There’s an oft-repeated sports adage that says, “the best offense is a good defense”. And there is a tremendous amount of wisdom in this saying, for surely half of any game worth playing will require some defensive posturing. But athletes cannot live on proverbial bread alone. At some point (pun intended), points themselves must be put on the board if one is to win, and not just simply play. There is something intimately akin to this going on with our religious community at the moment. We, the American Muslim community, have been playing a precarious game of defense. All manner of excuses can be fostered up to explain the “why’s” and the “how-to’s” but what we really need right now is a new playbook, one that puts us “out in front”.
I have often said, to paraphrase one of my own teachers, that if one’s theology is devoid of sociology, chances are, one is or will soon be, in a cult. I make this comparison because sports, while entertaining and good for the soul (when actively engaged in!), can also take on a cult-like mentality. One of the defining characteristics of a cult is its tendency to be all tactics and no strategy. A one-sided game; only defense. So we must ask ourselves: are we in this to win this? Are we willing and able to get serious about the business of Islam-in-, and more particularly, Muslims-in-America? If the answer is yes–and I pray, God willing it is–then we’ll need to strategize a new way of being in the world, or more specifically, being in America, that allows us to develop a more-complete game that involves offense and defense.
What do I mean, you might ask? First, I am calling to an active theology (what is more commonly understood in Christian circles as “liberation theology”), one that allows for the engineering, and not simply “reverse engineering”, of our daily context to bring meaning and realization to our lives as Muslims. The latter, reverse engineering, takes place all the time. We do it all the time in our proselytizing efforts (da’wah) in which a convincing argument might go as thus:
“Imagine a modern miracle such as the Internet. The ability to allow millions, billions of human beings to interact and share knowledge. The Muslim tendency, in an attempt to fit something as dazzling as the Internet into our cosmology will attempt to reverse engineer its ingenuity as thus: man creates Internet by using math, science, technology, etc. But man himself is created and thus, so are the systems by which he learns math, perfects scientific methodologies and even man’s technology is ultimately beyond his hands: the computers are made from materials scourged from the earth; the plastics from petroleum which are really just dead dinosaurs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, until the chain is reverse engineered to point back to the Source of it All: God. We then take a self-congratulatory bow, proud of our ability to trace anything here and now back to its Maker.”
This feat is admirable indeed, for it is true that one can trace the source of everything in the world back to God the Almighty. The issue, if I may use such a provocative word, is not that this is incorrect but that this is incomplete. Without complementing this train of thought with an offensive way of seeing the world around us, we end up in a cosmology of defense. The trick is to not only see God behind every object but to also see God in front of it. After all, two of God’s Holy Names are The First (al-Awwal) and the Last (al-Akhir). By seeing that God is also The Last, The End Result, we may find ourselves with a new way of ascribing a comfortable measure of Islamisity to our world around us. In this light, the people and things which inhabit our world around us are no longer simply “dunya” but can now be relegated into one of two useful categories: that which helps us get to God in a pleasing manner and that which inhibits this process. This is the (positive/forward) engineering offensive strategy we are so desperately in need of.
I was recently reminded of a small example of this when I was invited to speak at a Muslim event. At the conclusion of a speech I gave the crowd of Muslims seemed unsure of themselves if it was appropriate to clap. Much of this indecision stemmed from the psychological fact that we, as American Muslims, have not yet developed a level of comfort with the intellectual tradition of Islam such that it not only tells us the “don’ts” but it imbues us with the power of authentication that we might tell ourselves what some of the “do’s” are. The result, from the above scenario, was an awkward silence in which old and young Muslims alike stared at one another unsure of how to proceed, afraid that they may in fact infringe upon some sacred-yet-inarticulate right due to their ignorance or negligence of Sacred Law.
While the example above is a simple and crude one I assure you this extends to areas of deep concern for the future of Islam in America. If Islam is to take off and thrive–not merely survive–in America then Muslims here will need to be imbued with the power to legitimize themselves and their environments around them. This may result in differing cultural norms for Muslims in America that may, at the surface level, look different when compared to other parts of the Ummah. In fact, for most of Muslim history, as Dr. Sherman Jackson points out, our pre-modern Muslim counterparts had little difficulty in distinguishing between what was simply non-Muslim and what was un-Islamic. The former being mainly a point of departure, with the end result being up for grabs: Cricket was certainly a non-Muslim activity but in time some of the sports finest players are Muslims. Muslims came to believe that there was no contraction of The Book or the Sunnah in engaging in cricket. Likewise, if Muslims are to get serious about America, meaning a shift from survival mode to thriving mode, then this must entail seeing God on ends of our reality in America, the Beginning as well as the End, such that Muslims might craft a bona fide American Muslim culture much in the way that Muslims have done in Senegal, Turkey and Malaysia. Perhaps then we can begin to put some points on the board and play ball.
By Marc Manley , 22 Jan 2014