MY REAL ENGAGEMENT with the Muslim community in America—that is, the sparse and impossibly diverse Muslims who were “practicing” Islam and for whom Islam constituted their primary identity and elected affiliation—began in the summer of 79.
I was 21. Just home from a military stint started at 17. And the possibilities for Islam in America and the world seemed, through my young and quickly jaded eyes, inevitable—and so utterly hopeful.
I was the scion of two “old-line” Muslim families (my parents also having been born in America—my father taken to be raised back home, my mother grown first among the Swedes and Bohemians in the My Antonia setting of a far northwestern Minnesota wheat farm, and then transplanted into the unending gray midst of Dearborn’s tough Lebanese South End, in the shadows of Ford’s towering River Rouge smoke stacks).
Yet my Islam seemingly began in the total absence of context or anticipation. Alone and alienated, and in the most unlikely of places, the Japanese island of Okinawa, my awakening was abruptly set off by a solitary watching of a stunning South China Sea sunset.
A romantic? You bet. But I can’t tell you the feeling that suffused through me when I searched out Muslims in my “return to the world” and found myself one afternoon at an MSA convention in Miami University of Ohio on Labor Day.
It was the first time I had ever seen Muslims praying in congregation, young men—and, yes, young women. I was speechless to see (from afar) the rainbow array of flowing hijab in the white-papered designated prayer area, freely flying the banner of taw ḥîd in the lands of my youth. I couldn’t believe there were this many young and dedicated Muslims and Muslimahs in America. There must have been 300 of us.
You laugh. But those were big numbers back then.
Bigger still was the audible beating of those hearts with a single word: Daʿwah.
“THE MUSLIMS” (which, then, even the Muslims who were not “doing dîn” used to call us) were about the business of establishing congregational ṣalâh in America. That was the vision. And daʿwah was the mission.
The mosque-building boom of the 80s, which led to the founding of even more Islamic centers and then full-time schools in the next decade—that’s where it all started. The national organizations, institutions, conventions, and conferences—all of it is the outcome of that early dream-quest of a handful of Muslims in pursuit of a place to pray together—and happy with a Lord, a Prophet, a Book, and a way of life to call people to.
I walked into the picture just in time to see Islam in America when it was yet undifferentiated in body and spirit. Immigrants from every imaginable location shared humble prayer places and religious lives in storied urban neighborhoods with their convert brothers and sisters from every stratum of American society. The diversity of color and tongue were still signs of Allah’s power and greatness.
Young interns, and would-be scientists, and engineers, barefoot back home before Allah made them immeasurably wealthy in Great-Society America, did their handmade daʿwah work together with mechanics, janitors, and the nomadically employed. They decorated venues for events, created flyers and pamphlets for distribution, spoke out for Islam and îmân against the rabid nationalism gripping Muslim societies. And totally reinvented the campus scene in Big-10 America.
Muslims and Muslimahs married across ethnic and racial lines for the genuine sake of Allah, breaking old idols of artificial cultural constructs. They taught the new babies—born out of bonds of Islam—in makeshift mosques at experimental weekend schools—volunteering for Allah and the future of Islam, not for lucre. They ran weekend durûs-lessons for themselves in homes, each in turn studying a topic, preparing it, and teaching it to the others.
By Allah! Islam was shakin’ and breakin’ in post-Vietnam America.
And the key to it all was this: Every energy and gathering was primarily focused on praying together and presenting Islam to all the people around them, together. It is not for nothing that Islam became the fastest growing religion in America, Canada, and Europe.
Our numbers swelled and the masâjid were built. Allah increased our scope and wealth. Mashâ’Allâh.
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BUT A FUNNY thing happened on the way to establishing Islam in America. As we deepened our association and attachments in and with American society, the envoys of its established institutions, along with its all “grown up” counter-cultural activists, steadily engaged us from before us and behind us, from our right and from our left. Incrementally, they turned us, all through the 90s, away from the comprehensive call of daʿwah—that invitation to humanity to come to know their Creator and worship Him in the way He has prescribed in His preserved Book and in the historical, recorded example of His Messenger Muhammad ﷺ.
I can look back now and discern the kernels of this change. First, as we built up our mosques, we rightly understood that it was crucial to localize the call to live a neighborly life of taqwa. But we wrongly tapped into two infected streams in our thinking.
(1) IMMIGRANTS OPTED TO RECREATE the scents, sights, sounds, and feel of the homes they had left and longed for, absent the unpleasantness of loitering crowds and litter, and the anti-ethic of no sanitation. Thus they abandoned living Islam as the organizing principle, which until then they had been vociferously invoking based upon the inspirational Madinah model, wherein the Prophet ﷺ set up a one-to-one brotherhood between the Makkan Emigrès and Yathribite Helpers.
This observation is not based on subtle interpretive analysis. Brotherhood as a testimony to the dynamic viability of Islam-anytime-anywhere in modern life was the most repeatedly articulated principle stressed in that early, undifferentiated American Muslim community.
So when the great latent weight of centuries of calcified cultural constructs came to rest on new-Muslim America, it crushed its idealism. The result was the rampant re-ethnicization of our Muslim community, in which converts, mostly out of the white American mainstream, had to decide which immigrant communities to, in effect, become client associates of. Desis or Arabs? Indians or Pakistanis? Palestinians, Syrians, or Saudis?
African American converts were by and large abandoned to the communities they grew up and formerly functioned in, and which were mostly materially impoverished. Divisions of ethnic background, language, color, education, wealth, profession, and madhhab—virtually all of which had been discarded before—now reasserted themselves with vehemence. Muslims in America suddenly combined the worst of both worlds, old and new, east and west. Despotism, the will to control, tribalism, self-interest and material acquisitiveness became the operative principles in our institutions and relationships. And these remain strong to this day.
(2) MUSLIM LEADERS INCREASINGLY SAW POLITICAL PARTICIPATION, in the form of swelling the parade of the established parties and causes, as the path to empowerment…of Islam and Muslims, we were told, daʿwah by other means. Our goal was acceptance, a place at the table of the American mainstream.
The talk of the times among Muslims, in those days, was gaining “visibility.” We were invisible and thus without meaning in American society until we could win our way into the attentions of the political and cultural powerbrokers, and before the lenses of an all-powerful mainstream American media who would then, magically, switch on our voices through their microphones.
The breath of life. At last, we could become real men, legitimate human beings, for we would be seen and heard. We could exist in the public mind. We could even talk.
And, of course, we would use our newfound creation, by way of political platform and sound bite, for good. Somehow, if people saw Muslims in suits and ties, Muslimahs in sufficiently tight blouses and dress skirts, people would see Islam as acceptable, presentable, accessible—a viable choice.
In fact, Muslims were told, directly, by their new well-wishers that they needed to stop “doing daʿwah” altogether, which I heard with my own ears from people considered experts on (and for!) Islam and Muslims in America. At best, there would be a mostly academic movement of “Islamization.” But at the center was the ambition for a coveted tolerance.
We did not want to remain on the fringe, did we? Strangers with strange demeanors. Gazes downcast. Hands held back. Ghosts in sheets. Marginal. Unimportant. Disconnected.
The one word that drove Muslims most at this transitional period out of daʿwah and into the arms of waiting handlers who would script us to win friends and dress us for success, who promised to open the gates to real life for us, was “relevance.” Muslims were terrified of being irrelevant. We actually used to talk seriously about “visibility” and “relevance” as being our objectives.
GRADUALLY, WE BECAME EMBARRASSED about giving any public impression of religious zeal. For we had learned that this was anathema to our “host” community. We began to see ourselves as others saw us, through secular eyes. We saw how the dâʿî would be refracted in the mirror of secularism: In a damning caricature analogous to the Christian evangelical—a uni-dimensional, dinosaur-denying, anti-scientific, morally hypocritical religious nut—but with an added turban’s twist.
Whereas the evangelical is portrayed as a despised, clownish fool, we would come to be depicted as lethal as our beards are long, cunning, bloodthirsty, nihilistic, misogynist, violent—the very enemy of the blessings graciously conferred on man by Western Civilization: Freedom, free love, nouveau-nakedness, and that universal answer to all problems—not to mention pinnacle of the modern esthetic, music!
And, of course, in the west, in general, all religious experience is hopelessly reduced to the European encounter with the Church and Pauline Christianity, which means that no other people in the world could possibly be traveling a different trajectory, even if coming out of a substantively different spiritual-cultural experience.
Accordingly, only the idea of a rising continuum of civilization and linear progression, with Europeans as the rightly guided parade marshals, has credence. All the rest are lagging somewhere behind on that benighted, back-of-beyond, nowhere-man’s road to the Enlightenment. And no one is considered further behind than Muslims. We’re, what, fourteen centuries behind? We haven’t even reached our Renaissance yet, let alone Enlightenment.
By the end of the 90s, daʿwah became a dirty word among Muslims, not to be uttered in the presence of refined Muslim company, people with politic sense, post-graduate education, and friends among the populations. The events of 2001, and the decade since, have utterly erased the normative notion of daʿwah from the American Muslim mind. We barely remember what it is, not to mention the collective responsibility we share before Allah for it.
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DAʿWAH IS NOW solidly associated with networking, inter-group association, legitimate public-issue activism, collective participation in the causes of all comers seeking admission into the mainstream, and feel-good speech-making at Muslim events and conferences. Indeed, the public display of Islam as a religion itself, beyond the forms tolerated for all religions in our “pluralistic” society, have become, among us, uncouth.
Even Muslim academics studying Islam, celebrated in the faux-rebel world of university liberal humanism, are only too proud to burnish their image as belonging to a haute persecuted people—all the while making it clear that they have risen to a sufficiently qualifying intellectual skepticism that keeps them from donning an irremovable public ḥijâb, or bowing down to the ground in the daily sujûds, or rationally affirming this religion’s basic Texts and the prophetically-grounded explications of the “emotional” Muslim masses. So finely tuned are their intellects, in fact, that they can even dial out the distant call of prophetic faith in their still faintly beating hearts.
Radical personalization of all expressions of religion, and an evermore alien sense of “liberal” social activism, the values of which have been forged in the hearths of exterior, synthetic, and misshapen ideologies—how is it that these are increasingly the hallmarks of “Islam” among us? And why do the signposts of corporate doctrines and modernist dogmas, utterly alien to the spirit and the Laws of Islam, more and more seem to dot and direct the way ahead for our community?
DAʿWAH, IN ITS QUR’ANIC SENSE, is the public prophetic call to everything that Allah has commanded in belief and behavior, the total conveyance of total Revelation, both its Quranic and Prophetic expressions. Daʿwah as such was the very purpose of the Prophet ﷺ as such. Then as the prophetic-community after him in these latter times, we should understand, that this selfsame daʿwah has been divinely set upon our shoulders as our core reason for social, communal being.
This, and only this, daʿwah can serve as the positive transformative catalyst that humanity and the world so desperately need. It sets right the communal agenda. It structures and prioritizes crucial social transactions within a complex polity. It identifies urgencies in a society and crises between peoples and determines right responses—and, in this sense, right outcomes. This is because daʿwah is the key that unlocks all the communal facets and facilities of the Quran and the Sunnah for a believing people.
Nothing we do or say can change this—a fact that should be obvious to us now. What have we gained for all our massive resource expenditure, human and material, from the new “daʿwah” of suing for acceptance and supplicating for tolerance? Neither. Indeed, never have Muslims been more rejected and persecuted than we are today.
Yet if we “do” the righteous work of daʿwah as a community, take up our prophetic mantle in this post-prophetic age—for the sake of Allah, and as a real demonstration of true love and heartfelt concern for the fate of humanity and the world—that, by Allah’s permission, will change everything.
It doesn’t mean things will be easy. It just means that people will become aware that there is an alternative to a life based on disenchantment and desacralisation, avarice and ruthlessness, and enmity and injustice.
Then shall the choices shine crystalline clear.