Islam in America – Before 9/11

(Article 1 of 3. We present 3 articles here to record the Muslim experience in America)

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Islam has established a niche in America. Estimates vary, but judging by attendance at mosques, there are about 4 million Muslims in the United States and Canada. Although a major portion of this community is made up of immigrants, there has been a steady increase in the number of Americans accepting Islam.

Significant as these numbers are, the major impact of Islam on American life is not so much in demography but in the world of ideas. Much as America is the melting pot of nations, it is also the melting pot of ideas. Americans traditionally have considered their ideas as rooted in Judeo-Christian teachings. Only recently are they becoming aware of the third, co-contemporary monotheistic faith, Islam, and they ask where it fits in their world of ideas.

Islam sees its raison d’etre as the creation of a society enjoining what is good, forbidding what is evil, and believing in God. Muslim life has at its core the imperative of a persistent and continuous struggle to create such a society on Earth superseding the more narrow allegiance to race, tribe or national origin. Thus Islam becomes a process wherein tribal or ethnic allegiance is continuously challenged by allegiance to a universal idea.

In Islam, man is the trustee of his own free will, and all that is between heaven and Earth is subject to this will. It is his manifest destiny to exercise this free will, to mold, shape and bend the created world, and to be judged by the consequences of his action. Man is the creator of his own destiny, the maker of his own fortune. However, unlike the unfettered free will of Nietzsche, the free will of man in Islam is a gift bestowed by the Creator, a trust to be exercised in justice and in balance.

Interestingly, there is no concept of original sin and salvation in Islam. Man is created in the most noble of molds and is endowed with reason and judgment so that he may fulfill the moral regency bestowed by the Creator. The Islamic concept corresponding to salvation is falah, or well being, which man struggles to attain through his actions and through an exercise of his free will. The focus of individual and collective life is thus an unceasing effort for the material and moral well-being of mankind.

The freedom of expression available to immigrants in America is precisely the element they lacked in their native lands to express their religiosity. The Islamic world, faced with the loss of independence in the 19th Century and the subsequent challenge from Western ideologies, has been unable to muster the courage to open itself to political and social processes where its own internal ethos can express itself. Thus freedom is often muzzled and religious expression stage-managed so that it does not pose a threat to established order.

The American experience offers a breath of fresh air to the Muslim. Here, he can search his soul in peace and freedom, articulate the universal elements in his religion, and participate in the struggle for equity and justice. Thus Islam may yet find its golden age in America much as Judaism found its golden age in Muslim Spain.

The immigrants who have come here from places as diverse as Egypt and Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco, brought with them an Islam coated with the cultural crust of their native lands and modulated by their historical experience. In the American melting pot, this crust falls away along with traditional and regional bias, exposing the universal core of the immigrants’ religiosity.

The American children of these immigrants are bringing Islam close to what the mystics and the reformers of the last century were unable to do: create a multi-ethnic society of faith that is cleansed of traditionalism and is universal in character.

It is Islam as a political idea that confuses Americans. Since Islam declares that there is no compulsion in religion, the ideal Islamic state is a federation of ethical ideas where men and women exercise their free will. Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists – even atheists – area accorded equal access to their ethical cultures and equal protection of the law.  Freedom of conscience and freedom of choice are fundamental to Islam. Unfortunately, Muslims have not always lived up to these ideals. Many of the Muslim dynasties through the centuries were as closed to non-Islamic participation as medieval European dynasties were to non-Christians.

Islam and the West have met many times over the last 1,400 years in conflict, but in the 12th Century, this encounter was also the conduit for the transmission of classical Greek works and Muslim science and mathematics to Europe. Maimonides, St. Thomas Aquinas and Averroes were a product of this confluence of Islamic and Judeo-Christian thought.

When the colonial era of the 19th Century established European sway over much of the world, it also brought the Islamic world face to face with Western ideas.

In America, Islam will go through a two-way osmosis, providing yet another color to the rich spectrum of ideas in the American crucible, and in the process rediscovering its own soul.

(Note: This article by Dr. Ahmed was published in the Los Angeles Times on April 9, 1988. Courtesy: LA Times)