Islam in America – A Thousand Points of Light
Submitted by Professor Nazeer Ahmed
We live in extraordinary times. These are times when human progress is limited only by the speed of light and the human capacity to absorb change. We stand perhaps on the threshold of discovering life in far-away planets or being discovered by life forms from distant galaxies. Telescopes gaze at stardust formed only a few million years after the Big Bang. Robots and artificial intelligence seek to displace humankind from the center stage of the cosmos.
Even as humankind stands on the threshold of staggering discoveries, it also stands on the precipice of total destruction. We search for light from far-away galaxies but we do not know how to reach out to the Light that is in our hearts. Technology has welded the earth together and has brought untold riches to a few but millions of children go to sleep hungry every night without a morsel in their tiny stomachs.
Our own land of America is no exception to these global currents. Founded as a republic as a haven for refugees, it now wants to turn away refugees who are desperate for refuge. A nation that was conceived as a melting pot of nations now wants to exclude people based on their religion.
Yes, these are extraordinary times.
- Critical Bends in Islamic History
It is in the context of the times that we must reflect on Islam in America. From a perspective of Islamic history we can recognize seven major bends in its flow: first, the passing away of our Prophet Muhammed (sas) in 632 CE and the need to establish historical continuity; second, the challenge of Greek rational ideas in the eighth century and the affirmation of traditional Islam; third, the explosive growth of science, arts and culture in the Islamic world from the ninth to the twelfth centuries; fourth, the simultaneous destructions from the Crusades and the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century; fifth, the age of Awliya and spirituality from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries; sixth, the transition from the age of taqwa to the age of fatwa in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Our times define the seventh bend. Seldom has the world of Islam faced the challenges that it faces today both from within and from without. Not even the Qur’an and the person of the Prophet are spared from the onslaught.
Every challenge is an opportunity. The Qur’an teaches us
La Yukalliful Lahu Nafsan Illa Wusyaha, Laha Ma Kasabat Wa Alaiha Maktasabat.
When Allah swt places a burden on a soul, He expands its capacity to carry that burden. Allama Iqbal expressed it in his own words: Islam is like a balloon; when you squeeze it in one direction, it pops out in the other.
- The Four Waves of Muslims onto American Shores
Perhaps not many young people are aware that ours is the fourth generation of Muslims in America.
The first wave came from West Africa. Estimates vary but a broad consensus is that at least thirty percent of the millions of African men and women captured from Africa and brought to the Americas between the years 1609 and 1820 were Muslim. The conditions were harsh and this first wave of Muslims disappeared despite the valiant struggle of some and the many slave revolts in North America, the Caribbean and Brazil.
The second wave, a small one, came around the middle of the nineteenth century when the Army considered introducing the camel as a means of transport in the southwestern United Sates. A large number of men were brought in from Egypt and from the area of Baluchistan that is now Pakistan. Only men were allowed to come. They intermarried with local women and disappeared.
The third wave came from the eastern Mediterranean region after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. They settled in Northern New Jersey and in places as far away as Detroit and Iowa. The lure of the American secular culture was too much for these immigrants. Within one generation they melted away into the broader American milieu.
The current wave is the fourth one. Estimates vary but there are between three and five million Muslims in America today. About thirty percent of them are of South Asian origin, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh. About twenty five percent are African American. About twenty percent are Arab. About ten percent are of European descent. Alhamdulillah this wave has done well. There were only a handful of mosques in 1960. Today there are more than 3000. We have produced at least one Nobel Laureate, 35,000 doctors, 300,000 engineers, 8,000 members of the armed forces, 20,000 policemen, distinguished professors, architects and successful entrepreneurs who have enriched America. The modern skyscraper is a product of a Muslim engineer. Muslim scientists have made contributions to information technology as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. Where there was no medical care, a group of Pakistani doctors stepped in and provided first class medical care as in the Roanoke area of West Virginia in the Blue Ridge mountains.
But there are dark clouds over this community. Islamophobia which was in the closet is now in the open.
Every challenge is an opportunity. The dire situation that Muslims face is an opportunity for internal renewal.
- The True Purpose of Islam in America
The most basic question before every human being is: What is the purpose for the creation of man? Why am I here? Science and technology do not provide an answer to this most fundamental of questions. The Qur’an does.
Ma Qalaqtul Jinna Wal Ins Illa Le Yabudoon.
I created not beings of fire and beings of clay except to serve and worship Me. Thus knowledge, service and worship are the core of human reason-to-be. Gradually, over a period of the last three hundred years, Muslims gave up this grand vision and got bogged down with trivial issues, the do’s and don’ts of mundane life and boxed themselves in within the four walls of bida, shirk, kufr and haram.
The next question specific to American Muslims is: what is the true purpose of Islam in America? Why are we here? The Qur’an once again provides the guidance:
Kuntum Khaira Ummatin Ukhrijat Linnas, Tamaruna Bil Maruf Wa Tanhawna Anil Munkar.
You are a noble spiritual community, enjoining what is good, forbidding what is evil and believing in God. Thus, the true purpose of the Islamic community in America is to work ceaselessly for the common good, together with all likeminded communities and people.
The last question for each individual is an existential one: What am I meant to be? Why am I in this world? What is my true purpose? The Qur’an provides the guidance:
Ya ayyuhal Insanu, Innaka Kadiun Ila Rabbika Kadhan Fa Mulaqi
O humankind! You are toiling towards your Sustainer, ceaselessly toiling, and you shall meet Him.
Thus, the journey from the cradle to the grave is the journey to find the Divine presence in one’s life. He or she who surrounds himself or herself with the presence of the Divine finds that connection to the source of infinite energy, surreal beauty and transcendental happiness.
- Strategies for Survival
So, how is the promise of Falah or wellbeing to be achieved here in America? For the sake of communication and remembrance, we will use the word Falah as an acronym and summarize our recommendations with its own letters.
The first letter in Falah stands for Faith.
Faith is the basis for civilization. Where there is no faith, there is no civilization. Faith is not just belief. It is the Light within the heart that impels the human to struggle with patience and perseverance to find the Divine presence in human life. It was faith that sustained the new born Muslim community in Mecca. It was faith that saved the Muslims from extinction from the onslaught of the Mongols and the Crusaders in the thirteenth century. Allah loves those who have faith in Him. Never, never lose hope in Divine Grace. The current situation is a test. With every difficulty there is relief.
Fa Inna Mael Usri Yusran, Inna Mael Usri Yusra.
The second letter is a for aql
Aql is reason and judgement. It is the basis of science and logic, the foundation for language and mathematics, the moderator for law and social discourse. It defines the structure of the universe and of our own physical being. In all of Allah’s creation, there is nothing as sublime as reason except the heart. The Prophet (sas) was a man of reason. Even in the most trying of circumstances, he did not abandon his presence of mind. He was the Prophet of God but at critical moments he sought the counsel of the Suhaba and accepted it. The current situation in America calls for common sense. To paraphrase a hadith, there are times when one who is standing must sit down, one who is sitting must lie down. Whether a spark goes to a bundle of dried grass or the grass comes to the spark, the result is the same. Survival requires the use of common sense.
The third letter is l for Law
The Constitution, Bill of Rights, laws, rules and regulations define the American system of governance. We have seen in recent weeks how even the edicts about Muslim immigration promulgated from the highest office of the executive branch can be challenged and overturned in the courts. Our children must be taught the Constitution and the Bill of rights along with the Qur’an and the Seerah of the Prophet so that they understand their rights and responsibilities and stand up for them as adults when they grow up.
The fourth letter a is for adl meaning justice
History is a resolution of justice. When a civilization obeys just laws it prospers. When justice is violated, a civilization ultimately destroys itself. Justice is indivisible. You cannot have justice for yourself and deny it to others. In the American context, this means Muslims must work for justice for all citizens whether they are native American, African American, Latino American, Asian American or European American regardless of race, color, ethnicity, national origin or their belief systems. Remember the words of the Qur’an
Ya Ayyuhal Ladhina Amanu, Koonu Qawwameena Bil Qist Shuda Lillah
O you who have certainty of faith, stand firmly for justice, as witnesses before God.
Seldom has the commandment for justice been expressed with the clarity as it is in this Ayat. On the entrance to the Law School at Harvard University there is a plaque and on it this Ayat is inscribed to honor the commitment of Islam to universal Justice.
The last letter h is for Hasanah.
And lastly, h for hasanah, meaning good deeds, beautiful deeds, noble deeds, service solely for the love of God. It derives from Asma ul Husna, the most beautiful Names of Allah. In the context of our lives, it means feeding the poor, caring for the dispossessed, giving refuge to the refugees and honoring our word. In America, a land that is blessed with plenty by the Grace of God, more than twelve million children go to sleep hungry every night. It is a matter of gratitude that the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center, the Muslim Community Center of Pleasanton and others in the Bay Area are in the forefront of feeding the hungry. These efforts deserve our support.
And when you serve, make sure that the public knows about it. We live in an age of the media. Those who stand against us control the megaphones. We can at least reach out to the public with microphones.
Reach out to other communities. Build bridges of understanding. Research has shown that a great majority of those who hate Muslims have never met a Muslim.
Get involved in public affairs. Learn to speak up or support those moderate voices that are speaking in your behalf. A silent majority is not a majority at all. It is irrelevant, a zero on the historical canvas. It is a recipe for extinction.
- Some Parting Words
The future offers us a choice. Will the Islamic community in America survive or will it disappear like the previous waves of Muslims? The portents are mixed. While many Americans convert to Islam, approximately 23 percent walk away from it within a generation. Modern man, hemmed in as he is with the cacophony of a materialist world, is looking for spiritual meaning in life. Organized religion offers him rules. You don’t sell shoes to a man who walks into a store looking for a hat; he will walk away.
And if Islam does survive what forms will it take? Will it be a community, immersed in knowledge, imbued with science and logic, aware of its history and culture, contributing to the falah or well-being of humankind or will it be a fringe group, an object of curiosity like the Pennsylvania Dutch? That is a choice that you as young men and women have to make.
The intellectual leadership for this renewal is not going to come from Saudi Arabia or Iran or Pakistan or Turkey or Nigeria. Each of them is caught up in its own whirlwind. The renewal will come from within, from you, the American youth. I am convinced that the leadership for this grand endeavor is not going to come from a single individual, no matter how great his or her stature is. It is going to come from the masses, ground up, from people like you and millions like you. Never assume that you are too small to make a difference. As Mevlana Rumi said: You are not just a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in the drop. So, do not stand on the shore, afraid to get your feet wet. Dive into it with your soul. Perchance you will find a treasure or two in that ocean that generations after you will cherish.
In spite of the current difficulties, America is still a land of relative freedoms although that space is continuously shrinking. It is still a land of peace and security, of opportunities to acquire knowledge, challenge ideas and evolve a culture based on spirituality and reason, and produce a synthesis based on the guidance of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet with its foundation in science, culture and history.
Study the Qur’an. Make friends with it. Understand it. Every man, woman and child must be literate in the Qur’an. How can we sustain a vision of spiritual renewal if we are not familiar with the source of that renewal? Avoid extremism. Allah does not love those who are extremist. Innallaha la yuhibbul Mu’tadeen. Engage in a mighty struggle to rediscover your faith, to renew it and project the message of love, brotherhood, compassion and mercy onto the world stage, each Muslim man and women a point of light, with a million lights forming a bundle emanating from the earth, so that when that moment of discovery does come, when perhaps another life system does discover our earth, they will find it enveloped in Divine light. Yes, the sun will rise from the West, as the Prophet (sas) said.
That is the calling of the future.