by Ryan Hilliard
Spirituality is an inextricable aspect of the Black American Muslim experience. It mobilizes souls toward action that impacts one’s relationship with higher planes and affects connections with others in this lower one. Because of its intangible nature, many have devalued spirituality and marginalized it as being ineffective in bringing about change. How do we prioritize and protect this essential part of our living experience?
In this two-part special interview, Sapelo Square’s Religion co-editor Ryan Hilliard sat down with Shaykh Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Muslim Chaplain of Harvard University, about the timeless necessity of spirituality for Black Muslims and why it must be nurtured and protected for ourselves, and for the sake of others.
Ryan Hilliard: What is the Islamic basis for spiritual protection? What does that look like in a Islamic context?
Khalil Abdur-Rashid: It’s important for us to understand what is meant by “spiritual” and what is meant by “protection”. From the Islamic standpoint, “spiritual” is a term for the immaterial, invisible and essential quality of the human being that makes us moral, that makes us practitioners and advocates of right and wrong and that distinguishes us from the rest of the Adamic beings and calls us to higher callings.
Protection in the Islamic tradition means that we think thoughts, speak words and commit actions that are considered Prophetic. We protect that [spiritual] side and we guard our moral and psychological well-being, which in reality is connected to our best interests as a human race.
So what do both of those mean when put together? Spiritual protection means that we act, speak and advocate in such a way so as to qualitatively distinguish ourselves from others that seek to act or behave in a manner that is just about their own material self-interest. We rise above [our self-interests] to look for larger interests that affect our community, our spiritual well-being, and particularly put us on a path of doing things in a way that Allah loves.
The more we behave in a way that Allah loves and has a net benefit of uplifting all of us as a community [of humans], then the more successful and balanced we will be. Spiritual protection has to do with looking out for our best interests by any means necessary. Within the spirit of Islam, those best interest are six: faith, life, intellect/consciousness, family, property and honor/dignity. All six of those components comprise the concrete spheres that need to be protected in order to guard our own spiritual well-being, individually and communally.
RH: These six aspects, or “best interests” as you describe them, that are meant to be protected, what are the ways to protecting them and how do they work?
KAR:First, [we] have to start with ourselves, because change cannot become effectuated unless we begin with ourselves. So we must guard our self from matters that contribute to the degradation and the atrophy of our own human-spiritual condition. And that involves abating ourselves from committing vices and sins. The second is to monitor our diet, in effect what we consume. Part of the diet is not just restricted to food and drink. Our diet consists of an entire ecosystem of elements that we allow ourselves to be penetrated by in one manner or another.
So, for example, what I watch or don’t watch on TV is my diet. What I read, listen to, or share with others on social media is part of my diet. And those matters must be [Islamically] lawful. If they’re not lawful, then it affects my spiritual condition and its output because of that input. If I’m taking in junk, then my actions, reactions, behaviors, and statements are going to be full of junk. I have to start with myself to cultivate the right kinds of guards for myself before I can then advocate for those other areas.
We have to be very vigilant on a daily basis about protecting ourselves from moral and spiritual deterioration. The same type of vigilance that we have for protecting our money, property and family, we should also give to our spiritual condition. But sometimes we tend to become lax in those matters.
RH: Do we become lax in tending to these spiritual matters because they are intangible, and therefore [we] don’t see them or physically interact with those aspects of ourselves?
KAR: When we get complacent and comfortable with what we are given, we become lax and stop striving. The great North African scholar of human sociology, Ibn Khaldun, said communities become prone to destruction, annihilation and domination when they become lax in their moral condition. This is very interesting because he asserts that this laxity is a result of over-exposure to leisure and luxury.
In the Islamic tradition, a certain amount of leisure is acceptable and encouraged. But if one indulges in leisure and builds a lifestyle of luxury on it, then one drops their guard. Entire communities can become prone to moral vices when this indulgence spreads from individual to individual.
If I’m taking in junk, then my actions, reactions, behaviors, and statements are going to be full of junk. I have to start with myself to cultivate the right kinds of guards for myself before I can then advocate for those other areas.
Ibn Khaldun further mentions that a community with low moral guards also lets its material guard down, and violence enters as a result. If I’m lax with myself, it’s just a matter of time before I become lax with someone else’s rights. Lawlessness, violence and chaos ensues when this laxity of observing one another’s right is done to one another. So we can’t even get to those six areas of spiritual protection unless we first talk about reading the state of the individual.
RH: In what ways have Black Muslims, and perhaps other Black people of faith, used means of spiritual protection for individuals to create healthy, vibrant, safe communities and networks for themselves?
KAR: The key to our condition changing is the cultivation of the Prophetic spirit, which extends into other realms (i.e., economic, social, political, religious). The Black American community as a whole, in this day and age, has grown by leaps and bounds. The notion of struggle is something that has been deeply ingrained in our communities, and you cannot adequately struggle unless you have a strong sense of spirituality with you. Struggle has been used in our communities for centuries, what with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the struggle against slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on. Struggle is part and parcel of the language that we use for the spiritual journey. In Islam, we call it “jihad”. And the greatest jihad for the Muslim is not to bear arms and to go and fight someone else, but to struggle for the betterment of one’s own spiritual condition.
The Black American community, in the words of Dr. Sherman Jackson, represents a communal conversion to Islam. Meaning, if there is one community with which Islam has always resonated throughout its historical period on this continent, it’s the Black community, who entered this continent under the banner of struggle and still carries that banner to this today.
The notion of struggle is something that has been deeply ingrained in our communities, and you cannot adequately struggle unless you have a strong sense of spirituality with you.
So the idea of struggle is part and parcel of the spiritual condition. Today, when you look at all these examples, such as violence against young Black inner-city kids, inadequate access to healthcare for young Black women, the prison-industrial complex, the Black Lives Matter Movement, homelessness and economic exploitation, abuse of talented Black athletes who are benched or won’t stand for the flag and are castigated, et cetera… we clearly see that struggle has always been against being an oppressed, marginalized minority. In other words, it’s been a struggle against oppressive institutions of power, or what Islamic terminology refers to as “ẓulm”.
It’s very important today to connect the dots and understand the connection between Blackness, struggle, and spirituality. In my opinion, everybody can be spiritual, but the nature of that spirituality will look different from community to community because of the conditions that exist therein. For Black people, “Black” is not only a term for a particular racial category, it’s also a reference for a political condition, a condition of a people who are still struggling for equal status, opportunity and access.
Now add Islam to that spirituality. What you now have is a struggle against a political condition that does not in any way entail violence, but rather the individual and the community at-large requiring itself to go through the necessary [internal] changes in order to bring about a greater [external] change. And that is a challenging thing.
This does not at all insinuate that Black people who were/are incarcerated, victims of police brutality, or folks who don’t have access to adequate housing are in the situations they are in because they individually have dropped their moral guard, and if they all of a sudden become “moral” people, these situations will disappear.
What it is saying is that the spiritual state of a person who was confident in themselves and has strong relations with their Creator is empowered through their Creator to deal with the creation in any way. So there’ll always be tyrants, oppressive conditions and institutions, but the support from the spiritual side allows one to get through that journey and through that struggle in a way that is empowering, not only for the individual, but for the entire community as a whole.
Shaykh Khalil Abdur-Rashid is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a BSW from Georgia State University, a Master’s in Middle East Studies and Islamic law and a Master’s of Philosophy in Islam and Middle Eastern Studies, both from Columbia University. He earned his Islamic specialized license (ijaza) in Islamic family law at Dar al-Mustafa Seminary in Tarim, Yemen, and an Islamic advanced Doctorate (ijaza ‘ilmiyya) in Islamic legal sciences and ethics at the ISAR Seminary in Istanbul, Turkey. He currently serves as Harvard University’s first Muslim chaplain.