My Shahadah, What Senator Obama’s Candidacy Means to Me, and Identifying One’s Islamic Identity
I was first introduced to authentic Islam as a first-year med student by a good friend of mine who was also a first year med student and who had reverted to Islam while at an Ivy League university that we had both attended.
Now, my brothers and sisters, the question is: what does this have to do with Senator Obama? It seems as if it is a daily occurrence in which Senator Obama has to announce that he is a Christian and NOT a Muslim. As a result of this stance, Senator Obama has drawn the ire of many within the Ummah, especially from those from immigrant non-Black backgrounds. He has also raised the suspicion from many African-American Muslims who would like to give him the benefit of the doubt but feel that he is starting to alienate his base.
First, I want to state that I do not know Senator Obama or claim to know his motives or what is in his heart. Also, I have mixed views about his candidacy. I admire the man tremendously because I can relate to his struggles. I admire his intelligence. I empathize with his background. And I like his idea of change. But if being president will be bad for his faith and life in this world and the hereafter, I pray that he gets what is best for him, even if that means losing the election. In addition, as a professional black man, I fully understand the insane loops we need to jump through to solely get a fair chance in this world secondary to the virus of prejudice (Asabiyyah) that has infected ALL of humanity (including blacks themselves and the Ummah at large). The fact that Senator Obama had to distance himself from his pastor like a little child was very telling, and it is proof that racism still exists. The same standard was not used for Senator McCain or Senator Hillary Clinton, who both have interesting spiritual friends! It was almost as if the media was telling Senator Obama, “We will tell you who your friends can be, boy.”
The assumption is usually negative for black males. So the sight of a black male as the leader of the First World rather than as a mindless entertainer or some criminal or some cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs African dictator will be good for the entire world. For example, if you are professionally successful, it is because of programs like affirmative action, very rarely because of God-given ability. Statistically, however, the largest benefactors of affirmative action has been white women and immigrants regardless of race and ethnicity. As the son of immigrants who are professionals, I acknowledge that my path has been made lighter than a traditional, indigenous African-American. But the reality of the matter is that WE are all victims of Asabiyyah, and this practice is a threat to all of mankind. I feel that Islam, when practiced accordingly in light of the teachings of our Prophet, is the only antidote to the virus of Asabiyyah.
Imam Ja’far as‑Sadiq (peace be upon him) reported from the Prophet, who said: “Whosoever possesses in his heart Asabiyyah (prejudice in any of its forms such as tribalism, racism, nationalism) even to the extent of a mustard seed, God will raise him on the Day of Resurrection with the (pagan) Bedouins of the Age of Ignorance.” (Kitab al‑Kafi, vol. 2)
During the past twelve years of actively learning and living in the Ummah, I have grown to love and understand my peeps, warts and all. I am so grateful to Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) for his sacrifice, because of this sacrifice, the door of Islam has opened for so many.
In addition, I have a lot of love for my brothers and sisters from immigrant backgrounds (Pakistanis, Indians, Khojas, Lebanese, Moroccans, Eritreans, etc.), because of the hard work that they have done in establishing beautiful masjids and centers of learning in their adopted homeland. As a person who has benefited immensely from these Muslim groups and Masajid, thank you. Your efforts have not been in vain. In addition, as the son of immigrants, I also relate to the struggles that immigrant children face. Overall, my experience has been very positive and is the most important decision that I have made in my life. I love my Ummah.
However, remember that as a psychiatrist, I focus on the negative to turn them into positives. Nobody comes to my office to talk about how wonderful their spouse is and how the flowers smell so nice. So let’s honestly look at some negatives, and see how as a community we can correct them. The reality is that the feeling of rejection and marginalization that many people feel in regards to Senator Barack Obama’s campaign is analogous to the feelings that I have felt in many mosques and around certain Muslim groups throughout my life as a Muslim. The fact that I am single and ready to mingle only exacerbates this feeling. I can’t forget how several prominent Muslim groups turned their backs against the African-American community, the very community that Malcolm X was a member of, to endorse George W. Bush in 2000. This decision was especially damning when one realizes that conservatively at least 20 percent of the Ummah is African American. This betrayal can be surmised in a Malcolm X quote, “You put them first, and they put you last, because you’re a chump.”
Of course, this is a disturbing trend that we constantly see, from the Ummah’s indifference to Darfur to the plight of many indigenous American-Muslims. This reminds me of a lecture I attended with the prominent Sunni scholar Imam Siraj Warraj, in which he stated that one can go to any Friday prayer from Brooklyn to Oakland, and the leader of the prayer can be black, Asian, Arab, Indonesian, or white, and the entire community will pray for what is happening in Palestine, yet no one will say anything about the plight of those who are suffering in the United States. For some reason, I get the feeling that when black faces are suffering, we as an Ummah become indifferent. It is like we have grown accustomed to this, and it no longer phases us. But, the ramifications of this thought process is problematic when one realizes that marginalizing human suffering by creed and race solely leads to despair. The horror in Africa is bad for all humanity as well as the pain in the Middle East and other areas in turmoil. I am often flabbergasted when I speak to my Pakistani Sunni friends about the plight of my Shia brethren in Pakistan. These friends will do the “Darfurian”, and you will see their eyes glaze over and their body began to fidget and suddenly the conversation will become “So brother, you moved to Boston, are you still a Yankee fan?”
As a result of some of these negative experiences, I decided to fully study the struggles that many Muslims of African descent faced in the Western Hemisphere since the advent of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1492. To my surprise, I was amazed at how many people held Islam to their hearts and fought hard to maintain their faith, regardless of the challenges that they faced. Out of all the religions, Islam was the one faith that those who had enslaved Africans would not tolerate. A primer for those who are interested in learning more about this history would be two books, Servants of Allah by Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf and Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas by Dr. Michael A. Gomez. In addition, PBS had an excellent documentary called “A Prince among Slaves” on the life of Abdur-Rahman Ibrahima, an enslaved African who maintained his allegiance to Islam despite the horrors that he had experienced. Truly an inspirational life and helps put things in perspective.
I remember a conversation that I had with a white revert of British descent, in which this brother stated that the same way our Jewish cousins view the Holocaust as an attack on Judaism, Muslims should view the African Slave Trade as an holocaust against Islam. The analogy is not that far off if both events are adequately studied. I humbly advise that instead of having misguided conferences in Iran about whether the Jewish Holocaust existed, giving a forum for Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists to spew their delusional ramblings, the Ummah should be at the forefront on making sure that instances like the multiple holocausts that have and are occurring never happen again. Followers of Ahlul Bayt of all people should realize this and take the lead in such projects. Have we not learned anything about the horrors of an ignorant mob?
As a result of instances like this, and the fact that many educated blacks have an understanding of the role of Islam in our collective history, I view Senator Obama’s stance as less of a distance of the faith of Islam but more as a distance from the Ummah. Meaning that as a community when we are so adamant about culture, especially when it relates to issues such as marriage and other instances, then we have to take ownership for the ramifications of such attitudes in a diverse world, and the analogy of “you reap what you sow” comes into play. We often use culture as an excuse for very poor behavior. In addition, we still need to work collectively to develop an Islamic identity that can meet the needs of our community, revert and indigenous. Let me use my story to illustrate this point.
I was first introduced to authentic Islam as a first-year med student by a good friend of mines who was also a first year med student and who had reverted to Islam while at an Ivy League university that we had both attended. The first time this brother of Italian-Irish descent took me to a mosque and I heard the Athan (call to prayer), I knew that I had found my love, my destiny. However, I needed time to think, reflect, and read. One year later, I made Shahadah, and Alhumdulillah, one of my younger brothers made Shahadah the following year. One of the essential aspects of my growth was my studying during that first year prior to taking Shahadah. I think it is an indictment to the mainstream Ummah that during that year of research, I was advised by this brother and two other pious brothers of Moroccan descent to be very wary of the people at the mosque that we attended. I was told to keep an arm’s length aware from these people. When I achieved a certain level of maturity and comfort within my faith and took Shahadah, then I was able to become a member of the community. In retrospect, this was excellent advice, because I could discover the beauty and innocence of Islam and not be soiled by those who claimed to be Muslim but didn’t have a clue of what it means.
One of the struggles that I face from family, friends and members of the Ummah is the concept of whether I am “authentically Muslim”. Meaning I have been told by family members “you are more Muslim than a Muslim.” Or my experience at the recent UMAA conference in D.C., when a well-meaning South Asian brother asked me and my brother what were we doing at the conference. I felt like mocking the brother and saying, “We are here to pick up hot Desi women.” But I bit my lip and tried my best to educate him. My friends from college, who are mostly Ivy League-educated professional African- and Caribbean-Americans ( I mention this because this is the same demographic as Senator Obama), will look at me in utter amazement when I tell them that I accepted Islam.
This is a tragedy when one looks at the fact that many of these same people have close friends who are Muslim but often of an immigrant background. Why the disconnect? These educated African and Caribbean people have equated Islam with either an Arab or South Asian faith and/or a faith of angry, out of the mainstream African-Americans. The view that they have is either I will marry a woman outside of my race/culture, and we will have nothing in common, or I will marry an angry, Muslim black woman who will help me raise five-year-old kids with afros who will march around the monkey bar with their fellow comrades in kindergarten screaming, “No justice, no peace, and give me chocolate cake.”
We as an Ummah need to work at dismantling the stereotype that Islam is only for certain ethnic or socioeconomic groups. This simply is not reality. Taking Shahadah is like marriage. The real work and real love is displayed after the honeymoon, and we have to make sure that reverts can grow and reach their full potential as believers post-Shahadah. In addition, I feel that reverts brings something special to the table and help native Muslims understand and appreciate their faith. As I mentioned before, one of my brothers is Muslim, but I have another brother who has decided that Islam is not for him at this point of his life. He cited a conversation he had with a good friend of South Asian descent who, when he heard about my and my other brother’s Shahadah, mockingly replied, “Oh, your brothers want to be like Muhammad Ali.” This dismissive attitude doesn’t help the cause of Islam and further alienates Islam from the rest of the world. Islam is not solely for Arabs, South Asians, and some Africans, it is for everybody.
As I celebrate my Shahadah, I feel sad about the story of the person who introduced my med school colleague to Islam. As I stated earlier, it was a white revert who introduced me to authentic Islam, and for this brother, it was an African-American revert who had invited him to the fold of Islam. This African-American brother is a linguistic genius. This brother, who had attended the same Ivy League institution as we did, had basically self taught himself Arabic and was even familiar with Urdu. Unfortunately, the last time we heard from this brother, he had left Islam and had gone to the Caribbean to worship his ancestors. One of the reasons for him leaving Islam was an experience in which he had attended a mosque and had overheard some men in their native language refer to a young black child in a racially derogatory term. This experience was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” I realize that at the end of the day we are each responsible for making our own choices and sticking to our convictions. In addition, I personally have been exposed to far worse, but all of this doesn’t excuse what happened to this young man, and I wonder if those men realize how their words really affected another fellow human being. The bottom line is that one should find tranquility, acceptance, and love at a mosque, not racial attacks.
I mentioned these instances to tackle the real issue at hand. That issue is defining our individual Islamic identity. One of my college professors from Cornell, Dr. William Cross, an expert in black psychology, developed a five stage model of identity development for African-Americans. This theory, which is founded on the concept of Nigresence, a French word meaning the “process of becoming Black”, examines the stages that a black person will go through in live in developing his/her racial self-identification. This theory is not limited to blacks but can be used for other groups and is especially useful for Muslims. The five stages are:
The hallmark of the Pre-encounter stage is when the person will attach no value to his/her Islamic heritage. Depending on his/her social environment, (s)he may even hold his/her Islamic background as a negative. Like African Americans, we Muslims have to contend with negative social images that may adversely affect the way we view ourselves. The Encounter stage is when the person has some sort of experience that shatters his/her current identity. This does not need to be a single event but can be a series of smaller events. This stage contains two steps: experiencing the encounter and personalizing the encounter. An example would be a Shia who is experiencing conflict at his/her local college MSA. At first, a series of emotions will arise from the person, and these emotions can range from anger to confusion to even depression. The person will continue with his/her life, but a seed has been planted, and the person will go through an inner conflict. During this time, the person is actively involved in the internalizing of the Encounter experience, and this stage ends when this internalization is complete.
The Immersion-emersion stage is when the person attempts to “destroy all vestiges of the old perspective” while simultaneously experiencing “an equally intense concern to clarify the personal implications of the new frame of reference.” At this point, outwardly this person appears to have the trappings of a Muslim, from style of clothes to social interaction and frequency in prayer, but his/her level of internalization of the new identity is minimal. At this point, you will see the Muslim adolescent or revert spending most of his/her time with Muslim friends and not associating as much or at all with non-Muslim friends. Eventually, the person will emerge to the Emersion stage, when the person begins to regain control of his/her emotions and intellect. At this point, role models play a big role as these role models have a positive influence in that the person will intrinsically realize that the role model is operating at a higher stage of development and decides that he/she wants to become more like the role model.
The Internalization stage “signals the resolution of conflicts between the old and the new” and is exhibited through a calm, secure demeanor. At this point, the person is able to have non-Muslim friends and associates. In fact, this person is respected by his/her Muslim and non-Muslim friends as a person of impeccable integrity. Such persons are the ones who invite others to learn more about their faith.
The last stage is the Internalization-Commitment stage. After developing a strong Islamic identity that will never waver, such esteemed individuals are those who demonstrate a commitment not only to incorporate the new identity but also to “struggle to translate personal identity into actions that are meaningful to the group.” This stage is marked by a long-term commitment to the advancement of not only the Islamic community but society as a whole. Like Erikson’s stage of development, this stage is only attainable to individuals that have successfully completed the other stages of the Cross model.
When reviewing the aforementioned examples in this article, we can surmise which stages the individuals where in. For example, the African-American who left Islam because some brothers hurt his feelings in a mosque was clearly in the encounter stage. It would have been to the benefit of his soul and the soul of the brothers if he had gone to these brothers and spoke in their native tongue about the ramifications of prejudice in a calm, non-emotional manner. These brothers (who were probably in the encounter stage themselves) would have been ashamed and learned a lesson that would never be forgotten. What a wasted opportunity!
The cases that I presented in this article were examples of people being in the encounter stage. In Senator Obama’s case (Pre-encounter or one fantastic job of Taqayya [dissimulation]), I blame the people around him, and if he is serious about winning, he needs to give people like Representative Keith Ellison (Minnesota), who clearly is in the Internalization-Commitment stage, a greater role in his campaign and eventual administration, because if not, Senator Obama will get played like a fiddle. I would hope that someone close to Senator Obama would show him the following verse from the Quran; this is a verse that should be the mantra of his campaign and his eventual administration : “O people! We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that ye may know one another. Thus, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the best in conduct.” (Qur’an 49:13)
The writer is an attending psychiatrist and a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.