Sunday, July 17, 2005

An old khutba (sermon) against Nationalist/ separatist interpretations of Islamic Ummah

This is an old khutba that I gave at the ISGH main center in Houston, TX on February 27, 2004. I was "heckled" after this khutba, when a member of the congregation said that he was shaking with anger, looked at me and said "I reject your khutba", and claimed that it questioned "our `aqidah (creed)". I was told afterwards that there was a lot of argument outside the prayer area, with people agreeing with the views I had expressed, and others disagreeing.

I obviously still adhere to my views expressed in this khutba.
The main point about Mawdudi and company defining the "Ummah" in a nationalist sense, and the emphasis on doing things differently (whether it's in the way we dress or the way we do finance) is very much at the heart of the problem with Muslims today. We need to understand the basic message of Islam, and to work with all people who agree with our moral and social views -- not to convert them, or to separate from them, but to reach good social outcomes that are beneficial to everyone.

At any rate, here is the text of that khutba:

(traditional introduction) then

I would like to congratulate the community for the new Hijri year, and to congratulate our brothers and sisters who returned from performing the Hajj. I pray that we can all have the opportunity to perform Hajj next year, IA.

It is customary at this time to give a khutbah that discusses the lessons of the Hijra. Instead, however, I would like to discuss some difficult issues related to misconceptions regarding the nature of those lessons. I would also like to link those misconceptions and resulting attitudes of the Muslim American community, of which I am a member, to some of the current issues that have dominated our news sources and emails over the past few weeks.

One of the current issues that have mobilized Muslim American communities recently is the recent French law banning girls from wearing Hijab/headscarf at school. The surprising thing is that this recent development in France prompted numerous marches around the world, including here in the U.S., while majority-Muslim countries, including Turkey, Tunisia and others, have similar laws on their books. In fact, when a Muslim Turkish woman who wears a headscarf won a seat in the Turkish parliament, but was prevented from entering the building of parliament because of her garb, that was a mere footnote for most Muslim communities, and it certainly did not mobilize Muslim groups to start marching around the globe in her support.

What matters to us most is the fact that different parties to the debate on the new French law continue to talk at cross-purposes: Muslims continue to inform that head-covering is a religious obligation on Muslim women, while French officials continue to talk about the issue as one of “religious symbols”. Mr. Pasqua, who was one of the architects of the new law, argued that they have seen Muslim women elsewhere who did not wear head covering, and stated that “it is not sufficient to have Muslims in France, we need a French Islam” (See Ch.9 “The Beleaguered Muslims of France”, in Milton Viorst’s In the Shadow of the Prophet, New York: Westview Press, 2001). Prof. Kepel, one of the authors of the law, echoed the sentiment: “We will have a sort of apartheid. Everyone will be proud to defend his own identity — I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a Jew first. And then a Frenchman, second. This is not acceptable” (See this and more quotes in the article: In other words, the issue of the headscarf representing a religious symbol was threatening their national identity.

Indeed, we can go back to history before the recent developments and the 1989 case of the three Muslim girls at the Creil school in France. In 1984, we had a discrimination case right here in America, of the substitute school teacher Alima Dolores Reardon, who was fired from her job in Philadelphia due to wearing the Hijab to work. She won an initial court ruling, but subsequently lost at an appeals court, based on the “religious garb” statute enacted in 1895, and representing anti-Catholic sentiments of that time (See Moore, Kathleen “The Hijab and Religious Liberty: Anti-Discrimination Law and Muslim Women in the United States”, Ch. 5 of Y. Haddad and J. Esposito, Muslims on the Americanization Path? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Indeed, both in the French and U.S. cases, fear of religious garb acting as a religious symbol was closely tied to issues of allegiance or non-allegiance to one’s country. Well into the 20th Century, Catholics in this country were suspected of having more allegiance to the Vatican (Church) than to their home country. It would have been unthinkable in 1895, or 1940 for that matter, that someone like John F. Kennedy could have been elected President of the United States.

Brothers and sisters, this is the problem we face in America today. The headscarf by itself is not threatening to a society, unless they think that it represents allegiance to different – foreign – entities. Indeed, this is closely related to the recent barrage of indictments of Muslim Americans as “an enemy within” by pseudo academics such as Daniel Pipes, Congressmen such as Rep. Peter King (of NY), and many in between. While we do, and should continue to dispel those misconceptions, we also need to reconsider some of our own thoughts and words that may have helped to create this fear of American Muslims (notice the difference between Muslim Americans vs. American Muslims, which one is the primary characterization?).

We do and should care about Muslims around the world. Muslim narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) said (Arabic Hadith, and translation: “the example of Muslims in their mutual sympathy and love is like a single body: if one part aches, the rest of the body responds with fever and sleeplessness”). However, that does not mean that we should not be equally concerned about our local communities. The Prophet (pbuh) also said, as narrated in Bukhari on the authority of Aisha (mAbpwh): (Arabic Hadith, translation: “Gabriel kept reminding me of the importance of kindness to one’s neighbors, to the point that I thought he would give neighbors a share in inheritance”). Commentary on this Hadith in Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari stated that it applies to all neighbors, including non-Muslims, infidels, idolators and even enemies! We should ask ourselves: do we care and work for our local communities as much as we care and work for far-away Muslims? If not, how can we be surprised if others think of us as “enemies within” with a foreign agenda?

In September 1992, a report issued by the House Republican Research Committee’s Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare stated the following, based mainly on the study of Muslim communities in France, where they represent the majority practiced religion (although Catholicism remains officially the majority religion):
“Islam is a communal way of life, and the vast majority of emigrants and their European born children live together isolated from, and hostile to, the society around them. The Muslim communities demand to be allowed to retain all aspects of Islam including laws unacceptable in the West… and argue for making Islamic law superior to the civil law of the land…”

In our discourse, I hear my fellow Muslims speaking of our non-Muslim neighbors at worst as “kuffar” (infidels) and at best as “potential Muslims”, which cannot be a comforting thought to other religious communities. Moreover, the insistence on building Islamic schools “to shelter our children” from American society, and our obsession in da`wa work on converting others to Islam, suggests an agenda that others – unsurprisingly – see as threatening.

Yvonne Haddad is a long-time student of Muslim American communities, and a sympathetic one. In one of her studies (Haddad, Y. “The Dynamics of Islamic Identity in North America”, Ch.1 of Y. Haddad and J. Esposito, Op.Cit.), she found that American Muslim communities did indeed live in isolation and hostility to the surrounding predominantly non-Muslim society. She found that they justified their life in this land (wrongly, I would argue) according to one of two models based on the Prophet’s (pbuh) example in Madina. Some maintain a conviction that they will eventually return to their countries of birth (they would say “home country”), and therefore consider the Hijra as an example of the Prophet (pbuh) leaving Makkah to get stronger, and eventually return to reform it. Of course, this is a myth for most American Muslims: the vast majority will stay here, as will their descendants. Another group take the lesson of Hijra to be that the Prophet (pbuh) went to Madinah and turned it into a Muslim city/state. Therefore, they think that through da`wa, they can convert sufficient numbers of Americans to Islam, eventually to turn this land into an Islamic state (as Daniel Pipes so famously stated). Of course, this is not the true purpose of da`wa: the latter means calling for righteousness and preventing bad behavior in our society. Instead of being fixated on numbers of Muslims, we should work with the other tens of millions of Americans who share our views on what is good and what is bad. We should be fully committed American citizens, who call for change out of our love for America, and our deep wish that America would always stand for what is right and oppose what is wrong. We can only contribute to this American goal if we are fully part of the civil society, with no compromise in our allegiance.

The problem, however, is that the roots of our Muslim organizations date back to the builders of ISNA and before it various Muslim Student Associations, who were predominantly ex- or continuing members of the Muslim brotherhood (for Arab students) or Jamat-i-Islami (for Pakistani and Indian students). Some continue to read the basic texts that inspired those groups (mostly by Mawdudi and Sayid Qutb), and others who do not read that literature have its contents deeply engrained in their subconscious through oral indoctrination. That literature came about in the mid 20th Century as part of the Islamist revival movement resulting from the failure of the nationalist movements of the first half of the century, and it essentially compromised Muslims’ allegiance to their countries.

We must remember that the nation state is a reasonably new notion that was invented in America, and spread in Europe and later the Islamic world (post Ottoman period) following the French revolution. While the Islamic world rejected almost all western social advances as “Christian”, the secular nationalist ideals of France were clearly anti-Church, and thus did not pose a Crusading danger. Thus, various parts of the Ottoman empire adopted nationalist agendas, re-discovering their ancient civilizations (Egyptian, Phoenician, Babylonian, etc.). When the new nation states failed to deliver prosperity and true independence, Islamist movements (inspired by the thought of Mawdudi and Qutb) called for a return to pan-Islamist identity, but ironically did so in a nationalist way.

This nationalist re-interpretation of Islamic civilizations is anachronistic, since clearly the nation state only developed centuries later. Nevertheless, in our common parlance, we use the term “Ummah”, which is a central notion in the Qur’an, to mean “Nation”. We would say that the Qur’an proclaimed: “You are the best Nation sent unto mankind…”. However, the term Ummah does not mean nation in that modern sense.

For instance, Abdullah ibn Mas`ud was once heard saying: “May Allah have mercy on Mu`adh, he was Ummatan Qanitan”. It was said to him: “But Allah said this about Ibrahim (pbuh)”, he said “Ummah is the man who teaches righteousness, and Qanit means obedient to Allah”. Also, the Prophet (pbuh) said if Zayd ibn Amr ibn Nufayl that he will be resurrected on the day of judgment “Ummatan wahdah”, or an “Ummah” by himself. Reflecting on this Hadith, the author of the most comprehensive Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab noted that Ummah means a man who does not share his religion with others. That dictionary also lists numerous other meanings of the term (followers of prophets, a good man, a righteous teacher, etc.), none of which agrees with the contemporary notion of the nation state.

Therefore, we need to abandon this outdated Islamic-nationalist thought, and recognize that allegiance to the Muslim Ummah in no way compromises our allegiance to America. Once that is reflected in our words and actions, through integration in the American society and cooperative work with other faith communities, the fear of Muslims as an “enemy within” will be proved decisively as unjustified paranoia: We can be fully Muslim and fully American, and we do not need to announce which comes first and which comes second.

For now, however, we should not blame others for applying double standards when we ourselves apply double standards by ridiculing other communities’ faiths while being outraged if they criticize ours. Once we are integrated into society, we can engage in a fruitful dialogue with people of all faiths in the manner dictated by the Qur’an “using wisdom and kind admonition”, for the betterment of our society.


Blogger Muhammad Saeed Babar said...


I, myself, experienced the isolation when in Japan all others were drinking wine, we, the two Muslims in the group, felt cutoff and after wards there was a change in their attitudes like we are outcast. The allegation that “Islam is a communal way of life, and the vast majority of emigrants and their European born children live together isolated from, and hostile to, the society around them" is nothing but as the following verse from Quran.

"wa- lan tard.aa can -ka al- yahod wa- laa an- nas.aaraa h.attaa tattabic millah -hum qul 'inna hudaa 'allaah huwa al- hudaa wa- la- 'in ittabacta
ahwaa' -hum bacda 'alladhe jaa'a -ka min al- cilm maa la- -ka min 'allaah min waley wa- laa" Transliteration Aya 120 Sura Al-Baqara

"Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with thee unless thou follow their form of religion. Say: "The guidance of Allah that is the (only)
guidance." Wert thou to follow their desires after the knowledge which hath reached thee then wouldst thou find neither protector nor helper against
Allah." Translation By Abdullah Yousuf Ali

In the context of your sermon, can we say that this aya is now outdated? has no relevance.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Muhammad Saeed Babar said...

Here is another incident similar to the one like wearing of Head Scarf by women, "French pool bars Muslim woman for 'burquini' suit - A Muslim woman garbed in a head-to-toe swimsuit — dubbed a "burquini" — may have opened a new chapter in France's tussle between religious practices and its stern secular code.

Officials insisted Wednesday they banned the woman's use of the Islam-friendly suit at a local pool because of France's pool hygiene standards — not out of hostility to overtly Muslim garb.

Under the policy, swimmers are not allowed in pools with baggy clothing, including surfer-style shorts. Only figure-hugging suits are permitted.

Nonetheless the woman, a 35-year-old convert to Islam identified only as Carole, complained of religious discrimination after trying to go swimming in a "burquini," a full-body swimsuit, in the town of Emerainville, southeast of Paris.

She was quoted as telling the daily Le Parisien newspaper that she had bought the burquini after deciding "it would allow me the pleasure of bathing without showing too much of myself, as Islam recommends."

"For me this is nothing but segregation," she said."

Should a Muslim women show her body parts under French Islam or should she avoid going to pool?

11:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home