Akbar Ahmed’s Journey into America Highlights Muslim-American Diversity

M. Scott Bortot

Posted Jul 26, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Journey into America Highlights Muslim-American Diversity

Akbar Ahmed looks at Muslims in America in new book

By M. Scott Bortot

Washington — Akbar Ahmed has spent a lifetime explaining the Muslim world to the West, and vice versa. In his latest book — his latest journey — he finds the two together in the United States and watches how they interact.

Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam is the story of Ahmed and five of his students as they traverse the country, as well as the stories they uncover in conversations with Muslim Americans at more than 100 mosques in 70 cities and towns. What they create is a varied portrait of America’s several-million-strong Muslim community.

Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat and the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, has traveled previously to learn more about Islam’s place in the world: For Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, he and a team of students travelled throughout the Muslim world. This time, the students become his native guides and helped their professor navigate the Muslim community that exists in America.

“They are Americans, so they knew America much better than I did in terms of culture and where to go and where not to go, and therefore they were able to act as my guides, but above all as sparring partners, intellectual sparring partners,” Ahmed said.

“A one-year project in the field would mean a lot of sacrifice on behalf of all of us,” Ahmed said. “Everyone has their lives, their families. All of that would be put on hold.”

The book covers centuries as well as kilometers, discussing America’s history with Islam from the Founding Fathers to the present day. It tells the little-known story of Alexander Russell Webb, a journalist who traveled to the Philippines as the U.S. consul, converted to Islam, founded a mosque on New York City’s Broadway, opened the country’s first Islamic press and became the honorary Ottoman consul in New York.

A visit to the University of Virginia spotlights the visionary approach to religious plurality of Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president. A trip to Utah, the home of the Mormon Church, shows how Muslims and other American religious minorities forge relationships of respect and understanding.

Frankie Martin, a member of Ahmed’s team, was struck by the diversity of Islam in America.

“The whole Muslim world really is in America,” Martin said, adding that people will be surprised to know that St. Louis, Missouri, is home to 60,000 Bosnian Muslims. “The diversity was really inspiring to me.”

Journey into America covers the diversity of America’s Muslim community.The book explores the diversity of thought as well as of background among Muslims in the United States. Ahmed offers three paradigms for those strains of Muslim Americans, what he calls literalists, mystics and modernists.

To bring these categories to life, Muslim Americans who fit the paradigms share their views. Imam Mohamed Al-Darsani of Florida, for example, though he “looks and sounds modernist,” is a literalist Muslim because he maintains a strict view of the Quran and the tradition of the Prophet. Sheikha Fariha Fatima al-Jerrahi, a convert in New York, embraces the mystical aspects of Islam and incorporates elements of Christianity into it. And modernist Najah Bazzy, of Michigan, feels that the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, one of America’s founding documents, is Islamic because of its emphasis on equality, justice and tolerance.

Hailey Woldt, a member of Ahmed’s team, felt a connection to Bazzy because of a shared heritage.

“My family came over around the same time [as Bazzy’s] through Ellis Island,” Woldt said. “I really identified with her story about her grandfather coming over, working in the factories, going up through American society, and she is completely American and her daughter is completely American. I really realized that Islam is part of American society.”

Ahmed said his three categories of Muslim Americans do not apply when it comes to the African-American Muslim community. Muslim African slaves brought to America lost their identity, Ahmed said, and this created challenges for those who wanted to return to the religion of their ancestors.

“From that they then have to create their Islam, their understanding of Islam. Therefore, these three different models don’t easily [describe] the African-American community.”

With their unique religious experience, Ahmed said, African-American Muslims practice a distinctly American form of Islam. Immigrant Muslim communities, Ahmed said, may practice aspects of their faith they believe are based on religion but, in fact, are based on culture. On the other hand, he said, African Muslims tend to rely on an understanding of religious texts when it comes to their faith.

American converts to Islam fascinate Ahmed, and throughout his American journey, he asked them about their new faith. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf of California, for example, began his quest for spirituality after nearly dying in a car accident. Khadija Rivera of Florida was always drawn to God despite the distractions of the modern world and converted to Islam after college.

The book devotes separate chapters to Jewish-Muslim and Mormon-Muslim relations. Ahmed said that unlike other American religious groups, Mormons are familiar with Islam, as he found in a visit to Utah.

As for Judaism and Islam, Ahmed says in the book, “no two religions have more in common.” He cites the historical challenges faced by Jews to be accepted in the United States and the growing dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

Ahmed said he hopes his book helps build bridges, giving American Muslims and non-Muslims a greater understanding of one another.

“Ideally, I’d like the average American to read it, and hopefully the average Muslim to read it, so that they begin to appreciate each other and to learn about each other,” he said. “They would gain a great deal, because this is the first book that demystifies Muslims in America and also helps demystify America itself.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)