I usually travel for work so the sound of the wheels screeching against the tarmac at O’Hare is the strange, somehow sonorous, reassuring song of deliverance. “Travel is a kind of torment; it disrupts your routine with regard to nourishment and rest. Therefore, after one of you fulfills the intended purpose of his journey he should return home at once.” This Prophetic tradition has always retained a special place with me. In spite of all the amenities of modern travel, home remains an irreplaceable feeling. For me, located in the Bronzeville section of Chicago, the comfort of home always begins with the ride from the airport.
This particular Sunday I decided to listen to public radio. NPR was broadcasting Latino USA and the conversation was about language. I expected it to be interesting. About 5 minutes into my ride, the show’s host, Maria Hinojosa, began talking about sexism. She was introducing the neologism “Latinx,” a term, which she mentioned, was gaining currency in some literary circles as an alternative to “Latino” or “Latinos”. The problem with Latino and Latinos, Maria explained, was that as nouns designated for masculine singular or masculine plural usage, using them for generic reference to anyone of Latin heritage was sexist. Conversely, “Latinx” was intentionally neutral. This had me intrigued on many levels. The dynamism written language (as opposed to colloquial idiom) enjoys in our context is historically unique. I thought to myself: what are the factors at play that make some cultures/eras comfortable altering the established rules of a language’s grammar/spelling whereas others are more deferential to the past? I also thought, Maria’s endorsement of the term highlighted the connection of language to representation and thus to power. Clarity, precision, beauty, historical continuity, heritage, i.e. the various and sundry concerns entailed by the intentional use of language, didn’t seem to be considerations at all. Does such myopic focus on power represent progress or truncation—even for those struggling to access greater power? Mashallah, Maria had me thinking and as the show progressed, her commentary became more wide-ranging. She declared, “Gender in Spanish, the fact that all nouns are either masculine or feminine, is so limiting. It’s such an imposition. It reinforces a gender binary we now know is inadequate in describing reality.” “As a matter of fact,” she continued, “I don’t see any utility for gender in language. Unless, of course, I’m addressing one of my transgender friends, I love saying to them ‘chica’ or ‘bonita…’” My state switched from one of mild intrigue to intense bewilderment. Had I just heard what I thought I heard?
In spite of its acronym (which is an Arabic term for “scholar”), the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM) does not aspire to produce ‘ulema. Rather, in empowering non-specialists through religious literacy, we endeavor to drive conversation in our community. Maria Hinojosa, the unintended feature of my ride home, articulated one of our community’s greatest challenges. When discussing gender as a distinctive attribute of Spanish, the Latino USA host called it an “imposition” and pointed to its inadequacy. Yet, when discussing transgender friends, Maria expressed her enjoyment at their performance of gender and the otherwise imposition became a source of celebration. How peculiar? In my view, her sentiment reflects an attitude that restricts moral value to unencumbered choice. Extraneous interference with choice; be that of tradition, culture, religion, guilt, language, or even biology may be regarded as an impediment to true self-realization. How will a faith which maintains that peace is found through submission (to the will of God) articulate its vision for human flourishing in a context in which choice alone has been sacralized? To be sure, the Qur’an recognizes the importance of choice, declaring directly after Ayāt al-Kursī: “And there is no compulsion in religion…” [2:256]. Sincere religious commitment only grows from freely enacted choice; however, the moral value of choice is predicated not on its being freely enacted but its reflecting what God wants.
Abu Umamah reported: A young man came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and he said, “O Messenger of Allah, give me permission to commit adultery.” The people turned to rebuke him, saying, “Quiet! Quiet!” The Prophet said, “Come here.” The young man came close and he told him to sit down. The Prophet said, “Would you like that for your mother?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their mothers. Would you like that for your daughter?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their daughters. Would you like that for your sister?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their sisters. Would you like that for your aunts?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their aunts.” Then, the Prophet placed his hand on him and he said, “O Allah, forgive his sins, purify his heart, and guard his chastity.” After that, the young man never again inclined to anything sinful.
A colleague who works as an imam once told me a story. He said that a young man entered his office and asked earnestly: “Why can’t my girlfriend and I have sex? We’re adults and we’re in a committed relationship.” As soon as he heard the young man’s question, the imam thought, this is it—a direct parallel to a situation faced by the Messenger of God! For once, instead of groping in the darkness, trying to find some scriptural guidance for an unprecedented situation, the imam would simply convey the Prophetic wisdom. He began by saying across his desk, “would you mind sitting next to me?” After the young man had moved his chair so that he was next to the imam and ready for a real tete-a-tete, the imam began: “Is this a way you would like anyone to treat your mother?” When the young man responded, matter-of-factly, “yeah, definitely; as long as it’s what my mom wants,” the imam erupted in laughter until he was literally crying tears. When he was able to compose himself, he said to the perplexed looking twenty-something, “you weren’t supposed to say that!”
When the Prophet (upon him be peace) asked, “Would you like that for your mother?” the implication was that the young man’s sexual practice was morally irresponsible and harmful to women. In fact, upon reflection, it is the clear definition of mutual rights and responsibilities among partners combined with an incontestable foundation for the paternity of children that makes sex morally responsible. When those are absent, whether through neglect or single parenthood, women and children suffer: Hence, the young companion’s response, “No, by Allah…” On the other hand, for the young man sitting in the imam’s office, consent is the only necessary condition for morally responsible sex: Hence, his response “…as long as it’s what my mom wants.”
Some segments of our community are actively engaged in developing creative ways to introduce young Muslims to scripture (Qur’an and Sunnah). This is immensely commendable, Mashallah. Yet, my fear is that if we introduce them to the text without appraising the assumptions and sensibilities that form the basis of their context, we could be guilty of putting the proverbial “cart before the horse.”
The power of charisma is undeniable and often irresistible. Whenever our community witnesses the painful “fall from grace” of a religious figure, there is always a vocal faction calling out “cults of personality” and urging commitment to principle over people. On the one hand, this is appreciable. The Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet (upon him be peace) are replete with warnings about the injustice that accrues when focus is unduly placed on personalities as opposed to principles. On the other, while the virtue of qiṣṭ (moral commitment to justice) should guide our adjudication, it certainly cannot be said to account for the heartbreak we feel at the knowledge that one of our leaders has morally failed. Imam Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, while occupying an endowed chair at the famed Nizāmiyyah Academy in Baghdad, was one of the most sought-after lecturers of his time. His spellbinding command of Arabic and adroitness as both jurisprudent and theologian dazzled and impressed but failed to move people. After suffering a psychological breakdown due to his own perceived lack of sincerity, Ghazālī eventually left his post. Yet, after a nearly 10 year sabbatical and rediscovery of sincerity through discipline and experience, the Imam returned. In contradistinction to his earlier high-flown style, it’s mentioned that the spiritually renewed Ghazālī would speak plainly; and at the simple mention of the name of God, people would be moved to tears. When highlighting the connection between sincerity and preaching, I’ve referenced this story many times and I’m willing to bet others have also heard it. We only separate the substance from the shadow when someone who has taught us dīn is caught in an act of apparent immorality. In fact, quite the reverse, we’re often taught that the spiritual state of the speaker and the impact of their words are inseparable. Consequently, when a religious authority is accused of wrongdoing, many people are given to doubt concerning what they’ve learned from the leader. In earlier writings, I’ve attempted to address this conflict by emphasizing the dynamism of faith, i.e., just because the teacher is alleged to have entered a state of sin, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they were in a state of sin while teaching. This, I mentioned, as an extension of the customary understanding of Ḥusn ad-dhann (having a good opinion of others) and a means of protecting our faith against surreptitious cynicism. Now, however; given that the winds of controversy have touched someone I know and love, I feel compelled to speak more personally and less theoretically about moral failure as it relates to leaders in the Muslim community.
We are professionals. We are performers. We are professional performers. Inasmuch as the word “performance” connotes artificiality and insincerity, it’s jarring to think of scholars as performers. Actually, I have no such connotation in mind. What I have in mind is more along the lines of one whose standing and credibility rest on the competent performance of specific professional duties. That said, a certain measure of indifference to the highs and lows of one’s own life and faith is entailed in the position. Whether upon a personal spiritual peak or valley, the professional responsibility of the preacher is the same. When we’re presenting, our “dark night of the soul” is in Alaska. I actually chuckle at the thought of conducting weddings and giving sermons about loving relationships as Hadiyah, my wife (may Allah preserve her) gives me the side eye or refuses to listen! And all because we’re going through the same ups and downs as any other couple. In that moment, she and I probably have the same feelings about marriage: “it’s challenging and my partner gets on my nerves!” The only difference is that I have a microphone and a professional responsibility to say something encouraging. So I perform. I perform like a physician having the worst day of their life struggling to retain impeccable bedside manner or an exhausted recording artist on the 30th leg of a tour manufacturing enthusiasm to perform the same set they’ve done the previous 29 dates. Would you expect any less? This is not justification for a lack of integrity. Findings of gross moral inconsistency on behalf of a scholar could mean removal from their position and public accountability. Nonetheless, the shock and dismay that the person “was never who we thought they were” is always telling. Quite frankly, I’m astonished that we’re astonished. Did we really believe that he or she was only a walking repository of scriptural references, uplifting anecdotes, and witty bon mot? Did we actually believe the healer had no wounds, no scars?
Consider the work of our secular colleagues. A strict code of relationship ethics gives the professional therapist a clear set of boundaries inside which they can serve their clients. Have you seen how your therapist interacts with their spouse? How they respond to their children? How they deal with slights or public embarrassment? This distance aids in the creation of a useful compartmentalization: We are able to benefit from the therapist’s counsel without any presumption that we “know’ them. Religious personnel enjoy no such luxury. We host dinners and respond to invitations. Our children attend the local Islamic school. We frequent the weddings, births, graduations, funerals, etc. of community members. We “do” community and speaking for myself, I absolutely love it. However, when the fallible human being struggling “to submit” is furtively seen, or perhaps in some cases, glaringly seen beneath the robe of public religious performance, what should be our response as a community?
My wife Hadiyah is creative. When she recognized that our eldest daughter Aasiyah was approaching her thirteenth birthday, she started planning a “coming of age” party. Part debutante ball, part “bat mitzvah”; it’s an original vision. As a new teen, Hadiyah contends, Aasiyah should be introduced to her “village” and celebrated as she assumes responsibility (taklīf) for her religious obligations. I’m fascinated by my wife’s vision: a party that occasions “coming of age”, in which taklīf would be a central theme. What exactly would we be celebrating? Seeing as though legal adulthood or majority begins at the age of 18 in most states, does the concept of adolescence militate against an embrace of taklīf? And lastly, with the spotlight recently placed on statutory rape, does our commitment to taklīf dictate any specific intervention we might make in order to prepare our young people?
When Nelson Mandela described himself as “something of an Anglophile” it relieved some tension. Somehow this celebrated freedom-fighter openly admitting his affinity for English culture made my comparatively mild curiosity a little less damning. And so there I was: A poor student travelling to Cairo via London. Upon arriving at Heathrow, I made my way through the labyrinthine line at the gate until I reached the agent. With an earnestness conveyed by sheer audacity and a pitiful carry-on stuffed to nearly twice its regular capacity, I humbly requested that British Airways rebook my connection the following day so that I could explore London. And to my suprise the agent obliged!
Listen to this thought provoking podcast on Al-Madina Institute’s IMANwire podcast featuring Ust. Ubaydullah Evans; ALIM’s Scholar in Residence. Topic: “American Islam: Cultural Imitators or Innovators?”
These are the types of discussions that highlight the ALIM Summer Program. For more information, see the links below.
For many, husn adh-dhann or having a good opinion of others is amorphous. A simple willingness to offer the benefit of the doubt or a “get out of jail free” card which grants immunity in the face of wrongdoing? In our scandal-laden cultural moment, in which the enhanced ability to share news, warnings, rumors, and outright lies about people–some of whom we’ve never even met–is literally at our fingertips, a cursory glance at husn adh-dhann might be helpful.
As a signifier of commitment to progressive values, the terms “diversity and inclusion” are nearly ubiquitous. The past decade or so has witnessed “diversity and inclusion” move from the Affirmative Action inspired charters of schools and businesses to a vibrant part of our media, art, and vernacular cultures. Put differently, we no longer only expect diversity and inclusion where we work or study; it’s something we’ve come to seek more broadly. Taken at face value, this shift toward plurality should inspire American Muslims with great satisfaction. Our faith affords inter- religious/cultural exchange and ultimately familiarity, spiritual value. The Qur’ān proclaims,
Eddie Murphy, a romantic comedy, and Islam are a highly improbable combination. Nonetheless, Boomerang, the 1992 Paramount Pictures release which features Murphy as Marcus, an advertising executive who happens to be an indecisive playboy, does offer a well-acted, powerful scene from which we might glean a few insights. As we approach the denouement of what, until that point, had been a legitimately funny albeit hopelessly predictable film, Marcus and Angela—played by Murphy’s co-star Halle Berry—have a memorable exchange.
Relevance is an important factor when assessing authority within religious communities. However, in the case of Sunni Islam it possesses added significance: In the absence of centralized, religiously binding authority (e.g. the Catholic Church) relevance can quickly become the sine qua non of religious authority. For many, pedigree and certification become meaningless if the authority in question is deemed “out of touch.”