What Kind of Islam Will Last in America?
By Yahiya Emerick
Have you ever heard about the debate concerning the establishment of an indigenous type of Islam in North America? It basically goes something like this: the way Islam is lived and understood varies greatly from country to country and region to region, therefore, Islam, too, must also have its own unique expression in North America. I must confess it is an issue nearly everyone I know has pondered over and speculated about from time to time. These days the topic comes up with ever-greater frequency in some circles but not always in a way that any single majority of Muslims can agree with.
First the very issue of what Islam really is inevitably comes up. What are Islamic teachings? Which sect is most right? How does Islamic knowledge vary from person to person and what is (or should be) the effect of culture on this spiritual tradition? What sources do we accept? Who are our scholars and spokesmen? What does Islam require from us and what do we get in return? These preceding questions are enough right there to demonstrate the hopelessness of our finding any kind of unity in our lifetime. But this does not deter any of us from pondering the possibilities of fusing Islam into the culture of this land.
This, of course, opens a whole new can of worms. What is the culture of this land? Southerners don’t share the same values as Northeasterners. West Coast culture is vastly different from the Midwest. Add to that the changing demographics of the U.S. and Canada and you wonder if your children might need to study Spanish in school. Not to mention the changing values from the older generations to the new, young rebel teens with their hip-hop, purple hair and nihilistic defiance of all authority. The image of the classy WASP, white, refined and educated, living a country club lifestyle appeals to some among us, but that is a rapidly changing reality.
Now, who are the Muslims who are supposed to make an American-style of Islam? I see Christian towns and neighborhoods, dotted with churches and interweaving their religion with their official public life. I see Jewish neighborhoods and towns with synagogues and Torah Institutes every other block. I even have found Hindu enclaves here and there around New York City. But to this day I have not seen or heard of a single town that boasts a majority Muslim population. The most I have found is a couple of streets worth of houses in central Detroit, the same in Atlanta and an odd place like this here or there.
To be forthright, nearly all Muslims are foolishly living in isolated, unitary family situations in a sea of non-Muslims. Do we expect that most of our members won’t eventually assimilate? Do we even still believe in the myth of a second generation after us?
We cannot establish an “American” Islam for the simple fact that we do not have many American Muslims. “But yes we do,” you might protest. “Look, our pollsters say there are seven or ten or twelve million of us!” But take a closer look: we have a mixture of people hailing from every Muslim country, living the same generally unIslamic lifestyle that they did when they were “back home”. Add to this the fact that they live isolated from other Muslims (and thus all hope of tarbiyah) and you can readily see how the Muslim migrants in the 1920’s and 30s were able to just disappear in the melting pot. (I know there are a lot of African American converts to Islam and I applaud them for they are not getting much help from anybody and yet they persist and grow, but they also have a lot of challenges keeping their youth on the straight and narrow as well.)
We just don’t live around each other and when we do happen to congregate, it’s not on the basis of faith, but on simple ethnic identity, devoid of all religion. To this day I have no clue as to why Muslim immigrants from India gravitate towards Hindu neighborhoods in New York and elsewhere, or why Muslim Arabs move to places dominated by Christian Arabs. The result is that our mostly lukewarm Muslims are diluted even further by basing their identity in America more on their race than on their faith. We have statistical numbers of immigrants but how many of them can rightfully be counted as Muslims?
Remember the definition of a Muslim is a person who looks to the Qur’an and Sunnah for guidance. How many fit that category? Are we just counting Muslim style names? Bean counting is no substitute for the real McCoy! Because of this, many of us committed Muslims have begun to look down on things Islamic when there was no reason to link Islam with what people do to begin with. Whenever I hear someone jokingly making fun of the low morality of “Muslims” they have dealt with, then, I always correct them and say, “Don’t say it is Muslims who are bad. Rather say it was a cultural person who cheated you. A Muslim and a person who happens to carry a Muslim name are two different species.”
I remember having an argument with a man one day who said, “Once a Muslim always a Muslim.” I pointed out all the verses in the Qur’an that speak about going back on faith after having once attained it and he finally agreed with me, but then when the topic came up of whether or not the children of immigrants are still Muslims if they don’t practice Islam at all, he got very emotional. He said that children from Pakistani parents are always Muslim no matter what. “Even if the children don’t practice Islam at all?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. Then I asked him if the children of African American converts to Islam are always Muslim, too, even if they don’t practice Islam. On this he waffled, revealing a slight racist streak. But I’m sure you are getting my point: there is no creature called an American Muslim from which to make an American Islam. We have disjointed groups of immigrants and converts all of whom have little in common other than most have Muslim style names. To make matters worse, for all the converts we are making, we are losing more than that to assimilation each year.
So we don’t agree on what Islam is, we don’t know what kind of culture it is that we have to adapt to and we don’t have a sufficient body of Muslims from which to propel this movement forward. There you have it. Creating an American Islam is currently unfeasible. Other cultures developed their understandings of Islam from large, stable populations over centuries and have their roots in great events in Islamic history. We do not have any of the pieces of the puzzle in place. I’m not writing all of this to make you gloomy, however, for I am quite the optimist. I see great possibilities here, but as long as we are distracted by pipe dreams we wind up wasting our resources and getting frustrated with each other.
Still, this issue of wanting an American-style Islam has its proponents and while many have purely noble intentions, the loudest voices for change seem to come from a particular kind of individual. It is a very telling lesson to examine what they really want. Let’s take a look, then, at one type of motivation for creating an “American” Islam.
There are those whose motivation for a “new” Islam is purely for selfish reasons. Come on, think about it for a moment and look at their arguments. They basically revolve around money and lifestyle. They want fatwas that say mortgages are halal “because of hardship” and they want to make selling haram things allowed “because there are no other occupations.” The realty seems to support their contention for there are legions of semi-observant Muslims (and even a few otherwise good ones) who live in homes with interest payments, own stores that sell Lotto and beer and engage in financial transactions with riba attached.
I have personally heard many Muslims in such straits voicing their opinions that they have no other way and thus Allah will forgive them (or at the very least they claim they will stop doing the haram thing as quickly as they can). Look, I know none of us is perfect, and Islam doesn’t expect us to be, but there are certain lines that are not to be crossed. But there are quite a few people doing just that and Islamic teachings regarding money and occupations are pretty much ignored with impunity by a huge percentage of our local co-religionists. I remember reading a hadith in which the Prophet said that the flesh that is grown on haram earnings will not enter paradise. There are also numerous Qur’anic verses also on the subject of good and bad financial transactions and those are also clearly being ignored.
The solution, then, many now assert, is to look for some scholars-for-hire to issue rulings saying every haram thing we do in America is now okay because of all the “hardships” we face here. Well, that would solve a lot of problems but then there is the nagging problem of Islamic source materials that constantly call people to another ruling. Thus, only the people who want to modify their religion will partake in the new “financial freedom” while another group will call them hypocrites and disavow them. Of course the growth of Shariah-compliant financing mechanisms can definitely solve the problem by giving people a way to buy their houses through partnership agreements with mainline banks. But these new offerings still require a hefty down payment and are not available everywhere. What do we do in the meantime: pay rent and stay poor or get a mortgage and court hellfire? It is a Damocletian choice and I have a lot of sympathy for people in this predicament, but I would never call for changing my religion to suit my needs.
Now what about the people who operate haram businesses or work in them? Well, I’m not one of those people who believes in driving everyone away who isn’t following Islam as good as I think they should. Doesn’t the Qur’an advise us to forgive and overlook their faults, as we want Allah to do the same for us? Though this may seem controversial, I believe gentle persuasion and a kind of tolerance towards our brothers and sisters is stronger than being angry and spiteful to them if we find them doing a wrong. Rather, if we see Muslims working in haram ways, we must ask ourselves if we, ourselves, have established a truly inclusive and vibrant Muslim lifestyle yet? Have we developed communities where most people from the police to public school teachers are Muslims or where you find house after house populated with Muslim families? The fact is, we need every Muslim we can get in the long run and if we can help strengthen a person’s heart with taqwa and noble teachings, and hide the faults of others, people will bring about change in their lives and finances all by themselves. Internal motivation is more powerful, and lasting, than outward pressure. (That’s why I think the “Religious Police” in some Muslim countries is the stupidest idea I have ever heard.)
Now, what about the people who want a new interpretation of Islam for the sake of adopting a new lifestyle in a new land? There are many Muslims, both immigrant and native born (and the children of immigrants) who want an “American” Islam so they can partake of the social fruits of modern American life. To be blunt, they want the dating, the liberal clothing, the prom, the dance club, the intermixing, the wealth and the high life associated with being around successful people. They want a Muslim Dawson’s Creek or Friends.
If you’ve ever spent any appreciable amount of time with Muslim teens you’ve seen the writing on the wall. They all know the hottest new bands. They keep up with the latest clothing trends. They have all the gadgets and gizmos and they are shooting for lucrative careers that will enable them to live a fast, glamorous life. You don’t have many who want to lead a life of pious poverty like Abu Darda! I still remember reading a quote in Islamic Horizons magazine a year or so ago in which a prominent Muslim scholar from California lamented, “We have lost 95% of the youth.” Did they die or go off to Tibet? No, they stopped being a part of the Muslim community and take no care for Islam in the conduct of their daily affairs. In short, they are useless as far as Islamic purposes or goals are concerned. A few youth survive as Muslims here and there but they are constantly under pressure to give in to the high life as well.
Forget about the youth, how many Muslim adults live the country club lifestyle and pay little heed to Islam! Even some Masjid going Muslims, which is an extreme minority of our supposed multi-million individual population, daringly sport the latest hotrods and gold watches as if it was okay to show off wealth ostentatiously. Have you ever gone to a typical Indo-Pak wedding? My gosh, who are they trying to impress! And the lavish graduation parties and other ceremonies leave the conscientious Muslim just speechless. At the very least, where are the poor people whom the Prophet said should always be invited to parties? Nope, just the Armani and Versace crowd, thank you very much.
If traditionally Islam has been against dating, wealth flaunting and music and dancing, it is the lifestyle imitators who boldly say, “Hey, we live in America. Islam must accept these things.” There is a certain kind of brazen boldness in this new battle cry, almost like a devil-may-care attitude in a large chunk of our “community” as they openly participate in the public life of this culture. (A culture that conservative Christians tend to call Satanic!)
One author, whom I will not name, even published a book recently, reflecting her views, which are shared by many of the children of Muslim immigrants, that there is nothing wrong with dating, pornography, pop music and dancing “as long as you have Islam in your heart”. When I hear people with these opinions speak I am almost mentally dazed, but when I remember some of the lessons I learned when I was a Christian in my youth, that most people make a joke of their religion, then I can at least compute the equation.
How did this cycle get its beginning? Why are so many Muslim immigrants devoid of Islam when they come (many good brothers and sisters I know say they only learned Islam after coming to North America) and why is it so hard to hold on to the youth and keep them from becoming mindless Britney Spears wannabes or home boys with pants falling off? Is Islam somehow weak or defective in the face of these mighty influences? If that were the only standard to go by, then all religions would fall short, because religiosity rises and falls in cycles. Look at Christianity in Europe: where is it?
No, the problem in a vicious cycle of ignorance perpetuated from one generation to the next. As one man I know noted, there are lots of Muslims in the world, but few who know what Islam is. If the parents don’t know much about Islam themselves, or they only rediscovered its beauty and relevance later in life, then the children are not exposed to it in their formative years and thus adopt non-Muslim values whether they live in a Muslim country or the West. That still doesn’t mean things are hopeless. Thousands of people convert to Islam every year after finally seeing through the vapid nature of today’s sex, drugs and anything goes lifestyle. It is just that we have to do a better job of showing these wayward children of Muslim parents an Islam that is beautiful, doable and essential for a content life.
This of course opens up the topic of da’wah, building inclusive Masjids and making real communities where a Muslim can come to and feel at home. In short, the feeling of Fellowship, as Christians term it. We have a much better system of ukhuwwa than they do with well-defined parameters and enjoinders to mutual love and respect, but we just don’t have much of it around these days. (Oh yeah, we all suspect each other all the time!)
What are my views on building an American-style Islam? Well, you know, people are funny (and emotional, too.) If I said it was a good thing then some would label me a sell-out and if I said it was a bad idea then others would accuse me of kowtowing to a vision of Islam that is narrow and based on one culture or another. What I ask you to consider is this: is there any kind of Islam that exists in the world that everyone agrees on? Can you point to any Muslim nation and say, “Ah ha! Now that’s a country based on Islam”? Do Muslims even agree on how to practice Islam and its legal code? Do most Muslims know what the purpose of Islam is to begin with?
Just making an American version is not enough. Besides the fact that there is not a homogenous community here to adopt it, as I have pointed out earlier, if one were to be created, it would be no better than culturally laden Islam from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Syria. We would have an American Islam with lots of compromises just as every other Muslim culture has made compromises.
Going to the other extreme is no better. You know, the ultra-conservative Wahhabi line. What is that all about? Forbidding women to drive, demolishing ancient structures (even the Prophet’s own house!) and calling for the death or subjugation of all who do not comply flies in the face of the tolerant and thoughtful rule of the Prophet from Madina. The proponents of that line of thought just remind me too much of the fire and brimstone preachers I saw in my Christian youth.
I am not against Muslims rediscovering the simplicity and beauty of Islam that we have definitely lost, however, I just don’t want to see the enterprise labeled as a new kind of Islam. Wouldn’t it be nicer to simply refer to Islam as it is? Forget about national or regional tags. But even if some people go along with this there are still obstacles to re-establishing original Islam in North America. Many of them can definitely be solved if a few people start to put their heads together. Here are a few points to ponder about establishing original Islam in North America:
We do not have our Qur’anic house in order. We do not have a generally accepted translation of the Qur’an, printed in as majestic a way as the holy books of other religions. This holds us back because with so many translations nobody respects any of them and you can’t have “Qur’anic Study Circles” when everyone has different (and often unwieldy) renderings of the text. (Not to mention heavy hardback copies!) We also need to start meaningful Qur’anic discussion circles in our communities for as you might have noticed, few of us ever even talk about the contents of the Qur’an with each other. (Also, the one-man-knows-all-and-will-lecture-you-to-death format just doesn’t work! Find out how the Christians do Bible Study circles. That’s how the Sahaba used to do them.)
We do not have our first-cause ideology in order. We always present Islam as a set of rituals and laws to learn and follow. Are we nuts? Islam is primarily a salvation message: believe in God and live righteously, then you’ll be happy in this world and go to heaven! Christians have been monopolizing this concept when we have as much right to it as them. We must change our da’wah orientation and talk about salvation Islamic-style or slip further into mediocrity.
We do not have our hadith books in order. Our hadith books are a mess, period. Whoever heard of a body of someone’s prophet’s sayings spread out over dozens of different books, with alternative versions, repetitions, seeming contradictions and different systems of classifying the accuracy of the reports which does nothing more than cast doubt on every reported saying anyone quotes! We need a single volume hadith book all Muslims can trust with no repetition, containing only hadiths that everyone agrees are accurate, classified logically without multiple variants and annotated in chronological order with the major periods of the Seerah duly noted. Adding Qur’anic references to show where hadiths are related to the text of the holy book would be a nice addition. All the weak hadiths can be put in a book of their own and labeled as such.
We do not have a national body of scholars. In France, France, they now have a government supported national Muslim council. Whatever its flaws it can provide a sense of unity. Disregarding our national organizations, we need a dedicated body of scholars of diverse opinions and temperaments who can meet regularly to tackle the issues of the day, review educational materials, provide a stamp of approval and act as an arbiter in disputes between Muslims. Think of a Muslim Supreme Court. Notice I’m not calling for a new national membership organization here. Just a council of scholars who are independent. For God’s sake, half the Muslim lands of the world have a Mufti. Why can’t we have an authoritative body that is inclusive of members from may diverse backgrounds?
We do not have ourselves in order. We do not live around other Muslims. No, I am not saying other people of our ethnic group. I mean a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan Muslim community where people want to live as Muslims in America. I do have an idea to fix this seemingly insurmountable problem. Let the Muslim leaders in the various cities hold a series of planning meetings locally and identify two or more target neighborhoods into which Muslims will be encouraged to move. Plan for the eventual demographic switch of certain areas into Muslim majority communities and reap the endless benefits that every other ethnic group in America has.
Finally, we have let our opponents put us over a barrel with this whole terrorism thing. We are not getting up to defend ourselves the way we should be. They are not playing nice and our own shyness and humble nature are aiding them in getting away with saying the most bigoted and outrageous things, and getting away with it! They’ve succeeded in getting the average no-nothing person to hate and fear Islam for no other reason than they have seen Muslims being bashed and not answering back. Oh, to be sure, we have our little programs and do our little letter-writing campaigns, but let’s face it, for the most part it has not stopped the daily drubbing we receive.
We need to throw off the gloves and throw their propaganda back in their face. They label Islam as terrorist. We can label Christianity as genocidal and then give all the examples. They say our schools teach violence. We can lambaste them for having thousands of pedophile priests and ask them how the representatives of the very religion itself can be so bad. They say the Qur’an teaches violence. Let us trumpet up all the many, many violent and genocidal teachings in the Bible and put the quotes on billboards. Let’s revive the great work of Ahmed Deed, Jamal Bedawi and Zakir Naik, among others and show them we can play hardball, too. They say Muslim societies are backward and demeaning to women? Let us comb their own government’s statistics about violence towards women in this land and then link it to Christian culture. Let’s get statistics showing how Muslims have fewer incidents of drunkenness, arrest, underachievement and drug use than everyone else and show them who is more law abiding. Let’s dig up anti-Semitic quotes from their leaders, past and present, such as those from the various popes, Martin Luther and Father Coughlin. You get the point, don’t you? It’s not that we are stooping to their level in falsity. Whatever we dig up is irrefutable fact. What they are saying about us is almost all false innuendo and misinformation. We must fight falsehood with the truth about who is the one with the serious shortcomings. Doesn’t the Qur’an call for the issues to be examined between us all?
In this article I have attempted to run some ideas across for discussion. When we know that making an American style of Islam is not the answer, then we can concentrate on real solutions to real problems that we face right now. Maybe a hundred years from now, Muslims will have made peace with how they live Islam and relate to this unIslamic society. But ours is not to work on this project now. Our time is still for laying the groundwork so that future generations have more to build on. Look, all that has been done in the last thirty years is to make a few organizations, build a thousand Masjids and open a couple hundred private schools. The real community building is still to come. We are still, my friends, just the pioneers. But it is our job that is most crucial to future generations. We have to organize the meaning of our faith for them, prepare its textual sources and fight the negative propaganda that is keeping us pinned against the ropes. IF we could learn to live with each other along the way that would be great, too. Now, let’s see what we can do.