بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
During my freshman year of college, before I owned a car, I used to walk to the masjid from my dorm room for both the fajr (before dawn) and isha (after dusk) communal prayers. The trek itself was only about a mile as I recall, but the distance was nonetheless long enough such that it gave me ample time to meditate on the days endeavors and to clear my head of the murky convolutions often associated with clamorous scholastic affairs. For some reason, I’ve always found it easier to open up my mind and heart during the hours when the world slumbers (or perhaps parties). Most of my insights have at their genesis the quiet darkness between the twilight hours.
Insha’Allah, I’ll never forget this one in night particular. It was during the spring semester of my first of college. The days were beginning to wax and had just begun to show signs of spring; the waning evenings, not yet adulterated with humidity, followed suit with cool and brisk winds. I was performing my ritualistic walk from the isha prayer toward my dorm as per usual, but this night something was nagging me. I mean, really nagging me. Something had been gnawing at my nafs–my very soul, my very being–for the past couple of days and the sensation reached its apex that night. With an assortment of restaurants, flashing neon lights, and bars filled with scantily clad women and amorous men to my right and The Swamp, the enormous football stadium (which I only frequented for exercising purposes. A cardinal sin, I know) to my left, I coquetted with apostasy, not for skepticism nor to scoff at faith but for relevance: Islam, or, to be more precise, Immigrant Islam (by this I mean Islam as manifested and understood within the cultural norms and practices chiefly, though not exclusively, of Arabs and Desis, the two largest communities of immigrant Muslims in America), seemed to have very little to say about my reality as a Black American, as if the struggles of Blacks in American were not really struggles Muslims, even Black Muslims, should engage in. In the predominantly immigrant populated masjid, there were always reminders (drab and clumsy ones, but reminders all the same) of the importance of sawm (fasting), the etiquette of salat (prayer), and the beauty of raceless, colorblind Muslim “brotherhood” (which doesn’t really exist, at least not as many claim) , but seldom, if ever, were connections made between the principles that define Islam and the realities of the American youth; everything was instead voiced through the prism from alien worlds, from Old World realities, from “Over There.” As such, I was left to wander through the muck and mire, making my own way. Al-hamdu’ilah, the wiles of apostasy proved fruitless against me as I was able to read and concoct some answers to my questions. But perhaps there are others, possibly converts like myself, who want–who need–answers to their questions as a matter of spiritual life and death. Maybe their bouts with apostasy did not fair as well.
This blog entry is sourced at this particular battle, one of many I had with apostasy. Far too often are we, the youth in this country, feed with, what I call, “pie-in-the-sky Islam,” interpretations of Islam far removed from the reality of our situations. I want to do for the Muslims here in the States what Karl Marx wanted to do with Hegel’s dialectic: get them off their heads and stand them back on their feet (no materialistic or atheistic connotations intended); I want to embellish interpretations of Islam that indigenous Americans can identify with, interpretations that speak to the realities of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Native Americans, such that they don’t have to appeal to the worlds “Over There” for validation and adjudication. To accomplish such a task, I find myself once again turning to one of my personal heroes, Dr. Sherman Jackson, and his seminal book on Black theodicy (being theos, “divine,” + dike, “justice,” hence “divine justice” ), and corresponding lecture, entitled Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering.
Now, before I begin, I know I might be treading dangerous waters in making the aforementioned statements but bear with me please. I’m certainly not advocating for some new newfangled bid’ah (unsanctioned innovation), at least not intentionally. I’ve got something percolating in this crazy head of mine. I assure you.
In his book, as well as in the lecture, Dr. Jackson puts the “cosmic apartheid” of Black Americans and Professor William R. Jones’s critique of Black Theology, boldly entitled, Is God a White Racist? in conversation with the four established schools of Muslim theology, those being Mu’tazilism, Ash’arism, Maturidism, and Traditionalism as voiced by the controversial figure of Ibn Taymiyyah, with the goal of tackling the infamous Problem of Evil as it relates to Black Americans. To be sure, I lack the breadth, eloquence, and expertise needed to give adequate descriptions of Jones’s arguments, of each school of thought, and of their application to the issue of Black theodicy. Such descriptions, I believe, would be beyond my scope anyway. My aim here is only to vindicate a lingering suspicion I’ve had since I converted, namely, that there does exists within both classical Sunni (Ahl Sunna wal-Jamma’at, “People of the Tradition of the Prophet and Communal Consensus”) and classical Shi’a (Ahl-Bayt, “People of the House of the Prophet”) Muslim discourse a means of handling the contemporary social, political and theological issues like Black theodicy. I identity with the Sunni manifestation, so I’ll write from that prospective and leave my Shi’a brothers and sisters to handle things on their end, insha’Allah. Hopefully, in my attempt to summarize the ideas presented to me, my pen, or rather my keyboard, won’t get the better of me.
Let’s start with Professor Jones, for his role in this is critical. In short, Jones begins with the premises of the Black theologians, premises, which really, most theists hold: that God is omnipotent, sovereign over nature and human history, and omni-benevolent. He then inquiries that if indeed God is omnipotent, then He must have the ability to change the reality of Black suffering and that if indeed God is omni-benevolent, He must want to change the reality of Black suffering. However, since conditions on ground by and large speak to the contrary, in his eyes, God either could not change them, thus compromising His omnipotence, or that God does not want to change them, thus compromising His omni-benevolence. As if this wasn’t enough, he then brings forth an issue known as divine quietism, which goes as follows: if God wills Black suffering, then Blacks who oppose this suffering would also be in rebellion against God Himself; therefore, Blacks must acquiesce to their conditions, so as not to fight against God. His solution to these problems was to remove the sovereignty of human history from the dominion of God and leave only the domain of nature under His control. The result is a “humanocentric theism,” which would allow for the potency of God to exist only in nature, thereby giving humans free rein to shape their own destinies vis-a-vis other humans.
In this devastating critique, he showed Black Theology in relation to traditional Black Christianity as an untenable means of explaining and confronting the continued reality of Black suffering. In Dr. Jackson’s estimation, Black Christianity has yet, to this day, to produce an appropriate response to Jones, and I suspect, it won’t be able to do so.
Hopefully, you can see Dr. Jackson’s concern. We Muslims also hold Allah سبحانه وتعالى to be omnipotent (al-qadir) and omni-benevolent (an-nāfi, the Source of Good; ar-rahman, the Most Gracious; ar-rahim, the Most Merciful). We also believe that Allah is sovereign over both human history and nature, and that nothing can come into existence without Allah’s decree. Wouldn’t, therefore, the arguments of Jones apply to Islam as well? Does Islam have anything to say about Black theodicy, or the theodicy of some other group (Hispanic, Native American, etc)? And more importantly, can Islam offer an appropriate response to Jones’s critique? In Dr. Jackson’s mind, and mine as well, most Muslims simply are not trained to handle formulations of the sorts Jones presented. Most Muslims typically devise answers based upon inculcations from Old World realities, which often have little do with New World realities. This begs me to ask some questions. When someone comes to masjid asking questions of this caliber as I have, how will we respond as a community? Can we, as a community, even respond? Somehow, I can’t help but to feel we are ill-equipped to do so.
But wait! There’s more! Here, in my opinion, is the kicker. Are you ready? What happens when we are unable to answer such questions as I suspect we might be? This Dr. Jackson’s take on it. “The biggest challenge to religion is not persecution. The biggest problems that confront religion are irrelevancy and apathy. When those who want to persecute you for your religion show up at your door, you are going to fight against them. But if your religion becomes irrelevant in your own life and in the life of your community, then what you are going to end doing is fighting yourself as a follower of that religion; and you end up in a psychological state where it’s very difficult for you to maintain your commitment to your religion because as you move about in your daily business, your religion (has become) irrelevant. This leads to the quiet, uneventful death of religion.” In short, we get the death of God, or as Nietzsche put it, “Gott ist tot” (“God is dead”), and with the death of God, according to Nietzsche, comes the rise of nihilism. People will then seek to fill the void left by religion from secular means like, jingoism, materialism, etc.
I think Dr. Jackson hit the nail on the head. I mean really: who ultimately cares how “true” a religion is if it proves unable to supply palpable solutions to contemporary problems? Are we just suppose to be robots and perform our tasks without thinking about our reality? Didn’t Allah command us to reflect on the world in the Qur’an? I believe both He and His noble mouthpiece, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, commanded us to do so.
So with that in mind, let us return back Black Theodicy. What would be the Muslim response to Jones and his ilk? In short, the Mu’tazilites agree, more or less, with Jones. They would claim that Allah does not have dominion over human history and that humans both have the will and the agency, independent of Allah, to oppose Black suffering. They said this not because they have secular tendencies (like Jones did). Far from it in fact, for the Mu’tazilites were theists to the core. They did this to preserve the benevolence of Allah: they took it upon themselves to remove the evil actions of human beings from under His dominion, thereby exculpating Allah from any claims of evil. It should be noted that Sunni Islam did not ultimately subsume Mu’tazilism into its ranks; that was done primarily in Shi’a Islam with the Jafari school of thought. However, despite this, the Mu’tazilites are important because they paved the way for systematic theology within Islam: the other schools were, more or less, responding to the claims of Mu’tazilism. As such, it would behoove us Sunni Muslims not to engage in the intellectual bigotry that has often plagued discourses about the Mu’tazilites.
After reading this description in Dr. Jackon’s book, I imagined two interlocutors discussing the Problem of Evil in the following manner:
Person A: “Why does God allow so much moral suffering in the world?” (There’s a difference between moral and ontological suffering. Basically, moral suffering results from the actions of humans, like war, genocide, etc. Ontological sufferings results from things like natural disasters. I think the Mu’tazilite position would only apply to moral suffering.)
Person B: “Why are you asking God such a question? You should instead ask yourself why there’s so much suffering and why you aren’t doing anything to help prevent it.”
As for the other schools, they would oppose Jones, and hence the Mu’tazilites, on the basis of not dividing God’s sovereignty. Rather, what they did is something ingenious, something which I believe exonerates Islam from the dreaded Problem of Evil entirely, something that both the Jews and Christians failed to do. They distinguished between Allah’s ontological decree (what God brings into being) and and His deonotological decree (God’s normative preference). In short, what God brings into being might not always coincidence with His preferences: just because God allows Black suffering, Iblis (Satan), disbelief to exist, doesn’t mean He is pleased with it. As such, we as human beings also aren’t obligated to be pleased with everything God brings into existence. As Ibn Taymiyyah, may Allah be pleased with him, says, “There’s is not a single verse in the Qur’an nor a single hadith of the Prophet commanding humans to be pleased with everything that God determines and brings into existence in the way of human actions, good and evil. (On the other hand) humans are obligated to be pleased with what God commands. Indeed, no one is permitted to resent God’s command.”
Now you may ask why would God not translate His preferences into reality? He is God after all, right? To this I would respond by saying that traditional notions of power are not befitting of Allah. What do I mean? Consider: why do we humans beings want power? We want power so that we can translate our preferences into reality. We are the objects our own desires. Allah, however, does not have to make Himself the object of His wishes and thus can transcend even His preferences. This, I think, is a much more fitting description of Allah’s omnipotence.
So what’s the upshot in all this? For me, it shows that Islam can provide sensible answers. We just have to be willing to wrestle with tradition and use our minds to get those answers. We have to think outside the box within the much bigger box of classical tradition, if you catch me drift.
So what does Islam have to say the issues of our time? What does Islam have to say about the tax cuts for the wealthy that have played a major role in destroying our economy and increasing the ever-widening chasm between the rich and poor? What does Islam have to say about the prison-industrial complex that incarcerates more people, mostly Blacks and Latinos, than Russia and even China (see Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness for a much fuller treatment of this topic) for frivolous drug charges? What does Islam have to say about the military-industrial complex that perpetuates wars for the sake of procuring profits and resources? What does Islam have to say about the growing trend of single-parent mothers and fatherless children (like myself)? What does Islam have to say about affirmative action? What does Islam have to say about the stark inequalities in housing and education between wealthy Whites and Immigrants and the poor, suffering minorities? What does Islam have to say about the situations of so-called “illegal immigrants” (which I’m beginning to think is a euphemism for Hispanics, most Mexicans) that force many of them to seek refuge in America (as if border lines actually existed)? What does Islam have to say about “illegal immigrants” period? What does Islam have to say about exporting jobs overseas so that many Americans can’t find lively hoods to support their families? Are we going to just sit and talk about prayer and fasting all day (not that talking about prayer or fasting is bad)? Or are we going to gather the courage needed to discuss these issues?
Where is the Muslim position? Do we even have one? Can we provide the answers the people need? I think so. I hope so, for our own sakes.
“ART THOU NOT aware that God has created the heavens and the earth in accordance with (an inner) truth? He can, if He so wills, do away with you and bring forth a new mankind (in your stead): nor is this difficult for God.” [14:19-20]
Peace Itself and Peace to all.