By Bilal Muhammad
Originally written in October of 2016
While we start any da`wa project, it is important to understand our environment. A da`i should not just comprehend this religion, but should have a grounded understanding of the history of Western civilization (its Greco-Roman and barbarian roots, Christendom, the Enlightenment, Westphalia, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, WW1 and WW2, nationalist and communist movements), pop culture, language, the liberal arts, the history of Muslim-Western exchange, and the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is very important that the right words are used and that the right issues are addressed.
Da`wa is not just about proselytizing to outsiders, but also to our youth, our children, and converts. As it is right now, most of our mosques offer individualistic spiritual experiences, and lack welcoming communal programs (tutoring, matchmaking, book clubs, humanitarian services, schools, gyms, labs, social events). Mosques are also mostly segregated by culture, language, marja`, class, and gender; which leaves out many youth and converts. So even if we use the correct method to call people to Islam, there are fundamental problems when receiving these individuals. Any da`wa effort must work hand-in-hand with community advancement efforts; the two must occur simultaneously.
In my experience, certain converts have an easier time integrating than others. Converts from Arab, Desi, and Afghani backgrounds can usually integrate into existing communities that cater towards them. Those who convert through the marriage route also have a family and community to fall back onto (although abuse or divorce can be catastrophic). Others however face a lot of difficulty due to language barriers, culture shock, trust issues in our communities, and being unable to find spouses. Those from a Catholic background have some more compatibility, because Catholic culture is communally-oriented, family oriented, civilizational, offers less-ambigious gender roles, etc. Black converts and Anglo-Saxon converts have a lot of trouble from multiple angles.
Often times, the ground that is most fertile for da`wa efforts is Latin America and African Americans; these are the people accepting Islam and Shiism in higher numbers. It is important to translate more content into Spanish.
The most successful “Muslim” movement in the West was the Nation of Islam, which was a black nationalist movement that focused their efforts on social programs for drug addicts, prison inmates, the homeless, the mentally and physically ill, gangs, etc. They reached out to the most exploited people in the population and gave them social services, self-respect, and an uncompromising ideology. Studying their example, their successes and their failures, may help us in our endeavour. Read the Autobiography of Malcolm X or watch the Spike Lee movie “Malcolm X”. Activism is contagious – the NOI was 75% social activism and 25% theology; perhaps we can learn something from that example.
Today, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Civilization is shedding its Christian and Mediterranean roots: The separation of Church and State, the deliberate destruction of Christian values in pop culture, Latin and Greek are gone from schools (which were the basis of ethics, philosophy, and religion), the family unit is dissolving, quasi-tribalist nationalism is on the rise, gender norms are dissolving, city architecture is purely designed for utility and economic benefit rather than beauty (look at New York or Toronto and compare it to traditional Catholic or Islamic architecture), and the Muslim population in Europe is under attack. Yeomanry and the Protestant work ethic remain the cornerstone of WASP culture.
The millennial generation struggles with identity, apathy towards organized religion, instant-gratification, hook-up culture, short attention spans (smart phone culture), depression, and the collapse of a collective intellectual mythology.
Interfaith debate and dialogue is no longer an effective way to gain converts, as most millennials either do not adhere to an organized religion, or they do not take their religion seriously. Instead, da`wa should focus on exposing the cultural poverty, rampant skepticism, lack of purpose, and aimless degeneracy of modern secularism. We should look into what goes viral on social media to better understand what millennials care about. Our mission is to guide those whose hearts are troubled. We will always meet opposition from the hard-hearted, but the open minded who are looking to regain their fitra are out there.
In the 60s and 70s, Islam had a chance to gain mainstream acceptance in the West. The West was getting over Christianity, and was experimenting with Zen Buddhism and Hinduism. Islam caught the eye of many who viewed it as a more familiar Abrahamic alternative to the far-eastern religions. However, what prevented the growth of Islam was that it was tied to specific movements in the east (the Afghan mujahideen, the Iranian revolution, the Saudi Wahabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Cause). Similarly, in the late 19th century, many da`wa efforts were tied to the Ottoman Empire, and were halted when the Empire collapsed. If we are to present Islam to Westerners, its image should not be tied to the successes or failures of the Muslim world, or to a specific state or specific party. Islam should be an idea and an ethical tradition that is not affected by what goes on in the East. We can praise good efforts, but we should not be associated.
We should emphasize that Shia Islam is distinct from both Salafism (extreme, literalist dogmatism) and aimless secularism (the other extreme). Our effort should be focused on showing the profound beauty and wisdom of our tradition, our creative expression (poetry, architecture), and the dignity of our holy personalities.