Black Lives Matter: Community and Praxis
Friday Nasiha, Claremont Main Road Mosque
12 June 2020
I greet you all with the universal greeting of As-Salāmu ʿAlaykum Wa Raḥmatu l-Lāhi Wa Barakātuh.
In Surah al-Rum, chapter 30, verse 22,: Allah, the Most High, proclaims:
وَمِنْ آَيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ
إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَآَيَاتٍ لِلْعَالِمِينَ
And of the wondrous signs of Allah is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations and diversity in your languages and in the pigmentation or colours of your skins;
For in this there are messages for those who think and reflect (Q30:22)
Over the last couple of months, we have all been forced to reimagine our sense of space and time. The very worlds we’ve come to occupy have narrowed in their physicality – where those of us fortunate enough to have homes, our worlds have been limited to the brick parameters of our abodes, for the most part.
It’s been a strange time.
Amidst the swirl of an initial pandemic – one which we still haven’t quite figured out yet – we find ourselves living through another type of disease, whose presence was re-introduced into our consciousness through the killing of man whose last words in this dunya were to call out for his mother – who herself had been late for two years.
It’s also been reported that George Floyd had tested for COVID-19. There is a strange and tragic irony there. In some sense, here he was living out his last days through these twin pandemics – both of which seem to be competing for the very air that he breathed.
In the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, there were more people who had been killed by state security forces than were victims of the virus. The most publicised victim, Collins Khosa, was killed by members of the South African defence force whilst sitting in his yard in Alexandra Township. The Khosa case – and the State’s reaction to it – is sadly all too typical in our part of the world.
Two men, oceans apart, connected by histories that have often failed to place value on black life. There are differences of course; whereas in my view, in the US race plays a more explicit role in the systemic killing and abuse of African American men and women (and children). In South Africa the threading of that narrative is slightly more complicated. Khosa was after all, killed by other Black men, who in turn ultimately reported to a ‘black’ government. Simultaneously though, and I say this without equivocation, it’s impossible to imagine a white Collins Khosa, sitting in his yard in Newlands being assaulted and killed by the security forces. The cognitive dissonance would have been too much.
So of course Khosa’s blackness implicates him in his own death much in a similar way that George Floyd’s blackness was central to his dying. In SA though, class often seems to play a co-current role in determining the outcomes and value of one’s lived experience – which is not to say it is entirely different in the US. But in this country, race and class are often part of the same vicious Venn diagram in constantly correlated ways. But I think it would be fair to say, that just because the Superstructure in this country contains more black people within it, does not, in of itself, sufficiently de-racialise it.
And so we must ask ourselves not only the question of how do we make it through this confusion, how do we pierce through the noise whilst pacing ourselves.
In my view, I humbly submit, we should go further, and ask ourselves, as human beings, as Muslims, what obligations does the current Moment impose on us? What level of praxis is demanded of us as we attempt to distil the best possible ways forward?
Islam’s foundational starting points are that of a community that pursues a social order premised on a theological ethical framework. Some modern scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman who was based at the University of Chicago died in 1988 describe this ‘social order’ as being premised on the Quranic precepts of ‘islam, iman and ‘taqwa’.
In Rahman’s articulation ‘iman’ is ‘rooted in the inner life of a believer’, ‘islam’ to ‘outer surrender of the believer to God’s Law’ and ‘taqwa’ ‘serving as the driving force of action’.
One would argue that this ethical framework extends such obligation beyond the individual and in many instances centres the role of the community in forging a response to attaining social justice.
The holy Quran in Al Imran, chapter 3 verse 104 “enjoins” us to advocate righteousness and actively forbid wrongs in our lives and in our communities.
وَلْتَكُنْ مِنْكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ ۚ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
“And let there be among you a community calling to virtue, and advocating righteousness, and deterring from evil. These are the successful.” (Q3:104)
There is a type of exhortation in Islam that continuously speaks to a community-orientated praxis when it comes to social justice. So when we speak of “Black Lives Matter” we should consider quite carefully where and how we locate the weight of its meaning into our own already very noisy discourse.
And one wonders what the role of the Muslim community under Apartheid says about how we are collectively likely we will be to respond to this current Moment.
Gideon Shimoni, in his book about the role of South Africa’s Jewish community under Apartheid, “Community and Conscience” writes that “South African Jews displayed a phenomenon of self-preservation performed at the cost of moral righteousness.” Thus absconding from what Shimoni describes as a liberal tradition going back 100s of years.
In this place we’ve been speaking about race for at least the last 400 years and there is a trauma to this kind of never-ending conversation. There’s a fatigue that comes with the circumstance of constantly occupying the same moment and the same conversation – like bad deja vu. So it’s hard to ward off the indifference, nihilism even amidst intensity of the current set of crisis. In my view we can’t revert to some of the usual talking points and gestures – posting a black tile on our Instagram or to reflexively cite one of the Nabi’s (PBUH) earliest sahaba, Bilal (May Allah be pleased with him) as a sort of definitive retort to any argument about racism in the community.
Our response to state sanctioned violence, both structural and physical, has to move from posturing to outright praxis and do so in a way that places us as part of the broader solution. And what I’ve come to know is that this community, at its best, can provide a shining example to society at large on how we can all build a praxis-orientated solidarity – one that resonates from the backyards of Alexandra Township, to Minneapolis, to Long Island New York, to Marikana.
In fact I am of the Arundhati Roy school of thought, who in a recent Financial Times piece argued that the worst possible outcome arising from this crisis would be return to the normal we have just left behind. We need to radically re-order not only the conversations we’re having in our homes, in our masjids, on social media but also our actions. I see the current events in the US in moral terms, because I see racism as a profoundly un-Islamic moral failing.
Despite our sense of déjà vu and fatigue, something about this current Moment and conversation seems different. It Feels like an inflection point. It’s also a key opportunity for the community to reiterate some of the best features of being Muslim in SA: community, solidarity, charity, empathy. At the same time, it’s also a good time to re-visit areas where we fall short. My nasiah and advice is to encourage us to have the hard conversation about race and racism within the community and in fact formalise our approaches to eradicating it.
I end my talk with the words of Frantz Fanon, who would have likely had no idea how prescient he was when writing this:
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”
May the Almighty guide and protect us,
May Allah make us the helpers and protectors of the oppressed, and
May Allah make grant us all many more purpose filled breaths in this life, insha Allah