- April 29, 2008
Something to Think About: Where Have All the American Muslims Gone?
Muslims have accomplished great things in the last 30 years in America. There are mosques all across the country, week-end schools, full-time schools, youth groups, publishing companies, financial institutions, professional organizations, and that is something to be proud of.
Now it is time to consider the next priority. These institutions are in place and they all seem to be involved in “Da’wah”. Yet if we look around us in most Islamic Centers we see very few Americans – we might see 2 or 3 “familiar faces” that have been around a long time, but mostly the American faces we see only a few times and then we see new faces – for a little while. Where do they go, and why?
Any Islamic Center that has been in existence in America for a number of years should have a constantly increasing number of American Muslims who should be progressing in their Islamic knowledge and becoming more and more active participants in community activities. Since we live in America, if there exists any local Muslim community with no American Muslims in it, or whose number of American Muslims is not growing, then that should be a danger signal to that community that they are doing something wrong.
If we want to plan and implement programs that are effective within the American cultural context, then we need to encourage American Muslims to be involved in local communities at every level. Their personal experience is invaluable in planning the best approaches, content, and methods of outreach to American non-Muslims and Muslims. Who knows better what questions other Americans have, and how best to answer those questions? We know that many Americans have little actual knowledge about Islam and Muslims, and also that many have very negative perceptions. This situation will only get worse if the Muslim community remains distanced from the rest of society.
As an American Muslim who is actively involved in the community, I have had an opportunity to listen to the observations, perceptions and reactions of American non-Muslims and Muslims towards Islam and towards Muslims. Through the support group I have had an opportunity to speak directly with over 200 American Muslims and to talk to them about attendance at Islamic activities – interaction with other Muslims, Islamic knowledge participation in community activities and availability of support services.
The issues that are most often raised are: strong “ethnic” orientation, confusion between what is Islam and what is culture, shortage of educational opportunities in English, shortage of libraries with quality materials in “good” English, overemphasis or premature emhasis on minor details of fiqh and Sunnah (the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit), lack of basic educational programs (wudu, salat, Arabic alphabet, Islamic terminology and etiquette), poor accessibility (organizations not listed in phone book, phones answered by non-English speaking people, lack of communication between organizations) , lack of opportunities to actively participate in the activities of the decision making process, lack of access to community leaders, and a belief that Muslims from overseas “know better”.
Sadly, most of these American Muslims have given up and stopped attending their local mosques, some have tried out a number of mosques, and found the same problems everywhere. It would seem logical that if someone comes to a mosque – that is an important step in itself – they should be welcomed and made to feel at home. They should hear words like “welcome”, “how are you?”, “it’s good to see you” – not be treated to a litany of what they are not doing correctly with words like “bida”, “haram”, etc. If community members feel somehow obligated to point out “faults” they need to consider that a better way to do this would be by giving a good example in their own personal conduct and behavior. Making someone feel badly is not a very effective method of teaching.
Islam as the middle path requires us to be a united community of brothers and sisters in Islam, but this does not mean we all have to conform to any particular secondary cultural patterns. Unity does not mean sameness. The community needs to realize that American Muslims will develop their own American Islamic cultural patterns which will be within the boundaries of Islam, but not the same as some other Islamic cultural patterns. Our food needs to be halal, but can still be American food. Our dress needs to conform to the requirements of Islam but can still be American dress. Just as other cultures have developed musical forms that are Islamic (e.g. Qawwals) there is already developing here a form called “Islamic Jazz.” And, please don’t expect American Muslims to accept that this is haram while Qawwals are halal. We may wear white for weddings, our names may not be Arabic, our idea of a great Eid party might be a picnic in the park with cotton candy, hotdogs and a softball game. An American Islamic cultural pattern must develop if Islam is to be seen as the universal din of mankind and not a “foreign” cultural pattern. The past genius of Islam was a flexibility in allowing for a variety of secondary cultural patterns based on the central unchanging principles of Islam, and we need to regain that flexibility.
Islam is the din ul Fitrah-the din of Allah – not the religion of any one people. If when Islam burst out of the confines of the Arabian peninsula it had been considered the religion of the Arabs and not the religion of mankind – if it had been presented to the Persians/Indians, Albanians, Africans or Chinese as inseperable from Arab dress, food and other cultural patterns – if becoming Muslim meant becoming an Arab it would not today be the faith of a billion human beings.
If Islam is to spread among Americans then a solution must be found for the difficulty of the strong ethnic focus at many masjids. It is understandable that when the majority of people at any masjid are immigrants from a particular ethnic background, then some of the programs and activities will reflect their own particular cultural patterns. There is no problem with this as long as the minority is not excluded. We need to offer alternatives and perhaps parallel programs. We need to set up programs to train American born Imams, or at least to offer English classes and public speaking and counseling classes to the Imams who are here. We need to set up social service programs. And, we need to encourage Imams to give Khutbas (in clear English) that have some relevance to the issues and problems faced in America. Our primary concern can’t be what is going on in Pakistan, Jordan, or wherever.
We need to look around us and ask some questions. How many Americans do I see in this gathering? Do I see them regularly? Are their numbers growing? Do the Americans who come continue coming or only corne a few times and then stop? WHY? In order to build strong communities that will still be around in one or two generations, it would be a good idea to seek out the people who are most likely to have some information – American Muslims. Talk to them, listen to their responses, find out what their perceptions are, what their experience has been, what recommendations or requests they might have. Even if some of what they have to say may be difficult or seem critical, we need to listen.
Once we have this information we need to ask ourselves, is it the message that is being rejected? Or is it the Muslim witnesses to the message? Is it the primary or secondary issues that are causing a problem. If the difficulty is with what is primary and fundamental to Islam, then there is nothing we can do. But, if we were to find that secondary issues were creating obstacles for Americans either in their initial acceptance of Islam or in their subsequent spiritual growth, then there are things we could do if Da’wah is important and if we want to see more Americans accepting Islam and becoming active participants and contributors to the Muslim Ummah in America.
Islam is growing within the indigenous American (both among African-Americans and other races) community very rapidly. Most communities have the ability to make the necessary adaptations to create an environment that is attractive, comfortable and accessible to Americans as well as immigrants. The question is ARE THEY WILLING TO MAKE THE EFFORT REQUIRED?
If they are not willing then they should STOP DOING DA’WAH because it is futile. A whole lot of frustrated and bitter people who “used to be Muslims” is not a legacy to be proud of. And, if immigrant Muslims don’t think this question is relevant to them, have they stopped to think that the same frustrations, the same issues and difficulties are likely to be raised by their own children at some point in the future because THEY TOO ARE AMERICAN MUSLIMS, and at some point in the not so distant future, those of us who were born here will be the majority. If these questions are not asked and solutions are not sought now, then 20 or 30 years from now we may see these mosques, week-end schools, etc. become vacant buildings, or still the cultural centers only of first generation immigrants. This would be a very sad situation, but it is the direction things are going. There needs to be some dramatic changes and community soul-searching in order to stop this trend. Other waves of immigrant Muslims have already had this experience (Chicago, Dearborn, etc.) and now have multiple generations of their descendents born right here in America, and most of them are simply “cultural” Muslims.
Originally published in the Spring 1989 issue of The American Muslim print edition.