‘Carrying the Word’
Reflections of an American Imam
This cover article was featured in Emel Magazine’s May 2006 Issue
Imam Zaid Shakir is, in many ways, the quintessential American: a youth with a two newspaper route, a high school football player, a member of the United States Air Force, a student activist at Rutgers University, a university professor, a foster father - and a respected Islamic Scholar. Born in Berkeley, California to a family descended from African, Irish and Native American roots, Imam Zaid is one of the most important voices within Islam today and a leading advocate for social change and economic justice.
He talks to Dr. Noreen A. Kassem about finding the heart of Islam, traditional learning, ‘going it alone’ and his new book, Scattered Pictures, Reflections of an American Muslim.
As Muslims, we are carrying the Word of God in an increasingly secular, militarized, and alienated world. What it means to carry that word is not an unknowable abstraction. We carry it by following the concrete example of our Noble Messenger Muhammad, peace and blessings of God upon him. In carrying the word, he endured unimaginable abuses and he persevered through them because he was inspired by a grand vision. That vision was to see his people saved by the life-giving, life-affirming message of Islam.
These impelling words are from the essay “Clash of the Uncivilized,” Imam Zaid’s response to the cartoon controversy. In that recent frenzy and at many other critical junctures, the Imam is a guide to look to for a calm, cerebral perspective. His, is a refreshingly clear and rational voice above the din of rhetoric, empty speech and simplistic views. Trained and experienced in both socio-political and Islamic sciences, Imam Zaid walks the talk of ‘carrying the word’ in the West.
Recent events have embroiled Muslims in controversy and confusion. What it means to be a Western Muslim has become one of the most important questions of our time. Imam Zaid believes in a practical Islam for America, flatly rejecting both secular and religious extremist notions that Islam must be defined in opposition to the West. He states that the foundational values of Islam are compatible with the best of Western values and embodies this belief through the connection of all his personal, political and spiritual endeavours.
The opening chapter of Scattered Pictures tells the story of the life that shaped one of the most influential Islamic scholars in the West, today. We met with Imam Zaid at the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California, where he has served as resident scholar since 2003.
Speaking with Imam Zaid is similar to talking to your favourite professor; the one that saw your potential, and helped nurture your ideas, knowledge, and critical thinking. The Imam is approachable, charismatic and patient, with a gentle, comedic side. He is also a direct and well-informed speaker, eloquently vocalizing thoughts on topics ranging from Turkish nationalism and the economic stability of Syria to race-relations in America and traditional Islamic teaching methods.
Imam Zaid dedicated Scattered Pictures to the memory of his mother, Richelene Whitaker Mitchell.
In it, he eulogizes her as an evocative writer whose intellect was not stifled by the fact that she was a single mother raising seven children in the projects. He wrote, “She had come to understand that true human liberation would only come through the discovery of our true humanity.” We ask him what other lessons his mother impressed upon him. “From my mother I inherited the desire to constantly do better. She was always trying to improve our situation under very difficult circumstances. She taught me the importance of keeping your head. To accomplish anything you need a clear head. My siblings today who are not Muslim have also not fallen into the trap of substance abuse. I also learned that your dignity has nothing to do with your economic status.” His own early experiences, growing up in poverty stricken housing projects, resonated in his soul and left him with the purposeful goal to work for the betterment of people, for the ‘common good’ of all.
After the death of his mother and after much deliberation, Imam Zaid decided to join the US Air Force. Since the Vietnam war was over, he did not expect to be called upon to kill “in the name of God and country.” Instead, the armed forces, which recruited him through the ‘poverty draft,’ provided him with shelter and sustenance and enabled him to pursue an education. His military years would give him an insider’s perspective on what US President Eisenhower warned of as “the military industrial complex”: “It is obvious that war is big business. I worked in the context of logistics and you see this impressive globalized logistical network that is set up basically to kill people. Then there is the business infrastructure that supports that and the tax dollars that are funneled into it as well. War is big business and it’s nothing new.” He cites the example of Geronimo, a native American warrior who in the last major act of indigenous resistance, led a band of only 38 people, including women and children and evaded capture by 5,000 US troops and the Mexican army for over a year until surrendering in 1884. “They sent out the US calvary, - thousands of troops - to get 38 people.” Adds Imam Zaid, “It was all about supporting the profiteering network that was benefiting financially from supplying that army.” He admits there were positive aspects to his military service, namely, “It instilled a lot of discipline and respect for authority, which are important in everyone’s life.”
In the Air Force, he would also meet his wife, Saliha, a tireless and dynamic counterpart to his purpose driven life. Imam Zaid laughs when we ask him about her, “She’s too hardworking, she needs a vacation.” He adds, “We were both very much in an activist mindset when we met, both looking at it in the same way. I think that you shouldn’t become tired in trying to do something positive together. And you should never reach a point in a marriage where you become complacent with each other, never retire.”
After his departure from the Air Force, Imam Zaid would go on to complete his studies in International Relations at the American University in Washington, DC and then a Masters degree in Political Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Did his choice of academic disciplines stem from his early resolution to incite social change? “Yes, indirectly. I wanted to learn how the world works in order to change it. I was idealistic and highly motivated. There is a big Ummah out there and it needs a new direction.”
Imam Zaid had always been a spiritual person, meditating often, perhaps more so before his search for God led him to Islam. “I would often go into the woods, even alone and just wander and lose myself. I would sit down and reflect; I went through a deep meditative and contemplative phase before I became a Muslim.” So it is discernible that the Imam is convinced of the human necessity for spirituality and its transformational force on every aspect of one’s life: “When I was a growing up as a Christian child, every night we would stop and say our prayers and it was just communion with God, ‘Oh God give me this, help me with that. Thank you God, I love you God’. Now our kids don’t commune with God. We need to encourage our kids to communicate with God and have intimate conversations. For many people, prayer has become mechanical because they are not reflecting much on God before entering into it. A person who rarely thinks about God will inevitably have difficulty reflecting in his prayers. On the other hand, someone who wakes up in the morning and remembers God, reads Qur’an every morning and prays on the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him. Someone who takes time to be conscious of God and remember invocations will find it a lot easier to be mindful of God in their prayers. For the latter person, prayer is just reinforcing and strengthening their general spirituality.”
“Spirituality is very important and should be an active part of our lives, our children’s lives and an active part of our educational curriculum. The heart is then more sensitive to the Creator and that enhances our attainment of education, awareness of social justice, ecological and environmental issues. By being sensitive to the Creator, we are more sensitive to the creation. Spirituality gives us an awareness of those things that guard our relationship with the Divine and that leads to a propensity to safeguard our relationship with other people and our environment,” he maintains.
Speaking of the heart and its purification is something that has become somewhat removed from some Islamic methodologies in modern times, so we asked Imam Zaid about his journey to becoming a more balanced, traditional scholar of Islam: “A friend who had taken a Salafi view of Islam influenced the rest of us, who were new Muslims at the time. However I became a kinder, gentler Salafi, not the stern-faced kind who tells you your hijab is too short, your beard is too short, - everything is too short,” he said lightheartedly.
“On a serious note, just seeing the effect that sort of thinking had on people, producing self-righteous, constantly condemning, cynical, overly critical, rigid people. I said to myself, producing that sort of individual could not have been the goal of our Prophet, peace and blessings upon him. It could not have been his mission. I just figured something is wrong here, this can’t be what it’s all about. So I started looking for other forms of Islamic expression. That is not to say that all Salafis are like the type I have described here. I know many wonderful, balanced believers who would call themselves Salafis. These are just my personal experiences.”
In Scattered Pictures, Imam Zaid shares details of this spiritual journey, which would eventually take him abroad and compel him to state, “It was in Syria where I discovered my humanity.” The choice to move to Syria was initially a practical one; it was an affordable place to gain Islamic knowledge. However, it would soon prove to be the place that would mark Imam Zaid’s embrace of traditional scholarship and outlooks, and where he and his wife would remain for almost seven years, under the tutelage of some of the greatest Islamic scholars in the world. It was there that the Imam discovered a “fuller, richer religious expression” as he immersed himself in the traditional learning of the Arabic language, Islamic law, Qur’anic studies, and spirituality.
The former university professor also takes stock of his educational experiences and observations at home and abroad to outline his vision for a whole and holistic education for children in a Muslim educational system.
“The standard curriculum that prevails in most Western Islamic schools, has Islamic Studies and Arabic courses as appendices. What is really needed is a system based on a traditional Islamic curriculum and the Arabic language. If there was a serious effort to use Islam to enforce how other subjects are taught there wouldn’t be a contradiction between the Islamic and modern secular.” He elaborates, drawing constructive and viable examples, “Mathematics wouldn’t be strictly abstract but include application in Islamic laws, for example teaching how percentages are relevant in inheritance laws and in zakat (obligatory charity) calculations. In English, we would have students read related Islamic texts, in addition to those legally mandated. So all subjects that are taught, - history, biology, English,- would directly involve religious instruction. Islamize the curriculum. Have the core in Arabic; there is no reason why we can’t take children from the first grade to twelfth, and have them become fluent in Arabic and Islamic studies. This will give them the ability to converse and participate in discourse on various Islamic sciences. With a firm rooting and understanding of the methodology of hadith, understanding how the Qur’an was compiled and translated throughout history, memorizing the Qur’an, they won’t be vulnerable to the negative arguments and thoughts that sway a lot of Muslims.”
Imam Zaid also elaborates on the Zaytuna Institute’s ongoing plans to establish an Islamic seminary for men and women and why these educational institutions are important in the West: “It’s very important that we have credible educational institutions in the West, so we can begin to produce our own scholars. That’s important because only children who have grown up in this environment can have an understanding of the issues and a command of the nuances of language to communicate effectively and address the problems of this society. We know what the educational needs of our young people are. We can structure programs and identify what is essential, what is most beneficial for our situation. Everywhere in the world you see indigenous scholars for indigenous people.”
Like many people of minority and immigrant populations in the West, Imam Zaid faced racial prejudice, and economic and social injustice, yet he was able to move beyond hatred, bitterness and apologia, due in large part to his exposure to Islam. “First of all, it’s not the Prophetic way. Secondly, bitterness and hatred distorts your ability to see things as they are. So the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, said constantly, ‘Don’t become angry,’ because at the heart of his mission was introducing us to reality. Emotional states affect the heart and that affects intellect and clarity of thought. So it is very important to have a clear mind, to be able to access things as rationally and pragmatically as possible. Anything that affects clarity of the mind, be it physically such as intoxicants, or emotionally or spiritually such as bitterness and anger, must be avoided. Certainly, there are situations where you need to be angry, but our anger should be situational, not a constant description of our condition.”
He further notes, “There are no benefits to bitterness. If one is exceedingly bitter then one tends to see other groups of people as being responsible for one’s situation. That feeling of victimization is not healthy. Rather it is a detriment to constructive action. Victimization usually leads to inaction because problems are always ‘someone else’s fault’. That being the case, there is little ‘I’ can do to fix them.”
When respected scholar from Yemen, Shaykh Al-Habib Ali al-Jifri, visited the US, Imam Zaid took him to visit the grave site of Malcolm X, in New York. He addresses the significance of Malcolm X to our Ummah today: “Malcolm X was very much committed to serving his people, and as his career broadened, serving humanity. I think that as Muslims we need to focus on that message, on that aspect of Islam. That this is not a self-serving religion, but a religion of service to others. It is also not a religion of isolation. Islam does encourage meditation and contemplation and it is encouraged to go on temporary retreats, such as in Ramadan, but not isolation. Meditation and contemplation are all part of making the individual stronger and better able to serve the community.”
He continues, “We see that Malcolm X, whatever he learned and whatever position he attained in his spiritual development, he placed it at the service of the people. I think that is a very important message. Additionally, Malcolm X is a bridge between the African American community and the Muslim community because he was a Muslim and he was also a champion of the African American people. That is a reality and we need to utilize that legacy, because these are times when Muslims need as many allies as possible.” Imam Zaid also passionately encourages marching alongside and reaching out to other communities subjected to “cultural tyranny” such as the Latino community in America. “Let us follow in the footsteps of Malcolm X and let us reach out to the sister communities.”
In the opening essay, Clash of the Uncivilized, Imam Zaid also warns of a day approaching Muslims in the West, when they will have to ‘go it alone’. When asked what ‘going it alone,’ means, he says, “It would be positive for both Eastern and Western Muslims. For example, in the issue of the moon-sighting, let’s decide on a day based on the sighting in the area we live in. That would avoid a lot of confusion and disunity, especially pre-Ramadan, We can be a positive example for Eastern Muslims. If they knew what they were doing could not divide us, perhaps they would be more inclined to uniting themselves.”
“Concerning the cartoon controversy, after all the demonstrations that took place, there is still no (Danish) apology, there have been no real changes. It has just left a lot of Muslims frustrated. We need to develop an agenda that is controlled by us and not defined by what the media tells us should be our interest. That means defining the issues that are important to us on our terms”.
On the issue of the role of women in the mosque, in Islamic institutions and in the community, he remarks: “If we are to have a whole and wholesome community, the role of women in our mosques and other institutions must reflect the role of women in greater society. If the role of women in a society is a domestic one, then that’s fine; that is the society’s equilibrium and balance. But in the West there is growing disparity between men and women. Women are becoming better educated and that translates into a social situation where women, including Muslim women are functioning at every level of society; in professions of medicine, administration, education - every level, though perhaps under-represented in auto mechanics. Until Islamic institutions reflect that inclusiveness for women, we’re going to have a dysfunctional society. We must accept the role of women in the general society as the role of women in our mosques, with safeguards for the parameters that Islam sets. Women are on the board of city council, schools, and they should be on the boards of mosques. There is nothing in Islam to prevent this, but we must maintain Islamic etiquette.”
He further maintains: “This is a balanced argument. There is nothing to prevent them from positions on the board if they are the most qualified. It is cultural schizophrenia if a man accepts going to work with women as his peers or as figures of authority on various boards, but then doesn’t accept that in the mosque. Also everyone, regardless of gender, should have equal access to the main prayer space and have the maturity to respect the space. This is a valid argument made by credible scholars.”
Imam Zaid’s remarkable journey stemmed from the heart; a heart which in essence called him to a faith that would embrace and encourage his social, moral and philosophical aspirations. He proficiently expounds on a hadith (Prophetic saying) regarding this subject: “Awareness emanates from the heart and if the heart is sound, the whole body is sound; if it’s corrupt, the whole body is corrupt. The commentary for that hadith further explains the parables for the individual, both physically and spiritually. On the physical level, if the heart is not functioning properly to pump blood, it will affect the body. On a spiritual level, if the heart is sound, then the limbs of the body will do sound things. But if it is sick then the limbs are going to do sick things.”
“It is also a parable for society, the heart of society is the individual and if the individual is corrupt then the society is going to be corrupt. Society is characterized by the individuals comprising it, and the wholesomeness or the corruption of the individual stems from the state of his or her heart. The nature of our society will reflect that, so we see a lot of sick hearts and as a result we are seeing the sort of things that we witness daily. The heart of the individual is the heart of society.”
Imam Zaid Shakir draws on his well-cultivated theological and sociological perspective to analyze the role of Islam and Muslims in the West. While he personifies the best holistic practices and cutting-edge thought that Islam requires to root deeply and flourish in the West; the Imam also embodies the rationality, spirituality, and breadth of traditional knowledge. This enables him to connect to people across race, class, ethnic and even national lines. He has a compassionate, realistic work ethic that was not fostered in idyllic circumstances but in our streets, classrooms and homes. In a time when so much seems so desperately unhinged, Imam Zaid Shakir is a genuine voice of balance and of concern for beneficial change. Far from being just an American imam, he is an imam for our Ummah.
(slightly edited from the original version)
Dr. Noreen Kassem