History, Memory and Our Collective Story(ies)

By Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu

One of the most oft-quoted lines in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is a Party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” There is rich academic literature on history, historiography, and memory that seems to corroborate these lines. Academics debate whether history can ever be objective and what sources are more reliable than others. As we continue to debate the future of the American Muslim story, especially at this critical juncture, we must first realize that simply throwing around buzz-words like “narrative” and “storytelling” will not be enough. We need a systematic and focused effort to record, examine, and share the many facets of the collective American Muslim story(ies). This is more critical today than ever as Islam and Muslims are misrepresented, vilified and marginalized on a daily basis. We can only expect this trend to intensify in the days ahead. A confident, forward-looking American Muslim vision will have to invest in such an effort to discredit this rampant misrepresentation.

These efforts are already taking place on multiple platforms. For example, the debate around Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has produced insightful, critical, and original perspectives that will shed light on the contours of a principled encounter with federal law enforcement agencies that will likely adapt a more antagonistic stance toward the American Muslim community. The CVE debate began almost exactly two years ago and has created much tension and division amongst American Muslims. The 53rd ISNA convention was one such venue where this debate took place. The reflections on the CVE debate serve as a historical record and reference point for future generations. They are a means of authentically understanding the past and the present.

Generational Shift and Lost Values

Speaking of the past, of memory, also warrants recording the experiences and insights of elder generations. Although we are seeing an increasing number of anthologies and fictional work that represent American Muslim histories, we need to admit to a collective failure to properly record and produce historical memory. Nowhere is this shortcoming more visible and pronounced than in large-scale Muslim conventions and conferences. During these gatherings one witnesses scholars and leaders from a previous generation sit and walk side-by-side with a younger generation of thinkers and leaders. Last month in Chicago I saw Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, Dr. Jamal Badawi, and Sayyid M. Syeed, among many others, walk among young American Muslims who may have seen them as “just any other uncle.” Yet these scholars and community leaders, like many others, are the very actors that the younger generations often cite as the “giants on whose shoulders we stand.” However, we know very little about their lives, the challenges they faced or the lessons that they learned from their experiences. This is a function of the lack of autobiographies, as well as the lack of a concerted effort to record these individuals’ life-stories. It may be worth remembering that some of the most influential and brilliant figures of Muslim intellectual life have produced such autobiographies. Imam al-‘hazzali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalāl follows an autobiographical narrative. Ibn’Ajiba’s autobiography has long been one of the most valuable resources for students of spirituality. Similarly, al-Suyūṭī, in addition to penning Ṭabaqāt al-mufassirīn which has been an invaluable resource that chronicles the lives of the authors of Qur’anic exegesis, produced an autobiographical account, al-Tahadduth bi-Ni‘mat Allah.

Although the African American Muslim experience is exponentially richer in its witnessing to history than any other group within the larger Muslim community we have been equally unsuccessful in recording this remarkable story, with a few notable exceptions. The African-American Muslim generation that experienced the historic transformation from a proto-Islamic movement (the Nation of Islam) to mainstream Islam under Imam Warith Deen Muhammad has almost been replaced, with little recorded information left behind. When Muhammad Ali passed away recently, we realized how little has been recorded by individuals from within American Muslim communities who interacted with him throughout the many years he was active in the African American and broader Muslim community.

Local Histories, Concerted Efforts

As a new generation of activists, da‘is, spiritual leaders, and academics, both male and female, are coming of age, they also face a crucial challenge: to develop meaningful action and strategizing on at least two levels.

First, we need documentation. “The American Muslim narrative” cannot be constructed or meaningfully written if the previous generation is forgotten. It may be true that the sensibility toward self-identifying as an American Muslim may not be as pronounced among that generation, but they are an indispensable part of this narrative. Our community experiences a type of loss each time these luminaries step away from the public sphere or pass away. And it is especially painful when their stories are left untold. A historical record is an attempt to keep their legacies alive in our communities.

To give an example, within the past two years alone, several such luminaries, Ahmed Sakr, Maher Hathout, Mohammed al-Hanooti, Jamal Barzinji, and Taha Jabir al-Alwani, passed away. I wonder how many of our readers, even those that knew these individuals, can remember basic information about them and their legacies. They left a mark not only on the national scene but also on a local level. Dr. Sakr and Dr. Hathout were key figures in Southern California. Shaykh al-Alwani was a seminal figure not only for the scholarly world, but also for Muslims in Virginia, as was Shaykh al-Hanooti and Dr. Barzinji.

Although we live at a time when ‘watching’, if not reading, biographical accounts is quite widespread, our communities have not been very active in producing such accounts. We need to encourage American Muslim leaders at all levels to write their biographies and record their life-experiences. This can also be achieved through an oral history project. The multiple writers’ collectives, storytelling workshops, and podcasts, such as Diffused Congruence, are excellent starting points to establish the baseline for such projects. Most of all, we need a concerted effort to record the lives of the elderly generations of Muslims in all fifty states.

And finally, we need local histories. Direly. The broader American Muslim history at a national level is remarkable in itself but Muslim settlement and indigenization patterns at the micro-level have varied across the United States. As future generations look back and study American Muslim history they need access to these rich, local histories. Although we often compare our experience to that of the Catholic and Jewish presence in the US, we cannot compare to their admirable attention to study local notable figures and institutions.

I say this as a researcher who benefited tremendously from the few local histories that are available at the local level. While it may not be viable for individual institutions, a collective of Muslim institutions could produce a budget devoted to recording and documenting local institutional histories as well as individual stories.

Memory matters. And memory needs nourishment. Islam’s presence in America has been studied academically and these studies have produced remarkable information about a number of themes including Muslim slaves who were brought to the continent, how local communities dealt with racism, and ethno-racial patterns of immigration. But much more is needed and future generation of scholars will look for resources written by Muslim Americans about Islam in America. Muslim Americans should view keeping records and writing personal and institutional histories as a vital necessity. As members of a transmitted tradition, we should keep the historical record of our faith alive and authentic.

Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu is a native of Turkey. Dr. Tekelioglu is an instructor and content editor of Maydan at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. His research focuses on American religious landscape, politics of ethno-religious identities, Muslim minorities in the West, and international relations theories.


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