When You’re a Statistic - How Do You Respond?
by Hamza Yusuf
When You’re a Statistic
It’s been said that a liberal is just a conservative that hasn’t been mugged yet. Sometimes it takes something traumatic to wake us up to the realities of our situation, and to force us to rethink our beliefs and behaviors.
Americans are essentially civil and decent people and not prone to violent reactions, but now millions of Americans are being exposed to a profoundly radical and extremely distorted view of Islam, which is that 1) Islam is an evil religion; 2) it was born in the crucible of violence, and engenders violence in its followers; and 3) a significant number of American Muslims are actively working to undermine the government of this country, and to establish shariah law.
These ideas may sound outlandish and farfetched, but some of the major websites promoting such views get hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. The trouble with such misinformation is that when someone wants to learn about Islam and Googles, for instance, shariah law and women, they’re likely to see an image of a girl with her nose cut off. Worse yet, most of the top ten articles returned from such a search are not expository articles explaining what shariah actually is – they are articles propagating the idea that the shariah is evil.
Hence, even if people sincerely search for information about Islam, they are likely to get misinformation and anti-Islam propaganda. Moreover, even educated people are having a harder time sorting the wheat from the chaff, distinguishing what is accurate from what is propaganda against Islam. There are also a lot of very negative emails circulating on the Internet either misquoting Qur’an and hadith or quoting out of context.
In fact, if you walk into a bookstore today and simply browse under the subject of Islam, about half the books are anti-Muslim or written by apostates from Islam who actually hate Islam. If a person scans the shelves for a book on the Qur’an, the best looking book that catches their eye could very well be The Infidel’s Guide to the Koran, and so one starts to read it, and it distorts Islam using the sources of Islam, such as Qur’anic verses or hadith. The verses quoted are explained without historical context, and are used to distort the holistic message of the Qur’an.
It is easy to make Islam look like the most evil religion on the planet using quotations from primary sources. It is also easy to do the same with Christianity, Judaism, or any other world-religion, but most people, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, know that Judaism and Christianity are not evil. However, they do not know that about Islam because we have allowed other people to define Islam. Look in the bookstore sections about other religions, and you’ll see a vastly different set of books. For instance, you will find nothing negative about Judaism in the section on Judaism, and if you did, rest assured that major Jewish activist organizations would soon have a slew of volunteers writing to the publishers and the bookstores and have the book pulled from the shelves in record time. The Christian section is so vast as to overshadow the few titles that present Christianity in less than a positive light. Even the section on Wicca and Paganism comprises of titles mostly like, How I Found Inner Peace by Worshipping the Moon and How Satan Can Cure Your Migraines.
When Alice is in Wonderland and questions Humpty Dumpty about his usage of words, he says, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Alice responds, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Humpty Dumpty replies, “The question is which is to be master – that’s all.” That is, which definition is going to be definitive?
When we say “Islam,” is it the beautiful religion of peace and spiritual elevation that sustains millions and millions of people during their journeys through life and inspires countless good deeds, or is it the violent, misogynistic, anachronistic medieval madness that is now infecting America?
When we say “jihad,” does it mean an honorable struggle for social justice and the internal struggle with our own selves against the ego, envy, pride, miserliness, and stupidity, and the universal right to defend one’s land or one’s home from aggressors, or does it mean brutally and barbarically chopping off heads, cutting off noses, lopping off ears, flogging women, or blowing up innocent people for simply not being part of the faith?
Who is going to define the words? Is it going to be every Tom, Dick, and Humpty Dumpty? Are we going to leave it for those who have passed through the looking glass and are living in Wonderland where black is white, up is down, and right is wrong, and where, like the queen reminds Alice, “Sentence first – verdict afterward” is how things work? Who is going to decide?
This unrelenting and hateful messaging is taking an effect over time. We can see this in the changes in public views of Islam. In polls taken immediately after 9-11, most people did not have a negative view of Islam. That has changed dramatically now. The majority of people in the United States do have negative views of Islam now. This is because the people who want to propagate that narrative have been working hard. They have been funding organizations, funding the publication of books, getting anti-Muslim messages on TV shows, and in general, they have been the only voices heard by most Americans. Muslims have been sleeping through this, or else simply watching in horror as the propaganda takes hold.
Here is what happens. Most people out there who do not like Islam or have a negative view of it are not going to do much, as most people mosey along through life and do not think about much other than their own concerns and preoccupations. However, talk-show hosts, editorial writers – what Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point calls “mavens, connectors, and influencers” – are reading the negative books on Islam that are best sellers, such as Islamic Infiltration; Muslim Mafia; Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerable Religion; Infidel’s Guide to the Qur’an; Why I am Not a Muslim; Infidel; Islamic Invasion – and a lot of these books are being sent to congresspersons and senators. The majority of people in this country do not read books or even newspapers, but many watch Fox News. They listen to talk-show hosts. They listen to Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Bill O’Reilly. And these pundits have access to millions of Americans and for many of them, this is the only view of Islam they’re getting.
Now, you have some media figures, such as Keith Olbermann, who do attempt to present another view, but he and those like him are more often than not preaching to the choir. You also have court jesters who can speak the truth without losing their heads, such as Jon Stewart, and millions tune in to such programs, but such audiences are considered either pinheads or potheads according to the other camp. These shows do not reach the large segment of Americans who are conservatives (or even moderates) and who need to hear a different and more accurate portrayal of Islam. I don’t want to be Manichean about this, as many of the right-wing voices also address other issues that are necessary to address and are often ignored by the left. They are not hearing any counter voices because we have not made strategic alliances in the conservative community.
According to a recent study, over 50 percent of Evangelicals believe that people outside of Christianity can go to heaven, but only 34 percent of that same group believes that Muslims can go to heaven. There are millions of people out there who think that all Muslims are hell bound.
Among that segment of society, there are people whom the Qur’an terms sufahah. These are the fools, the idiotic people – the jahilun: people of ignorance, impetuousness, and zealotry. Every community has such people in it. The Muslims have them; the Jews have them; the Christians have them; the secular humanists have them. Every community has sociopaths or irrational people who may even slit the throat of a Bengali taxi driver because he said, “Yes, I am a Muslim.” Those people are going to be empowered increasingly. And people are more susceptible to new villains during times of economic hardship. As the unemployment rate rises and crimes increase, and people are looking for new targets for their aggression, why not a Muslim? Already, we’ve had “Burn the Qur’an Day” – will it be “Mug a Muslim Day” next?
Our choices are clear. We can sit here and watch all that is happening and think that things are fine. We can think to ourselves, “My neighbors are fine; everybody is nice to me at work.” But if that is what you think, you are living in a bubble. And your bubble is about to burst. I have been watching a trend that is getting worse and worse. And if something is not done, if there is nothing done to countervail, no other mitigating force, things are headed in a dangerous direction. Newton’s law of physics applies here as well: Bodies at rest will remain at rest, and bodies in motion will remain in motion, unless acted upon by an external force.
We have a body of messaging in motion, and it is hateful, it is effective, it is well-financed, and it is having its impact on opinions that were at rest before 9-11. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Civil strife is asleep, and may God curse the one who wakens it.” This hadith indicates that calamities are waiting to happen, and people’s passions are easily aroused. This is a recurring phenomenon over the ages and all around the world. Just ask a Bosnian refugee in America how his Serbian neighbors turned on him and his family after being friends for all their lives. This happened through a powerful and violent campaign of propaganda waged by Serbian nationalists allied with certain extreme elements in the Orthodox Church. The result was tragic, but people thought then as we do now: that could never happen here.
Unless there is another force out there to counter this, Muslims are going to wake up in a very different America, an America that has drifted far from its own admirable and noble ideals, and they are going to wonder what happened.
What happened was that you were asleep. Just like people slept before. People forget that the 1920’s in Germany was one of the most liberal periods. But there was hyperinflation, high unemployment, a lot of social problems, and before they knew it, they democratically elected fascists into power. The fascists did not seize power; they were democratically elected. Right now, we have several angry and hateful candidates in close races in the House and the Senate and even governorships. You can say, “Oh, well, they are only a handful of people.” But this is how it starts. And in hard times, people turn to demagogues. And they are waiting in the wings.
How Do We Respond?
Here are some ways I feel we should respond to this crisis.
1. Understand the problem.
The first thing that we must do is recognize the scope and the depth of the problem. Spend a little time on the Internet, and search for issues related to Islam, the way people who have little or no knowledge about Islam might do if they were curious about our religion. Try Google searches for terms like “jihad” or “women in Islam,” and see the top websites and links that appear. Compare some of the websites run by Muslims with the ones run by people attacking the Muslims, and note the difference. Spend some time browsing at bookstores in your community to see the sections on Islam, and see what others are being exposed to about our religion. Notice the number of negative books. Then look at the Christian or Jewish section, and see how it compares with the Islam section. In other words, try and experience what a person curious about Islam and Muslims is likely to find if he or she browsed the Internet or bookstore shelves.
2. Pray for our community.
Do a daily litany (wird) with the intention of our protection. We are encouraged in the Sunnah to be consistent in our remembrance of God. There are many fine litanies that have been prepared by scholars based upon the prophetic invocations. Personally, I prefer Imam al-Hadad’s or Sidi Ahmad Zarruq’s as over-the-counter litanies. The spiritual benefits of consistent litany recitation are many, and they are well-tested and true. There is also another reason, in my estimation, for consistently reading such litanies, and that is to help create what is termed in medicine as “herd immunity.” When enough people have built up resistance to a disease through inoculation, others are protected by the critical mass that has been achieved. I believe this is what historically protected the Muslim community from attacks. There were enough people calling upon God for protection for the entire community so that even those who weren’t asking for help received it anyway. We need to pray for our community’s well-being everywhere and ask God to ward off harm. This is one of the prayers in Imam al-Hadad’s litany: “Suffice us by protecting us from the evil of oppressors, and remove any harm from the Muslims.”
3. Strengthen and grow Muslim organizations.
Support the existing organizations, and create new ones that are needed. For instance, we need a Muslim legal defense fund. Take a look at the Anti-Defamation League. Go to its website and read about its mission and its activities. The ADL was established to combat anti-Jewish sentiment in this country. Given the anti-Muslim sentiments prevalent now, Muslims need an Anti-Defamation League of their own. And we need endowments to adequately support such groups. The Jewish community donated millions of dollars to strengthen such organizations to ensure that what happened in Germany is not repeated in America. And indeed they succeeded – despite the many anti-Jewish people that still exist in this country, it is no longer the anti-Semitic country that it once was.
The Muslims need to strengthen our existing organizations, such as CAIR and ING. Despite its unfortunate problems of the past, and the fact that it could improve itself in many ways, CAIR is a solid organization that has been built with a lot of hard work by sincere and dedicated people, and it can withstand the attacks if it has the backing of a larger number of Muslims. The seeds of a really strong American Muslim institution have been planted at CAIR, but it must be watered with money and constructive criticism.
The Muslim organizations, including Zaytuna College, have a fiduciary responsibility toward their stakeholders, i.e. the Muslims we claim to represent and serve, as well as those who are funding us. Islamic Networks Group (ING), for instance, is one of the most important organizations in the United States; it does not proselytize, but educates and presents a clear picture of normative Islam. ING understands that we have zealots, that we have fringe Islam, but it focuses instead on educating people of other faiths about what the majority of Muslims believe and practice. This is what people need to know, just as they know that David Koresh and what occurred at Waco, Texas in the early 1990s does not represent the Seventh Day Adventists, and his actions do not represent all Christians or even all Seventh Day Adventists. The same is true for Jewish extremists, like Meir Kahane, or the American-born medical doctor Baruch Goldstein, who went into a mosque in 1994 and opened fire, killing 29 Muslims during their prayer. Americans know that he is not the same as their kids’ pediatrician, who happens to be a competent and peaceful Jewish doctor named Dr. Goldberg. Yet, when they see Dr. Abdallah, they wonder if he is secretly supporting some violent organization. He looks a little shady. And what’s with that Osama-like beard? And why does he have a picture of himself on Hajj hanging on the wall in his office?
So the more organizations Muslims establish, the easier it will be for people to see that normative Islam has nothing to do with what the militant extremists do. We have a large number of Muslim doctors in America, and yet we are not serving the underclass very well through free medical clinics, such as the Umma Free Clinic in Los Angeles. I think our Muslim doctors should donate a day every two weeks to treat the needy who have no medical insurance. In other words, Muslims need to enhance the existing Muslim organizations and also create new ones, especially social service organizations.
4) Seek common ground with conservatives too.
As Muslims, we don’t have a political party. We are morally committed to a sound ethical system that demands an uncompromising adherence from us. The principles, ethics, and values that demand our allegiance do not fit neatly into a particular political school of thought. Thus far, too many Muslims have tried to ally mostly with the Left, but in the current dialectic, the Left is unlikely to win the battle for the hearts of Middle America, especially when it comes to accepting Muslims as full-fledged members of the American tapestry. But there are many intelligent and influential people within the philosophical conservative movement, and some of them know what Islam is and some don’t. We need to make strategic alliances with them and recognize that we share a lot of common ground, as we are also concerned about losing moral foundations in an increasingly secularized, and even worse laicized, world that is downright hostile toward public faith. For example, the conservatives are as troubled as Muslims are about the predominance of premarital and extramarital sexuality, the breakdown of the family, and the proliferation of pornography and drugs. On the other hand, the truly progressive Left and not mainstream Tweetle Dee Left to the Tweetle Dum Right, despite its moral ambiguity on many such personal and social issues, has a far better track record of standing firmly against warmongering, arms proliferation, and American aggression in countries where we don’t belong – but there is also a progressive Right that we forget about best embodied in Ron Paul, who is one of the most outspoken critics of warmongering and American foreign wars and misadventures. So in some things, we are more with the Left and in others we are more with the Right, which puts us somewhere in the middle, as we comprise the Middle Nation.
For instance, in the recent election ballot in California, we had Prop 19, which would have essentially legalized personal use of marijuana. I abstained from voting on it because Islam forbids intoxicants, even though, in my opinion, the ballot measure was based on sound logic within the secular context. A good argument can be made to legalize or at least decriminalize marijuana, especially when alcohol is deemed legal. From a secular perspective, either both should be illegal or both legal. The same holds true for smoking tobacco: it is unsound to legalize it, despite its harmful health effects, while keeping marijuana illegal. As for the effects on one’s behavior, a stoned person is less belligerent and friendlier than a drunk person. People under the influence of marijuana also drive more safely, and slower, given the experience of time being slowed down for them. An authoritative article in The Lancet from 2007 showed through sound research in England that alcohol was far worse than any other illegal drug. The Prophet, peace be upon him, called alcohol “the mother of all foulness” (umm al-khaba’ith). If I had to choose between the two evils, I would rather have stoned people than drunk people but that legal option doesn’t exist in America. Though I digress from our topic, I do so only to make an important point: social problems like alcohol consumption are never solved by outlawing them – a point the progressive Left recognizes, yet the reactionary Right fails to understand. These problems can only be solved by cutting off the demand through personal transformation and abstinence of the individuals that currently generate, through their demand, the supply-side of the drug problem.
Wars on drugs or terrorism or any other problem usually involve trying to battle the problem without addressing their root causes, and so such efforts are doomed to failure. The roots of the marijuana problem are not in Mendocino County’s fertile soil where marijuana is grown in abundance; they are in the spiritual emptiness of the hearts of America’s young and old consumers of the weed. I have been Muslim for 33 years and not once during that time have I desired a drink, a joint, or any other mind-altering substance because I don’t need to escape from anything when I have prayer, patience, community and the wine of natural beauty that surrounds me. I prefer Emily Dickinson’s brew that is not made in “vats upon the Rhine.” In the parlance of Ibn al-Farid: “We’re drunk on a wine that existed before the vine was ever created.”
In any case, when we consider our response to the onslaught of anti-Islamic sentiments we face in the current climate, we ought not to align ourselves totally with either the Left or the Right. One can be “progressive” on one issue and “conservative” on another. Let’s not become a religion of Democrats or of Republicans by politicizing our religion or slanting it to the Left or to the Right. Let us be morally committed to reasonable and just positions. For instance, the Palestinian problem is one of religion (because the Israeli claim is a religious one, that God deeded them the land and hence all previous inhabitants have no standing.) The Muslims also have a religious claim, and that cannot be proven with any absolute proof either, even if Muslims think it is a stronger claim. But if you remove both Islam and Judaism from the equation and consider only the historical facts, you have to conclude that, for the most part, the Israelis are simply acting immorally – I say most, because some land was legitimately purchased by Jews in the exodus to Palestine, and there were also Arab Jews as well as Sephardic Jews living there before Israel came into existence. For instance, the mother of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan, was an Iraqi Jew, and they were living under Muslim protection before some were forced to migrate. Many Arab Jews, including the Yemenis, did not want to leave but ended up in situations that were so traumatic that they had no alternative. My point is this: it’s not all black and white; a lot of grey exists, but some things are black and white.
5) Build new institutions.
Let me re-iterate my third point in the previous blog and add the need for new institutions that will address the needs not being addressed by the existing ones. Muslims must build real institutions to combat the madness. We have a growing community that is far outstripping our capacity to address the social, familial, cultural, and every other type of problem. We need real think tanks of which the ISPU is an excellent start but needs much developing. We need a powerful legal defense fund and an ADL type institution, well-endowed and vibrant, which CAIR can develop into with the right financing and leadership.
6. Strengthen our community centers.
One of the most important things we must do is strengthen our community centers, but this is not possible without wise leadership in our centers. A major problem is that, notwithstanding their sincerity, unqualified people too often take the helm. Our centers need a level of professionalism that is grossly lacking today. Albeit, a change is in the air. Many young people who have grown up in this environment and learned the ways of more astute institutes are emerging, but they must be empowered, and those of a previous generation need to stand aside and let these young and talented Muslims do their work, unimpeded by the antiquated ways of a bygone era.
For example, when the media comes to interview someone from one of our centers, we need to put forth active spokespeople who don’t have foreign accents. Studies show that one-fourth of American viewers stop paying attention when they hear a person speaking with a strong foreign accent. I know this from first-hand experience, as my own father has a very hard time understanding South-Asian and Arab accents.
When we put forth Muslims with strong foreign accents as our spokespeople, people often assume all Muslims are foreign-born nationals and that our allegiances lie elsewhere, whereas in actuality, we are comprised of a largely diverse community that includes American-born natives as well as immigrants. American Muslims are indigenous and have always been indigenous, and in that way, WE ARE AMERICANS, so let Rush, Bill, Ann, and all those other bigots put that in their pipe and smoke it. We have never been a recent immigrant community, as there are now third and fourth-generation immigrant Muslims here in large numbers, not to mention native American converts as well as African and Euro-Americans. Moreover, African-American and Euro-American converts and their offspring are an excellent resource for immigrant Muslims to better understanding the mainstream population.
Cultures are highly nuanced, and even many first generation natives who grew up here often do not fathom all the depths of the dominant culture, as the homes they grew up in were immigrant homes. I recently saw a commercial aimed at reaching the mainstream American community. The commercial seemed as though it was produced by well-intentioned immigrant or first generation Muslims, as it was clear the producers did not have a deep understanding of this culture; the commercial depicted nice, smiling Muslims with foreign accents, little children with headscarves, and even some speaking in foreign languages. Unfortunately, such images actually engender fear in many of the very people the images are meant to reach. Such attempts at reaching alienated Americans should involve indigenous American Muslims and first generation immigrant Muslims in order to normalize the community as part of the tapestry of America. This is my personal opinion, and I am very aware of the different strategies that can be applied to this vexing problem. However, the Qur’an reminds us, “We only send messengers with the tongue of the people they are sent to, in order that they may present the message clearly” (14:4). Notice that the Qur’an uses the word “tongue” (lisan) here and not “language” (lughah); the tongue includes not only knowledge of the language but also its nuances, not to mention the accent that goes with that native tongue. Hence, we say, “English is my native tongue.”
For example, in my opinion, Adil Jubair, the Saudi ambassador, is a much better spokesperson for the Saudis than someone with a heavy accent. Having said that, on the other hand, Prince Turki bin Faisal, who was educated at Cambridge, has only a slight accent, but he was, in my opinion, as an educated, erudite royal, who breaks the stereotype of the ignorant desert Arab, even more effective. So I don’t think one should be axed as a spokesperson merely due to a slight accent. A case-by-case assessment is necessary. However, I think that very heavy accents are problematic. Nota bene: the Israelis almost always front people with perfect American accents as their spokespeople. Even the current ambassador, a Princeton historian who was raised in the U.S., has no hint of a foreign accent. When Americans hear such people, they hear themselves, as the accent is the same, and it is much easier for people to listen to one of their own than to a complete “other,” which is how people with foreign accents are usually viewed.
Alterity, for now, is no longer an alternative. Common ground must be built and done so quickly. The theme of the RIS this year is the Ten Commandments, a bridge-building topic, which provides Muslims with tools we can use to convey our message in a language that makes sense to people here in the West; interestingly, someone from – I wont identify which religion – in Toronto claiming to represent that religion wrote an op-ed criticizing our “co-opting” the tradition of “another” people. Certain groups don’t want people here to see Muslims as sharing commonalities with Jews and Christians. These groups want to maintain the foreign and negative perception of Islam and Muslims in order to successfully demonize us. Once that is accomplished, it is easy to bomb Muslims into obliteration with impunity. Note how unsuccessful the anti-war movement has been as of late. Who cares about a bunch of crazy Arabs and Afghans who’d kill themselves anyway if we didn’t do it? Just read Chris Hedges for a good analysis of how this has been done.
7. Empower our women as spokespeople.
While I am personally committed to the injunctions of modest dress for men and women, I think we absolutely must get beyond the wedge issues in our community, such as who wears a headscarf and who doesn’t, and recognize that we are all in this together, and that people’s outward degrees of religiosity do not determine their loyalty to the faith in any substantial way. While the ideal is inward and outward congruity, nonetheless, we have people whose outward displays are of religiosity while their inward reality is hypocrisy; contrariwise, we have people who have no outward display of religiosity but are actually doing much more than the average Muslim to help Islam and the Muslims. It is important to get beyond judging people according to stereotypical expectations of what a good Muslim is or is not. I heard a wise person state, “The trappings can be a trap,” and I completely agree. We have brilliant, committed Muslim women who do not wear a headscarf and are extremely effective, and they should be centralized, not marginalized. These women can reach people much more effectively in many but certainly not all cases. Here again, a case-by-case assessment is important. The majority of American Muslim women do not wear a headscarf, and to always assume that only a woman in hijab should be chosen to represent Muslims is a misrepresentation of the diversity of our community.
8. Empower the African-American Muslim community.
Many among the recent immigrant Muslim communities fail to recognize not only the historical significance of the African-American community but also that they are the local Ansar to the foreign Muhajirin. They are the people who paved the way for the immigrant Muslim community. Many of the people in the African-American Muslim community came out of the Civil Rights Movement. Warith Deen Muhammad is a good example of such a person. That powerful movement enabled immigrant Muslims to come to this country and find a far more accepting society. So we need to honor the African-American community and recognize their importance in transforming this country into a more pluralistic and tolerant place.
Unfortunately, racism does exist in our community. And while generally Muslims are not overtly racist, and most, like many in the dominant Euro-American community, would not even own up to having racist attitudes, nevertheless, subtle forms of racism rear their ugly heads in our centers. In addition to racism that is color-based, we have the added afflictions of ethnic, tribal, and national differences. Such diseases are addressed cogently and copiously by our Lord in the Qur’an and by our Prophet, peace be upon him, in his sunnah. This is an old problem, but it needs to be acknowledged, addressed, and opposed in each generation until it is fully eradicated. A well-known principle among hadith critics is that any hadith, even one with a strong chain, that disparages blacks or Africans is deemed false. Jahiliyyah is hard to uproot, but I think we can do it here much more easily than in the traditional lands of the Muslims.
Dr. Sulayman Nyang once told me that in some ways it is a blessing in disguise that the black community in America does not know their ancestral affiliations. He said, “If they knew what tribes they were from, they would most likely be filled with the same tribal tensions here that we too often suffer from back home.” So even among communities that appear to be homogenous to outsiders, there are often great differences. For example, Punjabis, Baluchis, Pathans, and Muhajirs all come from Pakistan, but among some Pakistanis, these groups are not looked upon as equals, even if others lump them all in the category of Pakistanis, South Asians, or Orientals. The same is true for the Afghan people as well as Gulf Arabs, some of whom suffer from terrible tribal mentalities. Hence, this is a universal problem, and American and Western countries in general, where the value of equality is regarded highly, are great places for us to address and overcome them.
9. Recognize the importance of the convert community.
We should not want, much less expect, converts to become Arabized, South-Asianized, or whateverized into any other traditional Muslim culture. Western Muslims don’t need to walk around in robes and kifayas, falsely assuming that Islam requires them to do so or, more importantly, that those garments have anything to do with Islam other than their modest quality and their affiliation with one traditional Muslim culture. Islam does not require us to abandon our own culture for an alien culture in order to be Muslim. That is unacceptable cultural hegemony. And we should not want that type of mentality to be promoted. Only the negative qualities of a culture must be rejected.
“Islam in America” is its own entity, and it has to emerge as an indigenous cultural phenomenon rooted in the religion’s permanent spiritual and ethical realities that are not subject to change, irrespective of time or place. But, dressing like an “Arab” (whatever that means, given there are so many Arab cultures) is not one of the unchangable qualities of Islam but rather a phenomenon of culture that is specific to time and place. Dr. Umar Abdallah’s paper Islam and the Cultural Imperative is an excellent and much needed antidote to the idea of a monolithic and essentialized cultural Islam, i.e. Arab, South-Asian, Malaysian, Turkish, etc.
Having said that, we recognize that Islam will always have a traditional Arab aroma as a spice rather than the meal. In honor of the Arabic Qur’an and our Arabian Prophet, peace be upon him, Arabic will always be the language of the Muslims; we will always prefer to break our fast with dates during Ramadan; and, I can attest, as a world-traveler, that no other people have the unique generosity of the traditional Arabs unless they have adopted Islam and are emulating that Arabic quality so beautifully and perfectly embodied in our Arabian Prophet, peace be upon him. Arab generosity is legendary, and other peoples can learn much from it. Love of the Arabs is part of our faith, and hatred of them is from hypocrisy, as the Prophet, peace be upon him, said. However, wearing checkered kifayas is simply not a sunnah and is not necessary for one to be considered a “brother.” Even the modern Arab robe is originally from Persia. At the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, Arabs dressed more like traditional Bangladeshis do today. That is, they wore lungis and long shirts.
The Companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, were almost all converts, and not all of them were Arab. Salman was Aryan (now called Iranian), Bilal was black, and Suhaib was an Arab raised among the Byzantines. Our Prophet, peace be upon him, also dressed in a variety of styles; he wore Ethiopian shirts, Yemeni cloaks, Arabian lungis, and Byzantine garments. The Prophet, peace be upon him, was already practicing global culture in the seventh century, knowing that his religion would be embraced by many cultures, just as he predicted. Converts are a great source of renewal and strengthen Islam, but if they are expected to adopt a single alien culture, it limits the appeal of Islam to the exotic and adventurous among us.
I am also opposed to the idea that converts must change their names. I know many converts who were made to feel it was compulsory for them to take on a new name. The Prophet, peace be upon him, only changed names if they had a negative meaning. Bob doesn’t have to become Baba, and Lily doesn’t have to become Layla – unless they want to. Fathers have a right to name their children. Many converts’ parents are pained when their children reject the names they gave them, and Islam requires us to honor our parents, and this includes those who practice other faiths. Perhaps I am belaboring the point, but this is a very real problem that is only increasing.
This article originally appeared as a series of posts on Hamza Yusuf’s blog at Sandala Productions .
This topic of community building and leadership in the American, Canadian, and European Muslim communities is critical, especially when combined with the current wave of anti-Muslim propaganda. TAM posted an article collection on the topic back in 2003.