I’d like to start with a quote from the Mohammed Webb Foundation’s Mission Statement:
“As a great West African Muslim sage once taught, Islam is like a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—they reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow.”
Like a river, Islam takes on the color and flavor of the land through which it runs. A River Islam in one part of the world may look very different from other River Islams in other parts of the world… but they are still made of water all the same.
I recently visited the new gallery of Islamic Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. It features a modest but comprehensive sampling of art pieces from the major Islamic empires that have existed in the last 1400 years. Each empire had its own unique styles, patterns, color schemes, and techniques. The Safavids, in present-day Iran, were known for their use of brilliant turquoise; the Ottomans, based on Istanbul, frequently used tulips in their patterns; the Mughals of India, small red flowers. At the time, having a signature artistic style was akin to having a trademark. Exporting that art to different regions was a way to advertise the empire’s wealth and sophistication. The art forms of these empires are very distinct from each other, and yet, presented together in one exhibit, they complement each other beautifully. They represent tributaries, if you will, each with its own characteristics, flowing into the same river.
It struck me, as I wandered through this gallery, that these art pieces represent the diversity and unity of the Islamic world. The artistic expression of Islam was unique in each region, yet each piece had clear Islamic influence – in the form of calligraphy, for instance, or the use of geometric and floral patterns. Each civilization developed an artistic style that reflected the values and beauty of Islam.
This may hardly seem like an epiphany, but it occurred to me then that my understanding of Islam, and the culture surrounding it, has really only been shaped by a particular filter. In my mind, I associate Islam with the culture of the Middle East – particularly with Egypt and Turkey, the only countries I’ve experienced in that region – blended with influence from Pakistani culture, thanks to many of my friends. I’ve met Muslims from different parts of the world, and I continue to meet more, but I never realized that I probably make assumptions about their practice of Islam based on my own exposure. If art forms can be so varied between different Islamic regions, other aspects of culture and practice surely differ as well. But we all still follow the same Islam, the same basic beliefs.
This prompts the question: What characterizes the American Tributary of the River Islam? I would say that Islam in America is a new branch in the making. Our tributary is still a nascent, turbulent stream that may well branch in multiple directions. But in time, this too will become a distinctive branch of the river.
There is an ayah in Quran that offers the following metaphor: It describes how rivers carry dirt and debris to the surface and deposit them on the shore, so that the water returning to the river is purified.
“We sent water from the sky; then it created valleys; and while the water was flowing, it collected debris; a lot of debris; In this way God sets forth the parable of truth and falsehood: [the detritus] passes away as [does all] dross; but that which is of benefit to people stays on earth” (from Surah 13 Ar-Ra’d, ayah 17).
This beautiful metaphor describes the natural progression of Islam: the message came down; it made impressions on Earth that spread to many areas – many “valleys”; and it naturally “collected debris” along the way. In other words, there was no way that the message could remain absolutely pure on Earth while perpetuated by humans. But presence of debris is not necessarily a bad sign – it’s a natural process, and it is evidence that the river continues to flow.
When I hear distressing news about conflict and chaos in the Islamic world, I find comfort in this metaphor. The violence and destruction that is so antithetical to our faith and practice of Islam is nothing but debris in the river, churning to the surface after a violent storm. Over time, it will wash out and degrade to nothing. But the pure waters of Islam will endure. They are timeless.
(From Surah 8 Al-‘Anfal, ayah 11) “[Remember] when He caused inner calm to enfold you, as an assurance from Him, and sent down upon you water from the skies, so that He might purify you and… strengthen your hearts, and thus make firm your steps.”
So whenever you encounter negativity among Muslims, just remember: Islam is the river, not the debris. Debris and pollution come and go – but they never last. Water is eternal. It cycles and takes on different forms, but it is always present. And it is essential for all life forms. It is a primary component of every living creature – Allah says in Surah 21 Al-‘Ambiyaa, ayah 30, “We made out of water every living thing.” It permeates the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the earth we tread.
“It is He who sends down water from the skies; you drink it, and thereof [drink] the plants upon which you pasture your beasts; and by virtue thereof He causes crops to grow for you, and olive trees, and date-palms, and grapes, and all [other] kinds of fruit: in this, behold, there is a message indeed for people who think!” (Surah 16 An-Nahl, ayat 10-11).
I see our initiative as an effort to purify our tributary of Islam. Let us filter out the debris and embrace Islam in its essence.
Our branch of Islam will take on a new appearance – a new Progressive, Rational, Interpretive, 21st Century, (call it what you like), American branch of the River Islam. Let us strive to preserve it as the most beautiful and live-giving river possible.