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: There are people in movements among People of Color, particularly Black people, who disregard spirituality or other intangible aspects of the struggle as ineffective or antiquated. Do you see any validity to the argument that spirituality is incompatible with the struggle?
Khalil Abdur-Rashid: There are two different schools that I have experienced on spirituality and its approach […] to social justice and changing the conditions of the people. One approach is purely theological, and the other is more legislative.
The theological approach is passive, and says ultimately everything is from God, and our task is to endure patiently until the matter has passed, learning lessons in patience, perseverance [and] remembering the Divine bounty along the way. Energy is deflected towards recognizing the Divine in the midst of the horror, and waiting for the dawn after the darkness. The other approach, being a legalistic one, is very different in that it is based on actively seeking justice: one does whatever they can to eliminate injustice and harm, or at least decrease risk. We find these approaches even as it relates to Islamic perspectives on medicine. If a person is sick, is it better to wait for God to heal them or is it better to pursue treatment?
Coming back to the point, getting out and protesting and advocating becomes part of the spiritual process. To fight external forms of oppression is consistent with fighting internal forms of oppression. But internal forms of oppression are actually worse. Oppressing yourself is worse than somebody else oppressing you because you’re supposed to be a steward of yourself.
The folks that dismiss the theological backdrop of spirituality, the person who wants to wait and rely on God, just to see that [passivity] and they throw the baby out with the bathwater. They must not critique the entire approach as a whole which might be better for some people who don’t want to get involved in issues of justice and communal activism.
We actually lack a proper theory of Islamic activism to provide a more competent guide to Muslim activists and others. [That is to say] if you want to protest, organize and get out an agenda, how do you do that in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and consistent with the way that you would protest your own moral vices, as well?
If we examine the teachers in some Islamic Sufi orders (tariqa), such as the Naqshbandi, Qadiri and the Shadhili [orders], all of them were involved in what today we would call political or social activism. If we look at the great [Sunni] Imams of the schools of jurisprudence, like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi’i, Imam Ibn Hanbal; all of them had encounters with rulers who did not live up to the moral standards that the community needed and perpetrated different forms of injustice. All of those Imams were victims in some way or form to that oppression and protested in many different ways.
So we have in our [Islamic] tradition a plethora of examples of jurists and scholars who were spiritual practitioners but saw it as part of their spiritual duty to act and reform. What we have lacked is the right kind of nomenclature and terminology in our advocacy. We actually lack a proper theory of Islamic activism to provide a more competent guide to Muslim activists and others. [That is to say] if you want to protest, organize and get out an agenda, how do you do that in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and consistent with the way that you would protest your own moral vices, as well?
Those folks should not blame spirituality because I would argue that their very zeal against injustice that is a spiritual condition in and of itself. The fact that folks want to go speak truth to power and protest is from the spirit of the human being.
RH: That reminds me of something that Dr. Cornell West mentioned in his book Race Matters. In short, he said the rejection of moral ideals and principles leads to nihilism, basically the self-destruction of the community. While this has happened with other communities in the past, how important is it that for Black Muslims specifically to not let this happen to us?
KAR: We have started to lose our sense of struggle. I think one of the good things that came out of the recent election was that it reminded a [younger] generation of what it’s like to struggle. What we cannot do is lose sight of the struggle, but we must come up with creative and more productive ways to update our techniques for struggle [to gain] greater inclusion and meanings, acceptance and equality, which are important for Black Muslims because it goes back to the issue of representation. The only folks that can represent and speak for us is us and our children.
Here’s the other thing… the struggles of the Black community should and must become, in my view, paradigmatic for other communities. They have to take and learn from our historical strategies and employ those lessons into re-imagining new strategies to deal with recent forms of institutional marginalization and exploitation, violence and the like. They have to learn from the Black community, specifically from Black Muslims. But if we don’t preserve this communal memory ourselves, it becomes lost to the annals of history and the notion of struggle disappears.
I’ve taught before, and I still teach it now: being Muslim or Brown today is the new Black. Being “Muslim” is regarded as a political condition, wherein you are deemed less equal in a power relationship where someone believes they have the right, and you are not good enough and do not belong here. You shouldn’t be at the table, you should be on the menu. Being “Black” was and still is a political condition, and now “Muslim” is on par with that. You might be Sikh and you’re perceived as Muslim. You may be a woman walking down the street with the scarf on, not even for religious reasons, but you’re perceived as Muslim. You might be a guy with a beard or a little “too Brown,” but still perceived as Muslim. Thus, you are placed in this political condition and will be treated [negatively] like this as a result.
The struggles of the Black American community should become a school of learning for the Muslim American community at-large for going through the challenges they face today, learning how to resolve our issues, pursue legislative changes, build coalitions and broader bases of support, and keep our identity from being watered down. In the Black community, spirituality was part and parcel of every struggle that we went through, and what got people through those conditions, making them into the paragons we know now. It’s what helped Rosa Parks stand up even though she was sitting down. Which young, Black or Latinx Muslim woman is going to be the next Rosa Parks, using her spirituality to advocate for today’s civil rights?
Being Black must be understood and preserved in all of its institutional memories, not only the horrors but the successes as well. The canal that brings those two together is the spiritual component that uplifted a people who were told to bow down to man, but who come from a continent that only acknowledged the monotheistic reality of bowing down only to God.
…the struggles of the Black community should and must become, in my view, paradigmatic for other communities. They have to take and learn from our historical strategies and employ those lessons into re-imagining new strategies to deal with recent forms of institutional marginalization and exploitation, violence and the like. They have to learn from the Black community, specifically from Black Muslims. But if we don’t preserve this communal memory ourselves, it becomes lost to the annals of history and the notion of struggle disappears.
Black Muslims are the one to help preserve that understanding and keep that canal open. I fear that many in the Black non-Muslim community are forgetting that [connection]. I feared it in the Obama presidency and I wonder about it in the post-Obama world. The Black Muslim community carries that tradition and transmits it to the American Muslims at-large, who then become conduits to other communities who are struggling for new forms of civil rights and justice. Black Muslims have to be the ones to reinforce the notions of protection of best interests; of faith, life, mind and consciousness, family, property, and protection of honor and dignity in different ways.
RH: To bring it back to the individual: what are some pragmatic, doable steps to move toward establishing spiritual preservation and protection, and to encourage ourselves, our families and our communities to enjoin one another to truth and patience?
KAL: The first is step is sincerity [in intentions] (ikhlas), and to understand that everything we do and don’t do should be for the right reasons. So if I am going to do something, be it protest, pray, purchase or play, to do all those things with the right intention. And that is to do something to obtain love from Allah the Exalted.
The second step is proper diet and being mindful of what you put in. Halal should be the starting point, not the goal. What you watch, listen to, entertain yourself with, purchase, should start with what is halal and become increasingly wholesome (tayyib).
The third step is complete reliance (tawakkul). If you really want to build a spiritual base with yourself, complete reliance on Allah is required. This simply means that you put your trust not in material, created things, rather in the Creator Himself. There are three ways to accomplish [tawakkul].
The first way is what our teachers refer to as “Don’t ask”, which means that you never ask for anything from creation before you ask Allah for that same thing first. Do not go to creation for something that is owned by the Creator. Ask Allah for it first, and then you ask other people, no matter how trivial or material that may be. The second way is “Don’t reject”. Don’t refuse something after you’ve asked Allah for it and consulted with people, and the [matter] you asked for comes. And then the third way is “Don’t withhold”. Whatever you are blessed with, share it with others or pay it forward.
All three of those contribute to the development of true reliance on Allah, the Exalted. If one relies on [Him] for everything, then neither blame nor praise affect your behavior. You do not act to gain legitimacy of people, you act only to gain legitimacy of Allah. In that way, you are liberated from the shackles of people’s expectations and from being disappointed when people don’t come through for you.
The fourth, concrete step should be to spend any amount of time, be it 30 seconds or five minutes minimum, remembering Allah, the Exalted, every morning and evening, and spending some time throughout the day trying your best to be contemplative of Him.
The fifth and last step is to take yourself to account before you are taken into account (muhasabah). If you make a mistake, ask your Lord for forgiveness; and if you’ve been successful in the day, don’t take credit for it and give all thanks praises to Him [for it].
Those are the five concrete, practical steps that we take do to improve ourselves at the individual, spiritual level. These should be steps we incorporate in our day-to-day lives that, insha’llah, will make us successful in this life and in the next life as well.
RH: What do you recommend that we include in the morning and evening remembrance?
KAL: Any prayer or formula (wird) of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is recommended. At minimum, all Muslims should be saying ‘there is no god but Allah (la ilaha illa Allah) 25 times, sending blessings on the Prophet (peace be upon him) 25 times, and asking Allah’s forgiveness (istighfar) 25 times. Even though the minimum is 25, it’s preferable to say 100 of each of those if one can.
A person’s day should not be absent of a renewal of their faith. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Renew your faith by making plentiful your statement ‘la ilaha illa Allah’.” This phrase “la ilaha illa Allah” is also called the tahlil, and it renews a Muslim’s faith when said. This is very important in this secular environment that we’re in, where our faith was challenged by so many different aspects of thought and by being in a climate of doubt.
Every day there should be some form of sending peace and blessings upon the Prophet (peace be upon him), especially on Friday. However much one does during the week, one should increase upon that number on Fridays.
Finally, it is narrated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said that he asks forgiveness from his Lord (istighfar) 100 times every day, and in another narration 70 times a day. If this was the practice of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), what does that mean for us and our condition? So we should do all three of these every day, in addition to reading and reflecting on the Qur’an and other means of individual or communal spiritual development.
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.