Seriously Tinkering With 1,000 Years of Tradition

SOMETHING new is happening in American Islam. The country's diversity is creating a multicultural mecca for Muslims. It is also causing more Muslims to rethink their faith, spurred partly by the openness of the culture and partly by a small Islamic "renaissance" overseas. Although only a fraction of more than 1 billion adherents worldwide, their challenge to a 1,000-year-old assumption - that Islamic laws and the Koran cannot be reinterpreted - could have important implications here and abroad.

Amina Wadud, for example, dons a traditional Muslim scarf. But the daughter of a Methodist minister is a "wicked radical," say admirers - an Islamist who argues heretically that women and men must be treated equally. "I am very American. I get irate if my rights are not made clear," says Dr. Wadud, at Virginia Commonwealth University. Harvard-educated Anis Shivani wants Muslims to shed a "medieval mind-set" and rediscover Islamic values that meet "real problems" - such as poverty and corruption.

Samantha Fuller, whose father is a US diplomat, is a convert to Islam. She took up the faith at liberal McCallister College in Minnesota, but converted after marrying a Muslim Chechen. Ms. Fuller has a strong faith, but favors ideas at odds with orthodox Islam: She wants women prayer leaders, for example. "I chose a path," she says in a suburban Maryland living room. "But I'm not following every code."

What these Muslims have in common is a free and highly individual interpretation of Islam - shaped in part by their American context. Theirs is not a faith of the past, but, they feel, of the future.

While still a minority of younger Muslims and educated professionals, the reinterpreters want a contemporary Islam. They want to separate their faith from what they say is cultural intolerance imported from the Middle East. They want to reinterpret rulings demanding that women cover their heads and prohibiting Muslims from earning or paying interest. They emphasize "modern" ideas: human rights, the co-habitation of Islam and democracy, and the bypassing of centuries of Islamic legal opinions to find a renewed spirit of dignity and compassion in the Koran.

"I want an Islam for the here and now," says Abdullahi Ahmed An Naim, an exiled Sudanese lawyer teaching at Emory University in Atlanta. "I don't mean to endorse 'progress' or 'Westernization.' But knowledge of modern science, economics, and law certainly affects our reading of the Koran. I want the psychological freedom to see Islam as a means, not an end."

Dr. Wadud, for example, uses techniques of modern critical scholarship to separate the codified body of writings about Islam from the authentic revelation of the Koran, which she says has been distorted. "For centuries, the reading of the Koran has been controlled by men. That isn't Islamic. I am taking back the right for all people to read and interpret - not just the clerics."

American Muslims are also influenced by a renaissance abroad. Across the Islamic world, reformers are challenging extremists who use violence and the orthodox views of the Islamic clergy who control the mosques. Some are creating the Islamic equivalent of the Roman Catholic "liberation theology" movement of the 1970s and '80s that stressed social justice. Even in hardline Iran, writers such as Abdol Karim Soroush, whom some call a "Muslim Martin Luther," are quietly shaking mosque walls by suggesting that true Islam is not a coercive religion or a body of beliefs that can never change.

In America, those favoring change are hardly about to declare victory. They do not have any one position, or any organization, and their standing is still tenuous. Of the 4 million Muslims in the US, only about 20 to 30 percent are devout. Of these, the most powerful group is traditional orthodox Muslims from the immigrant community. Their more literal Islam dominates in local mosques; they often benefit from financial backing from conservative and wealthy Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Youssef DeLorenzo, a member of the five-man Fiqh Council, a body of religious scholars that rules on problems arising from Islamic practice in this country, estimates "about half" the American Muslim community is modernizing. But, he says, "there are more in the coming generation. Things will look different in 20 years."

Yet those favoring reinterpretation dare not speak in local mosques. The American mosque is still more a haven for Muslims than any kind of laboratory for new thinking. Most Muslims are trying to make ends meet and raise families. Also, among the orthodox, lines are drawn sharply: One is either a Muslim who believes a fixed set of laws, or one is not. At a recent Harvard University meeting of Muslim students, when Anis Shivani, a former president of the group, tried to analyze the characteristics of fundamentalism and say that Islam is open to interpretation, he was asked to leave and later threatened for his "unsound" views.

It is, in fact, an unanswered question whether Islam can grow without an orthodox underpinning. The power of Islamic orthodoxy was made clear to a reporter at a local mosque recently when a believer explained why he followed Islam: "For me, this life is a one time thing. It says in the Koran that you either go to heaven, or you go to hell. You get one chance. Everything I do is based on that."

At a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, mosque, an imam gave a friendly, lyrical Sunday teaching on being moderate that many US evangelicals would endorse. But he was challenged by an orthodox young man. Such teaching leads to parties where men, women, and non-Muslims mix, the man said: "Do you want moderation from a Western framework or an Islamic framework?"

Still, some Muslims say the open climate of America has an effect. A Moroccan cab driver in Boston says his practice of the faith has changed since arriving here. He is not as strict. He has come to feel in a new way that "Islam is in your heart." You have to live the spirit of Islam, he says.

Formally, Islam contains many layers of teaching. The primary authority is the Koran, which Muslims take as the sacred word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Next is the Sunna, the sayings and actions of the Prophet, which are semi-sacred texts. Then there are the sayings of the Prophet's companions who attended him in Mecca and Medina, where he lived and preached. In the 300 years after the Prophet, five different interpretive schools of thought on Islam emerged (four of the schools are Sunni, one is Shiite). Also, an enormous corpus of legal opinions grew in the next centuries.

Any Muslim is free to decide how to put this huge body of often contradictory teachings together. As a secular Muslim from Egypt says with a sigh, "Islam teaches everything." The faithful call it a "complete religion" - one that governs and unifies every aspect of life, from laws about drinking water to which side of the bed to get out of.

In the nonmechanized and largely barter-driven Islamic world of yore, most Muslims were satisfied with a faith that went hand in glove with the rules of society. But modernity - the rise of science and technology and nation-state constitutions - changed that. The globalization of markets and civilization has brought an enormous challenge to Islam as a unified, revealed religion with rigid codes. Many traditionalists want a return to the Golden Age of Islam, the harmony of the Persian Empire when the state was ruled by Islamic law, and there was no corruption or "ethnic cleansing."

Modernists like Shivani say that time is past: "It's an illusion," he says. "Too many people in Muslim countries today don't have food or human rights. What kind of return are we talking about?"

In the meantime, the escape valve for Muslims is something called "ijtihad." It means interpretation. Muslims can reexamine Koranic rules and come up with an ijtihad showing that their "modern" decision has Islamic reasoning behind it.

For example, in literal Islam, charging interest on money is forbidden. Even in America, Muslim financial cooperatives exist that allow for purchases like homes or cars without interest. But as progressives like DeLorenzo argue, it is not "un-Islamic" to develop an ijtihad reasoning that God wants a Muslim to be safe and secure in a house and that interest is a secondary concern. "Different circumstances require different interpretations so that every Muslim can fulfill their responsibility to God," he says.

More radical reinterpreters like An Naim say the ijtihad should be adopted by groups of Muslims to create more organized democracy in the faith. The idea horrifies traditionalists, who say it would lead to the kind of denominational chaos of Protestants after the Reformation and harm Islam's unitary nature.

Currently, the Saudi Arabians are the chief supporters of orthodox Islam, not only in America, but also around the world. The Saudi royal family finances schools, magazines, programs, fellowships, mosque-building - to promote something called the Salafi school of Islam. Salafi means "original."

And the Saudi ulema or religious council oversees traditional Islamic views. Yet unlike traditionalists such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Salafi's do not want to engage in Western habits or study the West's philosophy and science. They want to stay within Islamic writings and tradition.

"They have tremendous money, and Muslims have none, especially immigrants," says one Islamist who broke with the Saudis three years ago when asked to present an "uncritical" picture of Islam in a lecture tour abroad. "It's about control," the imam said. "They want naive Westerners to assume there is only one Islam, a monolith."

In America, Saudi funding backs The Friday Report, a popular magazine. To educate US imams, Saudi money has helped open the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies in Virginia.

Yet theology aside, Islam is being shaped by American culture. For example, in Islamic countries, an imam or prayer leader has a low profile: He is usually appointed by the state to oversee a mosque where believers do not make any special demands on him. They, instead, look to family or Islamic institutions. But in America the mosque is taking on a different identity. The imam is elected and paid by the congregation. He responds both to their needs and to the larger secular community for interfaith work. Also, the mosque congregation "speaks back" to the imam about everything from ijtihad to TV.

"The imam here is becoming a minister," says Yvonne Hadad, an authority on American Muslims and a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

In the future, the reinterpreters see several possible directions for Islam. One is a "universal" Islam, in which the Koran's humanistic values are emphasized and the Koran is not treated literally as a "final revelation."

Another trend views modern ideas as themselves "Islamic." As a final revelation, Islam already incorporates principles of science, law, and democracy. Last summer a leading Islamic scholar, Taha Jabir al-Alwani, said in an interview that "the [US] Constitution is Islamic. What the founding fathers teach is what we teach."

Muslims in America will continue to question and shape their faith in the new world. Speaking for her generation, Islamic law student Nabeela Khatak states: "We are Muslims. We aren't going to abandon our faith." But we should, she says, "think for ourselves."

*Lamis Andoni contributed to this report.

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