There’s No American Islam to Reform

On March 30th, the Huffington Post featured an article entitled “Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques In Attempt To Reform American Islam.” And, as the title suggests, the piece explores a so-called progressive Muslim group’s fight against what it sees as problematic Islamic practices through reinterpreting traditional Islamic normativity. While certainly an interesting look into a rather small minority within the diverse American Muslim community, the piece is part and parcel of a discourse that not only assumes the existence of some sort of all-encompassing, fossilized Islam in America but also outlines the requisites for an acceptable Islam that is truly ‘American’ and ignores rich efforts elsewhere which are both knowingly and unknowingly creating an Islam with an American character.

Islam’s presence in the United States and within the American narrative cannot be simply boiled down to a narrow view of immigrant import. Muslim presence within the country hearkens back to its European discovery. It permeates through the founding of the United States, the establishment of rights and liberties granted in the constitution and through the country’s use and expansion of slavery. It swam through the civil rights movement and now is struggling to reclaim and reestablish its position in the American social, moral and political fabric. In this process of reclamation there has been a parallel effort to actually formulate an American Islam, which remains as exciting an idea as ambiguous. These include efforts to re-engage with Islamic jurisprudence in such a way to make it more accessible to the Muslim community, less based in cultures from abroad and more entrenched in an ‘American culture’ – however understood and assumed – and more responsive to the pressing needs and situations of contemporary Muslim Americans. This is being done through a variety of ways, of which one is the Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) organization highlighted in the Huffington Post piece. So-called Muslim progressives, such as the MPV as well as beyond it, have made loud headlines in recent years for their unorthodox appraisal of gay imams, woman-led prayers, mixed congregational prayer and other issues related primarily to gender and sexuality.

In the rather public discussion of creating an “American Islam” (or ‘reforming’ it in most instances) there is a willful ignorance of the more popular and effective efforts being undertaken to formulate an American Muslim identity that is coherent, cohesive and receptive to the diverse community. Fortunately, this effort does not necessarily come in such a way as to assert a singular definition or practice of the said identity over a population of two million. Organizations such as the Al-Maghrib Institute, the Zaytuna College, MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council), The Ta’leef Collective, the Deen Intensive Foundation, Celebrate Mercy, the Nawawi Foundation, IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network) or events like MIST (Muslim Interscholastic Tournament) and Reviving the Islamic Spirit (primarily Canadian but now also an annual event in the United States) are concerted efforts to address the need for centrality in American Muslim identity and culture. At the same time, however, these projects themselves are a salient part of the formation and evolution of the American Muslim community’s religious identity.

And from these organizations as well as outside of it, Muslim American imams and scholars are emerging to take on positions of leadership and are challenging not what the MPV sees as “draconian ways of practicing Islam” but challenging the lack of popular education in the most basic Islamic jurisprudence and historical and textual familiarity. This ignorance is believed to be at the root of the crisis in which so-called ‘American Islam’ finds itself. Educational efforts touch upon the Prophetic tradition, tafsir [meaning] of the Qur’an and contextualization of the evolution of Islamic jurisprudence and its practice throughout the centuries. At the same time, the importance of so-called ‘secular’ education is underscored as part and parcel of spiritual growth and religious education. The most prominent example of this is the Berkeley-based Zaytuna College. It is the first Muslim liberal arts college granting four-year undergraduate degrees (albeit still waiting for accreditation). Attempting to ‘indigenize Islam in the west,’ the college combines liberal arts studies with studies in Islamic jurisprudence, Prophetic traditions, Arabic and Islamic intellectual history.

Chicago-based Nawawi Foundation’s founder, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has written perhaps one of the most central texts to help formulate an American Muslim cultural identity, entitled “Islam and the Cultural Imperative.”  In the piece, Abd-Allah argues that history is the greatest testament to the diversity of Islamic culture, with the faith taking on the character of the lands and societies through which it flowed:

“The religion became not only functional and familiar at the local level but dynamically engaging, fostering stable indigenous Muslim identities and allowing Muslims to put down deep roots and make lasting contributions wherever they went.”

The creation and sustenance of a unique American Islamic culture informs the ability to construct a socially cohesive communal body:

“In the absence of an integrated and dynamic Muslim American culture, to speak of ourselves as constituting a true community—despite our immense individual talent and large and growing numbers—or being able someday to play an effective role in civic life or politics is little more than rhetoric or wishful thinking.”

The aforementioned groups and events are just a handful of examples of the incredibly cogent projects and discussions happening across the diverse American Muslim landscape. This discussion, however, it does not touch upon the problems with some of the mentioned efforts, of which there are many, including issues of popular female representation in leadership and scholarship. This inclusion is dire and, at the same time, inevitable. American Muslim women are, according to a March 2009 Gallup poll, as a group more educated than the average American. They, themselves, are creating their own spaces in American society and their community, blurring in many ways the line between the sacred and secular.

Additionally, this discussion does not even begin to scratch the surface of the different ways Muslims in America are engaging in culture and identity production both collectively and individually through music, community service, social justice, food or even the blogosphere which has a strong and distinct Muslim presence in constant conversation with larger trends, issues and challenges. This in turn ensures that no single, hegemonic theological perspective and approach will define all American Muslims. At the heart of the American identity, after all, is individualism and this permeates through religious engagement. The character of the American Muslim community as the most racially diverse religious group provides the capacity for an ‘American Islam’ with many faces.

Painting by French artist El-Seed

Thus there is no one American Islam, but it – whatever it ultimately is being defined as – is in a constant state of formation and growth. It is happening in a multitude of ways, some often conflicting. But, it is there. So-called religious reform cloaked in the coercive terminology of ‘Progressivism’ going far beyond tradition will be unable find a place or appreciation amongst the majority of Muslim Americans. Islamic traditionalism has authority because of its grounding in an impressive, vast and flexible scholarship that spans philosophy, sociology, theology and science as well as other disciplines. But the continuous focus in the discourse of the (re)formation of an ‘American Islam’ on groups or individuals who – despite being sometimes prominent voices and images – are a minority, will only fuel the idea that attempts to give Islam an American character will just be laden with unorthodoxy rendering the faith unrecognizable.

‘Progressive’ religious movements are neither particular to Islam nor particular to Islam in America. They are part and parcel of genuine experiences of faith, identity and circumstance that evolve into an active search for space. But is the fear of an Islamic traditionalism that does not conform to the path used in the development of the American Christianity model so riveting as to avoid other voices also searching space? By ignoring these other voices and focusing on a particular minority, Muslims who do not agree with the actions of those popularly given the charge of ‘reform’ and progress’ fall into the category of ‘extremist’ or ‘fundamentalist’ – terms which have become as meaninglessly dangerous as they have become commonplace.

Many of the prominent examples mentioned and other “mainstream” efforts may not lead the charge in same-sex religious marriages or female-led mixed congregational prayer. They do, however, use traditional sources and frameworks to refashion old and repeated tropes and challenge social/communal gender-based inequality and violence, standardized expressions of piety, misconstrued sectarianism and narrow perspectives on social justice, leadership and communal roles.

And that’s a start.

4 thoughts on “There’s No American Islam to Reform

  1. I’ve been grappling with these issues on an individual level for several months, most notably this week after President Obama’s most recent statements regarding same sex marriage – which I welcome and support, awkwardly as a Muslim and unequivocally as an American. It’s a confusing time for me, and I suspect for a number of American Muslims who don’t exactly fall neatly into the categories of either orthodoxy or progressivism.

    Your presentation of the issue here reminds me that there is more than one way to reassess the discourse and to reimagine Islam as it is currently practiced in a cultural context. It also underscores how it’s vital to assess how our own perspective can be shaped by others’ choices regarding how to present an issue. Certainly, of late, it seems that the general idea propagated by Muslims and non Muslims alike has felt like either you believe that women and men pray together (or that we don’t actually *have* to pray five times a day at all, or we can pray when menstruating, or you know… pray in front of a Christmas tree, too, that’s cool…etc) or you’re some kind of extremist “Wahabi” (yes, aware of the tenuous nature of the term).

    Surely, there is an area in between – one where we are free to reimagine our cosmology without completely reinventing it. I’m unsure of where I’m going to end up on this one, byt I feel confident after reading your piece that I’m aware of the forces in play and how they exert their influence on these decisions.

    Thanks so much, dear, keep up the great work.

  2. The essence of being American – namely as you defined it above as “individualism” – is questionable.

    What of the American ideal of what the individual can offer to society as a whole. The idea that we are “citizens” serving our country and the community as a whole … after all are not American soldiers seen by the masses as upstanding models due to their “service” to the greater community? Is that so individualistic? Altruism, self-sacrifice for others are not “individualistic” at all. Is not democracy – or the representative republic – that we partake in a communal, not an individualistic American ideal way to govern?

  3. I don’t think its an either or situation. The individual’s rights trump any groups, as per the constitution and law, but that does not negate the existence of an altruist atmosphere and polity–in fact it, too, has been an inseparable part of America because of a pretty much utilitarian principle. That being said, the foundation of the American system of governance and economy is anything but altruist (and even indiscriminately individualist since upper class individuals receive more privileges/rights in practice) and the resistance to this has been, as I just mentioned, both individualist and altruist.

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