By Molly Darden
Islamophobia in America has left Muslims feeling puzzled and sad, though not surprised. Most live exemplary lives, they posit, so why are they feared and discriminated against? One possible explanation may seem surprising, and it involves some introspection regarding Muslim leadership in America.
Which of us doesn't believe our children are the smartest, best and most beautiful or handsome of all? Of course, we all do! Other people, however, may see them differently; they may notice areas in which our children might improve.
In this context, I suggest that perhaps some non-Muslim Islamic scholars may be able to see the religion more objectively than Muslim scholars, shedding new but nevertheless valid light that may be new to Islamic traditionalists. This new light might possibly be useful in guiding Muslims through their roles in the global 21st Century. I don’t refer to global Muslims, but primarily to Muslims in America although applicable also to other Muslims in the West.
Questions arise as to the purpose of Islam. In the 21st century, should it be a stagnant preservation of Qur’anic teachings and followings of social morés of the Prophet Mohammed, or should it be a social justice movement as well? In a biographic interview* Imam Abdassamad Clarke of Northern Ireland quoted Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi as saying that Islam is not a culture but a filter for culture.
I question that premise as an incomplete one. The general belief of Muslims is that they follow a religion based on a set of 7th century rules, regulations and customs, and that careful following of these dicta will get them into Paradise, their ultimate desired destination. That could be a simplistic version of the religion; is that enough, or do they need to combine that belief with social action as well?
Clarke continues in the same interview, “…societal structures are breaking down…we have to have the generosity to help as many people…as we can, for the tremendous nature of the Islam of Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is this character of rescuing everyone except for a small group of the most intransigent. It is that generosity and largeness of heart that is needed.”
We assume, of course, that Muslim religious leaders know more than the basics or the detailed history they teach, but maybe they're too close to the "party line" to see Islam in a wider scope. Or, maybe they believe their followers don't have the capacity to move beyond the basic ideas.
For example, Muslims learn that Islam means submission to God, and that Islam is the only true religion. But Christianity and Judaism preach the same thing in various forms, so what sets Islam or other Abrahamic religions apart? Do they really need to be apart or, as Jon Stewart suggests, do they each want to be perceived as the one true religion in order to avoid competition?
Some non-Muslim Islamic scholars, conferring with Muslim scholars, conclude that Islam is a social justice movement based on elementary human values. In his book, Was Jesus a Muslim? Dr. Robert F. Shedinger writes, “…in an Islamic worldview humans are understood as God’s viceregents on earth. As such, transformation of the world system is a human responsibility, a responsibility wrapped up in the mutual transformation of the material and spiritual in Islam.”
If that is the case, and it is generally accepted, I’m wondering why ground level American Muslims and, for the most part their leaders, limit their widely read social media postings to pious quotes and admonitions based on 7th century morés. Surely, if Islam is a vibrant religion or social movement relevant to 21st century living, people would find ways of applying the basic teachings to social needs and actions of today.
It’s curious to me that so many Muslims are still discussing and arguing over such issues as gender relations and social conventions – the proper greeting to each other, backbiting, etc. -- rather than focusing on social issues – hunger, need for education assistance, (mentoring and tutoring), literacy and so much more. Of course Muslims are socially active in pockets but as a group they don’t seem to communicate moral imagination based on Islamic teachings.
A recent khutbah (sermon) in a major Atlanta mosque consisted of a 45-minute lecture on the sighting of the moon. While some listeners may have found that discourse interesting, it was hardly socially helpful. Rather, local imams could choose a six-month or twelve-month theme for khutbahs, such as “How to form a unified American Muslim Culture" which would accommodate cultural variations and contribute to society, or “What is our role in Western society?”.
An excellent opportunity for applying their morés to modern needs would be addressing the appalling debt load which so many people carry. According to Muslim teachings, they are forbidden to pay interest. That means they cannot carry significant debt. Ideally, according to Shariah Finance, Muslims would follow a “pay-as-you-go” financial path – an exemplary lesson for non-Muslims and an opportunity for leadership.
Another opportunity would be the “spread the wealth” requirement of zakat, to give a designated percentage of their disposable income to the needy.
It seems that, like interfaith groups, a great many Muslims prefer committees and conferences that discuss the problems more than reaching a consensus on how to solve them. Wouldn’t it be wonderfully innovative for them to prepare a Declaration of Social Responsibility or a Declaration of Conscience similar to the American Declaration of Independence! The document would include pledges of related action.
Maybe it’s time for Muslim leaders to move their concepts of Islam to a more progressive level based on the undeniable interconnectivity of 21st century global society. And if they do this, maybe Muslims would automatically become more visible contributors to improving social justice.
And perhaps one of the best results of these changes would be that Islamophobia would begin to melt away!
*Bookwright blog, December 2009; interview by Mohamad Omar in Sweden