NOTE: The following is a mildly edited transcript of the keynote address given by Dr. Jackson at the Annual Community Dinner of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago held on October 15, 2011 in Rosemont, Illinois. It has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
A most insidious impediment to a dignified existence for Muslims in America is the basic misunderstanding of the truism that Islam and secularism are mutually exclusive. Inasmuch as America is a “secular democracy,” many non-Muslims insist that no religion that positions itself as the polar opposite of the secular should be allowed to play a meaningful role in determining the country’s direction. In fact, in their view, allowing Muslims to influence public debate risks undermining the country’s secular order. Meanwhile, many Muslims quietly share aspects of this perspective, even if for practical reasons they come to a different set of conclusions. They too see an inherent contradiction between Islam and the secular, as a result of which they view participation in American public life almost as a necessary evil, to be indulged only out of a sense of duress, sort of like eating swine to ward off starvation.
By Dr. Sherman Jackson
(Published in Ascent Magazine Vol 2. Issue 1&2)
“Islam is a religion of peace.” This is certainly the mantra that has inundated us from almost every quarter since the horrifying events of September 11, 2001. From President George W. Bush to local, national and even international Muslim spokespersons, the peaceful nature of Islam has been reiterated time and again. Of course, this has not gone unchallenged. Skeptics, polemicists, even opportunists of various stripes, have repeatedly warned against accepting too uncritically what they hint at being a “new-found, politically correct” depiction of a religion that includes, inter alia, a scripturally mandated institution of armed violence and a holy book that exhorts its adherents, at least on the face of it, to “slay ‘them’ wherever you find them.” Today, close to a year after the tragedy, emotions and rhetoric on both sides have subsided a bit. But there is still a suspicion among many Americans-including many Muslim Americans-when it comes to the question of Islam, violence, and the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.
The passing of Imam W.D. Mohammed, may God have mercy upon him and grant him Paradise, has brought the Blackamerican Muslim community face to face with a reality that it has been more comfortable with ignoring than coming to terms with. Imam Mohammed’s death has signaled the end of the era of charismatic leadership in which the rank and file can look to a single leader to settle all major questions and chart the Community’s course for the future. Rather than being decided by a single voice, that future will have to be negotiated by the collective understandings and perspectives of the Community’s learned. This implies, of course, general agreement on who is learned and what the rules of engagement are. If the criterion is set too high, it will marginalize valuable voices and confirm an already widespread distrust of religious knowledge and those who claim to represent it. If it is set too low, it will open the Community to the ravages and abuses of those who think that the role of religion is to sanction their and or the dominant culture’s every undisciplined whim and passion.
In the years leading up to his death, Imam Mohammed strove mightily and with great farsightedness to empower his Community to carve out a dignified existence for themselves, to transition to what I have referred to as the “Third Resurrection,” whereby, individually and collectively, the Community is able to negotiate American reality in light of the Qur’an and Sunna. For the most part, however, the Imam had to go it alone, with few contributions from Blackamerican Muslim scholars outside his own movement.