Islam Takes Root in Land of Levis

Muslims search for new identity and influence in a secular society

INSIDE a cool and solemn mosque nestled in a suburban neighborhood in Iowa, Friday prayers have ended.

A student from Saudi Arabia stands to speak. He has been in America three months and finds that Muslims here do not follow the Koran sufficiently. He exhorts the group to pray more - telling of a cleric in Bosnia who prayed while his mosque was under attack and in flames.

It is a dramatic story, and the mostly male group hears him out. But later Jamal, a civil engineer who arrived from Syria in 1980, offers some context: "We should pray more. Who can disagree? But it's not so simple. Practicing Islam in America is more complicated than he thinks."

The American Muslim community today is at a historic transition point. For the first time, Muslims are in a position to exert new cultural, political, and religious influence in American society. At 4 million and rising, they now outnumber Episcopalians. Muslims represent one of the fastest-growing religious groups in the US. In the past five years, the number of mosques has doubled to more than 1,200.

The result is that Muslims today are not only adding to the multicultural identity of America. As they fashion their own form of worship in this country, they are developing new interpretations of Islam and ways of living that could influence the practice of Islam - the world's fastest-growing religion - elsewhere around the globe, as American Roman Catholics and Jews did in decades past.

But sheer numbers aren't enough to guarantee a distinct role and place in American society for Muslims. Whether they can gain acceptance, overcome infighting and apathy, and develop a particular identity is still uncertain.

One thing is clear, however: As the Islamic religious month of Ramadan begins today for Muslims around the globe, Muslims in America, like those in the Iowa mosque, are now looking to themselves for authority about their lives and their faith.

In the mid-1990s, American Muslims no longer think of themselves as a foreign import. Rather, they are in a fitful process of assimilation similar to the one Catholics underwent in the 19th century and Jews in the 20th as the two groups became middle class and established uniquely American identities. Muslims, realizing they have a stake here, are slowly finding their way in American politics and culture and fighting a cartoon image of themselves as fist-shaking, anti-Western extremists.

"The Gulf war was the watershed," says Yvonne Haddad, an authority on Islam at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "After that, Muslims said, 'We'd better look after ourselves.' "

"They are trying to do what every group has done - trying to assimilate, yet remain distinct," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

This "Americanization" of Muslims is taking place in many ways. For example, the imam, or prayer leader, in the mosque is increasingly taking on a role similar to that of minister, something he does not have overseas. Some mosques now use Roberts Rules of Order to conduct business meetings. One can find Muslim summer camps for children and wooded spiritual retreats for adults.

Other changes are more culturally cutting edge: The Koran is available on CD-ROM. Muslim rap groups have formed. Muslim comic books and magazines for kids are available. Local imams use cellular phones to talk with members.

"A lot of Muslims mistakenly believe Islamic law is rigid," says Youssef Delorenzo, a progressive on the American Fiqh Council, which Muslims consult for religious law. "In Islam, every generation must make sense of its own environment. We can find new interpretations in North America ... and a relaxing of the literal, 15th-century model of Islam."

Yet the majority of Muslims are fairly conservative by nature. They are middle class - store owners, clerks, doctors, plumbers, dentists - working taxpayers. Many find that living as traditional Muslims in the United States creates strains on individuals and families.

Most US Muslims are Muslim mainly in heritage. Only about 10 to 20 percent practice their faith as literally as the Koran demands, though in recent years there's been a new awakening to the faith. Still, a competitive economy, peer group pressure, and intermarriages in a secular society all tend to work against traditional habits and views.

Soud Ahafi, a Muslim from Libya who works for the Massachusetts Highway Department, tries to maintain the strict rules for living handed down from the Koran. For example, he won't purchase meat not butchered properly, and he keeps his children away from the TV. "You see, I believe it," he says with great solemnity of the Koran.

Others find the battle more difficult. "It's fine to say you will keep your identity," says an Egyptian Muslim professor who emigrated in 1990 with his American wife. "But what happens when your daughter comes home and wants to work at McDonald's? It's hard to keep her at home. The forces of Americanization are very powerful."

Muslim melting pot

Moreover, the profile of the American Muslim is so diverse and decentralized as to be at times amorphous. Immigrant Muslims come from nearly every country in the world, particularly the "green belt" nations cutting from Morocco across the Middle East through Iran, Pakistan, India, and on to Malaysia.

More than one-third are African-Americans. Muslim communities may be as old as 90 years, such as the Lebanese in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Or as recent as 10 years. Some arrive as students. Others were economic or political refugees. Many are converted in prison. One group of 150,000 Yemeni in Detroit mark their arrival to Yemeni sailors who jumped ship in the St. Lawrence Waterway during the 1940s.

Most Muslims identify themselves religiously as Sunni. But there is an Iranian Shia group, 14 strains of black Muslims, and other offshoots, including mystical Sufism.

Islam, in theory, is radically egalitarian. No person may claim greater status in the eyes of God than another. Yet particularly in a new country, this ethic, which is an attraction to the faith, also keeps it in a constant state of flux, with much disagreement among adherents about what is "Islamic" and what is not.

Nor is there yet much coordination or political clout among Muslims, given their relatively large numbers. Cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles have large Muslim populations. But despite the unified face Muslims often present or claim, mosques often break down along ethnic lines.

Arabs may associate separately from Pakistanis or Indians. Albanians may cluster independently from Lebanese. However, integration is increasing through cooperatives at the mosque that help with business assistance. So far, there is only slight integration between immigrants and black Muslims - though that is changing.

The central clearinghouse for Muslims, as well as a main source of information on them for other civic groups and the media, is the American Muslim Council. Located in Washington, D.C., the staff is small and operates on a budget of $400,000, tiny compared with similar Jewish or Catholic groups.

Still, there is a growing sense of solidarity among Muslims - partly due to adversity stemming from such crises as the Gulf war, the World Trade Center bombing, and the Oklahoma City bombing. Black Muslims were energized by the Million Man March in Washington.

As outsiders, usually people of color (only 2 percent are white), many Muslims deal with bias in their daily lives and go through ambivalence about their new role in America. They see persecution of Muslims abroad, sometimes with what seems to them tacit US approval. The killing of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, and the crisis in Kashmir are familiar topics during Friday prayers, the traditional Muslim day of devotion.

Muslims not only feel their faith is misunderstood and demonized - many complain of being stereotyped by the media and targeted by Washington. (See story, right.) The pending counterterrorism bill on Capitol Hill, which heavily focuses on immigrants, seems to Muslims aimed at their community.

"This is a pivotal moment for us," says Salem Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "Are we going to be accepted? Or is there going to be another bombing, followed by a McCarthyite campaign against Muslims?" It is also a pivotal moment inside the Muslim community, say such scholars as Dr. Haddad. The process of Americanization may be so powerful that the visible Muslim community will exist mainly as a support for new immigrants and traditional Islam.

Several factors will determine the identity Muslims assume in the coming decade: The next generation of Muslims raised in this country; the quality of internal discussion and reinterpretation of Islam allowed in the community; spiritual rebirth; institution building; and the role black Muslims play.

Fresh voices

Nabeela Khatak, an Islamic law student at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., comes from a Pakistani family in western Massachusetts and typifies a new generation. Ms. Khatak founded a Bosnia student group. She challenges older interpretations about the role of women in Islam. "A new type is coming out," she says, relaxing at an off-campus cafe. "The second generation is confident in its faith. We are confident about diversity and our rights. We were born here and aren't under the pressures of assimilation our parents were."

Khatak does not wear the hijab, the traditional head covering for women, though she says many younger Muslim women do, not only out of religious conviction, but as an assertion of identity.

In interviews across the country, Muslims say it is the children raised in America that will shape their new identity. An open society has already done some molding. "Kids will ask questions about religion and sex in ways they never would in India," says an Orlando imam, speaking from a new mosque off the interstate between Sea World and Disney World. "They don't just accept what you say. I think this is good."

Spiritual search

In recent years, there is evidence of a return to Muslim roots. Partly the cause is the cultural anarchy many Muslims feel in the US. Islamic societies are highly regulated. Muslims don't identify with the America of David Letterman and condoms-in-schools. But partly the renewal is due to Muslims, like other Americans, on a spiritual search.

Since 1990, the number of mosques has doubled from 600 to 1,250. Orlando, for example, which had one mosque in 1989, now has five. Some of this growth is due to Muslims building mosques closer to home. But not all.

Much is due to a return of faith. A mosque in Dearborn, Mich., that used to have bingo night now has prayers instead. More Islamic schools are being set up in major cities. A Lebanese couple in Boston, previously secular, take their children to the mosque to learn Arabic, the language of the Koran.

Free inquiry

The American context of free inquiry itself is allowing dissent, and bringing practical issues of interpretation to a boil. Some Muslim communities now insist on an American prayer leader for their mosque. Today, mosques must import their imam from abroad. Last fall, the first American institute to certify Islamic scholars opened in Sterling, Va.

Muslim women scholars are searching the Koran, bringing to it the American experience of civil rights that challenges traditional Muslim patriarchy. One now hears for the first time Muslim criticism of Islamic regimes overseas. Some American Muslims opposed Iran's death sentence against author Salman Rushdie and the repression of writer Taslima Nasrin in Bangladesh.

Political groundbreaking

Institution-building is moving slowly. But Muslims are attempting to develop a political lobby, coordinated by the American Muslim Council, aimed at influencing the 1996 elections.

In recent years, the four most influential Muslim national groups have come together to form a body that would regularize a number of Muslim practices, such as the timing for the fast of Ramadan. A new Fiqh Counsel of seven scholars helps interpret Islamic practice here, ranging from issues of credit (literal Islam forbids Muslims from paying or profiting from interest), to advising agencies like the Pentagon on whether a US Muslim soldier on kitchen duty can cook pork.

But these efforts are still modest, conducted by only "a handful of people," as Haddad points out. "Most Muslims," she says, "are busy with their own lives, earning a living, raising their families."

The Five Pillars of Islam

Islam itself means "submission to God."


"I bear witness that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is God's messenger."


Five daily prayers (salat) - dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, night.


Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan.


A payment of 2.5 percent of the family's wealth (after living expenses) is made to the local mosque.


Once in a Muslim's life, a trip to Mecca (known as the hajj) should be taken as an act of obedience.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Islam Takes Root in Land of Levis
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today