When Prophet Muhammad began to spread the message of Islam he didn’t see himself or his community of believers as separate from the Arab culture that they inhabited. They belonged. They didn’t disavow their lineage or minimalize their culture. Instead, they dedicated themselves to the advancement of a set of values that could be transferred from one culture to another. It is those values that comprise the soul of Islam, and do not require one to become a stranger to one’s culture in order to be 100% Muslim.
In Marvel’s Black Panther we are confronted by a question. What do we protect? Wakanda has hidden from the world, isolating itself in order to protect and preserve its way of life. The values, culture, history, and talents of Wakanda COULD be a benefit to the world at large, but at what cost? And the “villain” Killmonger is the embodiment of what happens when we try to hold on to the wrong things; when we are ignorant of what it is that truly makes us strong.
In mosques and community centers all over the United States, I see the same issues play out. I see communities that have become insular, tying even the young to the land and history of their forefathers rather than the land of their birth for fear of losing that which makes them strong. They have forgotten that it is not their Pakistani-ness or their Turkish-ness that makes them strong. It is the core values, the Islam, that has the power to unite not only their ethnic community but to unite them to a larger body politic.
One of the reasons why I have never been afraid that Islam would ever disappear from the world is that it has demonstrated over the centuries the ability to adapt. When it encountered Malay traders they didn’t stop being Malay. The Malay began to become Muslims. And the Islam that they practiced was a distinctly Malay Islam. When it encountered the Hausa they didn’t cease to be Hausa. The Hausa became Muslim and they practiced a distinctly Hausa Islam. Even the Islam practiced among the Hui of China is a distinctly Chinese Islam.
In the war for identity, the connection to the land of your forefathers is bound to lose. It usually takes no more than three generations for it to happen. But we see Muslims surviving with their Islam intact after seven, eight, even ten generations. The Islam that they embrace is not the same as the one carried over by their grandparents. It is distinct. It is an American Islam. But it is still Islam.
There are so many things to unpack when it comes to a movie like Black Panther and what it means to this moment in time. It is a game changer, for sure. But the cautionary tale of Killmonger speaks to me. Who have we left behind? What have we abandoned while trying to remain strong? Have we given birth (literally and figuratively) to our own destruction?
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