This is a pretty well written article by Dr. Musa Maguire on what people can mean when they say American Islam and how people view it, and in what respect it is being called ‘American’.
What is American Islam?
By Dr Musa Maguire
Director of Community Relations, MA’RUF
There is a lot of talk and enthusiasm these days about “American Islam”. As Muslim communities take root in the United States and confront unprecedented social, political, and cultural realities, we are faced with difficult decisions about how to define our identity and practice our faith in this land. Despite its popularity, however, the exact definition of American Islam remains unclear.
In this discussion, it is fair to say that there are two absolutes. First, the core beliefs and foundational principles of Islam will remain the same. There is nothing about our life in America that will change the nature of Paradise and the Hellfire. Islam will remain the only faith with a direct connection to God, both spiritually (through tawheed—Islamic monotheism) and historically (through the fortress of scholarship). In other words, we pray directly to God without partners or intermediaries. And when we quote the speech of Allah and the sound statements of his Prophet (S) we can be certain of their veracity. And even here in America, the Companions of the Prophet (S) will remain the standard bearers of faith, character, and conduct. And as would be the case anywhere else, we should hold in grave suspicion anyone who slanders or dishonors them.
The second absolute is that we must actively communicate the message of Islam in America. This would seem obvious, but too often we find ourselves in a defensive posture. We ask our neighbors to accept us, but we refrain from calling them to accept Islam. It is not always easy to convey Islam in a hostile environment. There is no better example of this fact than our beloved Prophet Muhammad (S). He suffered, bled, and starved to convey the message of Islam. We are unlikely to ever face such hostility in this land, so what is our excuse if we hide the truth? May Allah grant us the courage and wisdom to convey Islam in this land!
Beyond these two absolutes, there are several other ways to conceptualize American Islam. Each has some merits and drawbacks. First, some may define American Islam in a cultural sense, emphasizing the need to integrate within the society. This definition is problematic for two reasons. First, for converts like me, or second generation Muslims, or even immigrants who have spent a good portion of their life here, we are already culturally American. Muslim youth, no matter where their parents come from, are proof of this. They choose football over cricket. They eat burgers rather than biryani. And when they sing their favorite song, it’s “yo shawty” rather than “ya habibi” (neither of which I condone, by the way!) So, cultural integration is not really an issue, because it has already happened. This brings us to the second problem. Islam has always been flexible in accommodating different cultures, but integration has its costs. We still have to recognize the clear limits of Islamic law and do our best to abide by them. To rely on a cultural definition of American Islam, we miss the crucial point. Yes, we need to be ourselves, but we must do so lawfully. What do we gain by integration if we lose our souls?
On this note, another way to think about American Islam is through jurisprudence. Given the wide variety of unique and unprecedented issues that face our community, many have called for the development and application of “minority fiqh”. To the extent that this environment requires specific dispensations or unique rulings that are not applicable elsewhere, it may be possible to speak of American Islam. However, this is also problematic. Islamic law has always been sensitive to contextual factors, potential outcomes, and social benefits. Why describe this as American Islam when it is more accurately an illustration of Islam’s universality? Still, this is a complex matter, and one that will remain highly controversial for the foreseeable future. For the common Muslims, we must remind the scholars to have taqwa (piety, fear of God). Don’t plunge us neck-deep into doubtful matters. Guide us to live a life of principle rather than one defined by exceptions and excuses. And likewise, we must heed the advice of the scholars to be tolerant and forgiving, to focus on the basics, and hold ourselves to account before judging others.
Finally, in America, there are advantages and opportunities that remain unavailable in the historically Muslim world. This relates not only to material and financial gain, but also to social and ethical principles. Some may object to this statement, but anyone who lives here, at some level, knows it to be true. Two clear examples come to mind. First, America just witnessed a major historical milestone: a member of a historically oppressed minority group reached the highest political office in the land. So what does it say about us that Muslim communities are still dramatically divided along ethnic and national lines? Even here in Milwaukee, there are Muslims who refer to people from other ethnic groups as “slaves”. What does it say about our Muslims communities that American society, in this respect, has proven to be more Islamic than us? There are few places in the world where Muslims from every background and ethnicity live in such close proximity. But instead of being our greatest asset, this diversity is often our greatest liability.
Likewise, the historically Muslim world is besieged by materialism and classism. These social diseases have tragic results when transplanted in the American context. Consider, for instance, the issue of marriage. Our youth are growing up in a cauldron of indecency. Their peers, their desires, and Shaytaan all conspire to lead them astray. Yet, for the most part, we have not presented them with a viable, lawful alternative? In effect, we have established a system where only the strong can survive. And why? All too often, marriage—the only lawful way for the youth (and this includes boys and girls) to fulfill their desires—is put out of reach due to financial, class, and ethnic barriers. The American environment presents some very difficult challenges in this regard, but it also gives us an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Piety is the only characteristic that really matters in marriage. And marriage itself can be a means to attain piety. Despite all the problems with gender relations in America, you will find an egalitarian spirit in love and marriage that is often absent from our Muslim communities. Let us remove the evil and artificial barriers from marriage so our youth can live an honorable life in this land.
So what is American Islam? It is nothing other than Islam lived fully, practically, wisely, and confidently in America. We don’t need to reinvent our faith. The Quran and sunnah are revelations from Allah, applicable to all times and places. However, America does give us the opportunity to examine and reform ourselves, to revive the faith, to love each other for Allah’s sake, and to prove our ideals through action. This may seem like a grand task, but Allah says:
“And [Allah] joined their hearts together. If you had spent all that is in the earth, you could not have done so; but Allah united their hearts. Indeed, He is Exalted in Might and Wise.”
Allah is certainly capable of planting faith firmly in our heart, uniting us upon the truth, and enabling us to overcome the evil that divides us. Could there be any better American Islam than this?