In Search of the Indigenous Islamic Movement
By Altaf Husain
The past seventy-five years have been critically important in advancing the notion that Muslims need Islamic movements. Various personalities, such as Hassan Al- Banna, Abul ‘Ala Maududi, Rashid Ghannouchi, and Hassan Al-Turabi among others, have spearheaded the call to establish Islamic movements. One common characteristic of the Islamic movements in these past seven decades or so has been that they have been strongest in majority Muslim countries with a fairly homogenous population. That is, despite the secular nature of the government in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, or Turkey for that matter, the Islamic movement has received favorable treatment among the masses of Muslims.
The situation is drastically different when contrasted with countries whose populations have two characteristics: 1) Muslims are a minority in terms of numbers and 2) there is great diversity among the Muslims in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Thus, the challenge for the Islamic movements has been quite clear: How to recruit a following under conditions where Muslims are a minority and they are highly diverse? Islamic movements in the United States, it seems, have been unable to deal successfully with this challenge.
It is worthwhile to review what we are referring to as diversity. We hear much about diversity in America today—about a more diverse community, diversity among our elected officials, diversity in the workplace, diversity in the schools, diversity in colleges. But ultimately, we as Muslims must ask ourselves two questions:
1) What is the Islamic worldview regarding diversity?
2) To what end should Muslims seek diversity?
These questions can be restated briefly as: “diversity, then what?”
It helps to review the concept of diversity as it is described in the Qur’an. In addition, we shall review the Sirah of Rasul Allah (saws) and subsequent communities in Muslim history.
Allah addresses mankind in various terms denoting degrees of faith and piety, like mu’min, muhsin, and muttaqin for example. While these terms are in no way reserved for one particular race or ethnic group, Islam does not shy away from recognizing that in His Wisdom, Allah has made diversity as one of His ayat (signs).
In Surah Rum 30: Ayah 22 Allah declares: “And among His signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors; truly in that are signs for those who know.” Indeed, a snapshot of any masjid in the United States reminds us that it is by the mercy of Allah that each of us has been placed in the midst of other human beings who speak a multitude of different languages and whose appearance is different than ours. But let us not glance over this verse with haste. No, indeed, Allah did not leave mankind to discover the variety in languages and colors on our own. No, indeed, He did not leave us to formulate our own understanding of this diversity. As al- Hakim, the All Wise, Allah has stated that diversity is explicitly ONE OF HIS SIGNS. And to be Muslim, we MUST accept ALL of His signs without exception.
In addition, one particular verse in Surah Al-Hujjurat, stands out clearly as the Islamic understanding of diversity, where Allah addresses all of mankind: “O Mankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah is that (believer) who has at- Taqwa. Verily, Allah is all-knowing, allaware” (49:13). Based only on the two verses we have included above, we can elicit the following five points regarding diversity in Islam:
Muslims accept the diverse nature of mankind as a sign of Allah.
We acknowledge and accept human diversity in both language and color.
We further accept that indeed human beings will live as nations and tribes.
In addition, we understand without any confusion that it is not our nationalism, nor our tribalism, nor our languages or skin colors, which make us honorable in the sight of Allah.
We are reminded again “Verily, the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah is that (believer) who has al-taqwa.”
So what do we remember about diversity in the sirah of the Messenger of Allah (saws)? Indeed, it was Rasul Allah (saws), sent as a mercy to mankind, who helped us to implement both the letter and the spirit of the Qur’an down to the minutest detail. It is narrated that once a man visited the Prophet Muhammad’s (saws) in Madinah. The man saw a group of people sitting and discussing their faith together. Among them were Salman, Suhaib, and Bilal (may Allah be pleased with them). The man then said: “If the Madinan tribes of Aws of Khazraj support Muhammad (saws), they are his people (that is, Arabs like him). But what are these people doing here?” The Messenger of Allah (saws) became very angry when this was reported to him. Straightaway, he went to the masjid and summoned people to a congregational salah. He then addressed them saying: “O people, know that the Lord and Sustainer is one. Your ancestor is one. Your faith is one. The Arabism of anyone one of you is not from your mother or father. It is no more than a tongue (a language). Whoever speaks Arabic is an Arab.”
Surely we remember who the three sahabah were. Indeed, even in its infancy, the Muslim community in Madinah was a pure reflection of the diversity that still distinguishes us from other religions and cultures. Salman is Salman al Farsi, who was from Persia. Suhaib is Suhaib ar-Rumi, who grew up in the Eastern Roman Empire and was regarded as a Greek. Bilal is Bilal al Habashi, who was an African. Suffice it to say that Bilal, Suhaib and Salman were not only regarded as non-Arabs but that they were former slaves who suffered grave injustices and oppression. Volumes could be dedicated to detail the magnificent contributions of each of these companions.
Drawing Lessons from the Qur’an and the Sirah
So what lessons can we draw from the discussion above? No doubt, the ties that bring people together are of different sorts. People are grouped according to tribes, nations, countries and nationalities. Different nationalities may gather together under one banner for the purpose of religion or common interests. The bond of kinship (being descended from a common ancestor) is considered to be one of the bonds, which formed the basis of the earliest human societies. In the era when Islam appeared, people were grouped according to tribes, as in the Arabian Peninsula and other places; or according to nationalities, as in Persia; or as religious groups, as in the Byzantine Empire.
Islam made the bond of faith the most important basis for binding people together in harmony, although it permitted and even encouraged, other bonds such as family ties as long as they did not conflict with this principle. Faith is the strongest bond between Muslims, regardless of their race, nationality, ethnicity, and social status. Brotherhood and close friendship are for the believers, as Allah reminds us that, “the believers are but a single brotherhood” (49:10). Indeed the first society in Madinah, was based on faith and commitment to Islam. It recognized friendship and protection as coming from Allah only.
Muslims open their communities to whoever wants to join them, regardless of his color or race, on condition that he sheds his unnatural characteristics and adopts the Islamic personality so that he can enjoy the same rights as all other Muslims. We are reminded of a verse in Surah Ali Imran which reminds us clearly of the endless struggle that we must undertake to hold together as one community. Allah addresses the believers saying, “O you who believe, fear Allah as He should be feared, and die not except in a state of Islam with complete submission to Allah. And hold fast, all together, to the Rope of Allah and be not divided among yourselves, and remember Allah’s favor on you, for you were enemies one to another, but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His Grace, you became brethren and you were on the brink of a pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus Allah makes His signs clear to you that you may be divided.” (3:102-103).
Diversity, Then What?
The above discussion makes it clear that diversity is to be embraced and appreciated. However, unlike the Western sense of embracing diversity so as to appear more inclusive or democratic, Muslims are supposed to appreciate diversity because it is one of the signs of Allah. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the Islamic movements in the United States, a true sense of solidarity has yet to emerge among Muslims in the United States who are from different backgrounds. The recent news has been that Muslim American Society and the Islamic Circle of North America have agreed to increase mutual cooperation to the point of merging into one organization as some time in the future. This effort is to be commended especially if through this union the Islamic movement is able to overcome the challenges posed above.
One major concern is that the current efforts at the national level are entirely directed by immigrants to this country. As such, even though a critical mass of Muslim youth has emerged, there continues to be a divide between the elders who wish to direct the movement and the youth who are sought after to implement the directives. Although beyond the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning the further divide between reverts to Islam such as the African Americans and Euro-Americans and the immigrant community at large. The executive director of a major Islamic organization put forth the following analogy. He noted that people need a map to know where they are going. Unfortunately, most of the immigrants are trying to use the map of their country of origin to help them to reach a destination somewhere in the United States. Islamic movements must come to terms with this analogy. Is it not time for an indigenous Islamic movement to emerge? If indeed all Islamic movements use the Qur’an and the Sunnah as their basis, then what should stop us from taking advantage of the diversity of our community to allow for an indigenous Islamic movement to emerge?
New Directions for Islamic Movements in the US
Every Islamic movement, regardless of its name, its founder, or its geographic origins, has served its purpose well. When its purpose was served, each movement had to re-evaluate its purpose and seek new direction. The only movement that is not bound by time or place is the one set forth by the Prophet Muhammad (saws). Underlying that original movement is the theme of a lifelong struggle that every Muslim must experience. Today, it is the struggle that must be revived! To hang on to any one movement that is tied to an overseas founder or some geographic center not located in the United States, is like seeking direction in one country with a map of another country. Without a doubt, the only exception to this is the struggle that was initiated by the Prophet Muhammad (saws). It is true that the Prophet Muhammad (saws) initiated both the universal struggle as well as a more localized movement. Indeed the Prophet Muhammad (saws) said in an oft-quoted hadith: “I leave behind me two things. You will never go astray if you hold fast to them: the Qur'an and my sunnah.” However, it would be futile for any community to attempt to re-live the exact movement of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) some fourteen hundred years out of context! The struggle continues but the movement must adapt and seek to be relevant to the people it claims to serve.
And for this very reason, throughout Islamic history, the struggle and not the movement has continued uninterrupted. The struggle began with the Prophet Muhammad (saws). The Muslim ummah experienced various movements since that struggle first began. But that is precisely the point on which many have been mistaken. Imam Jamil Al-Amin has discussed the difference between a struggle and a movement. While he does not explicitly address the Islamic movement, it is worthwhile to explore his discussion. He writes in his book Revolution by the Book, “the struggle is an on-going process. Many times, people mistakenly identify movement as struggle. Movement is only a phase of struggle” (1994, p. ix). Imam Jamil gives contemporary examples of the various movements in the struggle of African Americans such as the abolitionist movement, the antislavery movement, the civil rights movement, and the free speech movement.
It is possible for us to make a similar distinction between the various Islamic movements. Two characteristics common among the Islamic movements of the last century have been: 1) revival of the authentic practice of Islam, and 2) a response to the secular onslaught brought on by colonialism. Al-Hamdulillah, Islamic movements responded well to those two basic themes. However, as Imam Jamil notes, movements are contextual. He writes that movements “come, they serve a purpose, and they go out. We grew to understand that it was a vehicle that moved people from one level of understanding to another level” (1994, p. x).
The strategies of the Islamic movements in the Middle East, Asia and in Northern Africa were effective because they evolved in response to the respective socio-economic and geo-political contexts of each region. Malik Bennabi, the foremost Algerian philosopher and reformer coined the term, colonisibility. Muslims had become colonizable and it was in that context that a majority of the Islamic movements evolved. Again, without a doubt the movements did serve their purpose well. But if indeed the authentic sources such as the Qur’an and the Sunnah are the starting points of all movements, then there should be no obstacles to the development of an indigenous Islamic movement here in the United States. Why should we hold on to the historical contexts that do not apply today? How much easier would it be to invite young Muslims in the United States to a movement that reflects their character and their context? And on the other hand, how difficult has it been to try to teach our youth to drive in the United States with maps (i.e. programs and methodologies) that were actually designed for some other country and for some other time?!
If we are to truly call the United States our home, then no one can argue that we are in need of an Islamic movement that serves Muslims here in the United States. This movement will have to be reflective not only of ethnic and racial diversity among second generation immigrants but especially involve the growing numbers of reverts from among African Americans, Euro- Americans and Hispanic-Americans. This cannot be a token involvement in the form of increased membership of the indigenous Muslims or Muslim youth. Rather, there must be a plan to integrate the Muslim community based on the authentic sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah until one of those same members is chosen as our leader!
Surely we can build on the experience of the overseas movements. But we must exercise caution so that drawing lessons from history is not replaced with drawing a map based on history. We need a map of Islamic work that is reflective of the obstacles and challenges that we face here in the United States. An Islamic movement is needed that can serve our needs at least for the span of the next generation. After that, the struggle will always continue, but the movement will have to adjust itself to its time and place. This means that the next generation might well develop its own Islamic movement. And yet, as is the promise of Allah, the struggle will always continue uninterrupted until the Day of Judgment!
' O Allah! Purify our hearts, cover our defects, forgive our sins and let the last of our deeds be the best . O Lord of the world."
Altaf Husain is a doctoral student in the School of Social Work at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was a former President of the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada.
Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.