame because they can’t tame their curls into submission. The standard of beauty is centered around pale skin and straight hair, with as European features as possible. An international student from the Gulf suggested that I pinch my daughter’s nose to make it grow straight and pointy. She recently expressed a desire to have work done on her own nose.  The frequent comments about my daughter’s fair complexion and the Muslim obsession with European features makes me shudder to think about what type of self image will my curly haired, button nosed daughter have in the Muslim community. While living in abroad, one friend said that in the West there are many types of beauty, but in Egyptian society there was one standard. It worries me that we use veiled rhetoric about liberating ourselves from western standards of beauty with hijab, all the while embracing notions of beauty that are just as oppressive, if not more. The beauty regime of whitening and straightening continues even as the society becomes more outwardly religious.

Challenging beauty norms or patterns of racism in our community can seem daunting for the individual.  Muslim womanSafiyyah said to “Remember all the Qur’an and ahadith that speaks out against racism” and “defend victims of racism when it occurs.” Citing the example of the “We’re All Abeed of Allah” campaign, which uses T-shirts and wristbands to deliver their message, Kezia argued that Muslims must unite and form coalitions to change racial perceptions. Her role as an educator, activist,  and Muslim fashion blogger places her in a special position to address these changes through education and meaningful dialogue.  Both women point the power of women’s voices. We need to speak up and against expressions racism and colorism. The disease of prejudice that plagues our community can be cured if enough of us create a stigma against violating the prophetic example.

You can read the full article and other thoughtful pieces at Sisters Magazine  January 2013 edition “All the Colours of the Ummah”

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

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!

The Lid is Off: Battered Muslim Women

Last night, I received an email about the New York Times Article Abused Muslim Women in US Gain Advocates. I had started writing something late into the night, but by accident I erased it. Tariq Nelson captured much of what I wanted to say in his post, Helping Battered Muslim Women.
He wrote:

I feel that these types of articles are good because it shows that Muslims are being pro-active in not accepting abuse (we’re talking broken jaws and limbs here in some cases) and helping the abused find help. There is a fine line between “exposing the dirty laundry” and doing what it takes to solve problems (of all types)

This is why some people would rather remain in denial then admit that such problems exist. The fact is that *some* Muslim men are barbaric, oppressive, terrible people and we should distance ourselves (and our religion) from this type of crap rather than denying what everyone can see.

I suggest you head over to Tariq Nelson’s page and read the rest of the article. I was also very happy to see in the article the work of Imam Johari Abdal Malak. On his blog, Muslims Against Domestic Violence, Imam Johari wrote:

Our goal is to return people to the original and proper understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah on this issue. We believe that the Words of the Qur’an are the Words of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and that it has been preserved. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – who is the best example – never beat his wives. The Qur’an calls upon men to be maintainers and protectors of women and this is a religion of expressing God’s love (rahma) and being kind to one’s spouse. The goal of a marriage in Islam is to promote love and compassion between the spouses and the family in general.

Another thing that excited me about what Imam Johari wrote is that  they’re staring an initiative called Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence.  The imam has also edited a book titled “What Islam Says About Domestic Violence.” As the article demonstrates, Muslims are holding seminars, workshops, lectures, and in various community centers and mosques. But it is an uphill battle against silence, censure, and denial. I have heard reports that Muslim women’s shelters get death threats and a lot of people still have a problem that we have such institutions.

I am still wondering what are we going to do about teens at risk. Many people who abuse their spouses abuse their children. I am hoping that there are support networks for teens who may suffer the fate of Aqsa Parvez and Sarah and Aminah Said. Whatever the levels of practice of the wives or daughters, we as Muslims should be supportive and offer those in need refuge. We haven’t even gotten to the world of sexual abuse, which counter to what some people say does exist in the Muslim community.

It is time that as American Muslims, we begin to deal with social problems with real social solutions that are informed by universal Islamic principles of charity and mercy. We should be a benefit for our our community and others. Our da’wa should not be selling ideas, but living through example. And by doing so, we can help ensure a better future for our children. We can be proactive, there are Muslims who are beginning to develop nursing homes, food distribution, health clinics, and youth outreach programs. There are even an increased amount of Muslims who are counselors and therapists. At this stage, we need to begin to look at real problems our community members face, as opposed to being in denial. There are families broken up because there are Muslims who have drug addictions. Muslims are suffering with mental and emotional issues. There are Muslims who need jobs, but have no skills and training. We need to develop substance abuse programs, mental health care programs, job training programs. There are many more areas to be addressed. And only by talking about it, can we begin to think of solutions.