Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Emergent Islam I Want?

I hate to admit it, but I don’t like going to mosques. Whether it’s the crudely written signs informing me I must cover myself, or the awkward way men and women avoid each other, or the Friday preaching that is just so irrelevant to my life, I usually feel happiest when I’m walking out the door.

I long for a Muslim environment that is spiritually fresher, deeper, and, perhaps most importantly, untainted by a Saudi-style conservatism or bitterness over the war on terror. With a small but growing number of “emergent Christians” – and now “emergent Jews” – reinventing the very idea of religious communities, I have also begun to hope for the emergence of a post-modern, post-9/11 Muslim faith life.

Emerging Christians struggle with stale ways of “doing church” they say are left over from the 1950s, or even the beginning of the Reformation, wrote Sam Crum, pastor of The River, a small emerging congregation in Florida, in a Facebook discussion with me. Emerging congregations – including a number of Jewish ones– emphasize authenticity and deemphasize hierarchy; both of these qualities, coincidentally or not, overlap with the values of the Web 2.0 world, where everyone – not just the anointed, institutional leaders – are content creators.

At The River’s MySpace blog, a husband-and-wife team describe their earlier life in a mainstream evangelical congregation. “We oddly enough began to learn some bad habits of a duty-driven life and became very religious, hypocritical, and hungry for something more,” they write. “Although we had both come to know Jesus Christ, we were still trying to unlearn and deconstruct some religious systems that were not only damaging to our ministries, but to our marriage.”

My journey isn’t about Jesus, but I sure can relate. My husband and I also lived through a “duty-driven” period of near-fundamentalism, when we were immersed in Muslim communities that emphasized conformity to a particular interpretation of Islam. That interpretation was largely inspired by Salafism, the fundamentalist version of Islam that hails from Saudi Arabia.

We weren’t alone in this experience. “Anyone who converted to Islam in the 1990s came under the spell of Salafism,” Muslim blogger and ex-Salafi Tariq Nelson told me recently.

After ardor comes burnout, and many Muslims, and converts in particular, don’t survive the transition. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, now a Christian and conservative counter-terrorism expert, described his own journey out of a soul-numbing Salafism in his recent memoir, "My Year in Radical Islam." Long-time convert Jeffery Lang has warned fellow Muslims for years that many converts and young people are leaving Islam; a recent report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that for every person who joins the faith, another leaves – challenging the common assertion that Islam is the “fastest-growing religion” in the U.S.

For me, Islam has remained compelling for the same reasons that attracted me in the first place: the simplicity of God’s oneness, the effectiveness of daily prayer, the discipline of fasting, the compassion of charity, and the magnificence of pilgrimage – in short, the five pillars of Islam.

While fundamentalism was probably destined for a short stay in my own life, 9/11 made that transformation irreversible. Today I have an almost physical aversion to anything Muslim that smacks of Salafi fundamentalism. I am equally impatient with American Muslims’ insistence on their own victimhood at the hands of “the media,” as if suicide bombers and cartoon-rioters were somehow an invention of Fox News. The last time I attended Friday prayers at my mosque, I walked out half-way through when an Egyptian-born preacher lamented how hard it is to raise children with “Islamic values” instead of “Western values” – with the obvious implication that the former was good and the latter was bad.

So while emerging Christians gather around a narrative of dissatisfaction with status-quo church life, so I imagine American Muslims finally repudiating Salafism and all its trappings, realizing that fundamentalism can – and often has – lead down a dark road to hatred and violence. And while I’m re-imagining American Muslim life, I’d also like to order up a come-as-you-are, online-friendly, community experience where I can be myself and deepen my faith.

Yes, I know, it’s a too-tall order. Not because there aren’t other American Muslims dissatisfied with status-quo mosque life – in my experience there are many – but because, initially at least, the numbers may be small.

Continue article here.

There is something quite familiar to me about her account. I wouldn’t say I can relate to everything she is referring to nor hold the same point of view, but there is definitely something there. Huda asked some of the questions many are curious about and attempting to find answers for in the blog below.

Since my conversion I have always continued to ask questions about Islam. I can’t say I’ve ever reached a point in which I felt truly content with my knowledge of it…I don’t think that’s possible. And with every question there came growth. That’s why when I took off my hijab a part of me considered it growth, although others (many) felt bad for me as if I were losing my faith. Many things such as these have compelled me to ask questions about the ‘mainstream’ definition of what Islam is, or how it is we are meant to interpret it.

There is no doubt that the way one grows up, the experiences she/he goes through, shape the very questions and answers that lead us to Islam in the first place. However, I have very often found myself wondering about the current state of Muslims in the world and whether the way we practice our Islam can be improved and how, whether we are benefitting ourselves and the world. I don’t mean things like, ‘well if Shariah Law became the law of the land….’ More like analyzing the social stratification of our societies and the conflicts that arise from the West vs. East hodgepodge of what we term the Muslim Ummah and Islam.

For example I am Latina. What has Islam added to my history, to the current state of my people, how can it help me realistically help others? How do I identify myself in terms of Islam? See, Islam is an extremely Arabized religion that consists of manners, customs, etc that are from the Arab culture in many ways. As a Latina Muslim can I say that I feel compelled to keep or express certain parts of my culture than others because it contradicts the ‘Arab Muslim’ form of Islam I have come to know? Where and how can I make the distinction to sensibly apply these teachings from the Quran and the Prophet to my everyday life? …A way that is successful in helping me grow in my identity not just Latina and Muslim but also many other things. This is an example of what prompts me to look around and consider the status of Muslims throughout the world and wonder why it is so difficult for us to comprehend how Heavy Metal and Islam are contradictory. Why should they be contradictory? Why do we hold on to these old beliefs of what Islam is? Why haven’t Muslims been able to evolve enough in their faith in order to be more open minded and successful in transitioning and being able to adapt to an always changing society? Or is the other way around, that Muslims have not been united enough and need to pursue the more literal interpretations of our religion? I don’t know.

I know there is a resistance to hold on to ones culture especially from the evils of Western society (I mean that literally), but where does that leave someone like me for example. I cannot look at Islam and say “well its simple, it says clearly in the Quran that we must not even listen to music in the first place and on top of that look at this strange music anyway, surely it cannot be Islamic”. No matter how hard I look Islam does not tell ME this. Am I wrong and others correct? How are we to know in the end? Is my way of life, my interpretation of Islam flawed and yours correct, or the other way around? Many would say well, “as long as it does not cross the boundaries of what is Islamic then it is ok.” But what is Islamic?

Affad over on his blog and many others attempt to reconcile their identity in terms of how they define what makes them in terms of Islam and their American life, among other factors. I always find myself asking the same questions. Natural I suppose. I’m sure this post probably confused many and leaves more questions asked than answered, but when I look around at other Muslims I see I am not alone in my frustration.

I can’t say I agree with the ‘progressive’ notions of Islam that many out there strive to advocate, but I do have a lot of questions that I cannot answer by simply looking to sheikhs and imams, or other Muslims for that matter with explanations that make little sense to me. At the end of the day I can only trust Allah and that what I feel is right. It’s become like an addiction though, asking how we can improve the state of the world or how we can successfully define ourselves with the wonderful teachings we have been blessed with. Therefore, aside from all the injustices holding many Muslims back, does our Islam need to find a way to better adapt to the ongoing changes in the world in a more ‘stricter’ manner, or does it need to find a way by loosening its hold on what it has come to know as true? Perhaps there is not clear cut answer…still I’d like to know.


Affad Shaikh said...

oh my...i have so much to say on this.


Yesi King said...

ya i know me too....haha....i kind of went off on so many tangents trying to connect different thoughts to form something somewhat coherent. some things need more elaborating for sure, but i hope people get the jist of what's on my mind. its NOT about heavy metal!

Huda Shaka` said...

Salams Yesi,

If A. Useem is frustrated with the American muslim community she should try living in the Muslim world!

Besides that though, when I find myself getting lost thinking about the questions you raised I try to go back to the basics. I try to pick up a tafseer or seerah book and remind myself of what it's really all about. I find it helps me think clearly. The other thing is making dua for guidance and useful knowledge.

A small part of the discussion points you raised is about fiqh, particularly staying away from extremes. I recently read an amazing book by Dr. Qaradawi regarding this issue which I found extremely helpful (no pun intended) in setting up a framework for discussing this issue, especially considering the different perspectives in the Muslim ummah today. I'll try to translate and post excerpts from the book inshaAllah.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Yesi King said...

thanks huda:) i always find that going back to the basics is what helps me. please do post!

as for a. useem, i agree with you. however i also feel her frustration is justified in the sense that she just can't find a connection between her and the rest of the Muslim community...for what reason, there can be many theories.