By: Yahiya Emerick
The years pass by in a blur. I can’t believe I’ve been a Muslim for ten years now. For that matter, I can’t believe I’m nearing my thirtieth birthday, but that’s another matter. The history of Islam in America is also nearing a significant age. No, I’m not referring to any specific anniversary or special date on the Christian calendar that we should commemorate or have community dinners over, but rather I’m calling our attention to an unsung milestone that is creeping up on us without our even being aware.
Think about it: almost the entire Muslim infra-structure and movement in this country is less than twenty-five years old. In the sixties there were no Masjids to speak of. In the eighties Masjids were everywhere. In the eighties there were no Islamic schools to speak of. Now our own schools are everywhere. In the seventies, Muslim-American women didn’t wear Hijab. Now you see Hijabs, beards and kufis all over.
We went from having virtually no Islamic organizations in the sixties to having six major, national organizations today. There are zillions of Islamic-oriented books, magazines and social functions and some second-generation Muslims have actually remained as committed believers in Allah despite overwhelming odds. Truly we’ve begun to reach a pinnacle.
That’s precisely the issue I want to tackle in this article. Where do we go from here? We have the Masjids, we have the school, now what? What comes next? Being an ardent observer of trends, ideas and deficiencies, I’ve taken a look into the future, so to speak, and would like to bring to our minds several areas in which Muslims need to investigate and prepare themselves.
The first issue, which I often write and talk about, is that of community building. The trend in modern societies all over the world is towards individualism. “Every man for himself!” This maxim is against all of the founding codes of human civilization throughout history. Unfortunately, most people prefer to think this way, and hence you have estrangement in modern society.
In America, for example, it isn’t unusual for a person to lose contact with all their relatives when they strike out on their own. Contrast this with societies that still have some traditional basis to them. In places such as India, Nigeria or Malaysia, all you see are relatives. Relatives living in your house, relatives living down the road, relatives getting you a job in the local government- relatives coming out your ears! The “Tyranny of the Relatives” is everywhere!
For all the disadvantages, from the individualistic stand-point of having many prying eyes around you, the advantages of a large, extended family lie in security and dependability. If you need help, relatives are more likely to come to your aid than strangers.
I have seen many immigrant parents trying to emulate this familiar pattern here in America. They pride themselves on saying that Islam promotes extended families and that they have “conservative” family values. But although they live in giant houses and have all their children and uncles with them, the sad reality is that the very system that would instill a sense of family values in their children is non-existent in America.
A forty something immigrant parent may be filled with pride at having his or her children playing at their feet but in twenty or thirty years those same children are going to put them in nursing homes and forget them. This sad truth is what drives so many Americans to make ever more investments for their “retirement.” They know they won’t be able to count on their children to care for them so they want to have enough money to pay for professional care when they’re frail and old.
The children of the immigrants aren’t growing up in a village where a person’s ancestors have lived for centuries. They’re not growing up in an Islamic society. They’re not even growing up in a civil society. Have you looked at the vulgarity and valueless garbage that’s on television these days?
So after we made our fortunes, built our Masjids and made our schools, it’s time to make our “villages” here in America. We need Muslims living communally so that each successive generation feels it has a center, a foci. There are no Muslim states in the world that can claim Islamic authority. There’s no Khalifa, or Amir or even a figure-head that we can look to and say that that is our center. In much of Muslim America, most Muslims don’t even live around each other. We need to make community a reality.
How do we do that? What’s the methodology. I’m not going to offer some pie-in-the-sky theory or difficult plan that won’t be implemented. Neither am I going to ask you to make huge sacrifices in time and money. Since I’m not going to make it hard for you, then, you have to agree to what I propose. Fair enough? Good.
What I’m proposing is that every Muslim must live within walking distance of a Masjid. There, that’s it! If every Muslim in America made this their goal and completed it within a year or two, then a major obstacle to our future staying power would be solved. Now if the idea of walking more than three blocks daunts you, then you had better put down that plate of biryani and kabobs and start exercising. Walking distance is defined as about ten blocks away. There, now let’s do it. I did it. So can you.
The second main thing we need to do for the future involves proper funding for our Masjids, schools and da’wah organizations. Hello. Has anyone ever heard of the Waqf? I have literally lost my breath telling Muslims about this wonderful Islamic concept but have been met with silence and blank stares.
A Waqf is a foundation or investment whose profits will go solely for the benefit of an Islamic organization. Let’s face it: most of our institutions are forever cash-starved and in the red. How can you save the children, convert the non-Muslims or get a decent Imam if you have no real money? Every Muslim community and it’s cherished organizations had better get together and develop some type of a Waqf.
Buy a gas station, a hotel, a few rental homes- whatever. Get that permanent funding in place and expand it as the needs of the community require extra funding. Then we can stop seeing cheap cardboard donation boxes being passed around during the Jumuah Khutba and seeing broken things staying broken forever. Donations are the worst form of support for anyone and everything. How would you like to support your family and home by begging for donations from others? Think about it.
The next issue we need to address is in our organizations. I’m sorry, but everyone is trying to be the leader and the followers are getting lost in the struggle. All the six major organizations make a claim to national leadership. None of them have the support of more than a few hundred. One of the six, which claims to be the “umbrella organization” exists mostly on paper and in theory. A phone call to them is more likely to net you an answering machine that anything else! But well-spent money and a lot of noise-making can make anything seem big.
You see it every year. Organizations hold big conventions, critics decry the costs, supporters bask in glory and the participants get various experiences. I’m not against conventions. You really do need them for all the benefits they provide. I’m also not against there being organizations.
What I am against is exclusivity. Each organization tries to act as if it were the sole representative of Allah on earth. Each one tries to implement strategies to help Muslims without realizing that the other organizations are doing the same thing. How many times are you going to re-invent the wheel?
Some organizations are better at certain things than others. But cash is, alas, still elusive to them all so everyone winds up doing a half-way job that eventually peters out and flops. (Does anyone remember how ISNA disappeared for a while after the Gulf War when Saudi funding dried up?)
Some people have suggested unifying the organizations and holding one “super-conference” every year. That’s a bad idea. The current organizations will never be unified to begin with, and as far as one convention in America is concerned- who are you going to exclude? If it’s held in one part of America, the Muslims of the rest of the country will be left out.
Here’s a novel solution: divide the country up into zones. Give each organization a few zones to administer, relative to their power base, and make each responsible for holding a regional convention there. For example, ICNA is strongest on the East coast. Make that the ICNA zone. ISNA is strong in the Mid-west so that will be it’s zone. WD Muhammad and the National Community headed by Jamil Al Amin have power bases in the south and south east so divide those zones up there. Then give the AMC their golden baby of Washington DC, the ISCA will get Northern California and other areas and give other local powerhouses their due as well.
Then, when everyone has their own sphere of influence, they can direct all their money and efforts towards a more manageable task. Everyone’s mandate will be the same: promote Islam among non-Muslims, organize and educate Muslims, build Islamic institutions on a strong basis and hold a yearly convention in your zone.
These are some thoughts for future action that can help, insha’llah, organize Muslim resources more efficiently.