Sulayman Nyang: Message to Muslims

February 22, 2007 § 1 Comment

The American Muslim | Open Letter | February 22, 2007
by Dr. Sulayman Nyang
Professor African Studies, Howard University

Fellow Humanoids and fellow believers in the Holy Qur’an which describes in unrivalled language the Power and Glory of the Creator of the Universe, I take this opportunity to congratulate you on the first POW WOW of Muslims from across North America. This event is certainly historical. It is historical on three levels. It took place in a year when religious leaders from various parts of the world assembled in celebration of the centenary of the first Parliament of World’s Religions. We should recall that it was at the first parliament that Islam gained its first public articulation and representation by a native-born American citizen in a gathering drawn from across the planet. This representation of Islam by Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb at the Parliament of World’s Religions was the beginning of the recognition of the Islamic presence in North America. Your gathering in New Mexico should make Mr. Webb very pleased in his grave, for your coming together in defiance of the residual racism that still preoccupies the minds and lives of many fellow human beings in the u.s. and Canada, is a sign of change and the beginning of acceptance of the Islamic spirit among a small but growing body of North Americans.

This gathering is also significant and historical at another level. For the first time Muslims, regardless of race, color, country of origin, madhab and sectarian proclivities, have agreed to come together not to advance a single agenda of a national organization or group but for the sake of mutual understanding and mutual development. Whatever you do with this new beginning in inter-communal relationship is going to determine the future of the Muslim community in the U.S. Future historians writing about our community in the next century will remember the works and deeds of all of us who advocate tolerance and willingness to live and let live with others who may disagree with our interpretations of our common Islamic heritage. This gathering of Muslims in New Mexico is also historical because it is taking place amongst a people some of whose ancestors were possibly Muslims from Spain during the Post Columbian period. Whether this is the case or not, the fact remains that those intolerant elements in Spain of 1492 who wanted to eliminate Islam from the New World have been exposed by history as lacking in foresight, judgment and tolerance. What the Muslim presence in North America means for the future of humankind is a mystery known only to the Creator. However, as a human being endowed with an intellect and the power of reflection, I would speculate that the Creator perhaps did not want the American experiment to be incomplete because of the absence of Islam and other religious heritages of humankind. By adding the Muslims to the pot, whether melting or not, American society and her leaders have decided to embrace and share their mental and physical spaces with active and dynamic representatives from at least a fifth of humankind. This is something that deserves our attention and that of all others living in the U.S. and Canada.

Because Muslims in North America now number at least five million, it is imperative that they individually and collectively assume the responsibility of living Islam wherever they are and in whatever capacity they find themselves. North American society is not going to understand Muslims from textbooks. Islam, if it is ever going to be known beyond the confines of the mosque (masajid) and the Islamic center, must walk with the North American, chat with him, make a positive impression on him and show him the difference between the person who internalizes tawhid (unity of Allah) and those who see no higher meaning in what humans do and say in the social universe. Of course, I am not oblivious to the fact that there are many stereotypes against us, and the mainstream media in both Canada and the U.S. have not been very helpful to us as a minority, even though many of us often describe favorably the peoples of this part of the world as fair minded and sympathetic to underdogs. This sociological impression about North Americans has been shattered in the minds and hearts of many young Muslims who entertained it before their rude awakening from daily encounters with media and popular opinion.

If, however, we wish to change the negative imagery in exchange for a better one, two things must be done. First, Muslim leaders should sink their differences and develop collective action against prejudice and discrimination against Muslims. This can come about only through greater collaboration and greater appreciation of differences of opinion within the community. By recognizing the diversity in the larger community, Muslim leaders and individual members of the community can begin to assert themselves with dignity and pride. It is only after we have repaired the crumbling psychological walls within our household that we can build bridges linking us to the rest of America. What I have described elsewhere as “islandization” in the Muslim community in North America must be addressed. It is a sociological fact that clustering and spliterization of groups are two processes in social interaction among men and women. However, in order for us to make a significant impression on Americans and Canadians we must begin to see the negative consequences of clustering and splinterization.

There is nothing wrong with African-Americans, Arabs, Iranians, Subcontinent Asians or others within the Muslim ummah congregating among themselves during Muslim gatherings. This is a natural thing that leaders preaching Islam should and must not discourage. What needs to be discouraged is the exclusion of fellow Muslims through the inconsiderate act of linguistic code switching in the company of fellow Muslims who simply do not understand languages other than English. Whether the cultural chauvinist in Islamic garb likes it or not, the fact remains that English is the lingua franca of most educated Muslims today. In the U. S. and Canada it is the lingua franca of the majority population and among Muslims it is the bridge between the various islands of identities. Just as Bahasa Indonesian is today the lingua Franca of the diverse populations of Indonesia, English has been chosen by history to be the Bahasa of the ummah. This does not mean that Arabic is unneeded. This language of the Qur’an is an indispensable tool for religious understanding and spiritual solidarity among the Muslim peoples of the world. Until the end of time Muslims in North America and elsewhere on earth and in outer space win continue to hear the muezzin calling them to prayer in the language of the Prophet. This linguistic enrichment of the ummah demands that we develop greater command of the English language and that we infuse it with more and more Islamic concepts and terminology. This exercise in linguistic cross-fertilization, which was undertaken by Muslims of earlier generations, is the main reason for the present vocabulary of Urdu, Farsi, Malay, Swahili, Hausa, Wolof and other languages in the Muslim World. The American experiment provides a challenge and an opportunity to Muslims. Here in the North American civilization Muslims are coming together in a way they have never come together before; here in the American Salad Bowl the Muslim from Champpa, in Vietnam, jostles with those from Africa, Southern Europe, China, Arabia and the subcontinent.

This diversity among the Muslims is matched only by the fact that here in the North American continent an Muslims, whether they like it or not, must uphold the American principle of live and let live regardless of ones’ emotional attachment to ones’ interpretations of the shared religious heritage. What I am telling you is that here in the U.S. and Canada, Muslims become good citizens by accepting not only each other’s differences but also the right of the non-Muslim to share the Public Square without let or hindrance. This new situation and the adjustments it requires from an those who wish to be part of the North American experiment, have made it categorically clear that life for the Muslim in the U.S. is different from life back home, if he is an immigrant finding a niche somewhere in the American Land of Dreams. For the native-born Muslim life in North America is a challenge that calls for an adjustment which is different from that expected of the immigrant. Whereas the immigrant is most often a human being for whom Islam has been a religion practiced by family and friends in the safety of a predominantly Muslim country, the native-born Muslim struggles with a new identity and a new religion in a society where the majority are practicing or nominal Christians. Under such conditions, it is dangerous and unwise for the immigrant to assume always to be more knowledgeable about the Din than the native-born Canadian or American. It is indeed in this area of cultural and religious sensitivities that dawah work disintegrates into a war of cultural and religious sensitivity.

The second thing that the Muslim leaders and their communities must do is to build bridges into the larger American society. Without the direct miraculous intervention of Allah in human affairs, Muslims are not going to be the majority in this hemisphere any time soon. It is true that within a century Islam has made significant strides forward. All Muslims should be grateful for this historical achievement. However, in order for the community to plan ahead and to deal with current and future challenges, its leaders and community members must develop a modus vivendi with the larger society. In the United States and Canada there are formal and informal channels through which such relationships are built. If we want to be an effective and inspiring part of the larger community we must not only live our Din without pride or shame, but we must get ourselves involved in an issues affecting our individual selves as well as the larger Muslim community. This is why political indifference in a democratic society, is unaccepted, no matter how imperfect and regardless of one’s critique of its foundational and institutional performance over the years. American and Canadian Muslims are chosen by destiny to be here. If they are willing to food the tide of history, then they must make the best of the American experiment. And they should not fall into the trap of self-righteous indignation about the failures of North American life, nor should they point an accusing finger at their Muslim co-religionists who dare to go out of their cultural ghettos and assert publicly their religion in the American Public Square. Unless and until those who believe in Islam operate in American society as ordinary men and women who see America and Canada as a divine garden where beautiful flowers can grow and patience, tolerance and hard work are the defining characteristics for personal success, our chances for educating the vast majority of Americans about our religion are going to be very limited and an our efforts at dawah win be doomed.

I recommend that you remember five points.

First, remember that Islam is now a part of the cultural landscape in this hemisphere and you have a responsibility to teach it and explain its meaning.

Secondly, the challenges and opportunities provided by the North American reality will drown men and women who fail to appreciate the fact that faith without practice is empty and practice without faith is hypocritical.

Thirdly, it should be remembered that North American society is a part of our planet which is highly privileged. Muslims in this part of the world cannot live responsible and respectable lives unless and until they accept their khalifahood and do for the less fortunate Muslim nations what is expected from them in their dealings with individual Muslim paupers. This is no way suggests a sense of superiority over the rest of Dar al Islam, a temptation which goes with power and influence. Americans have been accused of arrogance by both foreigners and fellow citizens. Muslims from this part of the world should not lose sight of this psycho-cultural fact. They must remember that in a state of unguarded excitement such acts of arrogance could become evident at the wrong time and place.

The fourth point to remember is that the very location of Muslims in the heartland of a giant civilization that is now considered the sole Superpower makes it easy for the unguarded to fall headlong into the pit of decadence and gluttonous living. It can also lead to fanatical behavior which is counterproductive and unhelpful to Islamic daw’ah. To avoid the former and eliminate the latter behavior American and Canadian Muslims must develop command of the state of knowledge in their countries and lead virtuous and fruitful lives by contributing to the material and spiritual resources of North America.

Last but not least, the Muslims of this part of the world should never at any single moment forget their universal solidarity with fellow Muslims. While enjoying all the benefits of North American living, they should and must reach out and touch the hands of brotherhood and sisterhood coming from the rest of Dar al-Islam. By going for hajj and by cultivating friendships with brothers and sisters from elsewhere around the world, they not only act and behave as good Muslims but also as humanoids with American and Canadian passports in the company of fellow humanoids.

Nyang, Sulayman. Message to the Muslim People of the United States and Canada. The Muslim American. February 22. 2007. <http://theamericanmuslim.org/>

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