I always cringe whenever I hear a Muslim seminarian ask either a Christian colleague or professor the question: What is the Christian view about this subject? I don’t cringe because I think that I’m an expert on subject x or y, mind you, since I too have asked the same question, on more occasions than I care to remember. There is something to be said about the quality of the students and professors at Hartford Seminary, because as if on cue, and realizing the opportune teaching moment, the instructor will usually proceed to give her perspectives – both the academic or orthodox position, as well as her own take on orthodoxy. He might also then ask everyone else to reflect on the question and then invite a voluntary sharing of reflections. If there is one thing that I have come to realize from my time at the seminary, it is that among Catholics and Protestants, and their various denominations, there is likely to be a range of views about any given subject x.
Whenever I’ve had cause to reflect on what motivated me to pose the question, invariably I come back to the same realization: I was usually operating from the mistaken perspective that there is only one view held by all Muslims about subject x, or that there is only one view considered Islamic about the issue. Since there is only one Muslim view there also has to be one Christian view, and logically any one of Christianity’s seminarian representatives would know and present that one opinion held by all of them. Even a cursory review of Islam’s intellectual legacy, or Muslims’ practice and opinions, would reveal that this is not the case with Islam. As a religion based on scripture, practiced by humans, and mediated by the human understanding of scripture and practice, Islam is similar to Christianity in tolerating a range of views about any given subject x.
Islam has been lived by groups of people on every continent, and in most countries of the world, for almost one and half thousand years, originating roughly 600 years after Jesus walked the earth. When we consider that Islam has no central opinion coordinating/officiating body like the Vatican, no synod, and unlike some church denominations, no yearly convention to ratify Islamic doctrine, the notion of one view held by all Muslims about any one subject should be seen for what it truly is: a lofty ideal among a sea of disparate and variant cultural practices. I do not want to give the impression that anarchy rules the day, since that is far from being the truth. However, the manner in which Muslims self-police who is a Muslim, or what passes for an Islamic view, is relatively fluid, resembling a status quo of multiple orthodoxies.
The cringing I mentioned at the beginning developed into a visceral reflex after realizing that by continuing to portray this mythical unity of Islamic thought and practice, I was doing more to undermine myself, community, Muslims in America, and America at large, than I was in forwarding any project or agenda of a global Muslim community. As Muslims, deferring to this mythical ideal is the far too simple – almost lazy – way to think about a major religion like Islam, or ourselves. It shrinks a rich intellectual and cultural tradition full of nuance, variation, and sometimes contradictions, into one formula: “The Islamic view of subject x is ____, and only ___.” One of the implications of this simple formulation is that whoever doesn’t agree with the precise rendering of the formula isn’t following Islam, followed closely behind by the notion that the loudest bullhorn proclaiming view x represents the “Islamic” opinion.
Stepping outside the walls of the seminary, one finds Muslims engaged with the public, oftentimes defensively stuttering and stammering responses to TV hosts unconcerned with teaching moments or multiple perspectives, on town-hall talk-shows. While one is likely to hear dejection and sense moods of despair in the blogosphere about these “stammering tongues,” I am optimistic about the future of Muslims and Islam in America. As we continue to engage in the public discourse and add our valuable insights, Muslims will continue to hone our skills and the American public will grow to appreciate the value of contributions. The current climate is not unlike what Catholics or Jews endured during their experience with the experiment called America.
That being said, Islam is not a recent arrival to America’s shores. Although not included in America’s master historical narrative, Africans and African-Americans have been engaged with their own experiment with Islam in America. A significant number of Muslims were among the enslaved Africans forcibly brought to America’s shores, and while African-Americans comprise the largest subgroup of the American Muslim population, their experience is not considered to be a part of the master historical narrative of Muslims and Islam either. Their particular history, opinions and experiences remain largely invisible to Americans and Muslims although they have been successfully traversing both sides of Muslim-American hyphen for quite some time now.
And herein lies what I believe to be the greatest danger in deferring to the myth of the unity of Islamic thought and practice: the more I defer, the more invisible I become, with America and Islam’s cultural tradition left all the more poorer for it. The only way to halt my continued descent into the invisible nonexistence of a fictive version of the Islamic “hive mind” is by resisting the urge to defer and adding my personal reflections to public dialog taking place around Islamic agency in the American experiment. As a Jamaican born, American citizen who was christened as a Catholic, grew up Pentecostal, converted to Islam while in college, who entered the Islamic studies department of a Christian seminary after a number of years spent raising a family with my wife, who continues to work as an IT professional, with bi-vocational aspirations that include teaching at a college or seminary, the state of my “I formation” remains in flux and based on a number of alignments and commitments. While I hold no illusions that my contributions to this space represents the Islamic perspective on any particular issue, I hope only to blog new reflections into existence informed by my understanding of Islam, or by any of my other commitments, for that matter.
Concerned pleas from within the community will no doubt caution against expressions of a disunited front or the public airing of the proverbial dirty laundry, as if our tradition’s cardinal principle that “the differences in the community are a mercy” has been forgotten. With a voyeuristic eye on the blog entries of my fellow “fellows in formation,” and the other on my imagined interlocutor, I reply:
I’m emboldened to resist these pleas to desist
To a mindless assimilation sans critical examination
Of mythic cyborg-like notions, laced with spiritual potions
A “We” with no “I” dentity, no distinctive individuality
‘Twas never the purpose, it just does not serve “US”
But here our pair will engage, formation states written pages
Resistance so ever worthwhile, I’ll show, not ever will be futile