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American Ulema: How Muslim Religious Scholars are Emulating Christian Evangelicals By Embracing Prosperity Gospels

American Ulema: How Muslim Religious Scholars are Emulating Christian Evangelicals By Embracing Prosperity Gospels

  • As an Indian-Pakistani American Muslim, I struggle with the defeatism in the Muslim community in the United States as compared to the robust activism of the civil rights era and freedom movement in the Indian subcontinent.

In times of profound injustice and oppression, we turn to religious leaders as moral compasses and voices for the downtrodden. Figures like Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi stood at the vanguard of transformative movements against oppression, employing moral suasion, non-violent resistance, and civil disobedience to dismantle unjust regimes. 

Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, was unrelenting in his censure of apartheid’s discriminatory policies and the institutionalized dehumanization of Black South Africans. Gandhi, an adherent of Hinduism and trained in the law, pioneered the concept of satyagraha, non-violent civil disobedience and non-cooperation to render unjust laws unworkable. Both men mobilized principled resistance through speeches, marches, and advocacy, highlighting how racist systems were an affront to human dignity and equality. Their moral clarity inspired reformists and catalyzed national and global movements that dismantled repressive colonial and minority rule.

As an Indian-Pakistani American Muslim, I struggle with the defeatism that spews from the Muslim space in the United States against the robust activism of Americans in the civil rights era and Indians and Pakistanis during their respective independence movements. 

The Islamic tradition is also replete with examples of ulema and activists who championed anti-colonial struggle and justice, from Omar Mukhtar’s armed resistance against the Italian occupation of Libya to the intellectual and grassroots opposition to the Pahlavi dynasty’s tyranny in Iran. Sadly, large segments of the American Muslim clergy have failed to emulate these profound examples of prophetic activism.

By contrast, many mainstream Muslim imams and orthodox ulema in the United States have remained shamefully silent or acquiescent in the face of intensifying Islamophobia, government surveillance of mosques, travel bans, and other policies that have marginalized Muslim Americans. Rather than leading their congregations in the tradition of revolutionary Muslim activist intellectuals, such as Ali Shariati, Frantz Fanon, and anti-colonial Islamic modernists throughout Asia and Africa, they prioritized political docility and maintained the status quo.

Part of this problem is that anti-colonial Muslim history has been repressed so as not to have those resistance movements reignited. Angry, revolutionary Muslims do not fit into bill of the New World Order agenda.

There are few modern-day equivalents to the activist dynamism of Malcolm X, Warith Deen Muhammad, or Imam Jamil Al-Amin among American Muslim leadership. Most ulema have failed to fuse anti-colonial activism with religious reformation, propagating instead a spiritually lethargic and circumscribed vision of Islam akin to Christian evangelical pastors like Joel Osteen. Their risk-averse sermons revolve around feel-good personal development rather than galvanizing Muslims to collectively challenge social and political injustices.

There will be no Muslim renaissance in America until religious leaders properly contextualize Islam’s traditions of activism, indigenous resistance, and anti-colonial struggle to mobilize congregations against marginalization.

The once-revered position of the imam has seen a significant decline in status and influence. Imams can no longer be controversial voices or agents of change as they lack substantial support from the community they serve. A pervasive sense of despondency within Islam has contributed to a weak class of imams, who are largely beholden to the whims of governing boards and committees. Many imams hail lack financial resources and political know-how, leading them to adopt an overly cautious approach out of fear of jeopardizing their positions. Instead of being bold spiritual leaders, imams have become mere puppets, constrained by the boards that employ them and are unable to confront difficult issues or challenge the status quo. The neutering of the imamate has left a void in religious guidance and moral authority within Muslim communities.

This deprivation of moral leadership has prevented Muslim activism from coalescing into a sustained, organized movement akin to the Civil Rights struggle, Gandhi’s independence movement, or revolutionary Islamic movements against colonialism across the Muslim world. Unlike Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, and revolutionary Muslim figures who personally endured violence, jail time, and threats while spearheading boycotts, sit-ins, marches and campaigns of non-cooperation, imams have failed to mobilize their congregants through similar tactics of civil resistance and disobedience. Most still advise Muslims to keep their heads down politically, perpetuating a myopic strategy of merely securing the Muslim community’s insularity rather than upending foundational prejudices.

The ulema’s acquiescence has enabled America’s pervasive system of moral inconsistency around Islam and Muslims to persist. The double standards, where Americans profess to uphold religious freedom, remain unmoved by policies that undermine the rights of Muslim minorities and fester largely unconfronted. Muslim leaders should replicate the consciousness-raising embraced by Tutu, Gandhi, anti-colonial Islamic revivalists, and other campaigners for justice to make such moral contradictions untenable.  I do not understand how those who built my fire for Islam have extinguished the flames of activism, becoming a shell of themselves like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who was heckled on stage at the RIS Conference in Toronto. 

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When I was five years old, I heard Imam Siraj Wahhaj say that we need to plan for 50 years. I have been working on a 50-year plan over the past four decades. I would appreciate it if our ulema would join the struggle in the streets, not just on the weekends, and not when the convenience of their jam-packed schedule permits. As a massive military aid bill of $95 billion is barreling through Congress this week, our imams are nowhere. After months of reaching out to everyone we know, we managed to get only one imam to advocate for us on Capitol Hill, Imam Tom Facchine. He joined a Catholic priest and Christian pastor in our advocacy efforts through our coalition group called Ceasefire 2024 with other organizations Indian American Muslim Council, Doctors Against Genocide, and  

There will be no Muslim renaissance in America until religious leaders properly contextualize Islam’s traditions of activism, indigenous resistance, and anti-colonial struggle to mobilize congregations against marginalization. By joining modern-day intersectional movements for racial, social, and economic justice rather than prioritizing their institutions’ self-preservation, ulema can reignite Islam’s potential to inspire a righteous struggle. calling they have been sorely abdicated in favor of political complicity and intellectual stagnation.

In academia, there exists a delicate balance for scholars – to produce thought-provoking work that advances knowledge without rocking the boat so much as to jeopardize one’s career. It’s a tightrope walk, striving to remain intellectually relevant while avoiding backlash from controversial ideas. This paradoxical existence was once famously attacked by French essayist Julien Benda in his 1927 work La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). As author Roger Kimball highlighted, Benda exposed the profound depths of this “intellectual treason” — the compromise academics make in suppressing bold, sincere ideas for self-preservation. Benda lamented how the intelligentsia of his era had betrayed their principles, becoming servile to political and social forces rather than pursuing truth without fear or favor.

Nearly a century later, this tension persists in the ivory tower and at the pulpit. The pressures of securing tenure, grants, and institutional prestige can discourage open dissent or radical perspectives that alienate those who control the levers of power in academia. However, a scholar’s fundamental role is to fearlessly expand the frontiers of knowledge through critical inquiry. The path forward lies in upholding unwavering intellectual honesty while exercising judicious wisdom to present controversial ideas. By striking this balance, academics can make substantial contributions to their fields without being cast aside as dangerous radicals. The ethical scholar must strive to maintain this equilibrium. I would expect the same of the Ulema.

Nadia B. Ahmad is an Associate Professor of Law at Barry University School of Law and Ph.D. Student at the Yale School of the Environment. She is also a Fellow at the Center for Security, Race, and Rights at Rutgers University and affiliated faculty at Harvard Law School’s Institute for Global Law & Policy.

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