“Look homey run your chain/ not the one that’s on your neck/ But the one that’s on your brain/ that they use to keep in check”—Lupe Fiasco, Spazz Out
Highlighting “supposed” notions of Black moral failure in order to undermine calls for racial and economic justice is an old tactic. This isn’t that.
Black people in America have many distinctions. The great Toni Morrison’s description of a “blues sensibility” resonates with me:
“The blues is about some loss, some pain, and some other things. But it doesn’t whine; even when it’s begging to be understood in the lyrics, the music contradicts that feeling of being a complete victim and completely taken over. There’s a sense of agency, even when someone has broken your heart. The process of having the freedom to have made that choice is what surfaces in blues. I don’t see it as crying music.”
In light of that sensibility, a logic which explains looting and vandalism as the inevitable consequences of being victimized by white supremacy and anti-Black racism is impoverished. Let’s suspend, for a moment, our moral judgments about rioting. No matter what, we dignify Black people when we affirm their agency. Consider the following: Black people weren’t the only rioters. In fact, in the video footage I observed, the overwhelming majority of the looters in Chicago appeared to be non-Black. However, white looters were identified as “anarchists and anti-fascists.” That sounds a lot different than “thugs and criminals,” and it sounds different than “people who can’t be blamed because they’ve been wronged.” Upon reflection, the terms sound intentional and even philosophical. White Americans, even if they’re considered misguided or evil, are always understood to exercise moral agency. White rioters, as the news media tacitly demonstrated, are neither byproducts of criminality nor desperation, just post-modern political philosophy.
The Qur’an never denies the reality of oppression (fitnah); it describes this most lamentable of conditions in chilling terms: “…Oppression is worse than slaughter” [2:191] Affirming the moral agency of the oppressed doesn’t absolve the oppressor. Quite the reverse, affirming the agency of the oppressed limits the oppressor. The oppressor may redline my community and intentionally create the conditions for its disinvestment but he has no authority over my actions or my soul. I belong to Allah: “Say: ‘Should I seek a lord other than Allah while He is the Lord of everything? And nobody does anything but to his own account, and no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return. And He will tell you the truth of your differences.” [6:164]
Quietist piety makes for bad religion. We should take pride in the fact that our Prophet (upon him be peace) was not exclusively a pacifist. He was an iconoclast who employed many strategies to disrupt oppression: He prayed, commanded to charity, patiently endured, engaged in civil disobedience, commissioned land grants, entered treaties, waged war, and even expropriated the commercial goods of economic oppressors. And yet, none of this was done as an expression of lawlessness or anarchy. The Prophet (upon him be peace) was defined by God’s Will; not the mere rejection of the status quo. Further, the teachings of Islamic spiritual psychology (taṣawwuf or tazkiyah) dictate that the soul is naturally inclined to evil (an-nafs al-ammārata bi as-sū’). In the absence of an intentional commitment to self-purification, those fighting oppression are more likely to emulate their oppressors—if they gain power—than to transcend them. This is perhaps the greatest liability of revolutionary strategies which lack a sustained focus on moral agency: Namely, the individual human struggle to be upright is obscured by ideological calls to revolution. Why does Marx assume the proletariat class will be more impervious to greed and corruption than the gentry and bourgeoisie if they gain control over society’s economic modes of production?
Critical theorists like Derek Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw have developed a compelling and useful framework for analyzing the impact of racial disparities. In this framework, power is defined as the sine qua non of racism. Is power also necessary for greed, wantonness, injustice, ingratitude, etc? Again, my point is not that we need to become saints before demanding justice or worse yet that an oppressive power structure should be left undisturbed until we “purify” ourselves. It’s unfortunate that so many Black conservatives have attempted to undermine calls to end racial injustice by way of engaging in petty respectability politics. At times, it’s difficult to countenance reservations about Black moral responsibility as little else. Stated simply, our engagement with what we are must be at least as impassioned and critical as our engagement with what we oppose.
From its earliest encounter with the Hebrew Bible (and perhaps through the familiarity of some of its members with the Qur’an), the enslaved community identified strongly with Moses (upon him be peace) and the Israelites. They were God’s chosen people. “Go down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” they sang. They identified their greatest liberator, Harriet Tubman (may Allah elevate her memory) with Moses, the flight to freedom with the Exodus, the Mason-Dixon line with the Red Sea, white supremacy with Pharaoh, etc. The symbolism is rich. Even now, there are significant numbers of Blackamericans who identify as Hebrew Israelites, Hebrew Christians, and African Hebrew Israelites or simply affirm an ancestral connection between Black people and the ancient Hebrews. As we mine our tradition for scriptural guidance in this moment, I think we should continue to invest in this interpretive connection.
In the Qur’an, the story of the Israelites is nuanced. Their subjugation in Egypt is described in horrific detail “…the people of Pharaoh: they set you to hard tasks and punishments, slaughtered your sons and let your womenfolk live; therein was a tremendous trial from your Lord.” [2:49]. And like the Biblical account, the story of Moses (upon him be peace) and the Exodus of the Israelites from bondage is also captured. However, the Qur’an alone—to my knowledge—expresses appreciable subtlety when discussing the interaction between Moses and the Children of Israel as they pursued liberation. Moses advises them:
“Pray for help from God, and (wait) in patience and constancy: for the earth is God’s, to give as a heritage to such of His Servants as He pleases, and the end is best for the righteous” [7:128]
He continues: “…it may be that your Lord will destroy your enemy and make you leaders in the earth; that so that He may try you by your deeds” [7:129]
Moses (upon him be peace) was not out of touch with his people and this was certainly no de-contextualized moralizing aimed at undermining the Israelites’ struggle for freedom. He was calling them to virtue and preparing them for the heightened moral responsibility entailed by leadership. Historically, leadership—not resistance—is the final frontier for people breaking the chains of oppression. Resistance requires the will to fight back. Leadership, on the other hand, requires not simply fight-back, but an independent moral vision that offers its own conception of the “good” and the “beautiful.” Even after freedom and witnessing miracles at the hands of Moses, The Children of Israel still struggled to define themselves:
“We took the Children of Israel across the sea. They came upon a people devoted entirely to some idols they had. They said: ‘O Moses! Fashion for us a god like the gods they have.’ He said: ‘Surely ye are a people without knowledge.’ [7:138].
I make no appeals to “law and order,” for what can these platitudes mean to people denied justice under the law? And although the preservation of personal property is a fundamental objective of Islamic law, I can, at the very least, countenance arguments which bind that preservation to government fulfillment of a social contract. I recognize the prima facie legitimacy of a point I recently heard raised by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill: The spectacle of violence is an effective way to force recalcitrant power brokers to the table. And yet, if these approaches to social rebellion are the mere groans of a beleaguered people, capable of destroying what they hate but without any idea how to create what they should love, unprincipled rage will be our golden calf.