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interview: akbar muhammad

Can you tell me what the fundamentals of Islam are?

The fundamentals of Islam -- if you mean by that, the "five pillars of Islam" -- they are the shahada, which is an affirmation that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet, his messenger. That constitutes the first pillar, or fundamental.

The second is prayer, salat, and then the fasting, according to some, which is sawm, or the fast of Ramadan; and the payment of what I call a social tax, which is called zakat. Others call it charity; I call it a social tax. It is 2.5 percent of what one has had, what one has owned of certain kinds of wealth for a period of one year.

The fifth is the pilgrimage, the hajj. The pilgrimage to the Kaaba -- not to Mecca per se, but to the Kaaba, which is in Mecca. Those are the five pillars or the five fundamentals.

And there are principles, too -- another set of beliefs?

That's true, and they are: belief in Allah; belief in the prophets [of] scriptures; belief in the last day, that there's a judgment, there's a hereafter and an afterlife; belief in angels, et cetera. Some scholars say there are four, some say five, some say six. Those are pretty much agreed upon. ...

I would say the beliefs are not really that much emphasized in Muslim societies, particularly Arabic Muslim societies, not that much. The main thing is the main set of principles are those that we just talked about -- the five principles. ...

Those are the things that you actually had to do, and not so much a way of being.

Actually, you've made a very important statement. If we look at the five principles of Islam, or the five pillars, or the five fundamentals, belief practically ends with the first pillar of Islam. In other words, that affirmation that Allah is the only deity and that Muhammad is his messenger. After that, everything is action, is practice.

The other four, i.e., praying, fasting, paying the zakat -- what I call a social tax -- and the hajj, involve action. Muslims are very action-oriented.

An associate professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University in New York, Dr. Akbar Muhammad specializes in African history and Islam in Africa and the Americas. He received his Ph.D. at Edinburgh University in Scotland and performed extensive field research in northern and western Africa. He studied Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence at Al Azhar University in Cairo and is fluent in Arabic. Dr. Muhammad is the co-editor of Racism, Sexism, and the World-System with J. Smith, J. Collins and T.K. Hopkins, and also has written on slavery in Muslim Africa, Muslims in the United States, and integration through education in Nigeria. This interview was conducted in March 2002.

So what does it take to be Muslim? Is it believing that first principle?

According to widely accepted authoritative hadiths, or sayings of the prophets, Islam is built on five pillars. It's those five pillars we just mentioned. Once one accepts those five principles, one is considered a Muslim.

In fact, upon pronouncing the shahada, which is only the first of those principles, a person is considered a Muslim. So it's easy to become a Muslim. It's easier than joining the Republican or Democratic Party. It's very easy to become a Muslim. Technically, it [only] takes seconds to become a Muslim.

But do you have to do all those other things the rest of your life?

To stay a Muslim, I would say, yes, all of those are important. How important those things are, is really, in my view, an academic, a scholarly argument. Why do I say that? Because in a social context, a person may be taken for a Muslim who does not pray, who does not pay any zakat, who does not do many or all of the other four principles of Islam. In other words, there is such a thing as an associate socio-cultural Muslim, a public Muslim.

A lot of Muslims consider the Crusades as a continual process. And then there's the disastrous thing called colonialism. Muslims have been batted around, continue to be batted around.

Then there is another kind of Muslim, I would say, who is technically a Muslim, who is legally a Muslim, I'd like to say. And [who] therefore follows the law. ...

We are in the setting of America, where a lot of people are frightened. What they may know about Islam is that Muslims flew into the World Trade Center. I think for Muslims, that's rather perturbing.

I can understand why. Part of it is because of American ignorance of Islam, on the one hand. On the other hand, from a Muslim perspective, we have to understand why such people would have acted in that way. And if I might use a term that I don't really like, I think the Muslim world must understand what produces such persons. Muslims have to help Westerners understand that such person may not be acting in a widely accepted Islamic manner.

But at the same time, Muslims need to try to understand such persons against a large corpus of Islamic writings, thought, et cetera. Because such persons are saying that what they did, what they do, is justified in Islam.

Is it [justified]? How do they justify it?

They draw on a body of literature which is primarily interpretive, in my view. It's primarily interpretive. In other words, how does one interpret a text? If the text says, "Cut off the hands of the male and female thief," one might interpret that particular text as applicable in a situation of one stealing a pen as well as one stealing a million dollars.

What I'm saying here is if we take the text literally -- without knowing the Sunna, without knowing the hadith, what was the prophet's practice, what did the ulema, the scholars say after that -- if we don't have a good view of the variety of interpretations of the text, then we cannot stand and say that those people are necessarily wrong within the context of Islam.

For example: "Fight those who fight against you." Some of those people who Americans call terrorists consider that they are fighting against those who fight against them; [that] the fight started long ago, and the fight continues. So they don't have to have a new justification. In their view, they don't need a new justification.

To which fight are you referring when you say, "It started long ago?"

The Crusades, for example. There are a lot of Muslims who consider the Crusades as a continual process, and then the whole idea of that disastrous thing called colonization or colonialism. Muslims have been batted around. Muslims continue to be batted around.

Now, if we consider, on the one hand, the concept of umma -- that is that all Muslims belong to a community, a nation, called the umma -- and this nation is extraterritorial in modern terminology, i.e., a Muslim could be in Greenland and still belong to the umma, because he or she is a Muslim.

From a point of view of Sharia, if a part of that umma is attacked, then all of the umma is responsible for the defense of that area. This means that if the Palestinians are attacked, if the Iranians are attacked, if the Iraqis are attacked, indeed, if Muslims in this country are attacked, then Muslims elsewhere should come to the aid of those Muslims.

So as long as Muslims continue to be attacked -- and they have been attacked throughout, for centuries, et cetera -- then the fight continues. The struggle continues. That could be a justification for those who say, "Wherever I attacked you, and whatever Western interests I attack, are covered. I'm doing this with the blessings of the Sharia."

This is one way of interpreting. No, it's not widely accepted amongst the generality of Muslims. I don't think so. But it is a way of viewing the text or interpreting the text.

Which means that this could go on ad infinitum?

Absolutely. It does mean that. ...

I'm saying here that we have a problem of interpretation. I don't want to stress this too far. But we do have a problem of interpretation. A text can be interpreted differently by different people. Those interpretations become legitimate to those who interpret the text in that manner. So we have several interpretations. Who's to say who's right?

Is there anyone to say who's right?

Islam is a very flexible system, and it has been very flexible for centuries. What I mean by that is that differences of opinion have been accepted within Islam and given legitimacy by some of the highest authorities in Islam. Thus in certain areas of the Sharia, one country may differ from another country. One community may differ from another community, even in the same country. We interpret the Sharia in the South, let's say, in Alabama, in this particular area of marriage and divorce or whatever, in this way. You people in New York, in New Jersey, and elsewhere, you interpret it differently. We are all correct. And we have agreed on that.

But that is not strange. Why should it be? Divorce law in various states of the United States differ. Oh, yes -- differ. The acceptance of homosexuality, legal acceptance of, permission, et cetera, differ from one state to the other. So we can have a federal state, but there are differences within those states.

I'm saying, similarly, Islamic law is not one thing. It's not monolithic, as American law is not monolithic, as Western law is not monolithic. So we should be very careful about saying, "Well, this is a violation of the Sharia."

Do those differences come from the cultures?

Yes. Absolutely. The Sharia is definitely affected by local cultures, regional cultures. We cannot really talk about national cultures. But we can talk about regional cultures, and we can talk about local cultures. There are different schools of thought within the Sharia. ...

And how does the Nigerian culture, beyond the great Islamic thinkers, [how does it influence Islam there]?

First of all, there's no such thing called Nigerian culture. Nigeria is an artificial state. It was formed by a colonial experience. So if we talk about Muslims who predominate in the north, the Hausa-Fulani, we are talking about people who have been under the influence of Islam for a long time, going back to the 16th century, if not earlier for some areas. And Islam became part of Hausa-Fulani culture. Of course, religion is indeed part of culture. Culture is the general; religion is the specific. So for the Hausas, for the Fulani, Islam is actually part of their culture.

Now, the way Islam was introduced or what was introduced of Islam, of the Sharia for the Hausa-Fulani, may differ from, let's say, in Fez, Morocco, where circumstances differed and culture influenced interpretation. Thus we have differences within the same legal school.

Islam did not obliterate cultures which were pre-existing cultures. Islam did not obliterate Christianity from Egypt. It did not. There are millions of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Islam did not obliterate Zoroastrianism, et cetera, from Iran. It did not, nor from Iraq. It did not.

Thus, conversion to Islam is not, has not been, [and] probably never will be 100 percent. Which means that the convert -- whether it was en masse, a large conversion of many peoples at the same time, or the individual who converts -- carries with her or him some of his or her past.

Culture, therefore, becomes mingled with, becomes meshed with Islam. Therefore, culture is interacting with what has received Islam.

Is there nothing that has to be left behind of a certain culture?

Of course. For example, there are people who used to eat pork before becoming Muslims, who had to leave that behind. ... There will be a mixture of Islam and whatever existed. Islam takes its place in this culture, and becomes part of it, becomes part of the whole. Therefore, when one says, "Well, Islam says this," or "Islam says that," what the ordinary person is really saying is, "What Islam, as I know it, as part of my culture says." ...

[Has there been a resurgence of Islam and if so, what are its goals?]

Yes, there is a resurgence. That's very clear. Many non-Muslim peoples, after the end of colonialism, have attempted -- in fact, during the period of colonization or European colonialism of the 19th, early 20th century -- people have attempted to return to their roots, as it were, to give life to their earlier cultures. We don't want to be like Europe; we want to return to our roots. Now, one can view the resurgence of Islam in a similar way.

We want to bring back Islam. One might ask, for example, "Well, why didn't they do it at the time of independence, and immediately after independence?" The answer to that question is very simple. Governments which ruled Muslims were very often like colonial governments. They suffocated Muslims. They suffocated those who wanted to go back to their original culture. With all due respect to Kamal Ataturk, in Turkey, I mean, this man attempted to suppress Islam. Now, there are several others who did the same thing, or they attempted to manipulate the repositories of Islam, the ulema, and to sort of thwart their efforts to bring Islam and Islamic values back to the public and make those values widespread and to rebuild Islamic institutions.

The question here for me is, are those Muslims who are engaged in this Islamic resurgence, this Islamic rebirth, if you like, do they aim at building or rebuilding Islamic institutions? I would answer yes. Are they necessarily anti-West? I would say no. But I would say that they're against anyone who would attempt to forbid them this rebuilding of these institutions.

And the reason I think that they're so successful is because they're working at the mass level. They are helping the masses, where governments have not helped. They are giving aid to poor people. They are giving them medical help. They are treating them. They are trying to find jobs for them. Therefore, these ordinary people are joining these ranks as well.

"The resurgence of Islam." What does resurgence of Islam mean to me? It means to me the resurgence of Islamic principles. Not the five principles we just mentioned; no, no, no, no, no. There are many Islamic principles. For example: social justice, propagation of, advocacy of work and earning. Don't be lazy. Treat your neighbor, treat the other person, with equity, with love, et cetera, et cetera. Mercifully.

I think there are a lot of values that these people are, in fact, instilling in the mass population that governments have sort of ignored. I think here we must look at the resurgence of Islam amongst ordinary peoples. To a large extent, this is what Islam did in the seventh century. I mean, after all, a lot of the prophet's converts had been slaves, or were freed slaves, and what we would call now low-income and uneducated people. These formed a large part of his following.

If the principles and values that are being reintroduced are work, earn, don't be lazy, treat your neighbor -- if those are the values that are being taught and reawakened, why does it seem so threatening?

Threatening to the West? I'm not so sure that the West is saying that it's threatening to them. I don't believe that the average Muslim on the streets of a Muslim city wants to threaten the West. I don't believe that.

What I do believe is that the average Muslim is anti Western-overbearing-influence. What do I mean by that? I mean by that that their governments are following the West, doing the bidding of the West. Their governments are trying to, or are seen as implementing programs which are easily connected to what some have called the arrogant West. In other words, you don't rule us directly anymore; you rule us indirectly. ...

I don't particularly think that the ordinary Muslim is necessarily anti-Westerner. By that, I mean I don't think the average Muslim is against the average Westerner. I think a lot of Muslims are against Western politics, Western governments, because of what they perceive that Western governments do, and the influence they have in their countries. Pure and simple.

In what ways is the morality of the West threatening?

I think that any cultural export of the West which violates Muslim sensibilities [would] be considered threatening.

Be specific about what sensibilities.

Western perceptions of what is correct, for example, for women to wear, how they appear in public. They are against, for example, certain kinds of music, certain kinds of movies, even certain kinds of discussions on radio. For example, VOA and BBC carry certain kinds of discussions which Muslims find, not anathema, but against their moral values. Therefore they see this as a kind of imposition. You're imposing your values on ours. Our society should not become like Western societies. ... I mean, you're talking about differences in values.

But there are so many inconsistencies with that. For example, when we met at the train station yesterday [you gave me] a warm handshake. Some Muslim men will greet me and not reach out their hand at all. There are places in Iran where men would like to, but it's socially taboo for them to shake hands, so they don't. What's the value there? What is the truth?

Again, it's interpretation. Again, it's interpretation. There was a long time when, for example, Saudi monarchs would not shake the hands of even female prime ministers or ministers from government. And that has changed. ...

There is such a hadith which is attributed to the prophet. Now, the point is, how does one interpret touching? How does one interpret the circumstances in which the prophet made this statement? Does that circumstance apply? Should one not touch a woman who is not one's relative, et cetera, et cetera, in a different circumstance? This is a matter of interpretation.

So there will be those who will take this literally and say, "I apply this across the board." Then there are those who say, "No, this situation is quite different now. So I don't mind shaking the hand of a woman, though she is not my wife's sister, cousin," or whatever. "No, I don't mind shaking her hand."

Again, what I was saying earlier -- interpretation. Interpretations themselves become law for those who interpret it as such. Who interprets a text as such, that interpretation becomes law.

Let's talk a little bit about Islam in the U.S. It is reported to be the fastest-growing religion. Why is that?

Islam is simple. It's very simple. In the sense that to become a Muslim, as I've said earlier, it takes seconds to become a Muslim, seconds. Islam is simple in its practice. There is no intermediary between the Muslim and the Muslim's creator. There is no papacy. There is no intermediary, strictly speaking, technically speaking. No intermediary. ...

The composition of Muslims in this country is quite unique, it seems to me. How do people identify themselves here? Is it with the country they came from? The color of their skin? The second or third generation?

... It depends. Identification is important. Muslims in this country, I think, identify in various ways, as non-Muslims do. In other words, a Muslim may identify as a Lebanese, as an African-American, as a Native American, as an Egyptian, et cetera, et cetera, in one type of situation, and not identify as such in another situation. So what I'm saying is, like all people, Muslims have various identities. It depends on the situation which identity that person may use or even think of herself or himself as.

How do they all get along here? I mean, this is a real experiment, isn't it?

It's definitely an experiment, and there are problems in Muslim communities. There are problems between recent immigrants and European-Americans, recent Muslim immigrants and African-Americans, and between, let's say, Indians and Iraqis, or Indians and whatever. We have problems. We have problems.

But hopefully, in sh'allah, we'll solve those problems. We haven't sort of declared war against one another yet. But where you have people, you're going to have problems, whether they're from the same ethnic group or different ethnic groups.

Do you think that Sept. 11 has had any impact on [Muslims] here?

Yes, I think that Sept. 11 has forced Muslims to try to show that they are not anti-American, and those who did that don't belong to us. We don't belong to them, and they don't belong to us. This has been said in several places.

I think that it has encouraged more interfaith dialogue. I think it has perhaps, at least for the moment, elevated, raised, the American-ness of Muslims, at least their expressed American-ness. I think it has made some Muslims, for the first time, speak against Muslims who they think are extremists. I think it has had that effect.

I also think it has had another effect, which is very good. That effect is that Muslims see Americans trying to educate other Americans. ... I mean by that the press. The media carried articles, television broadcasts information about Islam. The president has spoken very favorably about Islam. ...

Can you describe the difference in the way Islam is asserting itself in the U.S. and the way it has been resurging outside the U.S.? We don't hear calls for establishment of an Islamic state here in America the way we have heard those cries outside.

There are Muslims who wanted Islamic states before, immediately after, and during the colonial period. That is not new. ...

What does "Islamic state" mean? It means that we have Islamic institutions. It is a very good argument -- and one that is very difficult to refute -- to say that the reason they want this is because they want to go back to what they had in a period when they think that they were in control of themselves and that culture was fairly intact. Personally, I think that is a good argument, a very good argument.

I don't think that the idea of building a Muslim state is necessarily an anti-Western desire. I don't think so. Why? Because the Muslim state definitely, but the concept of a Muslim state, i.e. you have Sharia courts, you have Muslim institutions et cetera, et cetera; these were on the decline before European colonization, in Asia, as well as in Africa. These were declining.

There was always someone around, or several people around to say, "We want Muslim institutions, and we want to rebuild this," et cetera, et cetera. Muslims, for example, as far away as India and in various other places that the Ottomans ruled were very unhappy in 1924 when the caliph was abolished. They were very unhappy, even though the Turks had ruled them, even [though] the Ottomans had ruled them. Because this is the last vestige of what we would like to see as a very large Muslim state.

The idea is not new; the idea is old. It is not necessarily the result of Muslim/ non-Muslim or Muslim/West conflict. It is not necessarily that. ...

Would you characterize the resurgence in those other places as something more of a political goal than you see here?

That question means that one is going to accept there is such a thing as politics and there is another thing called Islam. Personally, I am not prepared to accept that.

Islam is a way of life. Islam is politics, it is economics, it is romantic poetry. It is so many things. It is philosophy, it is mathematics, and it is governments. It is so broad. ... You cannot talk about Islam without talking about this area of Islamic ethics and morals. Islam, is in this way, all-inclusive.

Now to say that we want to build a Muslim state, or we want to have Muslim institutions, is not necessarily political. It is really cultural, isn't it? We really want these for the sake of our community. Our community could be in midtown Manhattan. Our community could also be Karachi, Pakistan. It could be the whole state.

This separation of this desire to talk about politics as being separate from Islam is something that Muslim scholars on the whole have never accepted. This is one of the problems that exists between Western scholars and Muslim scholars, or many Muslim scholars.

Certainly there is the notion that if you don't separate the two, you can't have democracy; there has to be [separation].

What does democracy mean? Again, we have to define our terms. Even within Western political thought, democracy is not monolithic. It doesn't have just one definition. ...

Muslim societies, to this very day, are still very much clan-based and locally based. What the government does in a capital does not always affect them in the provinces or in the villages, et cetera, et cetera. So authority for them is not always government authority or even regional authority. Not always.

It is at this level that they can continue to have, or will attempt to have their own institutions. How do they voice their opinions sitting around as a family group, sitting as a local council? The people of this family vote for this, so therefore the clan leader takes this opinion to a larger setting. "We have voiced our opinion." So what is the problem here? ...

[Has the idea of an Islamic state changed to fit the framework of a nation-state?]

That is not quite accurate. Historically Islam has known the nation-state, as well as the imperial state, has known kingdoms, has known several things. ...

So the idea of a Muslim state or the attempt to build a Muslim state now does not necessarily mean the building of an empire, an imperial state. It just simply means that within this one state, we should have Islamic institutions. Pure and simple.

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