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The challenge of leadership facing the American Muslim community

Anisa Abd el Fattah

Muslim activism in the US is now reaching a point where it can be considered an Islamic movement. Five years ago, it amounted to little more than the building of mosques and occasional protests. There was not generally considered to be an Islamic movement because there was no positive commitment toward Islam. What we saw were attempts at community building based on various ideals that included socialism, communism, democracy, Middle Eastern cultural models and other non-Islamic models of community organization. There was very little emphasis on identifying and developing an Islamic model. There seemed to be very little understanding of Islam beyond that of a “catch-all” phrase, used to describe anything that Muslims did.

This situation is now changing. Muslim organizations are increasingly coming to grips with the fact that Muslims in America, particularly the indigenous Muslims, are not interested in secular Muslim projects. The indigenous Muslim population, estimated as numbering over 4.5 million people, is the largest and potentially the most powerful sector of the American Muslim community. They have not supported many projects and initiatives launched by secular Muslim groups, but have repeatedly demonstrated their interest and support for projects that are designed to advance Islam and the Muslim community in America. Muslim organizations are now realising that without the support of this 4.5 million-strong group, there cannot be a successful community project. The result is that Muslim organizations are now taking non-apologetic personalities on board, and where in the past they seemed almost ashamed of appearing “too” Islamic, today the opposite is true. Organizations are making serious efforts to Islamicize their presentations and projects.

For the last twenty years or more, various immigrant groups attempted to establish their leadership in America by dominating Muslim activism, dictating the priorities, the players, and the strategies. American Muslims, armed with new confidence in their Islamic knowledge, are now changing this, both by initiating their own projects and by demanding that immigrant groups be more inclusive. The result is that Muslims are coming together in greater numbers than ever before, and with greater enthusiasm for what is coming to be known as “real” Islamic work. What remains to be seen is whether, in the longer term, our young brothers and sisters who are leading this movement toward community integration, are actually interested in initiating and guiding a genuinely Islamic movement, or whether they, like their non-American Muslim counter-parts, will prove to be more inclined towards passive policies.

The most pressing problem facing the Islamic movement in the US is the problem of competent leadership. There is no individual or group in a position to truly lead the community, or even a significant part of the community, with any real legitimacy. Numerous attempts by various groups to hijack the movement has been struck down by Divine providence, Allah proving over and over again that He is the Best Planner. In the past it has sometimes seemed that Muslims in America had forgotten that Allah is Sovereign here too. America was viewed as a “Godless” country, with no rules and no limits, even for Muslims. Allah has since driven home the message that He is indeed the Sovereign over every created thing, even in America, and all the rules apply. As a result of our lenient attitude towards the laws and etiquettes of Islamic morality, we have suffered humiliations previously unheard of. Muslims have learned that our duties are not less serious in America. Most of this can be understood as punishment for our infatuation with American materialism and immorality at the expense of Islamic life in America.

Those who sought leadership roles in the past have been discounted as leadership material by most activists. The reasons for this include inappropriate behaviour, bad judgment, using divisive techniques to draw attention to their program, slandering the work of others and using other unsavoury methods to promote themselves and their ‘ideals’. The sorts of unsavoury methods that have been reported include threatening people’s lives because they hold independent opinions or otherwise disagree with their ‘leaders’.

Many of the problems involved in the present leadership crisis in the Islamic movement in America can be traced to our perceptions of leadership and what the criteria for leadership are in Islam. One common misperception is grounded in the concept that immigrants are muhajireen, and non-immigrants can only be ansar (helpers) of the muhajireen. This idea is interpreted as indicating that the immigrant Muslims are like a class or caste that is entitled to leadership because their immigrant status. This understanding is adopted from the Qur’an, in which Allah gives special mention to the muhajireen who migrated from Makkah to Madinah with the Prophet Muhammad (saw). How this can be interpreted as applying to relations between immigrants and non-immigrant Muslims in the US is a mystery. The muhajireen of Madinah were distinguished by their bay’ah to the Prophet, and their migration was a testimony to that bay’ah. Most Muslim immigrants to the US, by contrast, did not migrate to please Allah. Moreover, the Prophet (saw) made every effort, once the muhajireen had arrived in Madinah, to unite the two groups, to the extent that he encouraged and performed intermarriages between the two groups to create kinship-ties.

The idea of two separate groups distinguished by class, race, or any other criterion aside from piety, is false and destructive, yet many Muslims, even the most scholarly, adopt this symbolism and use it to categorize activists and the nature of their tasks. Even if two groups were distinguished at that time, no Muslim today will ever measure up to the levels of piety that distinguished either the ansar or the muhajireen of that time. We have not earned any privilege by the choices and sacrifices of others.

Closely akin to this destructive fallacy is the idea that only the Arabs can lead, and that every other Muslim group must be the helper of the Arabs. This arrogant and irreligious propositionis also easily refuted. The Prophet’s (saw) inner circle of sahabah included Arabs and non-Arabs alike. The Ansar were also Arabs, and yet were denied the right to lead after the Prophet’s death by Abu Bakr’s (ra) assertion that leadership could only come from the Quraish. Now we understand that Abu Bakr’s (ra) argument pertained to the tribes of Arabia, and was only considered valid at that time because the Arab tribes were accustomed to recognizing the Quraish as leaders. Americans and other groups in the United States do not recognise any such status for Arabs, and there is no reason why they should.

It should also be noted that Abu Bakr (ra) never invoked any Divinely inspired ordinance sealing all future leadership from everyone accept descendants of the Quraish and even in his status as Caliph he could not have abrogated what Allah said in the Qur’an to the Prophet Ibrahim (as): “I will make thee an Imam to the nations; and Ibrahim pleaded, and also Imams from my offspring; Allah answered, But my promise is not within the reach of evil doers.” (2:124). Again we see that legitimate leadership in Islam is dependent upon piety.

There are numerous instances in the Qur’an where Allah addresses the issue of leadership. Among the most profound is in Surah Al-Baqara, where Allah says: “Their prophet said to them ‘Allah hath appointed Talut as King over you’. They [the people] said ‘how can he exercise authority and he is not even gifted with wealth and abundance?’ He [the prophet] said: ‘Allah hath chosen Him above you and hath gifted him with knowledge and bodily prowess: Allah grants His authority to whom He pleases. Allah is all embracing, and He knows all things.’“ Notice in these ayaat that Allah has revealed the truth as to the secret of authority, that it never leaves His discretionary power, though some among humankind are granted the right to act as an authority over other created things. Yet never does Allah’s right and ability as Sovereign God diminish.

This being the case, how can the ungodly claim leadership of the community in America? How can those who are in pursuit of non-Islamic things hope to be selected by Allah for leadership? Some might ask: if Allah grants authority, how can the Muslim world be led by secular despots put in power by colonialists? Allah answers this: “ ...If Allah had so willed, succeeding generations would not have fought among themselves after clear signs had come to them but they chose to wrangle, some believing and others rejecting. If Allah had so willed, they would have not have fought each other; but Allah fulfills His plan.” (2:253).

This seems to indicate that we are responsible for the state of the Muslim world. Allah is saying in this ayah that it was by “choice” that we rejected truth and fought among ourselves, and that it was our own selfishness that put those in power that serve themselves. Had we really desired Islam in the Muslim world, would Allah have denied us? The same question is now being put before Muslims in America. Will we pursue Islamic community goals, seeking the pleasure of Allah, or will we choose leadership that guides toward the fulfilment of our lusts and desires, attempting to secularize Islam to make it compatible with non-Muslim thinking? The choice is ours; Allah guides not by imposition, but through advice and warning.

In the development of our community, we must follow basic principles presented defined for us in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Key among them are tawheed, education, and the protection of the Ummah. Tawheed goes beyond just belief in the One God, but extends also to action. Leaders must conduct their affairs in total submission to this truth, fearing none accept Allah and acting purely upon the message of delivered to us by the prophet Muhammad (saw).

By education is meant the teaching of Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslims, both through organized da’wah activities and by demonstrating the enjoining of what is right and the forbidding what is evil in our interaction among ourselves and in our everyday affairs. The masajid must play a key role in community development and all the affairs of community life. Muslim organizations should not seek to replace the mosque in these roles, and we should be careful not to marginalise the mosque by a fallacious distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ issues. For the Muslim every issue is a religious issue.

The community must also protect itself and all its members - locally, nationally and globally - as well as pursuing the well-being of its members. This means the provision of social and other services, ensuring a reasonable standard of living, and facilitating community needs such as employment, childcare and business development. The Muslim community in America should and must always work in unity and for the interests of Muslims throughout the world. The self-interests of individuals or groups must never take priority over the needs of poor and oppressed Muslims anywhere. And we must always operate in a spirit of unity and self sacrifice.

The Qur’anic examples of the communities of Ad and Thamud, and numerous experiences in Muslim history, give us an idea of what not to do. The Islamic movement in America now urgently needs the emergence of a leadership which meets these qualifying criteria and is capable of leading the community in line with these principles.

[Anisa Abd el Fattah is Director of Public Affairs at the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR) in Washington DC.]

Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 16

Rajab 06, 14201999-10-16

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