When I wrote the blog Beyond Black Victim Status: Slaves Are Superior, I shared the story of an Arab Muslim high school teacher who told me that Black Americans could never really be Muslim. I wish I could say experiences like this are anomalies to Muslims indigenous to the West. Unfortunately, American Muslims not only have the difficult task of navigating racism and colorism whenever they attend masajid and events populated mostly by immigrant populations, they also have the weightier task of filtering these ‘isms’ from the teachings of Islam itself.
Stop Imitating the Kuffaar
It was while living in Saudi Arabia I realized that, to many Muslims from predominately Muslim countries, the term kuffaar (an Arabic term denoting those who disbelieve in Islam) is synonymous with “American” or “Western.” Thus, in the minds of non-Western Muslims, anything that is believed to have originated from American culture or “the West” immediately falls under the Islamic prohibition of “imitating the disbelievers.”
The idea that American=disbeliever is so widespread that in many schools in Saudi Arabia, students are forbidden to style their hair in any manner perceived as “American.” Several of my friends’ daughters were admonished for coming to school wearing braids or “corn rows” (rows of thin braids plaited to the scalp), and their sons were similarly admonished for coming to school with afros (puffy curly or kinky hair that stands up on the head rather than falls down toward the shoulders). However, Arab female students were allowed to wear thick braids and ponytails, and Arab male students were permitted to have long, straight hair.
Also, many scholars and students of knowledge taught that jeans and “Western” pants are forbidden for Muslims to wear, while Arab thobes and Pakistani shalwaar kameez are allowed—despite the fact that none of these items of clothing were worn by the Prophet or his Companions .
The Myth of “Islamic Culture”
I don’t believe in the concept of making an effort to develop or define ‘Islamic culture’ or ‘Muslim culture.’ I see living Islam as essentially prioritizing its goals and limits over our own goals and limits, where our own goals and limits may be set by our own cultural choosing. Basically, be ok with and enjoy your culture whoever you are where ever you are but keep Allah first and strive to not transgress His boundaries. When culture transgresses the limits, prefer the limits over transgressing. When man defines what of world culture can be framed as Islamic and what can’t, it is ALWAYS a subjective activity and the repercussions will result in human beings making holy, the unholy and unholy, the holy.”
—Khalil Ismail, “Islamic Culture?”
Islam is a way of life more than it is a religion, Muslims often say. And depending on how we define “way of life” and “religion,” this is true. But how do we define these terms?
Ironically, most of the time, we don’t.
Yet nearly every Muslim (including myself) has repeated this mantra over and over again—with pride and wholehearted belief. And herein lies the problem. Without clearly defining these terms, the mantra takes on a life of its own in the minds and lives of the Muslims repeating it, and the result can be disastrous if we define a people’s culture as a “way of life” and thereby imply that it is competing with Islam itself.
And nowhere have I seen the negative effect of this thinking more than on American converts to Islam.
America Is Inherently Evil?
“It was only recently that I began to realize that I’m not inherently evil because I’m American,” my friend told me as she reflected on her experience as a Black American in a predominately immigrant Muslim community—and she accepted Islam more than ten years ago.
Like my friend’s experience, often when American converts to Islam attend masajid populated mostly by immigrants from predominately Muslim countries, it is quite the norm to hear lectures and Friday khutbahs imploring the congregation to avoid the “un-Islamic” influence of the West. And like my experience in Saudi Arabia, in these masajid, the concept of “imitation of the disbelievers” means merely appearing or behaving “American”—as judged primarily by the observations and opinions of Muslims who are not indigenous Americans. This belief is so widespread that converts are regularly told to change their American names to “Muslim” ones, and apparently this “rule” extends beyond real life, “When is Tamika going to get a Muslim name?” someone asked me about the fictional character who accepts Islam in the If I Should Speak trilogy that I authored.
Though the actual Islamic caution against “imitating the disbelievers” concerns only matters that are specific to systems of disbelief as opposed to general cultural patterns, it is rare that this distinction is actually made in Islamic classes and lectures on the subject, especially when America or “the West” is discussed. Islamic scholars themselves acknowledge that this issue is subjective; thus, any apparent “imitation” must be weighed against a person’s circumstance and culture, and ultimately, any real transgression stems primarily from a person’s intentions.
In Islam, as a general rule, worldly matters such as hairstyles, clothing, food, recreation, and any culture-specific speech or behavior do not fall under the “imitation” category. Allah has made humans different nations and tribes, and naturally, these differences will manifest themselves in how people dress, speak, and interact.
The Truth Behind Anti-American “Islamic” Views
In my experience, the constant vocalized need for Muslims to differentiate themselves from the “evils” of the West and the subsequent labeling of anything “American” as prohibited stem more from personal issues affecting immigrant Muslims to the West than from religious issues affecting all Muslims. Immigrant Muslims left their homelands to settle in the United States despite the fact that many Islamic scholars teach that it is forbidden to leave a Muslim land and settle amongst non-Muslims, except in cases of necessity or for da’wah (calling others to Islam). Thus, in an effort to justify their presence in an apparently “non-Muslim land,” some of them become obsessed with avoiding any form of assimilation, as this is viewed as blameworthy and sinful. Unfortunately, this obsession influences the way Islam is taught in these masajid, which are often attended by indigenous Americans learning about Islam for the first time.