ISNA Reflections 2013
Praise and thank be to Allah. May the peace, the blessings, and the exalted station be granted to the Prophet of Mercy, Muhammad.
This was our sixth of six consecutive conventions. We have a booth where we sell books and pass out pamphlets and meet people. This year, for much of the time, I wasn’t feeling 100% (had a pretty bad toothache). I spent most of the time at the booth and didn’t even do much walking around in the bazaar. To get more general info on ISNA, you can see my link and reflections from last year’s convention https://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/some-isna-reflections/
The convention, came this year at an interesting point in my life. Currently in my Journal blog http://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/, I am about to compose my “Farewell to Amherst” entry and make the “hijrah” to Philadelphia. At the same time, I have been thinking a lot about Umar Lee’s blog series entitled: “The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Movement” (which I started re-reading a few days ago) and how what he describes of the so-called “Salafis” (i.e., Wahhabis) very much paralleled my experience—although, I was studying traditional Sunni Islam. Another point that kept coming to mind while at the convention is how time and people’s lives have moved on. And lastly, as I have said elsewhere here, there was a MASSIVE FAILURE among the African-American Muslims to preserve and transmit the Religion in their families and communities.
I did attend one panel entitled “Convertsations,” which was six “converts” speaking about their conversion… to at least what they consider to be “Islam.” There were two men of color (one perhaps was Latino, and the other was biracial (part black and part white)). There was a young white American male convert… who has a nice little reishi synchronicity story related to him, maa-shaa’ Allah. When we first entered the Convention Center, I see a Brother from the South with whom I had the good fortune to spend some time with a few years ago in which we spent a good portion of the night talking about developing an academic curriculum for an Islamic school. Anyway, the next day, he is with the white American convert. I am invited to meet him. The convert Brother gives me his business card, and I see his phone number has a 413 area code. I say to him that he must be from Western Massachusetts, and he asks how do I know that, and I tell him that I grew up in Springfield and went to college in Amherst. It turns out he went to Amherst Regional High—a school where I substituted a few times the year after graduation. It’s a small world, and it was a nice synchronicity.
Back to the “Conversations.” There were three women also on the panel. The last two, a blonde and and an African-American had meltdowns of different natures. The former seemed to be of some sort of radical, liberal, I can believe and do anything and call myself a Muslim persuasion, and the latter went on an emotional tirade about the racism she encountered at the mosques. With all that said, the second person on the panel said something that has stuck in my head since then—and is in line with what I had been reflecting upon regarding my “hijrah” to Philadelphia (and what Umar Lee writes of regarding the early stages of the Wahhabi community in East Orange, NJ). He said: “I took my Shahadah1 and started waiting for the Mahdi2 to appear.”
He said that meaning that after becoming Muslim, no thought was given to making concrete plans for moving forward in the practical matters of life. Furthermore, he would take advice about life decisions from other Muslims (immigrant Muslims) who had little or no understanding about the dynamics of family life in America—or its economic realities. As Umar Lee mentions, many young converts would not pursue higher education, or would drop out of college, or would quit working, had no practical plan for building viable families and raising stable Muslim children, and give no consideration to their long term future. Many of us considered that we were living in the “final days,” and it was only a matter of (short) time before Western civilization was going to collapse.
I, personally, made a long string of poor decisions as a result of that mindset. Partly due to negligence, naivete, laziness, not giving much forethought about my circumstances, and also not having many models of high-functioning, educated, religiously informed and devout convert Muslims before me, I didn’t do what I should have done. Ultimately, I have no one to blame but myself. God-willing, I can, however, learn from my errors.
On the other hand, in observing the people at ISNA (probably 85% South Asian), they approached life very differently. Of course, they aren’t converts to Islam, and they voluntarily came to America to improve their material well-being; nonetheless, the converts—myself and I think many others—were not offered a practical working model on how to function as obedient Muslims in the late 20th and early 21st century American society. The South Asians (many of them) went on to attain advanced degrees. A fellow Memphian Brother, for instance, reported to me that in one forum—not related at all to medicine—it was asked how many are doctors. And I think he said about sixty percent raised their hands. Given their (South Asian) education and high paying careers, they have developed a high-functioning and relatively stable Muslim subculture.
Also, their children have been well-provided for and now are attending the best colleges and universities in the country. Many of these second generation Muslims are following the footsteps of their parents by going into medicine, but now they are diversifying their career paths, and going into fields where they can have a larger impact on the society, such as, journalism and politics. They are taking the necessary steps to move ahead in the society, where as many converts are still trying to find a viable model for sustainable Islamic identity in America.
As I’ve been saying here for quite a while regarding African-American Muslims, their time, as a collective movement following the outdated activist model has come and gone. For instance, Siraj Wahhaj who was one of the leaders of one of the main mosques in New York City reported that his Brooklyn center used to be 100% African-American (25 years ago). Now it is 20% African-American. And I would imagine that of that 20% more than half are fifty years of age or older.
African-American Muslims (and those who at least identify as such) have lost all the momentum that they once had. African-American Muslims were at one time the largest ethnic group of self-identified Muslims in this country. Today that is no longer the case. And the fact of the matter is that the large number of African-American conversions of the late 80’s and early 90’s was largely part of a fad. And even if that era of mass conversion was a fad, there still should be a substantial number of second generation African-American Muslims who could fill up the ranks to define the American Muslim identity. But that is not the case. And as I have written elsewhere, many of those African-American youth were not able to develop an identity distinct from the degenerate culture of the non-Muslim black underclass. Consequently, they fell into the same dysfunctional and pathological behaviors of their non-Muslim tribal brethren: i.e., anti-intelllectualism, indolence, illegitimacy, street violence, criminality, and incarceration.
We are moving into a post-racial society (in spite of the media circus that surrounded the black-on-black shooting of Trayvon Martin). And that is particularly true for the American Muslims community. That’s not to say that racissm/colorism don’t exist anymore, but the color of one’s skin and one’s ability to succeed in American society is decreasing in significance. As for the Muslim community, the second generation immigrant youth are growing up without many of the racial/color hang-ups that their parents have. Muslim children have grown up in Islamic centers that are ethnically and racially diverse, and the main thing distinguishing the members is CLASS and not race. Sadly, where as many second generation immigrant youth go off to college—very often to highly selective colleges–at the age of 17 or 18, their African-American peers are going off to prison or having children out of wedlock. And this behavior only solidifies the class gap between the African-American Muslim and (many of) the immigrant Muslims… and it solidifies the negative stereotypes and prejudices that African-American Muslims face from other Muslims.
Again, what I took from ISNA this year was the theme of change. “Allah changes [the creations] but does not [Himself] change.” We are individually changing, as is the Muslim community at large. The days of standing on the street corner selling “Blue Nile” oil and saw dust incense have come and gone. The once pervasive influence of Wahhabism is waning (albeit, not fast enough). Life moves on, and the prudent thing to do individually and collectively is to adapt to and adopt (some of) those changes. Failure to do so will render us irrelevant and to the footnotes of history.
1Declaration of Faith—what one says in order to become Muslim: “Nothing is worthy of worship except Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” (It is NOT a requirement for one to have witnesses to say this statement to embrace Islam.)
2The Mahdi is a righteous Muslim who will appear and unite the Muslims and resist the tyranny and injustice that prevails in the world.