The Jazz of Islam and Gender Identity Debates

Some days ago, a friend alerted me to the fact that a very important American Muslim personality passed away, and did so in near absolute silence and obliviousness by the Muslim community. The person I am referring to is Ahmad Jamal, a world-class jazz musician who died on April 16th. Ahmad Jamal converted to Islam when he was 20 years old and went on to be a gigantic figure in the field of jazz music. While I personally do not follow jazz music, the record is undeniable that his influence in the field was enormous. Ahmad Jamal was famous for a very interesting statement. Whenever he was asked why he converted to Islam, he would respond in the same way: "The answer is in my music." 


The passing of Ahmad Jamal deserves a pause. There were so many obituaries by professional musicians from all over the world. Whether in jazz music, classical music, or other genres of music, people had volumes of things to say about Ahmad Jamal and his impact in the field of jazz. What received only a very brief mention, however, or was missing altogether from the obituaries, is that for Ahmad Jamal jazz music and Islam were inseparable.


Jazz music was the way he articulated his iman, his love for Islam, and his love for God. It was the way he articulated brotherhood in Islam and his celebration of and belief in the Muslim Ummah. It was the way he articulated his belief that Islam liberated him as an African-American man, that Islam gave him his sense of identity, his sense of autonomy, and his sense of liberation. Jazz music became the way he protested racial structures, racial legacies, and racial realities in the United States. It became the way he articulated the aspirations of a thoroughly dominated and oppressed class of people, an entire race of people, in the United States.


Jazz music was his language. Jazz music was the way he delivered his khutbahs. It was his pulpit and his language. The musicians who knew and were impacted by Ahmad Jamal understood all of that, and they understood that his music was but a homily, a love song for Islam and for God. And because of that, his influence was enormous. His influence for Muslims and for Islam, in the United States and beyond, was enormous. It is not an exaggeration to say that through his example and his music, droves of people came to Islam, understood Islam, learned Islam, believed in God, accepted the prophecy of Muhammad, and, ultimately, accepted Islam itself.


So it demands a serious pause when someone of the caliber of Ahmad Jamal passes away on April 16th with hardly any notice by American Muslim institutions, organizations, and imams. Yes, it could be in part due to the thick headedness and the myopia of the belief of some Muslims that music is haram. And yes, this matter was debated throughout the history of Islamic jurisprudence. But this issue is a very good example of approaches to Islam that empower the trajectory of Islam in the world, versus approaches to Islam that suppress the power and potential of Islam in the world, and ultimately destroy it. Regardless of whatever text you cite, music is as innate to human beings and human society as can be. Sociologically and anthropologically, we do not know of a single human society that existed that did not have one form of music or another. We find, in every society throughout human history, regardless of how advanced or unadvanced the society is, that music is as innate as language, as the articulation of words and letters, as writing, or as expressing. We know, through various psychological studies, both the empowering power of music and, potentially, the corrupting power of music. 


We know, for example, to our great shame, that one of the ways we tortured detainees in Guantanamo and in U.S. black sites was by blasting harsh metal music with demonic themes, day and night, into cells. We know the impact of doing so on these Muslim detainees. It destroyed them psychologically. But we also know the impact of music in healing, mending, and elevating. I do not want to get into the issue of music itself this jumu'a, but I must say that any religion that goes against the nature of human beings, that attempts to cancel out the instinctive qualities of human beings, in any age, is bound to become an oppressive, repressive religion. There is no way of reconciling between God telling us there is no coercion in Islam (Q 2:256) and those who believe that music should be banned, for if you oppose music, you are opposing human nature and demanding that human beings reprogram themselves against their very nature. And that project, my brothers and sisters, has never succeeded.


No religion, ideology, or philosophy that went against the grain of human nature ever succeeded. Never. It has never happened in history. Any religion that demands human beings to reprogram themselves to become less human will ultimately fail. No ifs, ands, ors about it. Of course, those who are educated will understand that when Muslim jurists talked about music, for or against, they were referring to particular cultural practices that they encountered in their time. They were not referring to the music hummed by a peasant as they worked the field, or to folk songs sung as people worked or dug trenches. They were referring to the music of the aristocratic elite, music that often involved slaves bought for the purpose of song and dance. They were referring to the fact that these singing boys and girls were used in highly promiscuous contexts. It is like those who, when they talk about music, what they have in mind are rave parties where people drink, become rowdy, lawless, and engage in all types of sexual activity. Yes, we can point to that and clearly say that is haram, but Ahmad Jamal's music was not that. In fact, Ahmad Jamal started, to my knowledge, the only nightclub that served solely non-alcoholic drinks. Sadly, it failed and went out of business. But Ahmad Jamal was a committed, dedicated Muslim who served God and Islam through his elevated, liberating, empowering, and inspiring music. 


So perhaps our obliviousness is, in part, because he was a musician, but I doubt that. Quickly, my mind goes to musicians like Cat Stevens or other famous non-Black musicians who compose and produce music in White spaces. The horrific idea is that we do not focus on the role that Ahmad Jamal played, on the victories for Islam he delivered, or on his type of legacy, because it is not a White legacy. Instead, we automatically devalue his contributions because he was Black. I am not saying this to point the finger at you. I am saying this to point the finger at me. I say this because sermons and lectures that simply pat you on the back and tell you, "Go, fear God, good luck," are worthless. The reason God gave us podiums is to engage in self-critical insight, and I must therefore ask myself, "While I greatly value classical music, I do not value jazz music. Is this a cultural bias? Is this a racial bias? Is this an economic bias?"


I did not hear of Ahmad Jamal passing away on April 16th until my friend told me recently, and I must ask myself, “Would it have been different if he was White? Am I affected by the racist dynamics that reign supreme in our societies? Why did I not know? Why did I wait until his death to celebrate his achievements?” Before I point the finger at you, I point the finger at myself. “What is wrong with you?” Examine your commitments. Examine your morality. Examine your ethics. Cleanse yourself before you are forced to confront yourself in the Hereafter. Recognize your offenses, lest I meet Ahmed Jamal in the Hereafter and lest I be forced to answer these questions posed to me. 


It is easy, immoral, and un-Islamic to simply come together at jumu’a to say, "Nice seeing you. Okay, goodbye." No point delivered. No value added. No progress achieved. And no reflection upon the passing of this great musician. I did research to find out who spoke about Ahmad Jamal's passing in the Muslim community, and the answer was embarrassing. Practically no one in the Ummah spoke about this man’s passing, a man that gave 50 years of service to Islam through his music. "You want to know why I became a Muslim? The answer is in my music." Indeed, if you put your biases aside and listen with an open heart, you will discover that the answer is, indeed, in his music. It is as if you have taken a journey of spiritual elevation with music that, I am tempted to say, was Divinely inspired. 


Another incident that occurred just this past week gives me pause and makes me think of our collective psychology as Muslims. This incident involved an 86-year-old Yemeni man named Hamod Ali Saeidi. Hamod Ali Saeidi immigrated to the United States from Yemen in 1962. After a long life struggling and working as an immigrant in the United States, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, raising children, and having grandchildren, he settled into a habitual routine. This routine gave him a great deal of pleasure and peace. Every day, Hamod Ali Saeidi would wake up, have his coffee, and go for a walk in a local park in New York. After walking in the park, he would go to the masjid, pray, and read Qur'an, and after spending some time in the masjid, he would walk back home. On Saturday, July 8th, as Hamod Ali Saeidi was walking to the masjid, a man on a scooter shot him and killed him. Why did this man kill Hamod Ali Saeidi? When Hamod Ali Saeidi would take his walk in the park and go to the masjid, he would wear traditional Yemeni clothing. This man shot and killed Ali Saeidi because this man did not like foreigners, did not like Muslims, and wanted to hurt a Muslim.


So an 86-year-old walking to the mosque in New York is shot and killed. What, again, gave me pause is how some Islamic organizations expressed their regret and condemnation in a nearly formulaic fashion. CAIR called upon the New York Police Department to investigate the matter as a hate crime, which the NYPD declined to do. They did not charge the person who killed him under any hate crime statutes, although it was clearly a hate crime. Hamod Ali Saeidi was only picked because he was a Muslim, and life went on.


If this great jazz musician was anything but a Muslim, all types of institutions would be making documentaries about his legacy. Universities would try to get his archives. Museums would try to get the drafts of his compositions. All types of things would be happening. The city in which he died would issue declarations, honoring him in a variety of ways. What is wrong with us? 


Why is it that we do not have nakhwa, that remarkable word, which was once all over the world of Islam? Nakhwa is a sense of honor and pride that makes you defend the rights of others before defending yourselves. Do you want to know why God gave Islam to the Arabs? It is because before Islam, Arabs had that quality. In modern times, of course, they completely lack nakhwa. None is left. At the time of the revelation of Islam, however, they had that sense of nakhwa, that sense of pride, about who they were as individuals. They could not see a relative or a loved one being hurt without interfering to help. The Arab nakhwa, combined with Islam’s nakhwa, conquered the entire world. For what Islam embeds in the very foundation of a human soul is that your worship, your surrender to God, means that your head is held high, and God demands from you that you live a life of honor and principle, defending the rights of others before defending your own right.


But that sense of honor and strength is always defeated by despotism and oppression. Centuries of despotism and oppression destroyed the Islamic nakhwa. Centuries of despotism and oppression completely erased our individual and collective sense of nakhwa. So, now, people without nakhwa are plagued by all the diseases that plague the worst cultures. The disease of racism is not countered by nakhwa, by a sense of pride and honor about the achievements of our fellow Muslims. So our racism proceeds unopposed, and we let a great Black man die with hardly any notice. How could this happen? How could we allow it to happen? 


I will give you one more example. It again relates to the idea of nakhwa. I heard a recording that I am sure some of you have already heard of a teacher in Canada berating a Muslim child because this Muslim child refused to participate in an event celebrating the LGBT community. This teacher told the child, “If you want to be respected as a Muslim, you have to respect the cultures of others. And if you are not willing to accept that, you do not belong in this country.” This is highly racist discourse. Do we tell racist Jewish people that they have to leave the country? Do we tell racists from Ukraine that they do not have a right to be in Canada or the United States? For the sake of argument, even if the student is a racist or a bigot, would a teacher dare say to a student, "The law says you cannot be a bigot, so if you are, you must leave the country”? The teacher was recorded berating this Muslim child. The fact of the matter is that Canadian law, like American law, protects the rights of bigots to be bigots. There is nothing in Canadian law or American law that says if you are a bigot, you do not belong in the country. There are plenty of Islamophobes in these countries, but no one dares tell an Islamophobe, "If you cannot respect Muslims, you must leave the country."


Yet that teacher dared say as much to the Muslim child, and she was recorded doing it. The school, when the recording was released, said, “What the teacher did does not represent us and we will take appropriate measures,” and Muslim organizations left it at that. All these Muslims who pretend to have a principled position about X, Y, or Z left it at that. Imagine if this student was anything but a Muslim. I checked, and the teacher was not fired. She received a warning. But the recording is clear, the tone of the teacher is clear, the berating of a child is clear, and the teacher's message lacks reason, principles, and law. In addition, she was incorrect. It is not the case that if you disagree with the law, you need to leave the country. That is not how democracies work. Yet, Muslims are happy to go on to the next thing. No nakhwa, no sense of power, no sense of pride, no sense of honor.


It is time that we talk about the elephant in the room. In a recent article, it was noted that last weekend, when Donald Trump was in Iowa, as part of his bid for the presidency, Trump once again turned on his extremely Islamophobic discourse, describing Islam as an “enemy” and Muslims as a “threat.” Trump said he wants to make it clear that if reelected, he will reinstate the Muslim ban. Trump even promised that this time, it will be bigger and much stronger than before. This is familiar territory. But the issue, as the article points out, and this is one of a number of articles to do so, is that Muslim support for Trump is on the increase despite these diatribes against Islam. Now even more Muslims support Trump and his party. Why? It is because of the issues of homosexuality, gender fluidity, et cetera.


Pause for a second. I read an article in which a Muslim was making an argument that we often hear. "Yes, Trump's Muslim ban inconvenienced some Muslims, but when all is said and done, Trump killed less Muslims than Obama, Clinton, or Bush. And our new natural allies are the right wing, because of the issues of sexuality, gender, and equality under the law.”


So you are tolerating a political structure that defames your religion, defames your holy book, slanders your prophet, and ultimately sees Muslims as lesser human beings? That supports policies at the international level all over Europe and all over the world, including China, for we know Trump gave the Chinese the green light to put the Uyghurs in concentration camps. We know the Indian government's fanaticism against Muslims escalated to an unprecedented level under Trump's presidency, because Trump is ideologically committed to Islamophobia. We know that under the Trump presidency, Israel’s usurpation and stealing of al-Aqsa and Jerusalem reached unprecedented levels. We know that under the Trump presidency, the betrayal of Palestinians by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, and Sudan reached unprecedented levels. We know all of that. But we will ignore all of that. Why? Because we are worried about issues of gender, sexuality, and equal protection of the law.


Let me be very clear. I believe that the state should not be involved in teaching sexual ethics to your child. This is part of the state overextending itself regarding morality and interfering with ethics. The sexual education of the child belongs to the child's family. But have you done your homework? Have you done your homework on whether the judges appointed by the right wing, in fact, give the family that power, or does the right wing privilege Christianity in particular in schools and institutions, but, when it comes to Muslims, their interpretation of the law of the Constitution does not apply? Have you done your homework? What should I say? Is it laziness or ignorance? Under what court, what majority, and what ideological orientation were gay marriages recognized under the Constitution? If you want to assert the right of the family to educate or to control the sexual education of the child, you must do your homework. Learn the technicalities of the matter and fight for this right with a court that understands the limitations on the state. Not a court that expands and empowers the state to intervene in every home, but a court that believes in a limited government when it comes to issues of civil rights and public morality. Is it really that difficult to understand that the first victims of a jurisprudence that reads the equal protection clause as narrower in scope will be you? We live in an age of Islamophobia, as we saw with the Muslim ban decision. It will not be gay or transgender people. It will be us, Muslims. Is it really difficult to understand that the logic of the Muslim ban is not just to freeze immigration from Muslim countries for a time, but to institutionalize and anchor racist and Islamophobic policies?


In the executive branch, in ICE, in the FBI, in the Department of Justice, have you done your homework? Have you looked, under the Trump administration, the extent to which the United States government expanded in contracting Islamophobes to train ICE officers and the FBI? Have you looked, under the Trump administration, at the unprecedented level of cooperation between the Justice Department and Israeli intelligence in monitoring Muslims all over the U.S. and Europe? Your Qur'an is insulted. Your Prophet is slandered. Your Jerusalem is lost. Your rulers become traitors and sellouts to unprecedented levels. Look at what happened in Saudi Arabia after Trump. Look at how the Trump administration covered up the Khashoggi murder and entrenched Mohammed bin Salman in power, solely to serve the interests of Israel. 


Where is Islam in this? Amid all of this, there is talk of a “new alliance” between Muslims and the right wing. The problem is that Muslims lack nakhwa. They do not care if their brothers are killed. They do not care if their achievements are not celebrated. They do not care if Islamophobia reigns supreme. Islamophobia has taken more of your children, your sons and daughters, than any trans or homosexual issue ever will. Islamophobia has sowed doubt in the hearts of Muslims not just in the West, but all over the Muslim world. Because of Islamophobia, your sons and daughters are ashamed to say, "I am Muslim." Yet there are Muslims who want to support the government that allied and worked with Islamophobia. 


It is just like the Emirati government. Yet another article has come out about how the UAE funds the institutions of Islamophobia in Europe and the U.S. to monitor thousands of Muslims in the U.S., up to 400 Muslim organizations, and to slander them as somehow a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE government wants to perpetuate the fear and hate of Islam to entrench its authoritarianism, yet so many Muslims do not mind the UAE government. They do not mind the Saudi government. They do not even mind the Trump government, so long as someone throws them a bone and says, "We hate homosexuals." 


What does one say about a people who defeat themselves, by themselves? Your enemy does not need to do anything. When all is said and done, the proof is in your pocketbook. I will tell you what can serve Muslim causes is that you start donating and spending on the causes that you actually believe in. What you fund does not even have to be Muslim. Just fund the causes you want to see served. But this will not happen, because I understand the Muslim psychology. I understand the Muslim psychology is the psychology of a broken, dominated, and suppressed people who have lost their sense of nakhwa. An Islam without honor and pride, without a sense of vigilance about serving the rights of others before serving your own right, is not Islam at all. It is a deformity. It is a corruption. It is darkness, not light. 


I close with this. Please understand something about the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The equal protection clause can be interpreted narrowly or expansively. The language is the same. It is equal protection of the law for all. But how do you interpret that? Who are these “all”? What does “equal protection” mean? There are endless potentialities, but there is a truth about the history of jurisprudence in the United States. When the equal protection clause is interpreted narrowly, historically speaking, the first people to suffer in the U.S., and who have always suffered in the U.S., are racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. When it is read expansively, the people who fall under the ambit of that protection are racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. 


American Muslims are a religious minority. Not only that, but most are also a racial and ethnic minority. Even if the right wing pays lip service to you and makes you feel important for a little while, the restrictive interpretation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution is going to leave you defenseless. Today, it is a ban on Muslim entries. What goes along with that is the power of the government to survey you, to search your premises, to conduct tax audits, to freeze your assets, to revoke your citizenship, to denaturalize you, to detain you in the course of “anti-terrorism investigations,” and to detain you as “material witnesses.” In short, to destroy your life as a minority. And because the law is interpreted restrictively, good luck defending yourselves. 


Get nakhwa and get an education, for God's sake.


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