17 May 2014

A Convert's Search for Meaning

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This is from his own website This is from his own website http://zainabdullah.com/

As human beings we are constantly navigating the multiple layers of our (fluid) identity. I am still a son, though my parents have been gone for a while. I am a husband and father, a teacher in several contexts, a former pastor in Algeria. For sixteen years I lived as a Christian in three different Muslim-majority countries. I’m a white American male, with all the power, pride, derision and guilt that you, the reader, might read into it. I inhabit many other personae, depending on where I am and what I’m doing. And so do you.

This is the story of an African-American man, Zain Abdullah, who was born to Christian parents and mostly raised along with two older sisters by his mother. My task is simply to whet your appetite, so you will read his story in the latest issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “A Muslim’s Search for Meaning.” Here are several themes that struck a chord in me as I read.

A quick aside: I featured another convert to Islam (or “revert,” as Muslims like to put it – “Islam” for them is the natural state of creation) back in January, a white female American, G. Willow Wilson, while highlighting her fascinating book, The Butterfly Mosque. Why don’t you present Muslim converts to Christianity, you might ask? Of course, there are many examples there too, like my friend, Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh, born and raised in the Gambia (here’s the best introduction). My answer is this: I have more Christian than Muslim readers (I think), and because my aim is to break down barriers between the two communities, it is Muslims who bear the brunt of our western societies’ stereotypes and prejudice.


What is religion? What is Islam?

This is a question I challenge my students in “Comparative Religion” to grapple with throughout the semester. When one of them writes in her/his final essay, “it’s a complicated issue,” I breathe a sigh of relief, and say to myself, “mission accomplished.”

In this piece, Zain Abdullah opens up his heart to us. I’ll get to that more personal tone below. But for now, he also writes as a professor of Islamic Studies, whose research draws a good deal from the social sciences (his PhD is in cultural anthropology). Yes, he’s been an imam and a university chaplain, but this article is framed by his concern to articulate a view of Muslims and Islam that breaks the prevalent western stereotypes.

So I’ll skip the more confessional definition of “Muslim” you read on the second page. This is about the way it’s used in the Qur’an and how it’s only the first step in one’s personal spiritual development (muslim, “submitter”; mu’min, “believer”; muhsin, “perfected believer,” or literally, “one who does good”). But this does raise the vexed problem of how one might “translate sacred meanings properly from one religious context to another.” Unfortunately, that natural impulse to oversimplify and stereotype leads people to reduce Muslims to Sunnis, Shi’a, or Sufis.

But then Abdullah adds this, which I find very helpful:


“When we consider the deeper implications of words like Islam, din, Muslim, mu’min, and kafir, we find that the Qur’anic message is essentially a call to belief in a new worldview, or a way of envisioning a world that is different from the one we currently have. This approach will necessarily alter our sense of who Muslims are and force us to rethink their place in today’s world.”


I do think that “religion,” however else we may define the term, is about a comprehensive model of reality, a way of looking at the world and human experience that explains those basic questions that science can never answer: How did this world come into being? How do we humans fit into it? Where do we come from and where do we go after death? And, perhaps most importantly, how ought we to live? In one word, religion gives “meaning” to human experience.

But to this rather abstract definition, you have to immediately add the notion of community, taking into account the social nature of homo sapiens. This is where the idea of culture fits in. So on page 28 Abdullah reflects on the American mosque, shaped as it is by the individualistic ideology of American culture. Another way of putting it is “the Protestantization of Muslim life in the United States,” with the mosque structured on “an ecclesiastical model.” The imam, like his Protestant, Catholic (or Jewish) counterpart, is expected to run an administration that cares for the needs of his flock – often walking recent immigrants through the maze of American bureaucracy and translating new cultural idioms and practices. And they will also marry and bury all those entrusted to their care.

Further, you run into this paradox, says Abdullah, as both anthropologist and theologian. Having traveled to many parts of the Muslim world, one could lament (and he does) that “Muslims around the world tend to be somewhat balkanized. Most maintain strict parameters for socialization and only marry within their ethnic group.” On the other hand, Muslims globally share this ideal of “the single ummah.” That’s the community of Muslims, the “mother,” or literally “the womb.” So the paradox is, much like it is for any other global religious tradition, the belief in the ideal unity (ummah) of all Muslims despite the formidable variety of their beliefs, practices and identities. In his words:


“Muslim religiosity—in many respects, the whole idea of being Muslim—is centered on the notion that we share a type of communal globalism, which in reality is an imagined community. Still, the group sense of what it means to be Muslim constitutes an overlapping of three very distinct relationships: matrimonial, familial, and communal. The shape of these associations, however, varies and will result in multiple ways of understanding Muslims. But the tendency for both Muslims and outsiders to view Islam as a monolithic entity is clearly untenable.”


The challenge of conversion and identity

When Abdullah was twelve, he heard about the Nation of Islam. He wanted to know more about it. His older cousin's take on it was that being black was already one strike against him. Embracing Islam would be a second strike. That sounded “really bad,” he remembers thinking. That impression struck with him.

By chance – or so it would seem – his parents gave him a name that sounded nice to them. In fact, “Zayne” really comes from the Arabic for “good,” or “one who beautifies the believers.” Next, while in the eleventh grade, a female classmate dressed in the full Nation of Islam garb, asked him, “Do you know you have a Muslim name?” That was his first clue, though the young woman’s demeanor didn’t attract him in the least to her faith. Yet somehow that epithet dovetailed nicely with the cultural and ideological mosaic he grew up with – “Black and immigrant Muslims, Christian evangelicals, integrationists, Black nationalists, and a Black working and middle class.”

In my reading of the essay, I’d say two factors most favored his conversion to Islam. The first was a genuine spiritual interest along with an innate intuition that God was one, though not in the New Testament sense. Still, in college he would often read the Bible into the wee hours of the night. But he was also studying Daoism, Confucianism and Shintoism.

The second factor was his meeting a Black Muslim from Panama who was selling jewelry in the student center. After several conversations with him, Zayne found himself repeating the Shahada (the Arabic for “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger” and also the first of Islam's "five pillars"). He had just embraced Islam and would change his name to Zain Abdullah. In fact, the turning point had come through a human instrument, Abdul-Malik, a man with whom he could identify and hence could persuade him.

But that was only the beginning of a much longer quest – still continuing in some ways – to understand what it meant for him to be “Muslim.”


Islam, marriage, and young people

Abdullah opens for us a window into one fascinating characteristic of the Muslim worldview. Since “marriage is half of religion,” as Muslims are often taught, new converts in the US are often paired off as soon as possible. His own marriage lasted only two years and he never tells us whether he remarried or not. But he does point to this as a wider phenomenon -- particularly for converts in the west -- and an unfortunate pattern that “results in a high divorce rates and a succession of serial marriages.”

Since extra-marital sex is so strongly reproved, it leaves young people, the lion’s share of Muslim-majority societies, in a bind. As you can imagine, the high rate of unemployment and widespread poverty in many of these countries s create tough dilemmas for the youth, as is well documented in the sociological work by Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, Being Young and Muslim .

This is a good example of a cultural practice nicely suited for traditional societies (arranged marriages in a strong extended family context) that is then reinjected with new religious meaning into an entirely different context (contemporary urban society). The result is not a happy one:


“If marriage constitutes half of our religion, what does being a Muslim mean for an expanding population of the perpetually unmarried? And since any prolonged celibacy is equally prohibited, there is a strong tendency that millions will fall into deep states of depression and guilt, especially if they are unable to reconcile the tension of being a single Muslim in a family-oriented religion.”


Being a Muslim today

Remember the older cousin’s quip about being black and Muslims as two strikes against you? That certainly turned out to be true, particularly after 9/11. But this piece isn’t all about Islamophobia, though he touches on it near the end. Again, it’s complicated, like when his own mother told him out of the blue one day, “You Muslims kill.” She had read the Qur’an and books by Muslims, but she watched the daily news on TV and a good many evangelical programs as well. Here is part of his reaction to that statement:


“Still, my mother isn’t entirely wrong. Muslims do kill. Christians kill. Jews kill. Sikhs kill. Buddhists kill. Hindus kill. States kill. God kills. And people kill in the name of God. This is one of the most perplexing points about religious terrorism: How can otherwise pious people, bent on being good, cause so much suffering in the world? . . .

Muslims do indeed kill. And they also kill fellow Muslims, as four Muslim suicide bombers proved in a Muslim section of London in 2005. Grappling with these realities is part of what being a ‘Muslim’ has come to mean today. Furthermore, the deployment of the term as a political category impacts us all, forcing a realignment of how we must now navigate our surroundings.”


But just like western Europe grappled for two centuries with the “Jewish Question,” they are even more preoccupied with the “Muslim Question” today. On the other hand, when one considers the overwhelming impact of western colonialism in Muslim lands, "the line separating Muslims and the West is more imaginary than real."

This is where Abdullah’s own spiritual pilgrimage is so indicative of much larger currents and trends in the Muslim world over the past decades. Yes, Abdul Malik did offer him compelling reasons to become Muslim. But he also discovered Abul A‘la Maududi's book, Towards Understanding Islam. That’s when he truly decided to convert. Maududi was by far the most influential islamist writer and activist of the twentieth century. Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, might easily clinch that title, except that he didn’t write much. The South Asian Maududi, as Abdullah experienced, had a knack for writing clearly, persuasively, and with the black and white certainty of the fundamentalist.

Also crucial to his formative years as a Muslim, Abdullah sometimes frequented a Newark mosque that was run by another South Asian movement (this one from the 1920s), the Tablighi Jama‘at. Tablighi men traditionally dress in long white robes, baggy white trousers and white skullcaps. They usually go door to door seeking to win other Muslims over to their more conservative doctrine and way of life. But don’t confuse them with Salafis, whose robes come down midway between the knee and ankle. Sociologically, however, both groups nicely fit into what French scholar calls "neofundamentalism" (more on this in my blog on religious fundamentalism).

During those years Abdullah practiced a very conservative, regimented and communalist type of religiosity. As he puts it, free will was not part of his vocabulary or worldview at that time:


“Then, when I became Muslim in the late 1970s, everything came under the command of divine will (qadr), requiring that all human behavior begin and end with the phrases insha’Allah (If God wills it) and masha’Allah (God has willed it).”


Graduate studies changed that, and he’s been finding his way as a Muslim ever since. So read this piece for yourself. And if you are a person of faith yourself, I think you’ll be able to identify with much of what he says. One thing is for sure. Abdullah’s “search for meaning” is a rich and delightful introduction to what it means to be Muslim today.