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.