Originally published in TAM in 1989. We will attempt to reprint as many of these old articles as possible over the next year.
A PLEA FOR UNITY
If there is any future for Islam in America, it lies in breaking down all the artificial barriers between Muslims based on superficial characteristics such as race, nationality, language, ethnic group, or madhab - and clinging firmly to the only identity that matters - that of Muslims. We hear a lot of defeatist talk that this change is not possible for at least another generation - that we will not see this in our lifetime, but our children will be able to make this change. The reality is that unless we make the effort involved to begin the process NOW, we will lose many Muslims in this generation, and in the next.
WE ARE ALL MUSLIMS LIVING IN AMERICA
That is a seemingly simple statement that has, however, profound implications for the future stability and growth of the Muslim Ummah in America. Whether we were born here, or came here from some other country, WE ARE ALL HERE NOW. And, most of us are here to stay, therefore we are now Americans. Whether we were born into a Muslim family or came to Islam from some other background, WE ARE ALL MUSLIMS NOW. We are a Muslim-American community.
In America, the only common language we ALL share fluency in is English. And, if we are going to live here we must be fluent in English in order to survive and prosper as a community.
As Muslims we all share the importance of Arabic as our second language. If we are to remain Muslims in future generations, then we all need to learn as much Arabic as we can in order to properly understand the Qur’an. We are Muslims first, and as such are also a part of the worldwide Muslim Ummah, and the only language common to all Muslims is, and will always be - Arabic. OUR MUSLIM-AMERICAN COMMUNITY IS PART OF THE WORLDWIDE MUSLIM UMMAH.
In America, the immigrant Muslims are numerically more than the indigenous Muslims - but this is changing. The largest numbers of Muslims are from either Indo-Pakistani or Arab backgrounds - but this is changing. As immigration patterns shift, as more Americans become Muslims, and as the younger generation raised here comes of age - there will be more changes.
In the past, there were virtually only two groups of Muslims in America. The immigrant Muslims and the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam was seperated from the mainstream of Muslims by some of their beliefs and thus the two groups worked totally independently to establish masjids, schools, etc.
Both communities were absorbed with the sturggle to sruvive and to establish a community structure - FOR THEIR OWN PEOPLE. And, at that time their definition of who “their own people” were was limited to a particular racial, linguistic or ethnic group of Muslims. That was understandable, and possibly even necessary AT THAT TIME.
Now is another time, and things have changed. Many of those from the Nation of Islam have now joined the mainstream of Islam. There are many American converts now from the full range of racial, national and ethnic backgrounds possible only in America. There are many Muslims from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia. There are second, third and fourth generation Muslims.
The question is - where are all these people? Where do they belong? How can they develop and maintain their identity as Muslims - without a Muslim community to be a part of? - without the support and encouragement of other Muslims? - without being active participants in the activities of the Muslim community? - without being able to share in any of the decision making proecesses of the community?
Some Masjids and Islmic Organizations define themselves in their very NAMES as being for a particular “kind of Muslims.” Any such organization not only keeps other Muslims away, but also keeps non-Muslims away.
Other Masjids and Islamic Organizations do not limit themselves in their names, but they do so by their actions. They offer most classes, programs, speeches, etc. in the native language of the particular founding group. They plan dinners, iftars, etc. with only food eaten by that particular nationality. When a Muslim scholar is invited to share his knowledge with the community the concern is to find someone who knows that particular native language and not English. They do not operate according to the Islamic principle of SHURA, there are no elections or votes. The voices of the minority Muslims groups, converts, women and youth are never represented in any decision-making meetings. Therefore, they are unaware of the needs and abilities of these groups. And, each of these has something to teach to the others and somethign to learn from the others. We all have something to share with each other - but this sharing can only happen with communication, understanding, cooperation, mutual respect and interaction. It cannot happen in isolation.
All of these organizations may have “minority group” Muslims or Converts attend, but most will stop attending after awhile because they do not feel as if they “belong.” Most of those who continue attending will do so only because they have a spouse who is a member of that particular national group. They will have lots of youth attending the week-end schools, but too many stop being involved when they are in college or on their own.
The situation now as it stands can only have three consequences:
1. Some of those who are not “part of” the community will drift away from Islam. They will either remain Muslim in name only or actively turn against Islam. In either case they do much damage to the image of Islam
2. Some of those who are not part of the community will form other Islamic Organizations based not on simple geographical necessity, but on still further divisions of the community along superficial racial, linguistic, cultural or ethnic lines. This weakens the entire Muslim Ummah.
3. The third possibility is the only positive one. All of those who believe in Islam as the primary identity of Muslims can strive with all their might to unify the Muslim community, to break down the artificial barriers, to communicate and try to understand each other, to make our voices heard, to change the exisiting structures so that they meet the needs of all Muslims.
A lesson can be learned from studying the accomplishments of the first generation of Muslims (the Sahaba). They were all converts. contributions were made (that are still being felt by the Muslim Community) by women, and youth and members of other racial and national groups. They accomplished what they did by keeping their focus clearly on Islam and on what was important about each other - they were all Muslims first and that made them each others brothers and sisters.
This was originally published in the print edition of TAM in 1989.
and the excellent article by Abdul Malik Mujahid Ten Things You Can Do To Develop a Culture of Muslim Unity