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Universalizing the Particular A Muslim Manifesto for a New Paradigm of Muslim Community Leadership


Universalizing the Particular

A Muslim Manifesto for a New Paradigm of Muslim Community Leadership


by Khalil Abdur-Rashid[1]



I want to begin by making clear my reasons for speaking about this topic. I grew up in a Muslim community in Atlanta, Georgia which was run by Imam Jamil al-Amin. He would become one of the leaders in my childhood that I would be mentored by. I am the product of a mother who entered Islam through the Islamic Party and a father who entered via the Nation of Islam, followed by becoming Shia, and later adopting Sunni Islam. The women in my childhood who taught me were teachers in Atlanta from the W.D. Muhammad community while many of the men who mentored men were from the Dar al-Islam. In my adolescence and college years, as I pursued my own Islamic studies and traveled overseas, my teachers would be Arabs initially followed by Turks. I currently serve as Imam of a mosque where the Friday prayer congregation consists of about 90% immigrant Muslims and the Saturday night community gatherings comprise approximately 90% American Muslims, and of them only 6 African Americans in the congregation, including myself, my wife, and my daughter. I am the Muslim Religious Life Advisor (chaplain) of Columbia University, one of the Ivy Leagues which to my knowledge has only one African American Muslim student. After the Associated Press revelations about the NYPD spying on Muslim students on campuses in New York City broke, I found myself having to not only take an active leadership position in both the mosque and the university to address this injustice and bullying but also I found myself grappling with the nature and meaning of leadership itself. The populations I serve are not African American, yet the understanding and experience about leadership that I accumulated over the years comes from an all-Black Muslim paradigm. The question which plagued me was, how do I take my experience from Imam Jamil’s community (the Dar al-Islam approach to leadership) and the W.D. Muhammad community (stemming from the Nation of Islam) and apply it to contexts where the Muslims I serve know nothing of that experience, that struggle, or that history, and how do I make it effective, representative, and relevant? In essence, how do I universalize the particular? It is this question which I seek to posit an answer to in this manifesto.    

Two Modes of Black Muslim Leadership

In Weberian terms, authority has three classifications: charismatic, and traditional, and rational/legal. The Nation of Islam thrived on charismatic leadership; The Dar incorporated traditional leadership. Each was a product of the times. The leadership structure of The Nation and The Dar were based off of pure allegiance to the authority figure. In both organizations, obedience was critical and authority was never to be questioned. In the Dar, the people who enforced “Islamic Law” were not brothers who read, but they were brothers who would read you, should you step out of line. Some would call them the “hear and obey” brothers. When they spoke and gave instructions, you heard and you obeyed! Most of them were from the prisons and some were war veterans. In the Dar you obeyed the amir and in the Nation you obeyed the minister. The Nation and The Dar were both predicated upon resistance and violence, both at times militant and at times “gangster-like”. This approach was adopted in order to achieve power, recognition, and respect. Power is by nature transgressant. What was missed was that these organizations confused the notion of power and authority. Every powerful figure possesses authority, but not every authority figure possesses power. Power incorporates violence and violence leads to transgressions. This is why both groups adopted violence, as their concern was accumulating power. At the same time, both organizations were based in resistance and lacked a focus on cultivating intelligentsia. Because of their orientation towards resistance, both The Nation and The Dar bifurcated society along lines of difference. In The Nation, society was bifurcated along the lines of race, black versus white. In The Dar, society’s bifurcation itself was dual. On the one hand there was inter-communal bifurcation. The Dar divided society along the lines of Muslim versus non-Muslim. The clearest example of this was the Dar al-Miska incense business which was so successful it was sold in virtually every mosque and corner store. Macy’s wanted to sell the brand as well, but The Dar refused, saying “they are the Kuffar!” On the other hand, there was intra-communal bifurcation, dividing Muslims in America into two groups: indigenous and immigrant.

Because leadership in both groups was centralized into the figure of the leader, when the demise of the leader came, the community fell into disarray and lost its cohesion. The lifespan of both groups was restricted to the life of its leadership. Nothing moved without him. Everything was invested into a single figure. As a result of a lack of intelligentsia, the knowledge that was produced was historicized and thus became disposable, for with the disposal of the leader, the ideas which he produced became disposable; when ideas become disposable the institutions produced by them also become disposable; when the institutions themselves become disposable so too do the communities which survive off of those institutions. Thus, today, The Nation and The Dar are disposed of, despite the existence of their traces. What remains today are the ruins of those organizations, and none would claim that the presence of ruins indicates vibrancy.  



A New Paradigm of Muslim Leadership

The time in which we find ourselves living in now is the post 9/11 world and what I call the new America: the NYPD-America. The new challenges we face as an American Muslim community requires a new breed of leaders and a burial of the Old Guard/Old Uncle mentality. What I posit is the rise of a new paradigm of Muslim communal leadership: the rise of Muslim Chaplaincy. Chaplaincy is the position of religious and pastoral leadership within a secular institution. There are chaplains who are rabbis, ministers, pastors, and Imams. The settings for this new paradigm of Muslim leadership render it not only effective but most importantly relevant. I envision Muslim Chaplains in the following settings: 1.) healthcare settings such as hospitals, treatment and rehabilitation centers, hospice centers, and veteran affairs; 2.) prisons, federal penitentiaries and state corrections facilities; 3.) education, both universities, colleges, and public high schools; 4.) law enforcement, state, local, and federal; 5.) city transit systems; 6.) the military services; 7.) corporate America; 8.) government offices, such as Congress, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Supreme Court, and the White House; 9.) fire departments, and 10.) professional sports such as the NFL, the NBA, the PGA, the NHL and MLB. In Muslim Chaplaincy, the fundamentals are the same but the props are different, and thus the manner of leading will be different.

Muslim Chaplaincy should learn the lessons of leadership from the Black Muslim movements, taking what worked and leaving what was historical. However careful analysis must be made regarding what should and should not transfer over. Firstly, this leadership will differ paradigmatically from the leadership of the Black Muslim groups I listed above. While the leadership of The Nation and The Dar both were inherently separate from the power structure, Muslim Chaplaincy, from its inception, will and must be inherently a part of the institutional power structure. Justification for this position is found in the Quranic paradigmatic example of prophet Yusuf (may Allah be pleased with him), the model for Muslim Chaplaincy. What is even more enlightening is that Allah reveals specifically an example of prison chaplaincy in the story of prophet Yusuf, which I would later learn from my teacher in Turkey is termed the Yusuf School (Madrasa Yusufiyyah). Because Muslim Chaplaincy is and will be inherently part of the power structure, this changes the dynamics of speaking to power and of advocating for justice. The act internally is the same, externally it differs from model of The Nation and The Dar. The Muslim Chaplain therefore must realize that he or she, when speaking to power on behalf of those that are under their care, are both, simultaneously, the speaker and the interlocutor. Second, Muslim Chaplaincy must reject the old form of bifurcation and exit the narrative of Black Muslim movements, reaching instead for coalition building with multiple groups across society. They must adopt the Quranic hermeneutical binary for leadership. The Quran bifurcates itself into two types of discourse: one Meccan, one Medinan; one bombastic, the other gentle and subtle; one resistance-oriented, the other constitutive; one saying ‘yes’, the other responding with ‘no’; one tearing apart the ego (nafs), the other nurturing the heart and soul! Muslim Chaplaincy must also adopt this duality, without falling into hypocrisy and institutionalized laziness. Never again must this new paradigm of leadership divide along the lines of gender, race, religion, nor nationality. The old division of immigrant Muslim and indigenous Muslim is divisive and unproductive, and therefore, this new paradigm must exit this imposed narrative and generate its own discourse stemming from its autonomous character. Finally, Muslim Chaplaincy is the only hope for creating effective, relevant Muslim community leadership on a grand scale which eliminates discrimination of Muslim women from leadership positions, for, at least theoretically, Muslim Chaplaincy is open to Muslim women as well as men. It is time that Muslim women take their rightful place in Muslim communal leadership and in contributing and shaping the lives of other men and women in the Muslim community.   



This is the era where we witness the end of the epic, monolithic leader and the beginning of “Bakhtinian Leadership”. Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic, addressed the modern phenomenon of the novel and its poly-vocalness. I view that the Muslim community is waiting for its next Malcolm, whereas that time for such epic leadership is gone. The Bakhtinian Paradigm for leadership is one which moves from the epic to the novel, from the grand to the local but effective genre. Muslim Chaplaincy is the new paradigm of Muslim communal leadership, the Bakhtinian leadership paradigm. This new paradigm, in the Bakhtinian way, will be polyphonic, unfinalized, recyclable, involved in interfaith work, and oriented towards a duality of resistance and knowledge production. As for Muslim Chaplaincy’s polyphonicity, the Muslim Chaplain must be able to speak multiple languages. She should be able to mobilize not just vertically (i.e. everyone in her institution) but also horizontally (i.e. other Muslim and non-Muslim activists, houses of worship, media, groups, and the like). She should be able to communicate with a broad range of people with her sphere of activity and from without. She must be literate in communicating with intelligentsia and the ‘hear and obey’ elements of our community. She must speak to, for, and against power, without compromising her faith, her constituents, or her paycheck. However, if necessary, she must be willing to give up her paycheck to serve Allah by serving her community.

Concerning Muslim Chaplaincy’s recyclability, the Muslim Chaplain must be focused on building people, not institutions. This should be easy, for the Muslim Chaplain would already be an institution. In focusing on people, the Muslim Chaplain must understand that as a Muslim community (ummah) we are all “works in progress”. We have all been branded with the proverbial scarlet letter on our chest, which reads, “under construction”. The work of building people begins with understanding that there is no end; the scaffolding will always be up. However, we do get infinitely closer and closer to completion, but never reach perfection. In this way, the Muslim Chaplain must always be mindful of succession. She must empower rather than subjugate and must use Islamic knowledge to empower and not suppress. The moment she uses Islamic law or an Islamic opinion to subjugate, control, or dominate another or even to advocate the control, subjugation, or domination of another, at that point she ceases to become an authority figure and becomes a figure of power; she transforms from being a safe-haven into being a Shaytan, and the instrument she uses, which she claims to be Islamic Law becomes, only on account of it being a tool for trauma and mayhem, ideology. She must learn to read the prophetic example as one of authority, not one of power, intimidation, or trauma.    

            Concerning Muslim Chaplaincy’s unfinalizability, the Muslim Chaplain must always remember that she is subject to constant improvement. This is done via mutual consultation, for even Allah consulted the angels before He created Adam. Consultation is the sister of interlocution. As a Muslim Chaplain, she must remember that when she speaks, she is simultaneously speaker and audience member. She must also be able to maneuver in various circles, formal and informal, ever ready to shed one type of skin when new situations call for a different decorum.

            Concerning inter-faith work, the Muslim Chaplain, due to the nature of her position, is one which entails building a strong alliance through mutual collaborations, which in turn enhances and strengthens the Muslim community in particular, and the institution she is a part of in general. Such collaboration is also a form of legitimization and Islamic propagation (dawah).

            Finally, concerning an orientation towards the duality of resistance and knowledge production, the Muslim Chaplain must first become knowledgeable in Islam and also have knowledge and understanding about the social, legal, and institutional inequalities which she faces. She must generate her own narrative discourse about these issues and become an advocate for positive change. She must resist a status quo which inhibits social mobility, engenders discrimination, or perpetuates trauma, opting instead for producing knowledge about such social maladies for the sake of raising awareness about them in order to combat them. By the term ‘social’, I mean the human culture which inundates the sphere and environment in which she serves. She must produce an understanding of Islamic approaches in her given context and incorporate those approaches in order to enhance the overall quality of Muslim life in her jurisdiction. In this way, the knowledge she generates becomes immune to disposability and becomes institutionalized, able to exist in her absence. She must substitute cacophonic group expressions, the sheer noise which is generated from the immigrant/indigenous discourse, for a preference of an orchestrated, symphonic communal harmony. In this way, we universalize the particular.

April 2012

[1]Lecture given at Harvard University on Saturday April 7, 2012.


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