Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What does it mean to be a Muslim American? (Final Draft)


To provide some background, the idea for this piece came from Danya Shakfeh of the blog Sufistication who actually wrote much of this essay. Please remember this is only a rough draft and we pray by God's grace this will eventually turn into a booklet that will positively add to the current discussion surrounding Muslim American identity formation and cultural production, particularly among youth in relation to Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah's essay "Islam and the Cultural Imperative." As many young Muslim Americans continue to discuss the importance of youth being able to engage critical issues related to culture and personal development, a few concerned individuals wanted to create this essay in order to provide some direction for whatever conversation youth find pertinent and cathartic to relieving the currently tense condition found in some communities regarding what a future "American Islamic tradition" will look like. Please note this is directed more to youth 15-years-old and older insha'Allah.


In the 1970s and 1980s, many Muslims immigrated to North America seeking broader educational and economic opportunities. Many of them had the intention of returning to their home countries upon completion of their education or other respective goals. But, as we know, though we plan, God is the best of Planners and as the years and decades rolled along, many young Muslims from all around the world settled in North America and began to raise families. Before long, these young families found it impractical to return to their respective countries. Their children grew up, made friends, created social, cultural and economic networks and established themselves with a seemingly irreversible permanence. No longer were their goals solely focused on creating better economic and social opportunities. Rather, this generation, we being amongst them, seek to sew a seamless patch of peace adorned by our religious sensibilities into the fabric of America.

One of the advantages we have as a religious minority is that we have an easier time distinguishing between between cultural values and legal rulings. On the other hand, many Muslims, being raised in Muslim households in Muslim-majority countries, take for granted that their lifestyles are shaped and informed by Islamic values. They have few examples with which to compare their cultural experience.

However, as an Arab Muslim raised in the United States, for example, I can compare my lifestyle with members of the Hispanic, South Asian, Turkish and African American Muslim communities, and further to the local Anglo-American culture, which includes Muslims and non-Muslims. I can compare and contrast between what is a cultural creation and what is Divinely ordained. For example, I can recognize that the abaya is an Arab dress for women. Yet, the Shari’a does not require that women wear the abaya specifically, but that they simply cover their bodies with loose clothing and conduct themselves modestly. As such, I can use this criterion to determine what clothing from the local culture is acceptable for Muslims without being restricted to a particular cultural dress. Being able to differentiate between cultural values and legal rulings is the first step in adapting to a new environment.

No longer are we as Muslim Americans bound by only Arab, Asian, or African norms. We can take the legal rulings that make up the Sacred Law and determine what is acceptable culturally and what is not. And this is our challenge.

With the above in mind, the purpose of this booklet is to start a discussion on integration. We seek to recognize the needs of Muslim youth and bring forth possible solutions to the various cultural and social questions we face. By engaging all parts of the Muslim American community including activists, scholars and youth, we hope to create a framework of cultural identity formation that both addresses our needs as Muslims living in America and as Americans living Islam. Not only does this require us to create unique models of identity formation and cultural production, but also to look to those who have found intelligent ways of incorporating religious sensibilities into their local culture, including African Americans and American converts.

By remaining within the dynamic framework of the Shari’a, we allow Muslims and non-Muslims alike to recognize that Islam's Sacred Law is vast, vibrant and accommodating. This is important because not only are we presenting an authentic picture of our Sacred Law as it has been lived for over a thousand years free of political and social deviation, we also as Muslims believe any endeavor that ignores the Divine command falls short of receiving the full blessings of success and continuity.

Therefore, we have raised a few issues below that have become hot topics for discussion in our communities. We have addressed them by presenting our opinions accompanied by what we hope are clear explanations of our thinking. These answers, though, are by no means final but rather a humble starting point of what we hope is to become a larger discussion about how we all can help create a healthy American Islamic framework that allows Muslims to positively contribute to the betterment of American society.

We ask God to bless us in this endeavor, to make this effort a means of drawing closer to His Majesty and a great source of benefit for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ameen.

Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah writes in his essay “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”:
“In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam’s long success as a global civilization.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the seemingly continuous tumble of life’s complications. Family members, friends and school each compete for our limited time and resources. With so much demand and responsibility piling up, it becomes increasingly difficult for us all to effectively fit these competing interests into a single, manageable schedule. But as we continue to grow into the different roles and phases of our lives, it becomes all the more important for each of us to figure out who we are as individuals in the different roles we play in society — be it as a son, daughter, sibling, friend or student. With the world continuing to change and we as Muslims reflecting these changes, we find ourselves at one moment more deeply rooted in American society, but in the next one unsure of what it means to be rooted in this culture. As this occurs, it becomes essential that we as youth take a moment to reflect on and begin the process of community and self-definition.

As Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah continues in his essay “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”:
“By setting the boundaries of the self and impart-ing a strong, unified sense of identity, a sound Muslim American culture would allow for dynamic engage-ment with ourselves and the world around us. It would also cultivate the ability to cope with complex social realities and negotiate productively the various roles which life in modern society require us to play, while maintaining a unified, dignified, and self-assured sense of who we are and a consistent commitment to the val-ues for which we stand.”

To help us all find our places in American society and feel more comfortable with our existence here as Muslim Americans, the following prompts have been developed to give us some direction and guidance. And as we develop this discussion, it might be helpful to keep in mind that "home" is not where our grandparents are buried, but where our grandchildren will be raised.

What does it mean to be American?

“American” is a difficult term to define. But most, if not all, would agree that it is a term that refers to a society, culture and set of shared values that are tolerant, pluralistic and democratic making almost anything "American," including curry and shwarma. American can refer to First Amendment freedoms, southern hospitality, African American heritage, or a slice of New York City pizza. It is a melting pot of cultures and narratives that is elastic and can include our religious culture without strain. It is important to remember that there is nothing inherent in the idea of “American” or "American-ness" that clashes with basic Islamic values; rather many American values such as tolerance and civic activism are actually Islamic. This is why we must recognize that we are apart of this country and therefore have a great responsibility in making it the best it can be by protecting it intellectually and spiritually. Furthermore, it is a testament to the tolerant nature of American values that Muslims have thrived and continue to thrive unhindered in their ability to believe what they want and turn these beliefs into action.

Muslim or American?

Or both? Our generation needs to get out of the habit of interchanging non-Muslim for American. This is important considering the large number of American converts to Islam and second-generation Muslims born in this country. We can no longer make comments like “the Americans do this” and “the Muslims do that.” Every time we think of Americaness as kufr, or unbelief, and something distinct from Islam, we perpetuate a negative frame-of-mind that hinders our ability to make our religion one that is deeply entrenched in this culture and relatable to all different types of people, be they of European descent, African-American or Hispanic. Confining Islam and Islamic values to the “Islamic World” limits us all because Islam is not a religion of the East or West, but of everywhere. We have to remember, a person can be both Muslim and American and that is who we are today. Recall that the beloved Messenger of God (peace be upon him) is a “Mercy to all the worlds” and that Islam is a religion for all places and times. By excluding anyone, be it Americans or otherwise, we are only affirming the false idea some people believe that Islam is not compatible with the West or modern living.

Imitation, assimilation, or participation?

There are many different levels of American culture that Muslims can participate in. Some people like to portray all Americans as individuals only concerned with lewdness. But surely we should think better of our neighbors? Americans participate in beneficial activities such as community service, sports, academic research, educational forums, helping the environment and much, much more. These are areas in which Muslims should tap into and make our presence visible. Unlike how some people like to portray us, there is nothing wrong with interacting with non-Muslims at large. We should maintain good conduct and leave other people’s affairs to God, Most High.

It's true, actions speak louder than words

While MSA’s and other Muslim organizations are valuable vehicles for social organizing, motivation and mobilization, it should be noted that there is more to being active than inviting people to the way of God and reminding those around us that we are not terrorists. Rather, we as Muslims should create ways to effectively plug-in the individuals that make up our communities to fully benefit from our diverse resources and talents. By allowing our youth and elders to develop their unique capacities of service, we will be better prepared and able to serve the members of our local community be they Muslim or not. By this kind of concerted organizing, Muslim Americans will be able to speak through their actions rather than through the confines of simplistic slogans and media statements. Organizing canned food drives, feeding the homeless and arranging discussion panels with other organizations are all avenues of reaching out to the greater community. But this isn’t the whole list. With this in mind, we should consider what more can Muslims do in their individual communities to utilize local resources in order to be more prominent in the mainstream public square and follow through on our beloved Messenger’s words that praise those who serve mankind.

Do you feel connected to the Divine?

It’s no doubt difficult keeping faith alive, no matter where we live. But it’s especially difficult living among people who don’t give a lot of thought to God-consciousness. So how do we keep the faith alive? How do we make Islam relevant to our daily lives and to the lives of those around us? This is our challenge and it is a huge challenge that none of us can figure out alone and none of us should ever feel it is ours alone to shoulder. We shouldn't navigate this question divided into tiny boats paddling along, but create a large ship where everyone feels they have a place to contribute something beneficial. We need all the help we can get in plotting a course that revives and maintains our spirituality and the spiritual needs of our friends, family, community and country.

Does one size really fit all?

Everyone says “Islamic clothing,” but does anyone really know what it means? Depending on whom you might talk to, be it an Arab or a Desi, somehow “Islamic clothing” is either a thobe or a shalwar kameez. But is this correct? Islam’s Sacred Law commands nothing more than to dress modestly. But you might ask “didn’t the beloved of God (pbuh) wear certain types of clothing?” Sure, but this does not mean that we are required to wear long robes and turbans to school, as beautiful as his example (pbuh) and this dress is. In fact, he did wear other peoples’ garments to demonstrate that Islamic dress is not limited to one culture. Furthermore, Muslim clothing throughout the centuries has been shaped by local culture and has become a rich tradition filled with robes, thobes, saris, tunics, slacks, blues, blacks, oranges, greens and other styles and colors representing the incredible diversity of Muslims from Senegal to Singapore. Muslim Americans should create a mode of dress that is both reflective of the local culture and true to the principle of modesty. Rather than being “thugged out” or wearing super tight clothing, we should wear loose-fitting dress that protects our modesty but at the same time beautifies not only ourselves, but also our environments and sets a positive standard for those around us.

Music to my ears?

The Sacred Law has several opinions regarding the permissibility of music. The strongest and best-known opinions state that although singing about permissible things is allowed, instruments,
with the exception of the drum, are not permissible because of the possibly damaging effects they have on the human soul and its spiritual refinement (mujahadat an-nafs). However, there are minority opinions that state, under certain conditions (where there is no use of foul language or discussions of vulgar concepts), that instrumental music is permissible. Living in the United States, where we encounter music constantly because it is deeply woven into the fabric of local cultures, it is difficult to totally avoid music with instrumental accompaniment. Although the authors of this piece do not listen to music with instrumental accompaniment because of the reasons mentioned above, they recognize that perhaps some contemporary opinions regarding the lawfulness of it do not address the relatively unique historical, cultural and social contexts of the contemporary Muslim American community. Further, it is important to establish a middle position on instrumental music that doesn’t condemn or alienate individuals who take one position or the other in order prevent extremism where members in our community either ban music all together or listen to all of it, the good and the bad. With the above in mind, it is important for the Muslims of America to arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of the music dilemma and find appropriate alternatives to the contemporary corporate-driven music industry that is seriously lacking. One way we can to do this, for example, is by promoting artists who respect and try to follow Islamic moral principles and at the same time provide listeners with a true expression of the beauty and wonder of the human experience.

Will they always have cooties?

Islam’s Sacred Law is not categorically against men and women interacting with each other. Rather, our scholars merely stipulate that whatever interaction does occur, it is done with proper etiquette and modesty. This is especially important to keep in mind because as Muslims are a minority in North America, our numbers are limited and the only other Muslim one might see is one of the opposite gender. Because of this reality, it may be better to support one another by giving each other the Islamic greeting of As-Salamu ‘Alaykum and checking up on one another.

Separate but equal?

One may be familiar with the Prophetic tradition (hadith) that the best place for a woman is in her house. The Prophetic wisdom recognizes that commanding or even encouraging women to pray at the mosque would be a source of hardship for her, especially if she is caring for the home or raising children at the time. However, we should remember that this saying of our beloved Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, does not state that women should be prevented from going to the mosque. Neither is there a verb in this hadith instructing woman to “pray in one’s house.” We should also remind ourselves that the Prophet (peace be upon him) instructed his community not to prevent a woman from entering the mosque. In North America, mosques hold our communities together because they are the glue of our communities. There are individuals who would never see or know other Muslims if they did not attend the local mosque. Furthermore, mosques not only serve as places for worship, but also as a place for education. Muslim women are the spiritual mothers of our community and if they are neglected in their spiritual education and upliftment, so too is the whole community. With this in mind, how can women be provided appropriate space so that they are accommodated and have a place in the mosque that facilitates and caters to their spiritual needs?

What should we say, Allah or God?

Many Muslims have developed a dislike for using the word God because they mistakenly believe that it is not an acceptable term for the Divine. But just as Arab Christians and Arab Jews use the word Allah and South Asian Muslims refer to God as “Khuda” (such as in Khuda Hafiz), Muslims in North America should not shy from using the English word God to invoke the greatness of the Lord of all creation because it is a fact that the word “God” is not defined in the English language in the Christian Trinitarian sense, but as “the Supreme or Ultimate Reality." This is an important issue because many non-Muslims in the English-speaking world mistakenly assert that the God of the Bible is not the God of the Qur’an. This further deepens the divide between some ignorant individuals in our country who wish to see that Muslims are viewed as outsiders with nothing in common to share with their neighbors.

As Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah writes in his essay, “One God, Many Names”:
“For some, even despite honest efforts to remain open-minded, “Allah” continues to evoke a wide range of deeply ingrained cultural prejudices and negative associations, conscious or subconscious. On the other hand, “God” creates an immediate associative response in most non-Muslim native speakers of English that would be virtually impossible for “Allah” to evoke even after years of positive exposure.”

Keep in mind also that English-speaking Jews, who do not believe in the Christian Trinity and have a conception of monotheism similar to ours, use the word “God.” There is nothing inherently implicit in the term “God” that decreases the Majesty and Beauty of Divine Unity. Though Allah refers to Himself as such, we should also consider the context in which we speak when choosing our terms.


The identity formation process is an inevitable one. Over the next few generations, Muslims will be apart of this society as peers, colleagues, neighbors, leaders, and activists. Rather than letting some of the important issues get out of hand or go in a way that misleads future generations, we should take control of the situation so that we do not lose sight of the main reason of our existence. With this booklet as a humble starting point, we hope you continue the discussion on what it means to be a Muslim American and be avid in helping to shape a healthy Muslim culture in America that both embraces the diversity of creation and the unity of the Creator.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The West's Poverty Subsidies

Found at Shaykh Faraz Rabbani's blog Seeker's Digest.

From the German newspaper Der Spiegel

Editor's Note: Industrialized nations spend billions to subsidize their high-tech farming industries. Surplus crops often end up being sold at rock-bottom prices in the markets of developing countries, making it impossible for local farmers to sell their products. Even the American food aid being sent to famine-plagued regions creates more suffering than it alleviates, because many governments prefer to wait for handouts than buy up their farmers' harvests. The lack of options is forcing thousands of Africans to risk the life-threatening journey to Europe...

Monday, May 07, 2007

Abstract for paper on the need for an independent Muslim American press

Clarence Page wrote the following in his introduction to a recently published book chronicling the rise and fall of the African American press: “Operating against a background of continual inequalities for blacks and a white America that routinely, and sometimes fiercely and even illogically, fought the granting of any new rights, black newspapers came to be in the vanguard of the struggle. Because most white newspapers virtually refused to cover blacks unless they were athletic stars, entertainers, or criminals, blacks were forced to read their own” (Washburn 7). This was especially true during the 1960s and 1970s when America’s inner cities exploded with violence and popular outrage. Now turn to today. Muslim Americans after the terrorist attacks of September 11 face a continual barrage of probing articles, essays and editorials questioning their loyalty, legitimacy and place in America’s social fabric. As African Americans found out and as Page points out, blacks in white newspapers was not typically a good thing, especially during periods of popular protest by African Americans, including the 1960s when white American finally discovered the inner city and began to grapple with the other America — ghetto America.

And neither is it good for Muslims when so much of the world is alight with anti-imperial opposition. Over an over, it is the Muslim bogeyman or woman that accompanies some sinister music on CNN or a frightening photo on the front page of the New York Times with some links to violence or anti-American sentiment. Very few articles portray Muslims in a positive light, especially now in our sleepless news cycle culture. And as Muslim Americans attempt to socially integrate, create a new and dynamic culture and figure out identity, they are overshadowed by identity politics plaguing the Middle East and political events they have no control over. It is in this climate, therefore, that Muslim Americans, like African Americans once did, must create a vigorous and independent press whose journalists are not only “fighting partisans” but a window for America’s dominant culture to peer into to understand its peers in citizenship.

This Muslim fourth estate, as the African American press was in the 1960s, must be organic, provide “voice and visibility,” but also provide a forum for structured internal community introspection. It cannot be meticulously micromanaged, superficial, or serendipitous, but must be independent and ready to challenge and question not only the dominant culture’s view of Muslim America, but the Muslim’s view of Muslim America. But how did the African American press engage white America in the 1960s? How did it act as a platform for community introspection but also act as an ardent advocate when so much confusion reigned — Vietnam, Watts? I’m not quite sure. But I do know why do we Muslim Americans need this. The answer is clear. As non-Muslim America grapples with its Muslim population as white America did with its black population in the 1960s, it needs a viable medium to engage intellectually and culturally that is defined by those within the Muslim community and not from without. This press is necessary and its necessity can be summed by the founders of the African American press, “We wish to plead our own cause.”

For this paper, I will use three articles from major black newspapers and magazines and three from mainstream newspapers and magazines from the 1960s to illustrate how the African American newspaper acted as a forum for community introspection and an advocate for black social integration. I don’t have the articles yet, but am busy scurrying around trying to locate them. From what I imagine, these journalistic pieces will be editorials, newspaper stories and magazine features that discuss the African American press’ role in creating a place for engagement and also pieces that are of pure coverage of controversial events and topics from the African American perspective and white dominant cultural perspective to show how newspapers and magazines framed stories and provided a way for readers to better understand why certain things were taking place among Blackamericans and the African American community in the 1960s.

The founder of alt.muslim Shahed Amanullah wrote a piece for his Web magazine called "Western Muslims Need a Fourth Estate." I want to build on this call, but provide examples from the development of the African American community to show the great parallels and amazing success the African American community had because of an independent black press. I would like to then analyze the current place of the Muslim American community in its development to argue that it is in desperate need of an independent press that can provide a forum for intellectuals, scholars and lay Muslims as well to discuss where the Muslim American community is and where it should go. This independent press, however, does not look like it will develop until money is fed into it. With recent articles coming out in the New York Times and Adweek Magazine discussing the estimated $170 billion of American Muslim disposable income, the impossible it seems might just take a while. Myself and others have argued that Muslims are paving the road, but not sure where its leading toward and most importantly the destination in terms of integration, identity and cultural production.

The Muslim blogosphere as has actually flourished partly because of the lack of an independent Muslim press. But as it expands and anyone with computer access and an Internet connection can join, the discussion has become less structured. Although I appreciate everyone's opinion, there is no overarching agenda and structure that an independent media can provide in which to provide context and a vision for Muslim Americans to build something bigger than themselves and their families that will provide a foundation for future American Muslim generations. So I guess this is the comparison; the African American press’ place in the 1960s in facilitating greater awareness of African American grievances and providing “voice and visibility” to outsiders and insiders alike and how the Muslim American press can learn from the African American press to empower the Muslim American community and provided a means for positive growth and development.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

War brought Bosnian Muslim women back to Islam

From the Washington Post

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Film director Aida Begic, a Bosnian Muslim, rediscovered religion when she was trying to rebuild her life after the country's devastating war.

"I was raised in total freedom, not burdened by tradition," said the 30-year old. She is the first woman in her family to wear the headscarf since her great-grandmother.

Although most Muslim girls in Bosnia follow fashion, drink alcohol, smoke and socialize freely, they also increasingly observe fasts and religious holidays. Some, like Begic, choose to wear the headscarf over their Western brand clothes.

"People were surprised, commented, asked questions. Some found it totally unacceptable. But it is absolutely my own choice," she said while waiting for the start of an avant-garde theatre play in Sarajevo.

Bosnian Muslims are Europe's only indigenous Muslim population, Slavs who adopted Islam during Ottoman rule starting in the 15th century. They traditionally practiced a tolerant, "gentle" form of Islam that adapted official doctrine to local customs.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Muslim Consumer — Top 10 Key Findings

From Adweek Magazine

1. There is no U.S. Census data on the number of Muslims in the U.S., but several estimates put the figure at 6-8 million. Assuming a minimum of 6.3 million Muslims (a 2006 figure from the International Strategy and Policy Institute), and estimating the disposable income of each at the national average of $27,243, and their aggregate disposable income totals more than $170 billion. That is roughly equivalent to the buying power of Indiana (6.3 million population) or Massachusetts (6.4 million).

2. There is no single "Muslim community" in the U.S., just as there is no homogeneous "Christian community." Muslims come from many ethnic backgrounds, traditions and cultures. The only things all American Muslims have in common are the broad outlines of their faith and the fact that they are American.

3. Muslims in America comprise not only immigrants from the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Africa and the Balkans, along with their American-born descendants, but also many African Americans and others who have adopted Islam.

African Americans Have A Voice, What About The Others?

From the American Chronicle

The Don Imus scandal led to debates concerning, sexism, racism, rap lyrics and media responsibility. What has unfortunately been ignored and what I found most glaring from this fiasco, is that the African American community has a voice. Immediately after Don Imus made his comments, an all out media blitz ensued with several prominent members of the African American community receiving television and radio air time to discuss Imus and his ignorant comments. Within a week, Imus had been turned into an American villain, as well as lost his television and radio show.

Obviously African Americans having a voice in society is a positive step towards racial equality, but I can’t help but focus on the groups that do not have a voice. I wonder if Imus had made similar remarks about Mexican Americans, Asian Americans or Muslim Americans, would he still have his job? It is likely that the comments concerning those groups would never had made it farther than his loyal listeners.

If Don Imus type comments are not considered acceptable by public standards, which I agree with, than that means all similar comments made against all minority groups are unacceptable. This reasoning I’m sure most people would agree with, but yet it does not resonate in society.

By no means I am saying that the African American community no longer experiences racial inequality that can not be easily remedied, but at least their voice is often heard. Can we say that about any other minority group in this country?

Role of partisan press

Partisan press doesn’t necessarily report what’s new but keeps mainstream media, which is reporting what’s new, in line. It monitors and finds what’s missing.

How to engage co-workers (while avoiding provocation of their egos)

Tips from my journalism ethics professor Bill Reader:

Real-world procedures:
  • Raise the issue
    • Don’t assume the group is always right
    • Don’t assume the boss is always right
    • Don’t assume the expert is always right
  • Don’t just point it out
    • Offer suggestions as to why you think you have a problem
    • Identify how the problem could have arisen
    • Place the problem in context of the three reasons for moral reasoning in journalism (philosophy, politics, and economics)
  • Offer alternatives

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Rewriting the Ad Rules for Muslim-Americans

From the New York Times

For years, few advertisers in the United States have dared to reach out to Muslims

Either they did not see much potential for sales or they feared a political backlash. And there were practical reasons: American Muslims come from so many ethnic backgrounds that their only common ground is their religion, a subject most marketers avoid.

That is beginning to change. Consumer companies and advertising executives are focusing on ways to use the cultural aspects of the Muslim religion to help sell their products.