The mind-numbing atrocities at home and abroad dare me to respond. It’s as if world events conspired to belittle me, taunting me to try to make sense of bloodbaths by religious extremists with death machines improvised or designed. Perhaps it’s this very feeling of alienation and impotence that fuels the rage behind the headlines.
A palpable sense of helplessness threatens to overcome me – it seems pointless to write, what will it accomplish? I struggle for an appropriate vantage: Muslim American; you and I, us, or We the People. But what I see as proper will no doubt conflict with countless other perspectives. That’s the real problem, locked away in our cephalic echo chamber, how do we – together and alone – replace lines in the sand that divide us with a staging area for ties that bind?
Like unruly passengers, questions mock me as trains of thought flee the station; words board steam engines of ideas helter-skelter as the caboose of lost connections trails down the track. But that’s how words are, synthesized remnants opaque in their genesis, an assemblage of memories and feelings that hint at the actual without conceding their origin. My faculty of Islam assumes the role of conductor, discerning where to seat ideologies of altered states booking passage from the station of immanence. I punch my ticket…
A View from the Bridge
My thoughts coalesce around an experience from a recent anniversary of 9/11, when I chose to walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park rather than attend memorials. After all, it was on that morning on Lookout Hill sixteen years ago where I first noticed an eerie stillness accompanied by snowflakes of ash that silently fell from the sky like so many vaporized dreams of the lives extinguished. Retracing my steps up the hill would be my memorial I reckoned, one I had since ritualized into my daily routine and preferred to face in solitude.
At the base of the stairs along the east side of the hill there’s a tribute to Maryland’s 400, a brigade that saved the American Army from British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. I reflected on the conditions that caused colonists to declare their independence from England, and how their founding ideals were transmuted from gold to lead by the lust for land and power. Beneath the world’s fetishized Qurans and Constitutions lay earth interred with the blood of countless martyrs for their cause in endless renditions of the Other.
As if to highlight the theme of my walk, the sight of school children standing silently around a flag at half mast startled me as I returned home over the Ocean Parkway footbridge. A quick glance at my watch made me realize it was about the same time the first plane had struck the World Trade Center. My pace slowed as the hair on the back of my neck stood up and a shiver ran down my spine. Once again there was a hush in the air amidst a surreal suspension of time and movement accompanied by a wellspring of emotions bubbling to the surface.
The children’s incursion into my thoughts took me by surprise given the length of time that had elapsed since the collapse of the Towers. I related the shiver I felt to sitting Shiva with my mom for a deceased relative in Staten Island some years ago. The memory in conjunction with the physical sensation led me to conjecture whether the feeling along my back inspired the Jewish tradition for mourning loved ones. An internet search revealed the word origins for shiver and sitting Shiva were unrelated, but no matter – what I felt became indelibly linked to the Shiva of somber confrontations with death and permanent loss.
Standing in the Shoes of the Prophet
Were brain imaging available on the bridge, they would have shown my neural networks lighting up like random hits in a pinball machine that made the mechanics of why this thought or that image seem wholly arbitrary. Words like virtual, real, and actual sprang to life from algorithms pioneered by intensive relations cascading up and down nerve endings in my cerebral architecture. Did I even have a choice among hierarchies of meaning that evolved ages ago from the bricolage of successful adaptive responses?
I turned to the Quran and Prophet Muhammad to organize my thoughts, where the insight of Karl Marx prefaced yet another transformation of understanding. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx pointed out that people make their own history, but only from the material conditions they inherit or find themselves situated. Simply put, there was no avoiding the fact that Muhammad was embedded in sixth century traditions and understandings when he upended the tribal arrangements of the Arabian Peninsula.
Hence, as I originated and recreated ideas from embodied experiences through the lens of social norms, so too Muhammad. Just as my view from the Ocean Parkway footbridge would take on a different import to the Prophet – if it registered at all – his unwavering vision of the furthest horizon would be foreign to mine if I stood in his shoes.
I then realized that while Muhammad intuited kinship with other Semitic Prophets, how could he be certain that what they envisioned as divine was compatible with what inspired him? Indeed, the Prophet supplicated to be shown the facts as they were, and on numerous occasions confessed to being no more than a mortal who could neither divine the future nor determine his fate. Establishing a link to Muhammad’s humanity required chipping away at the hagiography that accumulated around him over centuries.
Enacting a Clearing
Today’s notions of relativity and quantum physics would be alien to the Prophet, along with the empirical findings of neuroscience. Sure, we may be able to cherry pick the precursors of transference, displacement, and projection from Quranic text, but the mind’s modularity in any age all too often articulates the other of itself in terms of good, evil, or divine.
Before Muhammad donned the mantle of Prophet, he showed himself to be a profound thinker who questioned the world much as Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud. The late psychiatrist and Sufi Master Javad Nurbakhsh posited that the Quran’s development of the self (nafs) as demanding, conflicted, and at peace foreshadowed the Id, Ego, and Superego of Freudian analysis.
To be sure, I still find a steady source of guidance from the Quran and Muhammad. Not in dated contexts foreign to my world, however, but from the courage and radical introspection Muhammad used to reorder his. Notably, the Quran initiates its call for slow, reflective readings by cautioning its audience to first seek protection from projecting self-serving meanings into the text before opening its cover. I worked to internalize this mechanism for criticism and self-criticism to the extent that reading the Quran daily became a rudimentary precursor for social activism. The negativity of no gods only Allah compelled me to continually seek a higher ground on which to reorient my prayer rug.
The Quran’s activating force led me to question the notion of moderate Muslims as little more than a balm for antiquating performative values into an amorphous façade. Forcing the originary “Be!” of self-awareness to mediate a hostile environment bereft of reference points implicated the radical nature of an Islam that begins and ends in the individual. Accordingly, like a teacher that instructs the last child in a schoolyard game of telephone, the Quran exhorts readers to ceaselessly question understandings inherited from prior generations.
Quranic retellings of Abraham and Moses’ trials and insights reveal an understanding of the divine as an open totality beyond definition. In discerning meaning from signifiers within and without, the Quran presents a requisite naturalism where what is actual is natural, and what is natural is actual.
What’s more, its use of the pronouns “We” and “Us” for Allah indicates an ungendered agency that operates best in consensus – the more diverse the forum, the better the social cohesion. And the Quran’s call to remember the endless span of time before we came into being suggests the quantum entanglement between nihilism and meaning, a paradox within which we can only actualize one or the other in a given moment. This primal attributional ambiguity between personal and cosmological time led me to the facticity of uncertainty that confronts us all.
Imagining without Words
Since he was unable to read, I tried to imagine how Prophet Muhammad understood the Arabic calligraphy for Allah. Did he see it as a type of pictograph, a hieroglyph with meanings locked within? Or given the predominance of Moses’ experiences in the Quran, maybe he saw the A in Allah as Moses’ staff that swallowed whole the double L of snakes cast by Pharaoh’s sorcerers. I sought a more contemporary understanding; one that would evoke naturalism and its Tawhid of one regime rather than privileging a final vocabulary contingent on magical thinking and supernatural being.
I attempted to Photoshop the calligraphy for Allah but unfortunately art was never my forte. Looking more like a finger painting by a spider on LSD, it would probably do more to incite rather than enlighten. Then, from the comfort of my recliner, I saw what I was looking for.
It was an embroidered prayer pillow on a bookshelf that my wife Adrienne fashioned many years ago. Inspired by a verse in the Quran about birds being held aloft by Allah, she combined Arabic with motifs from the American Southwest that actualized what my digital art failed to express.
The beaded pattern consisted of four arrows pointing outward that represented to me the vertical axis of transcendence and the horizontal axis of immanence. But instead of intersecting like a cross, they ended at a circle of birds, which represented the ideas that took flight in mystic Farid ud-din Attar’s Sufi classic Conference of the Birds. The calligraphy for Allah lay at the center of the circle like the shadow of the mythological Simurgh cast unbeknownst by the birds seeking its presence when they flew in formation.
To me the diacritical mark over the double LL resembled the Greek letter psi, the mathematical symbol used to denote wave functions. It then occurred to me that calligraphy for Allah itself was a matheme, a probability wave function where the A and double LL represented a single slit diffraction pattern wherein at any given moment thought actualizes potentiality. The ox-tail bones dangling from the tassels provided me with a sobering reminder of the ephemeral, transitory nature of even our loftiest thoughts and ideals.
Adrienne was reared and remains in the Catholic faith while maintaining a healthy skepticism of all religion. Although she recently mentioned that she was careful to use certain color schemes so as not to offend, I don’t recall her giving me a detailed explanation of the pillow’s symbolism when she created it. And I’m sure she has a different take on her handiwork than mine, if not her initial sense of aesthetics as well.
Yet what struck me most of all, with my poring over texts on the subway and falling asleep with them at night, was that her flash of artistic vision intuited what took me decades to grasp. But that’s the point to good art, it evolves with our understandings, and it allows us to recognize bits of ourselves in the expressions of others and make new connections – even after living together for more than four decades.
Discerning Subjects, Enfolded Agents
Every bush burns with the truth when you finally come to appreciate what has been before you all along. But the fire of my original question remains – how do we defeat ideologies of privilege with a social solidarity informed by consensus?
In The Discerning Subject, English professor John Smith distinguishes generic subjects from activist agents. French process philosopher Giles Deleuze developed the human subject as folded with temporal surfaces laden with latent and manifest histories. And then there’s meta-phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas, who predicated subjectivity on our affective primordial relations with others.
Working through their frameworks led me to discover an affinity with Levinas, who also toiled with the Torah as I questioned the Quran. I began to see tensions between at least four folds in the accretions of self-aware beings that are continually shaped by the potter’s wheel of intersubjectivity. My socially constructed identities will never fully comport with who I am in actuality, nor will how I present myself to others fully align with how others see me.
Thus I came to see the Quran’s emphasis on the faculty of discernment as the mode for mediating our folded selves. Calling on its prime enfolded subject, Prophet Muhammad, to rise and warn early in his mission, this was the preferred method for we who seek to emulate the Prophet to both discern right from wrong and prioritize performative action over sedentary passivity.
Making Hajj in America: A Vision Quest for Solidarity
There are no quick fixes for problems that evolve and assume new shapes in social contexts perpetually in flux. Theoretical approaches are important but their retrospective character reminds me of a betrothed perpetually arriving too late for the wedding.
Prophet Muhammad activated followers through his authenticity and capacity to listen and speak to situations as they developed in real time. Indeed, this may prove to be one of his most important legacies as well as the most elusive to emulate. Tellingly, the Prophet refused to make his pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca so long as it was controlled by corrupt elites. Thus Muslims should make Hajj elsewhere so long as Saudi theocrats espouse a toxic political Islam that executes apostates, bombs school children in Yemen, and crushes dissent to the extent of brutally murdering Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi on foreign soil.
Keeping in mind the Prophet's courage in questioning the status quo, why not enact our own vision for Hajj in America, one that pays homage to the land and labor on which this nation’s wealth was built? Since it’s estimated that approximately one-third of African slaves were Muslim, would it not be fitting to integrate Islamic practices from displaced slaves with displaced indigenous Americans? Why not show solidarity with the Lakota Sioux by circling Bear Lodge, their sacred site in Wyoming that the U.S. Army misappropriated as Devil’s Tower?
For just as Muhammad secluded himself in a cave outside Mecca for divine inspiration, the Lakota Sioux continue to enact vision quests as a rite of passage to adulthood. Fasting, blood sacrifices, and the collective circling of the Kaaba during Hajj evoke the substance of sweat lodges and other tribal ceremonies performed around the circumference of Bear Lodge. In contrast to the formalisms of identity and belief – regardless of how you see yourself or others see you – making Hajj in America could become the focal point for writing a new chapter for the American narrative with a byline from each and every one of us. This will be our story, one that confronts the challenges of the road ahead rather than seeks to resurrect ghosts from the past that haunt us in the rear-view mirror.
Seeing my wife’s art in a new light made me realize that mobilizing resistance to oppression requires embroidering our lives and nation’s past into a mosaic for the future. Whereas Manifest Destiny veiled its fangs in sloganeering to make America great again for the few, We the People, enfolded subjects all, must rise. We are the prophets of our destiny; only we can claim authorship for our lives. Let’s listen to the best of what’s said, focus on the furthest horizon, and make our voices heard.