The Muslim World

Establishing a New Base--America

by Shirley W. Madany

There can be little doubt in anyone's mind that the Muslim World has established a new base, moved into new territory, and is rapidly proceeding with its own form of Americanization. America has become the home of another strong world religion. Islam is to be taken into consideration when its adherents in the U.S.A. have arrived at the sizeable total of four million. 

A recent article appearing in one of the Arabian Gulf States' magazines featured an in-depth look at "American Muslims: the Battle for Identity and Power." Leaning heavily on the translation of this article from Arabic, we share the general thrust of its contents with you.

According to the author, the Muslims of America have reached a position numerically where they can begin to exercise their influence in the cultural, political and religious realms of American society. In the last five years, they have become the fastest growing community in the United States. It is safe to say that within twenty years they will number eight million--without counting conversions, simply from normal population growth rates.  "The number of mosques during the last five years has doubled twice so that today there are 1200."

It was intriguing to note how well-informed the Arab writer was about the state of religion in America for he compared the size of the Muslims to that of the Presbyterian denomination and estimated that the former had forged ahead and now outnumbered the Presbyterians.

There were some enlightening observations of how living in America has affected the role of the imams* of these mosques. More and more, they are beginning to resemble that of pastors in Christian churches. This is something that the imams of the non-Western Muslim world do not do. "The mosque, itself, is assuming an organizational role in the life of American Muslims; as is the case with the organization of summer work camps for Muslim young people and Quranic studies similar to Christian Sunday schools."

We received something in the mail the other day that illustrated another development in their Americanization.  Muslims in a position of leadership, professionals with certain skills, are grouping together to help the troubled immigrant family. One such group was called the "People's Alliance for Progress." Situated in the Chicago area, this collection of medical doctors had formed an organization that deals with various crises in the lives of Muslims. It had become obvious to them that the average American professionals in such fields could not be of sufficient help unless they were schooled in Islamics. Thus they had formed a "Help Line" for troubled youth, abused family members, drug users, etc. Many immigrant Muslim families have fallen apart without the strong traditional mores of an Islamic society to keep them in line. Their parents are so engaged in getting ahead economically--perhaps working seven days a week and long hours, that their children are falling prey to lessons gained from too much television and from the peer-pressure within the public schools. Arab "gangs" make themselves felt in surprising places. It was good to learn of this attempt to meet a special need. One becomes aware that the Muslim community in the United States is beginning to assume responsibility for its own members.

But the author of the magazine article had a deeper concern. He refers to the fact that some newly arrived zealous and more radical Muslims accuse the earlier and more settled American counterparts of being lukewarm and half-hearted in their observance of Islam. They cited the stirring stories of great fervor and courage among the Bosnian Muslims in the midst of bombings and by contrast such carelessness among their co-religionists leading lives of ease in America. This led to a comment that might give us cause to ponder: that the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir is constantly the subject of the Friday sermon in many of our American mosques. And we should add--that in the course of these sermons, the United States comes off poorly. In many sermons that are preached in the mosques, it is not uncommon to hear political tirades. Contrast this with the requirements of the authentic Christian tradition, that sermons must follow the great themes of God's revelation pointing to Jesus Christ as our unique Savior and Lord of all of life. The last thing you would expect of a sermon in a Christian church would be that it should become a political speech.

Muslims in America have many debates among themselves as to just how they are to manage in their modern, secular society. One professional Muslim declared that he would never buy any meat which is not slaughtered according to the Islamic Shari'a Law. His children cannot see anything on TV unless it is Islamic. He believes that he can continue to do this without facing serious problems. But another Muslim, who came to the country in 1990, already anticipates a crisis should his daughter decide that she wants to work at a fast-food restaurant. It would be difficult to force her be home bound. These comments were all being read first in the Arabian Gulf!

American Muslims are not successfully unified. The reporter remarked that in centers like Chicago, New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, where there are large Islamic populations, their mosques are divided according to their ethnic backgrounds. Arabs worship in Arab mosques, distinct from the Pakistani or Indian Muslim mosques. Thus far, there is not that much mixing between immigrant Muslim groups and Black Muslims. Most experts agree that there are a number of factors that will define the Islamic community of the future. It will depend on the next generation of Muslims, those born in America, the quality of discussions they have with each other, the depth of the spiritual revival presently going on among Muslims and the role which is being played by Black Americans.

As an example of the great progress already made in their Americanization they note that "Whereas Muslims used to bring their imams in the past from overseas, nowadays they can draw on the graduates of an American Institution for the Training of Imams in Sterling, VA. The most important center for American Muslims is the Islamic Center in Washington, DC. Smaller Islamic centers are to be found in most major cities of the United States. Steady progress is being made in lobbying for Islamic rights down to the minutest details such as "whether a Muslim in the army should be cooking pork when he is working as a cook in a military unit."

We can expect these well-organized new Americans to assume higher profiles as they assert their American identity parallel to the demands of their strident religion. For example, there are now Islamic chaplains in most of our prisons. Muslims are slowly becoming a part of the American scene just as surely as the wave of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century and the Jews in the 20th. And as these two communities managed to achieve a place in American society while enjoying their own specific identity, so too will the Muslims. Again these are thoughts expressed in the magazine article.

It will remain for the Christian to discover the depth of his own faith commitment, as he finds himself working side-by-side with such Americans. Would he succumb to theological pluralism, the latest heresy advocating the equal validity of all religions? Or would he cling to the apostolic teaching: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved?" (Acts 4:12)

We must not be ashamed of our "calling": our mission to Muslims. Let us be ever eager to share with them the Good News. You may be sure that they will never let up on their own aggressive "da'wa" or "calling" which propels them to envisage the conquest and conversion of the entire world to Islam.

One of our California sons seems determined to keep us abreast of the spate of books coming into the Berkeley bookshops regarding every aspect of Islam. The latest two to arrive have dealt with the spread of Islam in Africa and the activities of five sectarian Islamic communities in North America which claim to be truly Islamic regardless of the viewpoint of Sunni and Shi'ite mainliners. These Muslim sects are a strong reminder of the "mission" aspect of the Islamic presence in America.

As we approach the end of our century, Islam is no longer over there across the Atlantic. It is right here and its followers are well established among us. In their struggle to define their identity, they discover that to survive as Muslim communities, they have to explain and defend their specific beliefs and way of life. As they do that, they are spontaneously and boldly drawn into da'wa (Islamic missions) among fellow Americans.

Christians, are you ready to meet this challenge?

*Imam, in the Sunni tradition, is a title given to the leader of the worship service in the mosque. In the Shi'ite tradition, this title is reserved for Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and to his descendants who are not at present living on earth. The duties and prerogatives of the Shi'ite Imam are delegated to certain leaders as was the case with Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.


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