An Africana View of Progressive American Islam
by A.S. Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad
The humanist and multicultural battle for the soul of Islam
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Sudanese scholar and Emory University professor of law, puts it very clearly: the need for peace in the global community is a humanist message that Muslims must recover as a banner under which modernist transformation can proceed (Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/13/2002).
For Muslim Americans, the events of 9/11 contributed to heightened focus on the age-old tensions and political struggles within Islam between the forces of puritanical reaction, non-imaginative orthodoxy, and entrenched tradition and the more liberating tendencies in Muslim philosophical theology, theosophy, and religious practice—historical tendencies that have all along had a contentious relationship with both extremist and conventional variants in Islam.
Yet black American Muslims have long formed a sturdy backbone of Islamic dissent.
Non-indigenous, newly arrived, or second generation Muslim public intellectuals have just been waking up, over the past twenty-odd years, to a critical consciousness of American realities. Black American Muslims have been well aware of them for a long time. (It's estimated that upwards of thirty percent of the Native Africans whose bodies and labor were stolen to build this country were in fact Muslims.)
Thus while Africana Muslim intellectuals with a progressive bent join with their non-black Muslim counterparts in advancing a liberationist project to get free of the control mechanisms of a reactionary and all too frequently puritanical Islamic hegemony, it must never be forgotten that black American Islamic dissent is a lot more than two decades old, and much deeper than a knee-jerk response to the aftermath of 9/11.
It is African-American Muslims who are historically situated as the moral voice of the voiceless and weak within the American system. It is this same cultural Islam that has been the vanguard of oppressed peoples' struggles for years—years in which Muslim immigrants in their collective and individual presence remained curiously quiet and reclusive, except when US policy positions affected their mother countries. Yet however early or late, progressive American Muslims as a group are now ascertaining how we can actively struggle against dangerous backwardness in religion using a historicist, liberation oriented and faith informed orthro-praxy and critical methodology. Let me summarize this project as follows.
Toward a Progressive Reformation of Faith
* Understands that the Qur'anic message is essentially universalist regarding salvation, while it remains unitarian regarding the Oneness of God. The string of prophets mentioned in the Holy Qur'an up through Jesus and Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them) is a short list pointing toward thousands of others who have brought God's revelations to humankind. The divine message has remained essentially the same, with degrees of cosmetic modification fashioned for differing cultures, languages, needs, and times. And in the post-Muhammadan period, according to the experiential insights of the great illuminationist philosophers, Sufi saints, and mystics, God's infinite self-revealing continues in extra-scriptural forms.
* Distinguishes the unconditional faith in Allah's Oneness and the voluntary submission of self to God's sovereignty from historically- and politically-conditioned beliefs, and practices informed by such beliefs. These remain open to rational investigation and possible change in the context of hard-fought social struggles.
* Emphasizes free will as a gift to humankind from God, rather than fatalism in religion.
* Declares white supremacist ideology and its twin, Christian triumphalism, along with their strategies of violence-based domestic social control, imperialism, and militarism, as manifestations of spiritually darkened hearts in need of social and political repentance and a long process of religio-psychological rehabilitation. Reparations in some form are an essential element of this rehabilitation.
* Takes into thoughtful consideration the idea that religious experience has an ideological basis in material reality. The class-, race-, gender- and authority-based ideological underpinnings of all religions must constantly be exposed and assessed.
* Insists on a historically conscious praxis. For progressive African-American Muslim thinkers especially, it is never enough to merely project logically consistent religious thoughts, beautifully articulated in some abstract way. Critically informed and organized action is paramount for qualitative social change.
* Respects the Jeffersonian dictum of church-state separation as promoting religious pluralism, and liberal religious tolerance as in keeping with an authentic and liberative Qur'anic hermeneutic.
* Lifts up the meditative and theosophical Islamic sciences/practices. The works of the Muslim spiritual masters are voluminous and hold out much hope for religious universalism based on a grasp of the oneness of reality.
* Advocates nonviolent resistance to oppression as the morally superior equivalent of the militarist notion of jihad. Shaykh Amadou Bamba of Senegal and Abdul Ghaffar Khan of India have credentials equal to those of M. Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Malcolm X's politically righteous slogan of "by any means necessary" must be read in an ethically consistent way that does no violence to the exhortations and limits of sacred scripture.
* Advances the spirit of internationalism and regionalism by use of the ideas in human rights conventions.
* Enters into coalitions with other progressive religious and/or secular activists in support of civil liberties and qualitative social change.
* Uplifts Islamic philosophical inquiry and the unrestricted use of reason in the practice of ijtihad (personal judgment of religious matters). This point assumes that a narrowly conceived traditionalist orthodoxy is problematic.
Agenda: thinking outside the box
It follows from these principles that progressive Islamic thought must ever regard its doings in the world as tentative and subject to change. God's plan, and the guidance we receive as creatures of the Universal One, are not to be boxed into some neat and tidy or permanent explanation and practice. The only real and lasting thing is submission of self to divine guidance. This is unavoidable. All creation must, at some point in its journey or evolving, submit to its Creator's Will. But we, in our limitations, may not in this life ever comprehend that Will.
If this sounds heterodox, that's a function of history. Theological and jurisprudential orthodoxy in Islam were not established without protracted political and ideological struggles fairly similar to Christianity's own wars of establishment.. The only "Inquisition" in Islamic history was initiated, not by conservative traditionalists, but rather by "free-thinking" rationalists (the Mu'tazilah, encouraged by the 9th century caliph al-Ma'mun). However, at most other points in Islamic history it has been the puritans and/or traditionalists who have wielded the greater power.
The brute social power of organized traditionalist schools of thought and their influence on particular Muslim rulers were used to compel discipline in the rank and file. Rebel movements too, such as the very early Kharijites, set themselves up as judges and executioners of other Muslims who disagreed with their ideas on right governance and the political succession to the Prophet. Spiritually intoxicated Sufi mystics and critical Islamic philosophers alike have been hounded and killed (and after their deaths, often celebrated) as the power of "orthodoxy" grew or subsided.
This association of religious orthodoxy with brute force and frequently the police power of the caliphs is informative. Medieval Islamic history demonstrates that Muslims who get obsessed with "being right" are not above employing compulsion in religion, no matter what the Qur'an may teach. If we want to take Qur'anic teaching seriously, we have first of all got to let compulsion go. And that means there can be no enforceable orthodoxy.
Secondly, Muslim women leaders, many of whom are highly engaged in academic and professional discourse, must not be consigned to a religious space exclusively reserved for mothers and children: their expert voices are needed in the public square. The decades-old movement among African-American Muslims to elevate women to public religious leadership roles is exemplary, yet still unheard of in most other sects and/or schools of Islamic thought. Elsewhere, at the popular religious level, there has been a long tradition of Sufi women saints being venerated equally with male saints. And the contemporary liberationist writings of Fatima Mernissi, Niamo Mu'id and Riffat Hassan, among many others, are impressive here as counters to male domination.
Thirdly, we would do well to follow the examples of leaders like Imam W.D. Muhammad and Minister Louis Farrakhan: more interfaith dialogue with progressive partners in the other faith traditions is requisite for the success of our project.
Fourthly, we must embrace the findings of science, yet insist on its ethical and non-racist practice. An uncritical appropriation of modern science and technology would be a disaster for the faithful, who rely on Muslim thinkers to think and not merely react to Western gadgetry. Some forms of postmodern and deconstructionist philosophy are very well suited to progressive Muslim intellectual inquiry, while a deepened critical theory of the anti-democratic technocratic state, a là Herbert Marcuse and Jergen Habermas, also works well for the struggle to overcome the fetters of "scientifically generated forms of unfreedom."
Finally, more emphasis is due on the arts, music, poetry, sport, play—and the spirituality of cooperative physical work as a unifying, self-affirming, and economically productive strategy. Black jazz masters like Pharoah Saunders can put our minds and hearts into a reflective mode and draw us toward a deeper apprehension of the sublime. Here, again, the masters in Islamic theosophy, gnosticism, and mysticism can be called upon to demonstrate that there is a different way for us to be.
Jalaluddin Rumi said it: "Philosophers' legs are made of wood; legs of wood are infirm indeed."
The progressive Muslim movement ought to be able to dance.
A.S. Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad, Ph.D., is chair of the Africana Islamic Institute and co-chair of the Philadelphia Area Black Radical Congress. He is an ecumenist and longtime religio-political theorist, concerned about world peace and restorative justice. A former member of the executive committee of the National Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, disarmament coordinator of Clergy and Laity Concerned, and peace activist within the Rainbow Coalition, Ibn-Ziyad is currently an adjunct professor of Islamic and Africana philosophy and criminal justice at Rutgers University's Camden, New Jersey campus, and a world history teacher at the high school level.