Defining Islamic values in America

For these loving parents and dedicated Muslims, the little details of daily life pose perpetual challenges. The daughter who has chosen to wear the hijab in public school is called "rag head" by classmates or even has her scarf ripped from her head. A young son is given the role of "terrorist" by playmates in an updated version of "cops and robbers." A teenage son (brought up in a faith that eschews alcohol) becomes entranced by the Budweiser frog in a popular commercial.

As Egyptian Muslims who have chosen to make their life in the United States, Salma Al-Ashmawi and Hassan Ibrahim must be vigilant in negotiating their family's encounter with American culture.

Yet these young professionals (she has worked in the public schools in northern Virginia and he is a professor of accounting and business) clearly relish the life they lead. They send their four children to public rather than Islamic school so they "learn to swim" in US society and understand that "being different is something to be proud of - everyone is different." And they are active in a vigorous faith community that, given families from many countries with varied Islamic practices, has to sort out what it means to be truly Muslim.

The most significant way in which America is affecting Islam, says Al-Ashmawi, is in "purifying it." In worshiping together, she says, Muslims from various cultures have "to pare it down to the essentials."

The couple's experience reflects a fast-growing facet of American life that remains little understood. The US Muslim population has risen in 30 years from about 500,000 to more than 6 million. A recent report says their median income falls in the upper middle class. A large proportion are engineers, physicians, computer specialists, and professionals in business, finance, and academia.

And this most diverse Muslim community in the world is engaged in a lively discussion about how America may shape Islam and how Islam may shape America.

In a host of Muslim organizations, publications, and youth associations, "they are searching for the essence of Islam" and are deeply involved in "determining the nature and authenticity of an indigenous American Islam," says Jane Smith, professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, and co-director of its Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

Dr. Smith opens a wide and enlightening window on this world in her new book, "Islam in America" (Columbia University Press). A survey of the evolving scene rather than the story of individual lives, it nevertheless reflects the voices of Muslims all along the spectrum.

A number of Muslims believe, Smith says in a recent interview, that "this American context provides the opportunity for fresh thinking without the sense that it may be objectionable to somebody." One of the main issues is that of authority - who has the right to decide what is the "good" or "true" Islamic way.

At the same time, a community made up of first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as African-Americans and other US converts (Anglos, Latinos, native Americans) is bound to have a multitude of perspectives. They range from "isolationists" - who want no contact with non-Muslims - to "accommodationists"; from those accustomed to following strict authorities to those who see it as their own responsibility to determine what is proper practice.

There are non-practicing Muslims. And there are groups that call themselves Muslim although most Muslims say they do not follow a legitimate form of Islam, such as Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.

One of the most intriguing and least publicized stories of American Islam is the remarkable shift of the vast majority of African-Americans in Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam away from his teachings on black separatism into Sunni Islam, under the leadership of Elijah's son, Warith Deen Muhammad.

Now recognized as one of the major Muslim leaders in the US, Imam Warith Deen was the first of his faith to open the US Senate with a prayer and, Smith says, "is responsible for certifying all Muslim Americans who wish to undertake the hajj to Mecca."

Muslims, proud of Islam's global reach and practice of equality, feel it has something to teach a society still rife with racism. They put a high priority, Smith says, on bringing together the diverse groups in US Islam. While many mosques cater to specific ethnic groups, "there are increasing efforts not only at communication but at mutual representation on shura [consensus councils]."

The internal debate ranges over a host of issues - equal rights and responsibilities for women and men, appropriate dress, youths' participation in social activities, public or private Islamic education, proper financial practices, engagement in politics. Smith's book highlights the issues and gives helpful context: the basic elements of Islamic faith and practice, roles of historical figures in Islam's development, how Islam took root in the US and its various manifestations here, and how the demands of US society are reshaping Muslim experience. For instance, imams, are having to take on multiple roles not played in Muslim societies similar to the demands made on Christian pastors.

Even as the US serves as "a place both of experimentation and affirmation of traditional values," Muslims feel Islam has much to offer American society - whether it be liberation from addictions, a recapturing of fundamental moral values, or a deeper appreciation of communal responsibilities.

They talk a great deal about da'wa - the spreading of the faith. Perspectives on what that entails, Smith says, vary from simply being a good example to active propagation of Islam. For some, the goal is making the US a Muslim country. For the most part, "what they are talking about is not a kind of actively taking over and propagating, but a slow process by which increasing numbers come to understand Islam and accept it."

What isn't often understood is that "freedom of conscience is a very important thing" in Islam, Smith adds. The Qur'an says, "There is no compulsion in religion." The restriction or persecution of other faiths in some Islamic countries is a tough issue, she admits: "How do you reconcile some very hard truths with the ideals? It's like trying to justify the Inquisition and ask, 'Was this a Christian thing?'.... So much of what is happening that is extremist is disavowed by most Muslims. "

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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