Even though Islam is the religious tradition to which I subscribe, my roots in the so-called “Muslim World” are tenuous at best, non-existent at worst. I’m an “indigenous” Black American Muslim convert, and while I am not qualified to talk about the complexity and diversity of the historic “Muslim World,” I do feel that my personal experiences--along with my knowledge of the tradition (however scant it might be)--imbue me with the capacity to discuss such issues as Muslim identity in America intelligently and sagaciously.
I was born into a Catholic family in Pensacola, a navy port town in the Panhandle of northern Florida. Still vivid in my mind are the Sundays when my family would attend Mass at the local Catholic church. As a young teenager, I became engrossed with character of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) and his teachings. Moreover, I grew to admire the priests, nuns and deacons of my community (an admiration that persists this very day), so much so that I had aspirations of becoming a priest myself. They all seemed to exude a sense of holiness, justice and mercy as went about serving the parish and the community as a whole. In my youth, I wanted to emulate their passion and zeal,so that I could one day serve my community in a similar fashion.
Despite the respect I had garnered for the priestly class and the passion I had for teachings and character of Jesus as described in the Bible, I had some uneasiness about certain theological positions of the Christian faith. Late into my high school years I struggled with the sensibility of the Trinity and doctrine of Vicarious Atonement. Finally, after a year and half of questions and internal debates amidst the auburn street lights of my neighborhood, I decided to reject the doctrines of the Trinity and Vicarious Atonement and pursued a more “agnostic” approach to religion. I still identified myself as Christian at that time, but only in the sense of following the teachings of Jesus, only in the sense of being “Christ-like.”
After a graduated high school in 2005, I met my first Muslim while working as a grounds keeper at a local community college. She was an older, Black, Southern woman whose personal experiences extended back to the days of the Nation of Islam and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. She, with her boisterous self-assurance and somewhat profane modes of expression, impressed upon me the Muslim position concerning God, Jesus, the Bible and humanity. I was drawn to her words and to passion with which she spoke them. My last day of work, she gave me an English translation of the Qur’an and said to me, quite prophetically, “you gon’ be Muslim!” I converted at the University of Florida later that year, right before Ramadan. The rest, as they say, is history.
For me, being a Muslim is more than an artificial demarcation of personal or cultural identity. Being Muslim has at its core a deep intellectual recognition of humanity’s position in all of creation vis-a-vis creation itself. It represents a willful acknowledgment of the necessity to submit by way of congruency to a greater power and will that both paradoxically lies far beyond our conventional means understanding and yet is so close to our minds and hearts that we can let this transcendental power and will manifest in our daily actions. It means living in world riddled with Niebuhrian ironies, tragedies and paradoxes: of being people both of peace and violence, of being people both concerned with the affairs of this life and the one to come, of being people who both call to love and justice. For me, being Muslim means coming to terms with my humanity, with being a tension-riddled human being full of contradictions and weakness and knowing that this inner and outer struggle for equanimity and peace, which all conscious individuals endure regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof, serves a greater end, an end which our ken’s are incapable of grasping.
So when I pray, when I prostrate, when I fast, when I give charity with my money or even with a simple smile, when I do good in this life, when I struggle to do what is just, when I recognize--for good or ill--my humanity, I think of the birds and the trees and the celestial bodies in the heavens and say to myself, “I have found my place in creation, as a humble servant of God.” And herein lies the beauty of Islam: that every person, irrespective of hue or tongue or socio-economic status, is interconnected with each other and creation itself, but since we humans have the moral agency to act upon our wills (to a certain extent), we are obligated to take care of creation and each other. Moreover, the act of attending to this responsibility via self-actualization and humility is considered to be the greatest form worship. This, to me, is Beauty.
I know I’m still quite young, with much more to learn and--perhaps more importantly--much more to unlearn. However, despite my youth and the naiveté that is suppose to accompany it, my intuition and hope lead me to believe that Muslims will continue eke out meaning, fruitful existences in the States. After all, for most of us, this is our home. I, for example, was born in this land; my family is here and nowhere else; my culture is here and nowhere else; my language is here; my history is by and large here; my religion is here; my life is in this land, and quite possibly, so will be my death. I therefore hope that Islam will find its place in American society.
This land has been a source of peace and prosperity for many Muslims, but it has also been a source of caustic and bitter irony. Such contradictions make me wonder if we Muslims will be able to adequately answer the questions posed by modernity, even post-modernity, in America. They make me wonder if we will be effective in resolving the inner tensions between the different racial, ethnic, tribal and socio-economic components of the Muslim strata in America. They make me wonder if Muslims will become more critical engaged in American society. Most importantly, they make me wonder if we Muslims will ever get to narrate our own stories, to tell our own tales, instead of someone else doing it for us.
I contemplate these issues during these Ramadan days and nights, hoping to find answers of some appreciative magnitude and caliber. ‘Cause God knows we need ‘em!
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