An Opportunity
Posted Apr 7, 2005

Originally published in TAM in 1989.  We will attempt to reprint as many of these old articles as possible over the next year.

by Sheila Musaji

Islam is not a religion, it is a din (complete way of life).  There is no aspect of life which is separate from Islam.  Islam exerts a profound effect on individuals and societies.  This influence of Islam on every aspect of the life of individuals and societies creates a unity that is visible world-wide.  African, Asian, European, Middle Eastern and American Muslims have much more in common with each other than they have with non-Muslim members of their own societies.  There is ONE UMMAH, and yet within that one Ummah there is diversity.

The basis of Islamic unity is the core of Islam, the fundamentals - belief in the Qur’an as the uncorrupted Word of God, belief in Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as the final prophet, belief in hadith as providing a model for emulating the practice of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Shahada, Salat, Zakat, Sawm, Hajj and Jihad - there is no compromise possible with these fundamentals which begin to transform that individual into a Muslim or that society into an Islamic society.

This core provides a system, gives guidelines, and sets limits for individual and community behavior.  However, all Muslims and all Muslim communities are not identical.  Islam is a system which allows for diversity and can integrate human beings into one cooperative Ummah while still allowing them to maintain their own individual and cultural identity.  Within Islamic limits there is a wide variety of possible responses.  Islamic dress, food, music, art, poetry, architecture, etc. are examples of secondary cultural patterns which vary from one society to another.  For example, Islamic dress in Cambodia, America, Pakistan, Malaysia, Burma, Africa, Saudia Arabia or Egypt may be very distinctive and different from each other, and yet all be forms of Islamic dress.

Whether any of these secondary cultural patterns are Islamic or not is a function of whether or not they fulfill the requirements established by Islam.  Their “Islamicity” is not a function of what national, ethinic or linguistic pattern they also reflect.

When an individual or society embraces Islam they are required to change their lifestyle in conformity with the fundametnal principles of Islam, not in conformity with the secondary patterns or characteristics of any group. 

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his last sermon said that there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or of a non-Arab over an Arab except in righteousness.  If we think about the meaning of this statement, it is obvious that race, nationality, ethnic group and all secondary cultural patterns are just that - SECONDARY, and there is no superiority of any of these over any other.

Islam will work anywhere, and can transform any individual, any people, any society because Islam is the universal, unchanging, timeless answer to human problems given to us by the Creator.

Secondary patterns may not work everywhere because they are limited human responses to particular circumstances and a particular environment.  They are subject to change and revision.

Secondary cultural patterns are limited in their appeal.  Islam has universal appeal.  If Islam is falsely presented as inseperable from some particular “foreign” pattern it will probably be rejected.  It is a tragedy when an individual thinks that they have rejected Islam, but in reality have rejected a particular secondary pattern that may or may not be Islamic.

This is a problem that rests squarely on the shoulders of the Muslim Ummah.  We must be careful not to allow what Islam prohibits, and not to prohibit what Islam allows.  We must be careful not to assume that every custom and tradition that comes froms a society where a majority of the people are Muslims is necessarily Islamic.  We must also be careful not to assume that everythign that comes from Amecian society is necessarily un-Islamic.  We must be prepared to reject those aspects of our own or any tradition that are clearly un-Islamic.  We must be prepared to acknowledge the existence of other secondary patterns than our own and to tolerate the differences when they are not un-Islamic.

We must put the emphasis on the fundamentals and not on the secondary patterns.

In America we have a unique opportunity.  We have Muslims from every racial, ethnic, national and linguistic background.  They have brought with them their own varied Islamic responses and patterns, and we are able to see in our many local Islamic communities a wide range of Islamic patterns, that only a generation ago whould have required a lifetime of travel and study to observe.

We need to take advantage of this opportunity - to open our eyes to the variety of Muslims and to learn from the full range of Islamic experiences - We need to go to each others masjids, pray together, talk together, go to each others homes, invite members of other ethnic or national groups to speak to us about the history of our people.

How many of us know - the history of Islam in the Phillipines - or about the genocide of the Cambodian Muslims under Pol Pot -  about the Nation of Islam in America - about Malcom X or Sister Clara Muhammad - what happened in North Africa under the French colonialists - what is happening now to Muslims in Russia and China - what is similar or different about the life of Muslims in various countries.

We need to know these things because they are all part of the history of Islam and more specifically are all a part of the history of what are now American Muslims.

We have an opportunity to look at all these possibilities, judge them strictly on the basis of what is and is not Islamic and initiate an American Islamic pattern that incorporates what is Islamic and what will work here from any of these communities.

American Muslims can be the connecting link between these various communities.  It remains to be seen if we will make use of the opportunity we have been given.

Sheila Musaji is the Editor of The American Muslim at

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as there are no changes, and this active link to The American Muslim is included.