BlogReligion

No, Kant Is Not Better Than the Qu’ran

By Hakeem Muhammad

The outpour of responses trying to source the motivation, access and opportunities for “Islamic extremism” intervention have been many. However, I have been particularly struck by the idea of university as a means to intercept “extremist” thought.

Brendan O’Neil, editor of British online magazine Spiked, penned an article, “Why Won’t We Tell Students That Kant Is Better Than the Koran.” O’Neil’s article was inspired by a piece in the Washington Post by Avinash Tharoor, in which he writes about a seminar discussion on European philosopher Immanuel Kant’s democratic peace theory. O’Neil summarizes as follows:

A student in a niqab scoffed at Kant and said: ‘As a Muslim, I don’t believe in democracy.’ Even more shocking was the response. ‘Our instructor seemed astonished but did not question the basis of her argument’, says Tharoor.

‘Why hadn’t the instructor challenged her?’, he asks, perplexed, especially considering that her Kant-bashing views, her sniffiness about this top dog of Enlightenment, were not rare but rather were ‘prevalent within the institution.’

O’Neil claims:

[this] reveals a side to the Islamism-at-Uni problem that’s too often overlooked: the failure of academic institutions themselves to confront radical Islamist students and tell they’re talking crap, and more fundamentally their failure to defend rational knowledge and the Enlightenment itself.

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Photo by Christopher Rose, CC-licensed https://www.flickr.com/photos/khowaga/5845989284/

O’Neil later makes the bold claim that as long as students are not confronted and corrected in their beliefs they will never see “the light” (my words) and be told: “Kant is better than the Koran.”

This argument is filtered with white and Western academic superiority, so let’s break it down.

O’Neil contends that European philosopher Immanuel Kant—held highly within the Western tradition—provides a better source of ethics than the Qu’ran. Audacious in his claims, O’Neil asserts the superiority of Kantian ethics over the Qur’an should be taught within school curriculum to challenge the politically correct culture that seeks to hide this apparent truth.

O’Neil’s argument relies upon a variety of orientalist tropes about Muslims. At the heart of O’Neil’s assertion is that Muslim backwardness is rooted in their adamant rejection of Enlightenment ideals of reason and rationality.

For the sake of not going into an entire dissertation on why this is problematic, let’s set aside the historical fact that Islam, notably through the Muʿtazila school of Islamic theology has an intellectual tradition that is predicated upon the usage of a reason and rationality that actually predates the European Enlightenment by at least eight centuries.

Let’s also set aside the historical fact that European Enlightenment drew heavily from knowledge preserved in Islamic centers of learning in Baghdad, Damascus, and Cordoba.

For the purposes of this blog post, let’s deal exclusively with the belief that Immanuel Kant has a better ethical framework than the Qu’ran to understand the moral repercussions of O’Neil’s advocacy fully.

Kant’s Anti-Blackness Is No Secret

Kant’s rational is predicated upon the belief that human beings should never treat any other human as a means but instead as an end in itself. This presents an interesting paradox when one considers the fact that the so-called great moral thinker of Western civilization wrote an entire ethical treatise by which he instructed readers about the proper ways of beating Black slaves in order to extract better labor from them.

In this treatise, Kant advocates that it is merely insufficient to beat Black slaves with a simple whip, because the Negro possessing thick skin will be able to resist such pain. Instead, Kant advocates slave masters should utilize split bamboo on their Black slaves.

This creates the question of how does one reconcile Kant as esteemed moral philosopher while his writings simultaneously advocate the most efficient ways to physically abuse Black slaves?

How does one reconcile Kant as esteemed moral philosopher while his writings simultaneously advocate the most efficient ways to physically abuse Black slaves?

In answer to this question, political philosopher Charles Mills states in the Racial Contract that “full personhood for Kant is actually, dependent on race.”

The ability to reason and rationalize was the requirement of moral agency in Kantian ethics and since, according to Kantian ethics, Blacks (as well as Native-Americans) failed to be able to reason and rationalize they should be treated as solely a means to fulfill an end—justifying anti-Black violence.

Kant argues that, “Blacks cannot govern themselves. They thus, serve only as slaves.”

Who’s Kant Really For?

The Enlightenment is often romanticized as a period in history which ushered in the “age of reason,” as society began to move away from outdated religious ideals. In reality, the Enlightenment deified white people and today, Blacks and Native-Americans are all suffering in a system of global white supremacy as a result of the ethical theories that Europeans implemented within the parameters of reason and rationality.

O’Neil’s article serves only to reinforce these same violent ideals. His criticisms about the lack of rationality and reason in the Muslim world, is an extension of the same white supremacist mindset that Kant subscribed to.

Whereas slavery has been practiced by numerous cultures across the world, the racialization of slavery that marked Blacks as people who should be enslaved is a development of the very same European Enlightenment that O’Neil is laudatory about.

O’Neil could make the argument that one does not have to endorse the racist view of Kant in order to support Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” however, O’Neil’s article is not merely advocating the categorical imperative but he also promotes Kant as a thinker whom he believes superior to the Qu’ran without any specification of what exact theories of Kant that he believes is superior to the Qu’ran.

Further, to sever Kant’s ethical theories from his racism, would result in a color neutrality that is inconsistent with Kant’s theory. This is another form of historical whitewashing that fails to adequately hold Europeans accountable for their racism. Kant’s categorical imperative is implicated and cannot be separated from his racist views.

To sever Kant’s ethical theories from his racism, would result in a color neutrality that is inconsistent with Kant’s theory.

When the racism of European philosophers is pointed out, a typical response is that they were just “products of their time.” These defenses of Kant do not hold up to critical scrutiny. Even when Kant’s views on race were critiqued by a European contemporaries such as George Forster, Pauline notes,”Kant, in response, persists in endorsing European colonialism and non-white slavery.”

In Kant’s essays, “Of the Different Races of Human Beings” and “Determination of the Concept of Human Race,” Kant develops a concept of “humanity” that excludes Blacks and Native-Americans, whom he believes should be ruled by white people. Even in school lectures, Kant expresses the belief that Blacks serve no other function in society other than to be slaves.

A Superior Alternative

Kantian ethics justifies anti-Black violence, which the Qu’ran offers a clearly superior alternative. The Qu’ranic worldview of Tawheed (God’s oneness), offers the belief that the variation of human beings is a sign of God’s ability to create and not as Kant believed—a sign for which races should be enslaved.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in his last sermon, advocated that “a white has no superiority over a Black,” unlike Kant, who subscribe to the belief that whites were a superior race.

The moral bankruptcy of Kant is further demonstrated by the fact that if Kant’s comprehensive work were actually accepted and taught in schools as advocated by O’Neil, one would have to advocate a theory of personhood that excludes Blacks.

In light of this, one can only ponder how anyone with good conscious can actually assert “Kant is better than the Koran,” and expect to be taken as a credible ethicist.


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Hakeem Muhammad grew up in the South Side of Chicago in a family with roots in the Nation of Islam. He’s an avid researcher and lecturer; Hakeem has taught African American philosophy and Critical Race Theory, at Spartan Debate Institute at Michigan State University and Cal State debate and Speech Institute at UC Berkeley. While finishing his senior year, Hakeem is currently working at the African American Male Initiative at West Georgia University and is a 2016 MUSLIMARC Fellow.

 

An original version of this post appeared on Patheos.

 

Arts&Culture

God Gave Us Lemons

By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

In the visual masterpiece that is Beyoncé’s newest visual album, Lemonade, there are several references to what is called “Black Religion,” “Black Diaspora Religion,” and/or “Africana Religiosity.” There was the expected presence of Christianity—as distinctly practiced by Black people (to riff off a point made at a recent talk by Dr. Jennifer Richardson). There were also, as many have noted, prominent references to African Diaspora religious traditions known as Lukumi, Santeria, La Regla de Ocha, Candomble and Ifa (what traditions are called is tied to place and practitioners). One of the most clear references was to the Orisha Oshun who Beyoncé appears to invoke in the video segment for the song “Hold Up.” Islam, as practiced within Black communities in the Diaspora, also makes appearances in the visual album.

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Screen shot from music video “Formation” by Beyoncé

Most notably, the visual album features an excerpt of a speech by Malcolm X in which he describes the Black woman as the most “disrespected,” “unprotected,” and “neglected” person in the United States. Malcolm X is cherished in Black communities for his unflinching commitment to global Black liberation, yet his Muslim identity is often forgotten or evacuated of its spiritual significance. Yet it was precisely Malcolm’s dedication to Islam and the forms of enlightenment he experienced both during and after his time with the Nation of Islam (NOI) that defined his approach and motivated his work toward Black liberation. Speaking of the NOI, in the video for “Formation” we see a clip of a bow tie-wearing Muslim brother selling a bean pie and The Final Call, the NOI’s newspaper. Also in “Formation,” one of the brothers who flank Beyoncé while she sings on a porch is a Muslim (in real life-my sources tell me) who dons the red fez of the Moors. There is also a more subtle reference to Islam in the album’s visual references to the film Daughters of the Dust. One of that film’s characters is a devout Muslim man named Bilal Muhammad whose presence is a reminder that Islam is also a religious tradition brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans.

The more explicit references to Islam, Malcolm, the Brother with the pie and the Moor, are what I call classic tropes of Black Muslimness in popular culture—ways Black Islam and Black Muslims typically appear in popular media. It must be noted that these classic tropes all center on the figure of the Black Muslim male—making the Black Muslim man the stand-in for all Black Muslims. This is a problem that scholars and activists are critical of in broader Black cultural representations. Therefore, Lemonade does not portray, unlike, for example, the video for Rapsody’s song “Betty Shabazz,” unambiguous visual representations of Black Muslim women. Outside of Warsan Shire’s unbelievably haunting words, which are not easily read as “Muslim” because, like Malcolm, her own Muslimness seems insignificant to most commentators, there are no sisters in khimars draped over afros, with their scarves in buns with large hoop earrings or in geles wrapped high, all of which we could consider classic, but not exhaustive, representations of Black Muslim women.

 

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Screen shots from music video “Betty Shabazz” by Rapsody

References to multiple Black religious traditions in Lemonade are reflective of syncretism, which occurs in many religious traditions and is characteristic of the Black religious experience in Diaspora. Syncretism refers to ways in which practices, symbols and beliefs of one or multiple religious traditions are borrowed, incorporated and/or shared, in whole or part, by other religions.[1] I see syncretism in Lemonade because the story of the album is told through drawing on a range of Black spiritualties. Beyoncé as Oshun comes through over waves, which immediately reminded me of depictions of Yemaya, also an Orisha, rising from the ocean. Water is also significant for Black Christians—baptism, by water, brings purification and forgiveness. Likewise, in Muslim tradition water is the source for ritual purification. Before each salat (prayer) and many other acts of spiritual significance and even before being lowered into the grave, the body (specific parts or in its entirety) must be washed with water to prepare the soul to meet with its Creator. Other key instances of syncretism took form in the words of Shire. Beyoncé recites: Got on my knees and said Amen and said Ameen  (not “I mean” as per the HBO subtitles). These lines juxtapose Amen and Ameen, and to that we might add, Ashe. All are phrases that prompt prayerful call and response between a congregation and a prayer leader. Likewise, she speaks of wearing white—the color worn by initiates and guides in African Diaspora religions and worn for Christian baptism. White is also the color of the pilgrim’s dress at hajj, which foretells the Islamic death shroud that is also white.

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Screen shot from music video “Hold Up” by Beyoncé

There are, of course, Black people who are “not here” for all this syncretism. They adhere to very specific notions of orthodoxy. I have found this to be true among Black Muslims in the United States, even though many argue that it was the early “heterodoxy” of the NOI that prepared Black folks for the Sunni and Shi’a orthodoxy they practice today—and yet and still, they often find themselves accused of not doing Islam right. I can appreciate the impulse yet the historical record seems to imply that it is precisely the ability to be syncretic—to adapt, to improvise, to create, to reinterpret—in all forms of life, including spiritual life, that has been key to Black survival on our side of the Atlantic. As questions of Black survival once again come to the fore, perhaps there is an unintended lesson in Lemonade, as we say in Muslim tradition, “for those who reflect.”

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Screen shot from music video “Don’t Hurt Yourself” by Beyoncé


[1] I know syncretism is a contentious term, precisely because it can be used to mark a tradition or practice as “inauthentic.” I do not use the term with that meaning in mind.


Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist. She is Senior Editor of Sapelo Square and assistant professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Purdue University.

BlogPolitics

Faith, Economics and Politics

by Zarinah Shakir

PGCMC LogoIf you are tired like I am of hearing about Muslims and politics from everyone but Muslims you would have enjoyed the Faith, Economics and Politics conference held this past April 23 at the Diyanet Center of America (DCA) in Lanham, Maryland. This all-day conference, “Faith, Economics and Politics:  The Keys to Empowering Our Community,” was launched by the Prince Georges County Muslim Council (PGCMC) to change the conversation about Muslims and Politics.

For most of the political season Muslims have been the topic of discussion. Pundits and Politicians wonder: ‘can Muslims enter the US?’, ‘should Muslim neighborhoods be patrolled?’ In contrast, at this w
ell attended conference the agenda focused on our needs and concerns covering topics such as: ‘Empowerment Through Unity,’ ‘Federal, State and County Resources for Business Development.’ The conference also featured a forum with local candidates.

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Howard Mays, Executive Director of PG County Redevelopment Authority speaks on resources for businesses in the county.

 

I am neither a resident nor registered voter of Maryland, but I was compelled to come from Princeton, NJ and attend this program.  Muslims came from far and near to hear people like former Maryland State’s Attorney, Glen Ivey, who ran for the Maryland 4th District Congressional seat and lost, April 26 in the Maryland Primary.

 

He addressed “the need to concentrate on the legal issues and incarceration many are challenged with in our communities.” While he came as a politician, I was impressed that he did not just speak, shake a few hands and leave.  He actually stayed as someone who wanted to get to know the Muslims. Mr. Ivey spent time during lunch and after his panel to hear about the issues relevant to his constituents.

The DCA is a story all its own. This beautiful center, funded by $100 million from the Turkish government, chose to break ground literally and figuratively in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Prince George’s County, which is known for being home to high income Black families. This is important to note since many masjids with predominantly immigrant congregations seem to build far away from Black communities even though we are often some of their main supporters.  Not this one; it is right in the Black community.

This move initially raised eyebrows. Yet the DCA, which includes a masjid, cultural center, fellowship hall, guest house, turkish bath, gym, swimming pool and more, has established alliances and respect from their neighbors politically, professionally, public and private. This has allowed many to achieve a better understanding and awareness of Islam, Muslims and specifically, Turkey.

The DCA officially opened earlier this month by the President of Turkey Recep Erdogan who criticized the US presidential candidates for their anti Muslim rhetoric. “There are still people walking around calling Muslims terrorists.”

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However, at the Faith, Economics and Politics conference, terrorism was not on the agenda. Neither did the conference spend time on how Muslims have become the object of discussion and ridicule in the media and the broader public. I was glad those issues were ignored, so we could deal with the real issues facing our community.  For many, the beauty of this event was the meeting, greeting and sharing of Muslims and people of other faith traditions and multi-cultural participation focused on local politics and economics in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Shareef Abdul Malik, 24, an entrepreneur and CEO of We Buy Black, (webuyblack.com), the largest online marketplace for Black (African American and those of African descent) businesses and individual sellers spoke on the Cooperative Economics Panel.

“I was inspired by a common motif heard among all great Black leaders, we need to do for self and allow the world the opportunity to buy directly from the Black community.” His courage and commitment to go into business is reflective of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s edict to “Do for Self”.

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There was a Sisterpreneurs workshop which brought together speakers including Tiye Mulazim of Shura, Inc, Nurgul Yavuzer of Nurtech Technology and Jamila Garner from the Women’s Committee of Masjid As-Saffat.

By the end of their workshop, they had pooled their minds and resources with plans to open a factory to create jobs for Muslim women and to also dress themselves with the latest modest Islamic fashions.

“This was really a wonderful conference. We have great plans to change the clothing industry by offering designers the opportunity to get their clothes made in the US instead of sending them abroad. We will offer better quality at better prices,” said Baqiyah Adam of Abayat Raqiah Designs.

The other workshops included a Youth Speak Out, The Rules for Investing, Educating Successful Muslim Children, and a special address by PG County Executive Rushern Baker. Imam Shadeed Muhammad was the luncheon speaker. He encouraged participants to get involved in their neighborhoods and make them a better place to live.

Nabila Aalim-Johnson, wife of PGCMC President Jameel Aalim-Johnson demonstrated the amazing energy and love members of PGCMC have for serving their community. She explained feeling the need to have a  “step up to the plate” attitude about an opening (fatihah) for the collaboration of Muslims and politics.

The conference was the brainchild of Mr. Aalim-Johnson, former chief of Staff to the New York Congressman Gregory Meeks and now Associate Vice President in the Government Affairs office of NASDAQ, and Attorney Anu Kemt, Conference Chair.

“I really enjoyed this conference,” said Abdul Jalil Muhammad, President of Lifetime Lighting Solutions, a local business. “I was amazed at the diversity of the Muslims that registered and the quality of the speakers. I’ve already talked to several people about how we can do business together. This was a great event.”


Zarinah Shakir is a producer/host of one the longest running, interfaith television shows
(Perspectives of Interfaith taped and aired at Arlington Independent Media in America).

History

“The Name Means Everything”: On the Birth of the Black Muslim

by Will Caldwell

First Posted on April 19th, 2016 

“From Mr. Muhammad on down, the name, ‘Black Muslims,’ distressed everyone in the Nation of Islam. I tried at least two years to kill off that ‘Black Muslims.’ Every newspaper and magazine writer and microphone I got close to: ‘No! We are black people here in America. Our religion is Islam: We are properly called Muslims!’ But that ‘Black Muslims’ never got dislodged.” [1]

Malcolm X here dates the birth of the term “Black Muslim” to 1961, when C. Eric Lincoln published his seminal study, The Black Muslims in America. The book arrived at an important moment for the Nation—“at just about the time we were starting to put on our first big mass rallies.” Malcolm describes a process that is no doubt still familiar to Muslims in the United States. The media got out ahead of the Nation’s attempt to define itself in the eyes of the wider American public, creating a narrative that the NOI leadership neither desired nor controlled. “The press snatched at that name,” Malcolm tells, forcing him and Elijah Muhammad into a mode of perpetual damage control. Just as the television documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, had “projected the ‘hate teaching’ image of us” in 1959, so too did the press brand a “Black Muslim” figure that seemed scarcely recognizable to the Muslims it supposedly represented.

71iW3DjmQMSThis “Black Muslim” figure not only disrupted the Nation’s project of naming “so-called negroes” according to their proper Islamic history; it also effectively reinscribed the attributes of that “negro” by denying them access to any history at all. Lincoln describes Black Muslims as emerging from “the sociological drama of contemporary America, especially… the American Negro’s increasing dissatisfaction with the ‘bit’ role he has been permitted to play.” The Black Muslim emerges from an emotive reaction—“dissatisfaction” or “racial hatred”— against his or her immediate political surroundings. The Nation of Islam “could discard all its Islamic attributes—its name, its prayers to Allah, its citations from the Quran, everything—without risking in the smallest degree its appeal to the black masses.” The Nation’s perceived religious heterodoxy mattered little to Lincoln, however, as he defined the movement as, essentially, a form of “black nationalism.” The NOI leadership doubtless recognized his “Black Muslim” figure as the “so-called negro” in different clothes. This was a figure whose name reflected black subordination to white hegemony/supremacy rather than a legitimate place for black peoples in the Americas among the global ummah of Muslims. [3]

The birth of the Black Muslim provides an excellent example of what Hussein Agrama calls “the questioning power of secularism.” Agrama shows that secular political power is exercised not by defining the proper line between religion and politics, but rather by constantly interrogating that line so as to assert the legislative authority of the state ever deeper into the ostensibly private realm of religious belief. The Black Muslim is, in many ways, born from this very questioning power, which asks “is he is truly a Muslim or a “black nationalist” masquerading in Islamic garb?” His inauthenticity in calling himself a Muslim is therefore his primary characteristic—“black” always qualifies “Muslim” rather than adding to it, enriching it, or locating it within a particular history. Defining members of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, or the Five Percent Nation as “Black Muslims”—as, indeed, countless members of the press, academy, and law enforcement have—is therefore always to invite the policing of the secular questioning gaze. It raises a question only the state may answer through governance, thereby pulling these Muslims into the orbit of its representational politics and reformist religious programs. Malcolm thus learned in the early sixties what Noble Drew Ali taught his congregation over thirty years earlier: “The name means everything.” [4]

But how might the so-called “Black Muslims” of the twentieth century appear under a different name and, indeed, a different set of questions? How might they transform if we reject the very questioning power that renders them problems to be solved by the secular state? To put it yet another way: what emerges as interesting, powerful, and edifying when we today seek to understand the names these Muslims chose to use as well as the questions they asked themselves?

Taking Malcolm’s claim seriously—that “black people here in America” can and should be “properly called Muslims”—requires a move beyond the secular space of the U.S. nation-state from which the opposition between “religion” and “politics” emerges. For the proper (that is, historical) relationship between Islam and racial blackness was forged not in a secular space but rather in a colonial one that transcends the borders of the United States, spanning the Atlantic to unite Africa and the Americas into a single geography. It is from within this space of modern Atlantic colonialism that these Muslims’ own names and concepts, such as the “Asiatic Black Man” and the “Lost-Found Nation” gain their true salience. These names speak to Islam’s long history as a radical tradition of abolition and anticolonialism throughout the African diaspora in the Atlantic. It is here, from within diaspora and geographies of Atlantic colonialism, where claims like Malcolm’s to be “properly called Muslims” were so frequently made; and it is from here that we may begin a genuine exploration of Islam in the United States.


[1] Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 252.

[2] ibid.

[3] C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 210.

[4] Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 29.


religioiusstudies-people-grads-caldwell-will-80x100Will Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in Islam and American Religions. He specializes in the history of early twentieth-century African American Muslims, with a focus on issues of race, empire, and internationalism.