Tailor Muslim practices to fit life in America

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Omid Safi wanted to go the extra mile to make sure his children experienced an Islamic environment. So he and his family made the one-hour drive to their nearest Islamic Center in Syracuse, N.Y., every week, and he enrolled his son in Sunday school there.

Only men were allowed to use the grand main entrance to the mosque. "Women have to use a back entrance right next to the trash dumpster and go down to the basement," Mr. Safi remembers. "It felt fake for me to go through the front door and for my wife to have to use the back entrance. After a while, I could not justify to my conscience continuing to go and sending my children there."

Safi, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Colgate University and author of "Progressive Muslims," stopped attending the mosque, and now counts his family and a small group of students as his spiritual community. His experience is not unique among Muslims in the United States - a population estimated at more than 6 million and often cited as the fastest growing religious group in the country.

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This gulf between the highly conservative nature of most Muslim American institutions and the liberal views of many Muslims born and raised in America is reflected in issues such as the role of women and literalist readings of religious texts. It has sown the seeds for a progressive Muslim movement that is reinterpreting much of what the faith means and how it is reflected in daily life.

What Muslim Americans are going through is no different from the experiences of other faith communities that preceded them here. The success of the Conservative and Reform movements in the US as alternatives to Orthodox Judaism, for example, has transformed the meaning of the faith for millions of Jewish Americans.

Similarly, the increasing number of native-born Americans who are adopting the faith (constituting about one- third of the total Muslim American population) and Muslim Americans from recent immigrant backgrounds - so many of whom are far removed from their parents' and grandparents' immigrant experiences, with their particular cultural interpretations of Islam - are looking for an Islam that reflects their lives in America.

Increasingly, this is translating into a disengagement from existing Muslim institutions in the US and a search for alternate communities.

Practically all American mosques are led by people who have no academic training in Islam, or who have received their training from overseas Islamic academies. Most of these have been taken over by highly conservative elements aligned with the extremely conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam championed and funded by the Saudi Arabian monarchy. But progressive Muslims in America are taking their inspiration from Islamic scholars trained in Western universities who tend to be critical of authoritarian interpretations of Islam and who treat the real diversity of Muslim societies more inclusively.

Today, American mosques and advocacy groups, whose representatives are most commonly called on by the media to speak for Muslim Americans, reflect only a fraction of the larger Muslim American community.

A study on US mosques conducted in 2000 by four of the main Muslim American national organizations showed that 2 million of the estimated 6 million Muslim Americans attend Muslim religious institutions at least once or twice each year, and of those, just 411,060 attend mosques regularly. Even allowing for possible exaggeration and duplication - because the survey relied on mosque representatives for its information - the results still raise issues that most Muslim American organizations are afraid to tackle. The most obvious one is that two-thirds of Muslim Americans don't publicly participate even in the most minimal cultural manifestations of their faith (like a Roman Catholic who celebrates only Christmas Mass or a Jew who attends synagogue only during the High Holy Days).

In fact, America's traditional Muslim institutions are isolated from the daily reality of life in America.

For one thing, they continue to systematically exclude women from participation. Not only do practically all US mosques shut women out of the top leadership position, fully half of them either officially forbid women from serving on their governing boards or, in cases where there is no such specific prohibition, where women have not served on these boards over the past five years.

Women who do attend mosques and who aren't willing to fulfill traditional roles find it hard to participate actively. For Farah Nousheen, a young Muslim American filmmaker who just completed "Nazrah," a documentary on Muslim American women, her alienation reached such a level that, after searching through mosques in the Chicago and Seattle areas and finding the same stifling atmosphere, she decided to stop attending altogether. "My experience had a lot to do with being a woman in an environment where almost all the leadership were men. At prayers, women sat in a separate area with all the crying kids. It made me feel less important," says Ms. Nousheen, "There are a lot of people out there who feel like they don't belong."

Far from moving toward inclusiveness in the way they deal with women, mosques seem to be doing the opposite. Today, fully two-thirds of mosques force women to pray in a separate room from men or behind a curtain, compared to slightly more than half in 1994. Given this development, it is no surprise that women represent only 15 percent of attendees at the weekly congregational prayers.

Another element that is driving progressive Muslims away from traditional mosques is the preoccupation with literalism and the imposition of foreign customs on a faith that prides itself on its universalism. Sermons delivered by nonnative English-speakers on esoteric topics, such as the intricacies of ablution and the ritual washing before prayers, are the rule - not the exception.

For people like Katelin Mason, a young American Muslim convert and a graduate student of Islamic studies, the identification with Islam by the traditional Muslim American leadership of specifically cultural expressions, such as wearing particular clothing, is a distortion of the faith. "Wearing hijab [head covering] and having a beard have taken priority," she wrote in a recent article for our online magazine, MuslimWakeUp.com. "When the focus is on appearance, actions and intent become less important. When appearance loses importance, piety emerges."

But much of the media is all too ready to accommodate the stereotypes of what Muslim Americans look like. As Omid Safi points out, "Whenever these groups have been called on to appear in the media, it is usually through a middle-aged bearded man with an accent. We rarely see African-Americans, or women not in full hijab, and this certainly is not what our community looks like. Not all Muslim American men have beards, and many Muslim American women don't wear the full hijab."

But there are signs that a grass-roots progressive Muslim movement is finally taking hold.

Over the Internet, progressive Muslim mailing lists and websites are becoming increasingly popular. Groups like the Progressive Muslim Network and the Network of Progressive Muslims engage in discussions - on everything from matters of ritual to social relationships - that would be unheard of in neighborhood mosques. The online magazine MuslimWakeUp.com which I cofounded, has featured articles that are openly critical of conservative interpretations of Islam - and according to the web-ranking company Alexa, it has become the highest-ranked website geared to Muslim Americans in just six months of operation.

A slew of books on progressive Islam in the past few years has energized many Muslim Americans to begin organizing their own conferences and gatherings. In April, a group in Washington, D.C. organized the first Progressive Islam conference, where women and men prayed side by side, and women had the opportunity to lead prayers.

Sufism, the Islamic mystical trend that emphasizes spirituality over legalism and is exemplified by the popular poetry of Rumi, represents another haven for progressives.

"The only places I have felt comfortable have been Sufi congregations, because they are generally more tolerant and inclusive. They keep the focus on the values and principles of Islam as a living inspiration. They are imbued with the highest values and are not focused on the particulars of law and cultural manifestations," says Amina Wadud, Islamic studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Qur'an and Woman."

As with any great world faith, Islam has been very open to transformation, as illustrated by its rich sectarian history - a centuries-old genre of work exists in Islamic literature that is devoted to the study of various Muslim theological, mystical, and philosophical movements. And unless traditional Muslim American institutions and leaders are willing to deal with reality, more and more Muslims will feel compelled to find alternatives that address their spiritual concerns.

This could very well mean the formation of a new school of thought, with its own mosques and institutions, that is faithful to the universal principles of Islam.

That could only be a positive step for Americans of all faiths, especially if the result is an Islam that is inclusive, tolerant, less authoritarian, and more reflective of Muslims in America.

Ahmed Nassef, a writer, activist, and marketing management consultant, is editor in chief of MuslimWakeUp.com.

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