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The Transforming Experience of Ameircan Muslims PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay Safi   
Mar 19, 1999 at 07:00 PM

Throughout the last two centuries, America has been the land of opportunities for those who were denied equal opportunities in their homeland.  Many people who aspired for a life of freedom and better opportunities chose the United States as their new adopted home.  Muslims are no exception.  As Muslims began to realize their dreams of freedom and better economic conditions, they soon came face to face with a question which proved to be more difficult to answer than originally thought: what to do with the newly acquired freedom and wealth?  After all, freedom and wealth have meaning only insofar as they can be enjoyed and expressed in a social context. 


The migration of Muslims in the seventies and eighties coincided with the worldwide phenomenon of Islamic resurgence.  A significant number of students pursuing university education in the United States brought with them the newly found Islamic identity and activism.  The Muslim Students’ Association, founded in the early sixties, became the locus of Muslim activities.  Initially, meetings and activities were conducted on university campuses, using university facilities.  However, soon Muslim students became involved in collective projects to build local mosques, which immediately became centers for all Muslims; students or otherwise.


Throughout the United States, mosques served as a pole around which the Muslim community was galvanized.  They gradually became a true community center where Muslims prayed, received education in the teachings of Islam, conducted their marriages, celebrated their festivals, and deliberated their common concerns.  It was in America that the comprehensive role of the mosque, exemplified in the Madina Mosque built by the Prophet of Islam and his companions, was restored.  In America the mosque reclaimed its true meaning and comprehensive role as the center of the Muslim community.



Muslims who came to America found themselves in the midst of a vibrant culture and assertive society.  Anyone who decides to leave his or her old society and make America their new home would surely be impressed by the sense of autonomy and equality, which form the core of American culture.  Americans by and large speak up their minds freely and boldly, assert their rights against any act they deem to be unfair or representing an incident of excessive use of power, and resort to collective action in pursuit of their shared interests.  Muslims slowly but surely have been learning the value of asserting one’s rights and the importance of organized and collective endeavors.


While Muslims have been impressed by the vibrant American culture, and hence willing to learn from its strengths, they have been equally alarmed by its downside.  Particularly of concern to Muslims is the increasing moral laxity of the American society, reflected in sexual promiscuity, violence, pornography, drug abuse, and other social ills that have been on the increase.  The perceived moral laxity has prompted many Muslim parents to search for alternative schooling and social activities for their children, and hence brought them closer to Islamic centers, and highlighted the importance of community.



One outstanding feature of the Muslim immigrants who came to the United States in the last few decades is that many of them are highly educated with remarkable personal achievements.  The free and well-organized American society has provided these high achievers with ample challenges and opportunities to bring their talents and skills to bear on the life of their communities and the greater society around them.  The outstanding achievements of the morally committed and highly skilled Muslim leadership is revealed in the mushrooming of full-time schools and national organizations committed to advancing a genuine and authentic Islamic spirit despite mounting odds.  The concerted and organized efforts of the local and national


Islamic organizations have made remarkable inroads in a relatively short time into the mainstream social and political American life.  The list of achievements includes: the establishment of hundreds of Islamic centers and full-time schools, introduction of Muslim chaplains into the U.S. military, establishment of political action and lobbying organizations, publishing houses, small size media organizations, etc. 


Also remarkable is the great enthusiasm given to Islamic education by America Muslims.  In a relatively short period of time, the efforts to provide Islamic education to Muslim youths progressed from weekend schools to full-time Islamic schools.  There is hardly any major city in America without an Islamic school.  Metropolitan areas, such as Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, have over a dozen full-time Islamic schools each.  A number of Muslim education councils have been established to coordinate efforts to improve Islamic education, particularly in the area of curriculum development and teacher training.


Another remarkable achievement has taken place in the area of political organization.  Several national organisations concerned with politically mobilizing the Muslim community and defending the civil and political rights of Muslims have been established in the last decade, such as the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), the American Muslim Council (AMC), the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).  These political-action organizations have been quite instrumental in raising Muslim awareness regarding their civil and political rights, educating them as to how they should respond to various political events through local gatherings and national conventions.  They have also been lobbying the Congress and federal agencies on their behalf.  This is quite remarkable, given the fact that individuals leading these efforts belong to the first generation of Muslim immigrants.


The great interest in Islamic education and political action, alluded to above, though still in its infancy, holds a great hope for brighter future.  But the American Muslim community will have to travel a long way before its struggle for Islamic education and effective political voice can bear fruits.  More importantly, Muslim leaders must develop sharp vision and clear goals, and then proceed to plan their steps with precision and vigor.



Because modern knowledge lacks a central core and overarching principle to keep the totality of social experience in unity, the consciousness of the modern man has been disintegrated, and modern social sciences have been fragmented.  The mission of Islamic education has been to reintegrate the fragmented consciousness of modern man by once again repositioning transcendental values and total meaning at the core of human consciousness, the binding and nurturing core which the secular project has managed to destroy.


For Muslims, restoring transcendence to the spheres of knowledge means that revealed values and beliefs have to be reinstated as a source of knowledge.  This has to be done without bouncing to the other extreme one finds in traditional knowledge, whereby notions found in the divine text are dogmatically interpreted, without regard to the knowledge acquired through worldly experience.  Both revelation and the experienced reality should form the foundation for producing a body of knowledge dealing with modern socio-temporal challenges while remaining true to the spirit, purposes, and aspiration of transcendental truth.  This body of knowledge has to emerge out of a vigorous and methodical application of reasoning on the two main sources of knowledge: divine revelation and the observable world.


The above conclusion has far reaching implications for the ongoing efforts to develop an Islamic education capable of producing well-balanced personalities that combine efficacy and vigor with profound religious commitment and faith.  The complete secularization of the autonomous spheres of knowledge simply means that the Islamic school curriculum that haphazardly combines subjects produced by public schools with Islamic subjects does not go far enough towards producing a balanced Islamic personality.  For such a curriculum fails to reconcile the internal contradictions between the secularist worldview embedded in the subjects adopted from the public school system and the Islamic worldview reflected in the Islamic study subjects.


If the Islamic school project is to succeed in achieving the goal of graduating well-rounded human beings, creative energy and financial resources must be channeled to produce an alternative school curriculum capable of bringing about integration of knowledge and consciousness, so ultimately students graduate from Islamic school with (1) clear awareness of their purposes in life and responsibilities to their family, community, and humanity at large; (2) sharp vision as to what has to be accomplished for the betterment of human life; and (3) methodical thinking and substantive knowledge of the social and natural environments.




Most Muslims who migrated to the United States grew up in societies that had become accustomed to political elitism and popular quietism.  It was, therefore, quite natural for them to shun political activism and maintain low-key political posture.


However, beginning with the late seventies, a new wave of Islamic activists arrived in America.  These were mainly young men who have come to pursue their higher education in American universities.  Emboldened by the nascent Islamic resurgence in the Muslim world, and saturated with Islamic idealism, they busied themselves with political agitation and mobilization.  But the political activism of these Islamists was limited to activities targeting the Muslim community in particular, and involved mainly programs that were high on rhetoric and low on action.  While high-rhetoric conferences and meetings served initially as an outlet for the anger and frustration of Muslim activists with regard to moral degradation and political subjugation practiced by Muslim regimes supported by major western powers, including the U.S. government, they also served as avenues for exchange of views and ideas, and the education of the American Muslim community about the plight of Muslims the world over.


The early nineties witnessed a remarkable elevation in the level of Muslim political involvement.  For the first time American Muslims began to rally mainstream political leaders to their causes.  The effort to use the voting power of Muslims to influence the decisions and priorities of American politicians has been led by Islamic centers and community-based organizations; some national organizations (e.g. AMC and CAIR) have been playing an important role in educating the public on Islamic causes, and providing logistical and technical support to Muslim activists.  National political action groups have also been lobbying the Congress and the Administration in support of Islamic causes.


Yet the overall impact of the political action of Muslim organizations on the general public and the American political scene is hardly noticeable.  While reasons for the meager impact of Muslims on American politics are multifarious, two clearly stand out: political fragmentation and political aloofness.


Yet the political mobilization of the Muslims should not center on the assertion of rights and the promotion of justice.  Equally important is the question of institutional building and the development of human resources.   Muslim socio-political organizations should work towards the development of educational bodies devoted for producing school curricula based on the idea of integration of knowledge, discussed in the previous section, and for the preparation and training of quality teachers.  They should also channel Muslim talents to the various areas of services the community requires, including journalism, law, media, scholarship, etc.


Community strength does not come from sheer activism, but requires strategic planning.  While it is true that numbers count in a democracy, it is equally true that spiritual and technical strengths of the individuals whose numbers add up to form the community are quite essential for the making of a critical mass.  A good strategy, therefore, should enhance unity and cooperation among Muslims and ensure the diversity and sophistication of their skills; while the bulk of Muslim professionals work as physicians, engineers, and businessmen, the Muslim community is in a dire need for lawyers, teachers, journalists, novelists, and similar professions that provide direction, project the correct and true image of Islamic ethos and values, and raise the Muslim voice so that the American Muslim community can be heard loud and clear.


To sum up this discourse, the emerging Muslim Communities like their earlier counterparts of various religious communities from Europe, have lodged themselves in a free, challenging and dynamic world where all have the opportunity to express their true Islamic impact.  Islam by its universalistic value system and simple, commonly understood ethical norms and practices has a natural vitality which prevails in such situations.  Islamic history is full of precedents where as Islam appeared on similar-cross-roads of cultures and conglomerations of peoples in situations of chaos and moral confusion, it succeeded in uniting them around the central and binding core of unity of tawheed and led to the new vision of building the society on the divine purpose.  So today in America Muslims have a role and a duty to lead the way through Islamic education, sound moral conduct, and active participation in positive political movements, to the creation of a just, peaceful and caring society.

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