Monday, November 1, 2010

Are Muslim Leaders All They Should Be?

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


  1. Masha Allah! Great post. You know I am taking your advice and trying to learn from you!

  2. Thank you, Safiyyah; I can learn from you as well.

  3. This is a wonderful and greatly needed post which should be read and pondered by all who care about Islam and its place in the world of ideas and actions. Now bring on the responses.

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  5. Thanks, Molly. You have hit the nail on the head. I often find that my faith is strong, but my ability to know where we are going with it, confused by our backward discussions. Islam is, without a doubt, relevant for the current century, but what we hear and are taught, does not move us forward. No wonder we are misunderstood!

    The sunna and way of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was to accept new acts initiated in Islam that were of the good and did not conflict with established principles of Sacred Law, and to reject things that were otherwise. Your thoughts expressed in your writings are a part of that good and we need to take note of this expression of forward thinking. Our teachers and scholars need to bring us into the modern world.

  6. (Received by e-mail):

    Thanks, Molly, for the interesting post. I do think we have to recognize, however, how difficult it is for American Muslims to activate the social justice aspects of their faith. As soon as an American Muslim becomes socially active or even talks about social activism, they are immediately branded as espousing a form of "political Islam" that is vilified as a threat to democratic values and said to be a corruption of the true, apolitical, religion of Islam (meaning a safe Islam). Muslims thus turn in upon themselves and define Islam via traditional rituals and doctrines since they are not permitted to define it in socially active and relevant ways.

    I wrote my book, Was Jesus a Muslim? because I am convinced that Muslims have much of relevance to say to the contemporary American context if we have the courage to listen. That some American Muslim groups (like the Islamic Organization of North America, for example) are heavily promoting my book in the Muslim community demonstrates that there are leaders who are willing to engage with social activism. There just simply aren't enough of them.

    Robert Shedinger

  7. (Received by e-mail)

    As-salamu alaikum,

    Here are just a few thoughts in response to the general drift of your article.

    Your article sits at the very crux of the matter, as does the remark by Shaykh Abdalqadir. In fact the world itself has always been at this point, since the very beginning of the revelation. Every age has thrown up new challenges with which the people of the revelation have had to deal. The twenty-first century is thus not particularly different from any other age in that respect. What empowers us is to realise that the revelation comes from the One Who also has brought about this age, for, as He says, "He created you and what you do." And He is the One Who has decreed everything. So how can the world not be understood and governed from the perspective of the revelation when it was sent down for all of mankind until the end of time?

    That said, it is clear that some of the Muslims, today as previously, react to the challenge by retreating into a simplistic traditionalism, just as others react by capitulating to whatever the current worldview is and adjusting Islam to fit into it.

    The correct position is to adhere to the Book and the Sunnah and for those qualified among us to make the ijtihad necessary to face new situations.

    The context must of course be a jama'ah and community under the leadership of our own. Otherwise, all the ijtihads in the world will only create dissension and disagreement.

    The reality of our situation in the West is that we have been living here with our careers, being forced into that position by economic pressures among other things, and our families, largely living as private individuals.

    Now is the time for us to build communities and begin to link up the communities in the conscious knowledge that we are doing something historic: laying the foundations for Islam in new lands. This is not the same as living as immigrants behind ghetto walls.

    I say that because this has always been the project of Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi and the people who are inspired by him, among whom we in Norwich number ourselves:

    Abdassamad Clarke
    Imam, Ihsan Mosque
    Norwich, UK

  8. I think Dr.Umar's articles are very useful to address these issues.

  9. (via Facebook)

    Molly, I just finished reading your article as well. I thought it was an accurate and impartial analysis, and it certainly doesn't resemble hate filled writings.

    Like you said, I think it’s important to be able to step back and view our community from the outside. We may know who we are, but how others perceive us is equally important. It would be prudent to gain a better understanding of other people’s qualms instead of just writing them off as “right-wing”.

    I also couldn’t agree more with you on your second point. To put it in layman’s terms, we have bigger fish to fry. Let’s stop focusing on minute and negligible things.

    Mahmoud E. Raya

  10. Via Facebook:
    I do not advocate one politician over another, but I do support getting involved in the political process.I totally agree with you that our scholars, Imams, and teachers should be focusing on important issues of today, instead of focusing on how haram it is to hang pictures, or whether our sisters are wearing hijab.

    Where is our dialogue on treating the world hunger problem, What are we doing to educate those who don't have access to education (like you wrote), what are we doing to help the orphaned, widowed, needy, and the abused, Muslims and Non-Muslims alike?

    Also, I feel our energy should be distributed among Muslim and Non-Muslim organizations.For example, if there is a Non-Muslim food bank that needs volunteers to feed the needy, well we should get involved.

    Islam came as a Rahma to the world, not just to Muslims. No doubt, some of our leaders are addressing these issues, but there needs to be more!!! Your blog was definitely thought provoking. Jazak Allaho Khairan :)

    Asma Elhuni