Islamic Renaissance: A Challenge for Muslims in America
By Dr. Hasan Zillur Rahim
“Muhammad claimed to be a prophet sent from God in the same sense that Moses, Abraham, Jesus and every other truly inspired prophet claimed to have been sent. He taught no new religion, but sought to revive the one eternal truth which has been preserved from the beginning of the world, and will continue to be preserved as long as the world shall stand.” So wrote Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb in 1893 in his book Islam in America. Webb was one of the earliest American converts to Islam, a diplomat who distinguished himself with service in the Philippines.
In his book and in his life as a Muslim, Webb challenged his countrymen to try to understand Islam and evaluate without prejudice the remarkable achievements of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Almost a century later, it would appear that Webb’s challenge to America remains as relevant as ever.
In the minds of many Americans, Islam in America began not with Webb but with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam in the 1950’s. A key figure in the NOI was the charismatic Malik El-Shabbaz, known more widely as Malcolm X. (See the article by Robert Hurd in the February 1992 Washington Report.)
The movement gained momentum in the radical environment of the 1960s when African-Americans, long victims of racism, organized themselves under the banner of separatism. This, however, did not last. Following a split with Elijah Muhammad in 1963 and a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, EI-Shabbaz renounced separatism and accepted mainstream Islam. And after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975 his son Warith Deen Muhammad, also steered the Nation of Islam towards universal Islam.
But America remained fixated on the image of Muslims as aliens. This is best illustrated by the story of brash boxer Cassius Clay, who was idolized when he became heavy-weight champion of the world by defeating Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964.
When he announced that he had embraced Islam and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, however, things began to change. After April 28, 1967, when Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army for service in Vietnam on grounds that he was “a minister of the religion of Islam,” he was barred from boxing and subsequently jailed.
“I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated, and this is really the same thing that’s happening over in Vietnam,” declared Ali. “Whatever the persecution is for standing up for my beliefs, even if it means facing machine-gun fire that day, I’ll face it before denouncing the religion of Islam.”
Things changed again, however, after the Vietnam War turned sour and the country underwent a traumatic soul-searching. Less than four years later Ali was a hero again, after the Supreme Court overturned the earlier decision that banned him from boxing.
America remained fixated on the image of Muslims as aliens.
Muhammad Ali was an exception. He transcended his sport, and America loved him for his skill and courage. Muslims as a whole, however, still were perceived as hostile toward the West, and biased media continued to stereotype them as violence-prone and fanatical. Events in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere were exploited by the media and hostile lobbies to malign Islam.
Muslims in America have responded to their negative image in a variety of creative and effective ways. For example, political organizations such as United Muslims of America (UMA), American Muslim Council (AMC), Muslim Public Action Committee (MP AC) and others have registered Muslim voters, confronted the hostile lobby at Democratic and Republican party conventions, monitored and drafted legislation affecting Muslims, and helped Muslims to run to elective offices at local, state and federal levels.
The Council of Islamic Education (CIE) founded by Shabbir Mansuri of Los Angeles, CA, has organized a textbook evaluation committee, participated in the California textbook evaluation process and, with the help of other Muslims, corrected some misinformation in the textbooks adopted. Mansuri began his task after he found in his daughter’s sixth-grade world history text a depiction of Muslims as “sword-carrying bedouins,” and condescending reference to the Muslim method of prayer. As Mansuri puts it, however, “We still have many miles to go… We should be an integral part of the American education system, and a source of information for Muslims interested in the issues.”
In the mountains of northern New Mexico, Dar al Islam, a self-sustaining community of Muslim Families living in distinctive adobe homes, has created a religious and educational institution whose primary goal is to communicate the message of Islam in a manner understandable to all Americans. Dar al Islam has become a model Muslim community and attracts a steady stream of visitors from all over the United States.
To recognize the history and legacy of African Americans, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, the most prominent American Muslim leader, was invited by the U.S. Senate to offer its opening prayer on Feb. 6. It marked the first time an Islamic leader had delivered a Senate invocation.
Last year, acting on the initiative of the American Muslim Council, Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) requested that the House of Representative invite Muslim as well as Christian and Jewish clergy to deliver its invocations. As a result, on June 15, 1991, Imam Siraj Wahhaj of Brooklyn, NY, offered the opening prayer. Impressive as these and other strides have been, the sad truth is that most of the six million Muslims of America are still non-participants, observing from the sidelines what the rare activists among them are trying to accomplish. Mere onlookers on the American scene, they are silent on issues when they should be vocal, indifferent when they should be involved.
Varying ethnicity diffuses the contributions which Muslim organizations, with their educated and well-to-do immigrant members, could make. Compounding the problem is the fact that many mosques have brought imams from abroad who have little knowledge of the American social, economic and political systems. While able to speak eloquently on the various aspects of piety, they do not understand and therefore cannot articulate the challenges facing Muslims in America.
Often, simplistic denunciations of the West are all that these “first-generation” imams can offer as a panacea for all evils. Such mosques tend to become insular institutions with little bearing on the lives of Muslims in America.
The Muslims who suffer most from this state of affairs are the youth. Born and brought up in this country, they are our hope of weaving the universal teachings of Islam into the fabric of American society. Yet the enthusiasm is drained from these exuberant, idealistic young people by what they perceive as the ritualism and small dreams of their elders and leaders. One of the most difficult challenges facing Muslims in the U.S. is to focus the creative energies of their children on the Islam they are so eager to practice and share in a meaningful way with their peers in schools and colleges.
Immigrant Muslims can learn much from the rich, complex experiences of African-American Muslims. In successfully combating drug and crime problems in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, they have provided dramatic evidence of the contributions Muslims can make to this country. Unfortunately, here, too, self-imposed ethnic barriers have kept immigrant Muslims from acquiring the dynamism that distinguishes the efforts of their African-American Muslim brothers and sisters.
It is time for Muslims in America to elect imams and community leaders who are knowledgeable not only about Islam but also about American history and government. They should understand, for example, the significance of the Bill of Rights, and how these rights are exercised. They should know how laws are made, and be aware not only of the flaws of the American system but also of the strengths.
The Wilderness Act of 1964, for example, that set aside federally owned lands “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” is a unique American contribution to modern civilization. Yet, deforestation, soil erosion, indiscriminate use of pesticides, overgrazing of federal rangeland and strip-mining continue unabated in this same, complex nation. Muslim leaders must be able to relate the environmental ethics of Islam to the ecological problems of the U.S. and other countries of the world, and suggest long-term solutions. As the quality of leadership improves, so must the commitment of individual Muslims. The surest antidote to media and governmental bias toward Muslims is through grass-roots effort to educate Americans about Islam. Some years ago, my wife and I spoke at our daughter’s school about the significance of fasting and the festival that follows the month of fasting. We were overwhelmed by the interest generated among the students. They were most impressed by the notion of patience, self-restraint and compassion that is at the heart of Ramadan.
Through subsequent talks on the role of women in Islam, the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), politics in the Islamic world and other similar topics, we learned first-hand, as have thousands of Muslim parents throughout the U.S., that most Americas have open minds and a keen yearning for universal truth and justice. We learned that because ignorance causes fear and misunderstanding, Islam is hurt when we remain meek and silent. And we learned that one must act, not merely react.
America provides a unique context in which to practice pristine and dynamic Islam. Here, where Muslims from all over the world gather, cultural accretions that sometimes pass for religion can best be discerned and isolated. Here, in the clash of opinions and confluence of ideas, Muslims can best shape a middle ground to further peace and harmony among Americans of all colors and creeds.
However flawed, the truly extraordinary freedom that exists here places the opportunity, and the responsibility, for Islamic renaissance before the Muslims of America. It is a challenge that would have excited Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb.
Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs June 1992 and the Winter 1993 print edition ofThe American Muslim