It's very easy, growing up in a family that is not only culturally but also theologically conservative, to approach issues from a position of defensiveness. Defense is not always a bad thing; when it comes to matters of faith, better we think carefully and slowly than jump the gun. I wish more Muslim countries spent more of their money meaningfully defending themselves, their culture and, not least of all, their citizens. I wish more Muslims defended their values and taught them, so they could be understood as so worth defending. But the bad thing about defensiveness is that it inculcates a certain rigidity, a slowness to realize -- to arrive -- where others like myself might have arrived years before. It took me a long time to come to terms with my own frustration with the practice of Islam, the objectives of Muslims, our relationships with other communities and our vision -- especially in the Muslim world -- or the apparent absence of one. And when I say come to terms, I mean only that I came to terms with the existence of a deep frustration and cynicism. How to deal with that is my life project. You can expect my blog to catalog it.
That cynicism can kill. Not literally (but maybe that too, right?). Cynicism destroys faith, destroys hope, destroys motivation. Why do anything when everything seems to go from bad to worse regardless? It is not hard to think the same looking at the Muslim world and many Muslim communities. I know there are profound signs of hope, but sometimes there are equally shocking signs of distress, indications of failure and paralyzing feelings of suffocation. That's what guided me to realize, more and more, and especially with my work at NYU, the immense importance of a deep spiritual place. More than that even: serene. Not just emotional but physical, an actual location in the three dimensions. How much I underestimated the importance of finding a masjid, a community, that welcomes, challenges and improves, instead of ignores, dulls and insults. We can tell people in our community, "You have to go to jumu'ah." It is for men a fard. But what happens when the khutbah sucks, the Imam is lost, nobody understands anything and half the congregation, namely the youth, end up falling off and disappearing, because nobody cares and so, in cynicism, they do not care in a kind of wa 'alaykum salam for forever. Nobody leaves the board; nobody shares seats; nobody implements suggestions. The ummah is so afraid of its youth. That is: Our world is afraid of our future.
Now I want to tell people, "If your masjid stinks, start another one." If you can't, just don't go. We can implement the American principle of survival of the fittest. All these fancy masajid that spend their cash on domes and unnecessary flourishes, when they have limited cash and it is better spent elsewhere, how many have I been to that feature hundreds of adults but only a handful of youth? What is that going to accomplish for these communities, except abandoned masajid and disinterested, uninformed, cynical Muslims, a tiny minority in a hugely attractive and dynamic American sea? Good-bye. And I used to be afraid, or at least deeply worried, that such sentiments, when aired, would contribute to a gradual erosion of a certain conservative strength that sustains Islam at a time when so many other religions become increasingly subservient to microtrends, shifts in faith, practice, liturgy and meaning, to sate temporary appetites and in so doing to drastically punch holes in the solidity of faith, the Eternal Refuge, As-Samad, that God is, and provides through the faith. This is where Imam Suhaib Webb comes in.
During Ramadan, Imam Webb and Representative Keith Ellison were hosted by the Islamic Center at NYU for a joint MPAC-MAS event on political participation; I was very impressed by Mr Ellison's mastery of topics, ease with the crowd and the sense that he was wonderfully happy to be in his own skin (I predict a bright future for him.) But what Imam Webb shared with us struck me in a different way: He analogized the Companions of the Prophet, may God be pleased with them and may peace be upon him, to "homeboys"; laugh if you must. We all did; at least, we smirked. But that was precisely the strength of it: Bringing it down to a very tangible, understandable level. They may have fought, disagreed and argued, but they were united, they were solid, they never sold each other out, let one another fall or turned their backs on each other. They were deeply loyal to each other because they were Muslims, not because they shared a language, or class, or income tax bracket, or financial stake, or ideological affinity or racial origin. Any other place and they would have been the most likely ummah imaginable.
With Imam Webb bringing that very different time into the lens and language of this time, and it occurred to me that this is manifestly what American masajid do not do and do not teach us to do. They are, too often, chipping away at the solidity that I was afraid, in critiquing them, of chipping away at: They are turning people away or turning people off. This is not the spiritual center of a people united and worried over each other. There is no solidarity, no sense of a safe space, but rather the exercise of power and ego that demands a grand entrance for the brothers and a basement alleyway for the sisters, a concern in shutting women up behind a wall and not bothering to notice if, at the end of the day, any women will be left.
The great poet and thinker 'Allama Iqbal once noted that if education in Europe produced a decline in fertility, til the population would begin to shrink, then what kind of learning must it be that produces a desire not to continue one's own species? And then what kind of Islam is it that doesn't care about continuing itself? The masjid is a place people should want to go, especially when, as we so often do, we feel down or distressed, desperate or anxious, and we are looking for a smiling face, the warm embrace of a brother (or sister) in faith, or a moment of personal solace between our selves and our Mighty and Merciful, Ever-Hearing and Ever-Answering Creator, a pleasure in worship or the calm serenity evoked by the great mosques of the world -- where one feels secure. Certainly we don't have those resources, but we have human resources. Too often, prominent Muslims use mosques as platforms of power, of privilege and exclusion, in the way Islam has been abused, as it is many countries, turned to a tool of exclusion, division and control, a governing ideology that seeks through government what only faith can produce and, in so doing, builds so many walls that we will wonder one day where everyone went and why, though we were so insistent we were the world's not-Europe, we ended with empty houses of worship.
If the name of God is recited, and nobody hears it, did it make a difference?