The Gift of Historical Consciousness
I have often wondered about the way Muslims use the word “ummah.” In a technical sense, it clearly refers to the entire Community, the unqualified collective of all who espouse, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.” And yet, it commonly manages to connote certain parts of the world to the marginalization if not mild exclusion of others. The Middle East, South Asia and South East Asia clearly make it in, while America, Canada and Jamaica are barely brought to mind. Ultimately, of course, numbers play a role here. Where Muslims are a majority or even a ‘significant minority’ (as, e.g., in India or parts of Africa), it is simply easier to see their sufferings, obsessions, preferences and even sensibilities as reflecting the pulse and interests of the “ummah.” Where they are a small, marginal minority, on the other hand, (as, e.g., in America or Canada) this is far less likely to be the case.
My concern in all of this is not so much with the way the rest of the ummah looks upon Muslim minorities in the West. This is an issue, of course. But to my mind it pales in significance next to the way that these minorities ultimately view themselves. For if it is only as a majority or a ‘significant minority’ that Muslims can see themselves as bona fide representatives of Islam, then surely their status in America today must entail some fairly nasty psychological dislocations and deficits of confidence and self-esteem. This is not to mention the tentativeness with which they must approach their lives as Muslims, as they can never definitively respond or propose solutions to anything but must ultimately – and nervously – await final judgment from some would-be Sublime Porte. Given the enormity, weight and urgency of the present moment in America, this is clearly not a mindset that we can afford to perpetuate. The challenges we will refuse or fail to face, the opportunities we will forfeit and the intellectual, financial and other human resources we will squander, in passive anticipation of better days to be brought about by time alone can only remind us that, as the Qur’ân says, “to live in a state of mental defeatism is worse than death (wa al-fitnah ashaddu min al-qatl)”!
It may help, however, to note that our situation in America today is not entirely new. In fact, some of Islam’s finest moments – and brightest stars — emerged out of circumstances in which Muslims existed as minorities. In his book, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, Richard Bulliet of Columbia University establishes that the central lands of Islam – what we commonly refer to today as the Muslim world – did not become overwhelmingly Muslim until some two and a half to three centuries after the initial conquests. By the year 150/767, for example, Muslims in greater Iraq numbered roughly 15-20 percent. By 250/864, they had reached 35 to 40 percent. Only after the passage of almost 300 years would Iraq be well over 50 percent Muslim. And it was not until roughly the year 350/961 that the Muslim population reached upwards of 75 percent.
Now, let us look in this context at the death dates of some of those who defined the very parameters of Islamic thought, life and society. Abû Hanîfa died in the year 150/767; al-Shâfi‘î died in 204/819-20; Ahmad Ibn Hanbal died in 241/856; Râbi‘a al- ‘Adawîya, the grand dame of early Sufism, died in 185/801. (Mâlik died in 179/795, but he, like Ja‘far al-Sâdiq (d. 148/765) spent his entire life in the wholly Muslim city of Medina.) Outside the realm of strictly religious knowledge and production, the great poet Abû Nawwâs, for example, died in 199/814 and the master grammarian Sibuwayh died in 180/797. This is besides that ever-present contingent of anti-religious critics, such as Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ (d. 139/756) Ibn al-Rawandî (d. 297/910), Abû Bakr al-Râzî (d.313/925) and others who openly attacked Islam, produced ‘rival Qur’âns’ and dismissed the Prophet as a charlatan.
We could go on like this. The point, however, is that their status as numerical minorities did not prevent the early Muslims from translating their religious commitments, alongside their thoughts, dreams, fears, obsessions and talents, into an organic articulation of Islam, not as an abstraction but as a concrete way of being in the world that both resonated in and captured the mood and imagination of society. Indeed, this – and not any fear of forcible conversion – is what facilitated the continuing spread of Islam. (After all, had forced conversion been the norm, it would not have taken 300 years for the population to become majority Muslim.) To be sure, these early Muslims faced serious challenges, as they lived and operated in societies where the dominant culture was routinely far more advanced, culturally and intellectually, than the culture and civilization brought by the original conquerors. But rather than shrink from this challenge, they boldly got to work, committing everything they had to the enterprise of carving out a dignified existence for Islam in their homeland. This was not always a smooth and unproblematic enterprise. Mistakes were made, wrong turns were taken and they even got their intellectual noses bloodied on occasion. But rather than just sneer at society and then withdraw in the face of what had to feel at least at times like impossible odds, they pressed on – and ultimately prevailed. This is why, by the way, while I have never been a supporter of their doctrine or their approach, I have long nursed a certain respect for the early Mu‘tazilites. For in a context where Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Manicheans, Hellenistic philosophers and others – including the aforementioned critics of Islam — all thrived and made their respective contributions to society’s rational and pre-rational prejudices and sensibilities, the Mu‘tazilites intrepidly unsheathed their intellectual swords and went to battle to defend and promote Islam. One might get a sense of the magnitude of the odds they faced if one considers that Wâsil b. ‘Atâ’, the reputed founder of Mu‘tazilism, died in the year 131/748! — when the Muslim population of greater Iraq was less than 10 percent!
Today, many Muslims in America strike me to be woefully uncomfortable with their minority status, almost as if there was something sinful about it, as if it somehow violated where any Muslim community that enjoyed God’s favor would actually find itself. Even converts ultimately take on aspects of this mentality, which is why it is routinely easier for them to think in terms of bringing back (or bringing over) the glory of Islam than it is of actually producing it. But perhaps we should remind ourselves that Abû Hanîfa, al-Shâfi‘î, Ibn Hanbal, Râbi‘a al-‘Adawîya, Ja‘far al-Sâdiq, Sibuwayh and countless others all died as minorities! Thus, it was clearly not their numbers but their dogged commitment and belief in themselves (alongside the fact that others stepped up and supported them with resources) that determined their success. It would seem, then, that, even as a marginal minority in America, a healthy sense of historical consciousness would empower us to see ourselves in some pretty eminent company and to recognize that we are not just victims or passive objects but actual agents – good or bad, lazy or energetic, petty or big-minded — who contribute directly to our lived circumstances. May God guide us to see that not our numbers but our efforts will determine our future. And may He bless us to see that, even as a marginal minority, we too are a part of the ummah and that our contributions, no less than our hopes, fears, preferences, obsessions, successes and failures, are part of what will make Islam, as a lived reality, Islam in America — for better or for worse. And God knows best.
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