Politically Speaking, Who Am I, And What Do I Want As An American Muslim?*
By Dr. Sherman Jackson on January 3, 2017
By: Dr. Sherman A. Jackson
When the Prophet Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina, he declared that the Muslims and the rest of the inhabitants of his new home constituted an ummah. This is explicitly, not implicitly, laid out in the so-called Constitution or Ṣaḥīfah of Medina. I want to declare, as did the Prophet in his own time and circumstances, that the Muslims and the rest of the inhabitants of America constitute an ummah, a single political community defined by mutual rights and mutual responsibilities.
America is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural society. I want to declare my commitment to living in peace and mutual recognition with all Americans and to resolving inevitable political, cultural, economic or even religious conflicts on the basis of the agreed upon general provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, I want to declare my full embrace of the U.S. Constitution as the foundation of political rights and the basis upon which we negotiate political conflict, openly renouncing political violence except as a means of self-defense.
For those who may wonder how sincere and Islamically authentic this commitment to the Constitution is, I offer the following: The U.S. Constitution is neither a theological credo nor an expression of any binding transcendent truth. It neither imposes nor proscribes any religious belief, practice or affiliation; nor does it reflect, in my view, an example of mortal men assuming a prerogative that Muslims believe to belong exclusively to God. The U.S. Constitution is simply a conventional agreement over how to negotiate political conflicts, rights and obligations. Its successful reception ultimately transformed it into a socio-political fact, with which all engaged Americans would have to come to terms, no different in kind from such pre-Islamic Arabian institutions as the Forbidden Months.
In this light, Islam might have little more difficulty recognizing the authority of the Constitution than it would in recognizing the authority of such institutions as the Forbidden Months (al-Ashhur al-Ḥurum) that were instituted by the pre-Islamic pagan Arabians. The Qur’ān recognizes the authority of this conventional agreement in sūrat al-Baqarah (2: 217) as part of the time-honored universe of Arabian socio-political values long before it formally ratifies it in sūrat al-Tawbah (9: 26). Indeed, at 2: 217, God describes the violation of these Forbidden Months as “an abomination.” Their origin notwithstanding, in other words, by the Prophet’s time, the Forbidden Months had become a socio-political fact that he and all other Arabians would be bound to engage as such.
Let me be clear: the U.S. Constitution did not begin as an unbiased commitment to the American common good; nor did it seek in its entirety to serve the latter. Rather, it started out reflecting the interests and prejudices of the landed elite. Yet, it also included mechanisms for self-rectification, and it has been through these that Americans have negotiated their way to a more inclusive order. Duly indulged, the Constitution negates all groups’ claims to being more genuinely American (as a political identity) than any other group. As the Blackamerican intellectual Albert Murray notes, those who insist most loudly on being viewed as the “original” or “real” Americans often invoke a self-serving, false criterion for American-ness that never measures this claim in terms of their commitment or lack thereof to the Constitution. In this light, the Constitution can be seen as holding the key to leveling the playing field among Americans’ competing claims to an authentic American political identity and belongingness and from there to promoting more inclusively the American common good.
As it is the Constitution and not common blood or heritage that binds us politically as Americans, I want to declare my belief in the need for a second American declaration of independence. For too long, our collective socio-political potential as Americans has been stunted by an almost blind and exclusive reliance upon a European intellectual legacy whose basic aims, context and thrust were never designed to speak effectively to American reality. Ours is a negotiated, pluralistic society, not a monolithic legacy rooted in some classical past. As the German intellectual Josef Joffe put it, “America was of Europe, but it left Europe and it was to be the un-Europe”. And as the Scottish philosopher, Alasdair McIntyre, noted, America is a country that is always in a state of becoming, always “not yet.” Europe never saw itself as a “nation of immigrants.” As such, it never had the deep racial, cultural or historical diversity that characterized America from the very beginning.
Europe fought “Wars of Religion” and sought to preempt the recurrence of these wars by turning to secularism and liberalism. America during roughly this same period was busy defining itself not religiously but racially, limiting eligibility for citizenship, e.g., to “free white persons.” This culminated half a century later in the bloodiest war in all of America’s history, a civil war at the heart of which lay not religion but race and racial oppression. Neither liberalism nor secularism was designed to speak effectively to this American reality; and neither, to this day, has entirely succeeded in coming to terms with it. At the same time, religion, which secularism and liberalism were designed to domesticate or subjugate, has proved among the most effective forces in confronting this American challenge. Where would America be on race today without the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali? All of these men spoke and acted on the basis of their religious commitments. I want to declare my commitment to moving away from the European and back towards a renewed American attitude towards religion.
I should not be misunderstood here. There is a lot of bad, decadent religion in America. And I am not simply speaking about theology or ultimate truth-claims. All religions understandably believe themselves to be true; otherwise, what would be the point. But when religious authority is commodified and turned into an instrument for getting God to rubber-stamp self-serving agendas of privilege, domination, license, revenge, greed and the like, religion betrays itself and ends up as a “new anthropomorphism,” where we cast God not in our physical image but in our social, political, economic or cultural image on the basis of which God is called upon to endorse or condemn everything we want or don’t want, respectively. We cease to be God’s servants and instead seek to turn God into our employee.
Then there are religious people who occupy the other extreme. They think that they can bomb, shoot, stab, maim and humiliate people into submitting to religion, despite the fact that God says explicitly to His Prophet, “Were you callous and hard-hearted they would have fled from you straightaway.” Over time, whether these people realize it or not, they end up as little more than one giant advertisement for secularism and atheism. And we must remember here how secularism and atheism gained such popularity in Europe. This is religious decadence writ large. The very things that are done in the name of promoting religion end up in reality effectively promoting its opposite. I want to declare that my commitment to religion is to neither of these extremes.
As a Blackamerican, I want declare my Western-ness, along with the fact that “Western” can no longer be taken to equal “European,” let alone “white.” Nor, therefore, can “the defense of Western civilization” be equated with the defense of “European” let alone “white” civilization in America. As James Baldwin once pointed out, Blackamericans are among the world’s first non-white Westerners! (Of course, if Blackamericans can be or become Western, so can others; but that is ultimately up to them.) As Americans, “we” are not, as Samuel P. Huntington once claimed, “Anglo-Protestants.” We are Americans – black, white, bi-racial, Latino and Asian, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and atheist. This is the diversity that emerges out of the American experience; and this is the diversity that we must now negotiate, not the thin, almost fungible diversity of 18th and 19th century Europe. As Americans who hail not from one but from many different backgrounds and histories, we must be open and willing to draw upon traditions beyond that of Europe for tools and insights with which to rise to the task of perpetuating the American project. As a Muslim, I want to declare my commitment to putting forth the very best that Islam has to offer to that enterprise.
It is in this context, and precisely for this reason that I want to declare my full and sincere commitment to sharī‘ah as binding on my religious conscience and as the basis, in fact, upon which I am able to vindicate religiously my recognition of the U.S. Constitution. Those who do not understand sharī‘ah or who may be simply blinded by misinformation or bigotry may be appalled and frightened by such a commitment. For they see sharī‘ah as the source of all that is wantonly violent and predatory in the actions of Muslims around the world. But such wanton violence is hardly representative of even those who might be safely referred to as Muslim fundamentalists, let alone those who may not. Recently, I published a book about the Gamā‘ah Islāmīyah who, in their quest to establish an ‘Islamic state,’ assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981. In 1997 their leaders renounced political violence in the name of sharī‘ah. In 2002, they published several manifestos in which they set out to correct their own (and others’) misunderstandings of sharī‘ah, as a means of steering Islamists in particular and Muslims in general away from the approach that led to the killing of Sadat and countless others. They explicitly invoked sharī‘ah as requiring them to abandon this violence. They wrote, “Our Initiative to Stop the Violence is grounded in our understanding that the violent position we used to assume is one that the Glorious Sharī‘ah simply forbids.”
Both in America and elsewhere, people may oppose sharī‘ah on any number of substantive grounds, e.g., that it criminalizes alcohol consumption or that it allows polygyny. The notion, however, that sharī‘ah promotes wanton violence and that Muslims who act violently are simply carrying out the dictates of sharī‘ah is simply not true. My commitment to sharī‘ah entails no commitment whatever to wanton violence.
In fact, I want to declare, pursuant to my commitment to sharī‘ah, my sincere good will (nuṣḥ) towards American society, to promoting what is good and condemning what is bad in and for America, including acts and policies of the United States government. This commitment to sincere good will is not the same as blind loyalty to any American administration. Administrations come and go; American society is the constant. As such, being sincere to American society is not contradicted by the fact that I may see fit to criticize or oppose this or that American domestic or foreign policy. In fact, civil disobedience may at times be the only morally or religiously responsible option in the face of abuses of power. But this should never be mistaken for a rejection of the basic American constitutional order. No one would claim that Rosa Parks was committed to overthrowing, taking over or destroying America when she refused to follow the law that required her to give up her seat to any white passenger on an Alabama bus. In a similar fashion, mine shall always be a “loyal dissent,” never a treacherous one.
I want to declare, pursuant to my commitment to sharī‘ah, my sincere commitment to the integrity, security and maintenance of a religiously, racially, ethnically and culturally pluralistic American society. Many, out of ignorance, misinformation or bigotry, may challenge the sincerity of this commitment, based on their understanding of what they believe the institution of jihād requires of Muslims. I want to declare here for all to witness that if America were to put me to a choice between my country and my God, I would choose my God. But the U.S. Constitution will not permit America to do this. As such, my understanding of sharī‘ah recognizes nothing in the American constitutional order that would compel me religiously to wage jihād against America. Rather sharī‘ah compels me to live in political peace with my fellow Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Constitutionally speaking, America cannot deny me the right to be a Muslim. Yet, if I am to enjoy the right to be a Muslim, I must be able to exercise that right in a manner that makes it meaningful to me. In this context, I want to declare my aspiration to strive for the recognition of the provisions of sharī‘ah as a legitimate basis for regulating disputes among American Muslims in the area of family law, all within the context of recognized Constitutional provisions. As for Islamic criminal law, it lies beyond the scope of what is relevant to Muslims in America. And even were it to become their aspiration to invoke these rules, most of these rules would apply only to Muslims.
I want to declare that sharī‘ah is not simply the equivalent of the contents of ancient books and manuals of Islamic law and that post-Prophetic Muslim history is not a binding source of law for contemporary Muslims. On the contrary, through a critical engagement with American reality along with sharī‘ah’s rich interpretive apparatus, numerous gaps and incongruities between traditional Islamic and contemporary American law and society may be narrowed if not obliterated. Moreover, outside the scope of sharī‘ah’s specifically legal jurisdiction proper, Muslims and non-Muslims may negotiate vast areas of the public order on the basis of a shared secular logic that neither draws upon nor offends sharī‘ah, all in pursuit of what is best for the commonweal and never at the expense of society’s vital interests.
I want to declare my commitment to seeing the Muslim community in America emerge and sustain itself as a self-authenticating community that effectively represents itself and is capable of producing a viable, identifiably American Muslim culture in America, just as Muslims have produced wherever they have found themselves throughout Muslim history. While American Muslims share with their global co-religionists the same scriptural sources, alongside the intellectual, cultural and spiritual legacy of Islam, American Muslims must ultimately determine for themselves how these are engaged, processed and deployed in America. Only American Muslims can speak for or represent American Muslims in this regard. Indeed, we must have our own agenda and priorities as American Muslims, here in America. And I declare my commitment to ensuring that that agenda be determined by American Muslims, not by foreign governments, not by overseas movements and not even by Muslims here who do not give the American Muslim community in America the priority it deserves! We American Muslims are not pawns. And no one should feel that they are entitled to treat us as such.
I want to declare my commitment to the pursuit of a principled approach to American foreign policy, one that privileges justice but does not turn justice into an idol to be worshipped at the expense of other equally important values. Justice is important; but it is not everything. Sometimes mercy or forgiveness or order or even a harsher punishment may be more affective in promoting a healthy society. In this vein, I want to declare my commitment to the Prophetic statement, “Help your brother whether he is right or wrong.” When his Companions asked how one could help one’s brother when he is wrong, the Prophet responded, “Stop him from doing wrong.” I want to apply this principle to American domestic and foreign policy, using the full range of Islamic values and virtues and not through a blind commitment to justice alone.
Beyond being a Muslim, I am a Blackamerican, connected to the broader Blackamerican collective. And I want to declare that blackness is an integral part of my personal and collective identity, just as Arabness was a part of the Prophet’s and his Companions. As such, I remain naturally committed to the well-being of the broader black collective. And I expect every other Muslim – black, white, Arab, Asian, Latino, Native America, what have you – to be equally committed to his or her racial or ethnic collective in America. For Islam acquires real-life meaning only in concrete everyday life; and concrete, everyday life can never be separated from collective identity. And it is partly Islam’s ability to address the real concrete problems and potential of society that makes it humanly meaningful. Islam is never served by Muslims’ giving the impression that their religion requires or urges them to abandon let alone betray their peoples. Even their moral or socio-political critique of their collective existence must be carried out in a spirit of sincere good will (nuṣḥ) towards their people. Indeed, the legacy of our Prophet Muhammad is a beautiful example in this regard.
Our problem as Muslims is not that we have commitments to different collective identities; our problem is that we tend to treat our collective identities as if they represented ultimate truth, as if they were Islam itself, as if they were an idol through whose appeasement we derive some sense of psycho-spiritual well-being or fulfill some cosmic mission. Our collective ethnic and racial identities often sit in judgment over Islam instead of invoking Islam as judge over our ethnic and racial commitments and sentiments. In this capacity, my Muslim brother or sister’s Islam determines almost nothing about how I relate to, engage, or treat them or their issues to which Islam itself might assign significance if not priority. All too often, race and ethnicity, albeit in unspoken ways, determine too much.
I want to declare that my ultimate commitment is to God and the religion of Islam, that Islam shall sit in judgment over my racial identity, not the other way around. Thus, even as I pursue the well-being of the broader Blackamerican collective, I shall commit to doing so on the basis of the values, virtues and priorities of Islam. My blackness is neither a morality nor a statement of ultimate truth nor a path to other-worldly salvation. Islam, on the other hand, is all of these for me.
Finally, no law can penetrate all the nooks and crannies of life. As such, law will be limited in addressing many of the social and other ills we confront today, such as racism, greed, selfishness, self-alienation, gender-bias and various forms of authoritarianism. It is here that religion can play a major role, if it is rightly tuned, humbly calibrated and courageously practiced, free of predatory triumphalism, worship of state-power and the pseudo-religious hatred of happiness. One of the greatest tragedies to befall religion in modern times – and this is perhaps especially true of Islam — is that those with political ambitions have learned how to pursue their interests through the rhetoric of religion, often to the point of securing the backing of the state. Meanwhile, religion has yet to find its full voice and practical expression in terms of bringing its best tools and insights to bear on society’s deepest and most vexing wounds. I want to declare my commitment to joining hands will all allies in American society who will commit to restoring the integrity of religion — not just Islam – as a valuable socio-political good in America. For it is my belief that we cannot save Islam in America without first saving religion in America.
This is in broad outline what I want as an American Muslim. I pray that God will protect you and me from any blind spots or misstatement reflected herein and that He pardon me for these. I know that there are some, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are lying in wait to pounce on my words. Some non-Muslims will want to use my words against me to portray me as an enemy of America, some kind of ‘sharī‘ah supremacist’. Some Muslims will want to take apart my every syllable en route to casting me as a sell-out to America. In the face of this, I would like to say that I am not afraid. But that would not be entirely true; for I know how mean, dishonest and vicious some of these people can be. All I can say, therefore, is that I do not worship fear; nor will I bow to it. God is my Protector. And in God I place my trust. And God knows best.
* I offer this as a personal reflection, not as an attempt to represent the entire Muslim community. I represent hereby no more than myself and those who agree with me. I expect that there will be disagreements, and I hope that these will be the basis of serious discussions en route to broader agreement. I also hope, given the importance and seriousness of this topic in the present moment, that we will be able to honor the values of decorum and mutual respect throughout our exchanges.
Dr. Sherman Jackson is the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture, and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Jackson is a co-founder, Core Scholar, and member of the Board of Trustees of the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM), an academic institution where scholars, professionals, activists, artists, writers, and community leaders come together to develop strategies for the future of Islam in the modern world. He will be teaching at the upcoming ALIM Winter Retreat in Washington DC this MLK weekend.