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Islam in North America:
Prospects And Problems

Siraj I. Mufti, Ph.D.

 

Introduction: Islam in America

History of Islam and Muslims in North America is not new. Muslims have come to the American shores several times. There is documentation of their journey to America prior to Columbus. Muslims sailed from Spain and Africa, hence reaching central and south America. It appears that Columbus also made use of the Muslim expertise on his voyage. In the 19th century, Muslims emigrated from the colonized Middle East and with Bolshevik revolution from Central Asia. However, the effect of these early arrivals did not last long. Muslims also came in the hulls of slave ships from Africa. They were deprived of their religion, language and civilization and all else that gave them their distinct identity. Perhaps it is due to this historical past, that African Americans in an effort to re-establish their identity are drawn to Islam more than any other faith or ideology.

After World War II, particularly with the easing of immigration restrictions, a substantial number of Muslims came to North America from the developing countries either for higher education or in search of better job opportunities. Initially coming and intending to return, they have now called this New World as their home. The estimate of the Muslim population in the U.S.A. and Canada vary from 6 to 8 million. Thus, they have or will soon surpass the Jews, the second religious majority in these countries. Their exact proportions are not known. Still, it appears that African-Americans now constitute over 40% of American Muslims. And the immigrants as a whole constitute the largest group; about 25% of them, are South Asians and approximately 20% from the Arab descent. More than 50% of the Muslims were born in the U.S. or Canada.

There are about 4,000 mosques and Islamic centers, and the Islamic religious schools are opening in most urban areas of the U.S. and Canada. Due to the importance that Islam and the Muslim world is gaining in international affairs, most major American universities now offer specialized courses in graduate and post-graduate studies on Islam and Muslims. The American Muslims are also establishing their own colleges and universities and a post-graduate school associated with the prestigious Institute of International Islamic Thought in Virginia offers advanced courses in Islamic social sciences.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in North America. Islam's appeal lies in its centrality of transcendence and the simplicity of its principles. It advocates a harmonious interplay of faith with reason and its vision coordinates the sacred and the secular into a comprehensive whole. Due to Islam's stress on equality and brotherhood of its community, it has special appeal for the historically oppressed. Its egalitarian principles and relevance to human life also draw converts from the middle class America. Thus, mosques, Islamic centers and schools truly represent a melting pot for the Muslims all over America.

Prospects and Problems of the American Muslim Community:

There is much that Muslim Americans can impart to the American Society. Muslims constitute a value-driven community sharing a faith that is pro-family, pro-education, anti-racist, law-abiding and anti-crime. Thus, they have a lot to contribute to a society where families are breaking apart and is ridden with crime, violence, drugs and racial tension. Among Muslims, there are no Arab, Pakistani, Somalian, Senegalese or Indonesian ghettos in America. The African-American community has been brought to their present level by the prevailing injustices and societal inequities. Still the Muslims living in disadvantaged communities are often the lights for these areas as they stand for family, education, cleanliness, chastity, self-sufficiency and zero tolerance towards drug infestation and the mental slavery that blights others. Muslims are among the best educated in the whole country and have the lowest crime rate. In their commitment to serve God and humankind, Muslims doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants and businessmen are serving the inner city as well as rural areas -- localities that are not attractive to any one else.

It is essential that the local and immigrant Muslim Americans live in close harmony and brotherly fellowship and cooperation. The immigrant Muslims are predominantly professional or businessmen. In the last two decades particularly, they have organized themselves into a number of associations. It is important that they continue involving the local community, not only in their membership but also at the top echelons of these associations. In their dealings with the locals, they should have special regard for them, especially the African-Americans, giving them due respect and understanding. In cases where they are represented by different organizations, these organizations need to develop closer collaboration, partnership and unity to demonstrate the great fraternity of Islam.

For Islam to prevail in North America, it is essential that a substantial number of Muslims are committed to Islam and the community must produce its own local leaders. For this to happen, now that they are enthusiastically developing Islamic schools, it is important that the parents along with children are involved into the activities of the community. The parents must become cognizant of their role in the upbringing of committed Muslims; that will happen only when they are themselves committed. While maintaining their distinct identity, the Muslims must also break away from being on the fringes, and involve themselves thoroughly with the mainstream American-Canadian societies. It is also their responsibility to bring about a change in the common perception that Islam in Western lands is an alien religion; a perception that is promoted by the constant negative stereotyping by the media. Therefore, they should utilize all their resources and abilities to correct this misconception because as long as this perception prevails, it would make it difficult for their children to grow up as Muslim Americans -- they might either distance themselves from their community, or down play the role Islam plays in their lives. Whether Islam is established in America depends on the coming generations of Muslims who could bring to it the Islamic vision.

Islam presents a coherent all-inclusive divine guidance that satisfies the rational while nourishing sublime spiritual needs of millions of people irrespective of race, color or culture. It has lost little of its original appeal because its pristine sources are available in the original - intact without any tempering, whatsoever. Its primary source of vitality are the revelations of the Qur'an. With its capacity for reinterpreting the revelation through human intellection, the Qur'an provides a core of immutable standards along with the mechanisms that make it dynamic to meet the challenges of changing times. Thus, Islam is very much suited to the Western genre, if the prevailing disinformation is overcome.

But Muslims themselves stand in its way, by misrepresenting the Islamic message. They often misinterpret it by confusing their customs and cultures with the requirements of Islam. Thus, the revelation i.e., divine communication which is valid for all times, is up against a personal understanding of it by individual Muslims (those who are not in a position to critically verify the sources and lack in their overall Islamic understanding); this restricts and limits the divine message. Therefore, it is important that they separate the essential and fundamental from secondary and non-essential, and to prioritize and emphasize the fundamental essentials. They should also learn to communicate rationally, whether discussing with the American public or imparting Islamic precepts to their younger succeeding generation. The best hope for America would be the upcoming generations of Muslim Americans who understand the American mind set and also can communicate effectively without carrying the cultural baggage of the first generation Muslims. The crucial element that the parents could impart these generations is a coherent, rational and cogent perception of Islam with patience, courage and understanding.

American Muslims value the freedom of statement and, therefore, they should invite the reputed scholars of the Ummah and interact with them to foster original, critical research on issues that are of value to the Ummah. Along with this, they also need to learn tolerance - to listen to divergent and contending views -- as a check and balance in the grand scheme that Islam provides. This is part of the Islamic principles of Shura (mutual consultation) and Ijma (consensus), the two fundamentals of Islamic decision making. Offering alternatives would broaden their focus and develop a balanced, moderate community with a worldwide vision. While freely expressing themselves, Muslims must also show respect for the majority viewpoint; and while retaining their right to differ, they must learn to abide by the decisions reached through consensus.

Therefore, in practice, they should submit to the decisions arrived at by their national organizations that they have reposed their confidence in. There should not be any voices of discord and contention after they have joined hands with their representative organizations and thoroughly discussed the issues; at the end of discussions, they must submit to the collective will. A minor yet glaring example, is the confusion at the start and end of Ramadan, which seems to be settled but the celebration of the festival of sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), in the tradition of the great Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) is still problematic at some localities.

This is distressing, since - especially after September 11 attacks by some miscreants, American Muslims are faced with major issues that would determine the survival of Islam and Muslim community in North America. They must tackle these issues with a collective stand in determining the hierarchy of issues so that they could concentrate upon them and utilize their energies more efficiently. and effectively. Above all else, Muslims must commit themselves to their community obligations (Furud al Kifaya) and care for the well being of their community as a microcosm of the Ummah. It is a pre-requisite, second only to the concept of belief in One God (Tawhid): both the Qur'an and Sunnah severely reprimand against any division within the Ummah.

Concluding Remarks

American Muslims are truly pluralistic because their make-up comes from many nationalities and their community, therefore, is composed of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They could thus demonstrate the value of diversity to the American society, as well as engage in valuable work for their universal Ummah. The drastic change in the world order with the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the U.S. as the dominant world power and its increasing entanglement in Muslim lands have transformed the American Muslims from an exotic to a noteworthy community which is on rapid expansion. The Muslim Americans have the moral sensitivity; they must now provide the moral leadership to the American society. They should utilize their position to sensitize the American public opinion to the Muslim history and their problems, and that it would be in the larger interest of the U.S. to adopt a more enlightened and equitable approach towards the 1.3 billion Muslims of the world, who inhabit strategically important countries that are also rich in resources.

In order to survive as Muslims and preserve their Islamic identity, a new generation of Muslim intelligentsia must emerge which would reinterpret the Islamic tradition in this new situation and in order to coexist, respecting and respected, with other communities in the American milieu -- thus evolving a global paradigm. The American Muslims through alliances with other faith groups should formulate new concepts to express their unique identity in interaction with them. Thus, by opening up to a diversity of views and understandings through Dawa, i.e. Islamic outreach and peacefully reciprocating conflicts and antagonisms, they could take a lead in resolving the critical issues of living globally, with a theistic outlook and a framework that would not only further the good of America but also, indeed, of all humankind.

Therefore, Muslims in America, adopting a more pro-active approach, must learn how to leverage their increased numbers and in cooperation with others get involved, directly or indirectly, in policy discussions and shaping policy through impacting the American public opinion - and thus becoming an influential constituency. It is an arduous and cumbersome task, but one that is necessary for their Islamic mission of "enjoining good and avoiding evil" and their objective of serving God, and man as His trustee and a responsible representative on earth.

June / July 2002

 

Source: http://www.messageonline.org/2002junejuly/cover6.htm

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