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U.S. Freedoms Give American Muslims Influence
Beyond Their Numbers
Omaima Bukhari is a precocious Muslim
in Maryland. She's 20, fascinated by Islam, computer science and
psychology. She discusses everything with her father, Zahid, who works at
Georgetown University and counts as friends imams and sheiks from Al
Azhar, the prestigious seat of Islamic learning in Cairo.
Last December, she attended an
engagement party for relatives in Pakistan. The bride-to-be was sobbing in
the next room. So Bukhari marched before the family elders and demanded to
know: Did you ask for her consent to the marriage? No? You have to! This
right is from Allah, conveyed by our prophet Muhammad!
The women were silent. The men were
arguing. These were men with beards down to their chests. This was a small
rural village. This was a place where women have only just begun to
But Bukhari was
quoting the Koran. She was quoting a hadith (an account of the prophet's
life). She was insisting that the villagers' treatment of women was based
on cultural practices, not the faith of Islam. No one could argue with her
Finally, the graying patriarch
of the Bukhari clan delivered judgment: Omaima is right. Consent must be
The fiancee eventually granted
it. And, as Bukhari prepared to return to America, the old-world patriarch
told his new-world descendant, "Granddaughter, you've taught me a lot."
Far from the fatwas--the religious
decrees--of hierarchies abroad, American Muslims are slowly but steadily
carving their mark on the Islamic world.
Their relatively small numbers, young
history and still fledgling organization would seem daunting barriers to
wider influence. Of the roughly 1 billion Muslims worldwide, those in the
United States are only a tiny fraction, numbering somewhere between 3
million and 10 million.
But a confluence
of forces that has made those Americans among the freest, most educated,
affluent and diverse Muslims in the world has given them an impact greater
than their numbers. Helped by the growing use of English as a language of
Islamic discourse and by the ever-spreading world of the Internet, they
are self-consciously seeking to influence their religious brethren
Moreover, the spirit of the
times may be on their side. "The guy with a turban and rifle is out," says
Marcia Hermansen, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago. "The
guy drinking a latte with a laptop computer reading Internet fatwas is
Provocative Islamic thinkers are
flourishing in the climate of America's unparalleled intellectual freedom.
They are tackling taboo subjects such as spousal abuse and highlighting
the aspects of their nearly 1,400-year tradition that embrace women's
rights, human rights and democratic practices.
The sheer diversity of the community
here is prompting efforts to promote Islamic models of pluralism. U.S.
Muslims include American natives, mainly of African descent, as well as
immigrants from more than 50 nations.
American Muslims also are expanding
their influence by bringing modern education, business practices and
economic development to their homelands through a mushrooming number of
nonprofit organizations. More than 300 such groups now raise about $50
million a year for such causes as education and health care, according to
Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Los Angeles-based Minaret magazine and
president of the American Federation of Muslims From India.
"Muslims all over the world are looking
with high expectations toward the ummah [community] in the United States
and Canada," says Murad Wilfried Hofmann, a retired German diplomat and
Muslim jurist. "Its dynamism, fresh approach, enlightened scholarship and
sheer growth is their hope for an Islamic renaissance worldwide."
Working against that hope are the
community's weaknesses. American Muslims are divided and sometimes
fractious. They struggle with discrimination and comparatively weak
political clout at home. They are seen by Muslims elsewhere as generally
lacking in the classical Islamic education that would undergird their
Some leaders worry that the
powerful forces of assimilation, which homogenize most immigrant groups in
the U.S. by the third generation, could weaken the American Muslim
identity before it fully consolidates.
Key leaders across the ideological
spectrum--from Sheik Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of
America to Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations--voice
a common view that Muslims here must get their own house in order before
hoping to have a major impact abroad.
But despite the problems, American
Muslims present the Islamic world with a seductive new model of modernity,
says Sulayman Nyang, a professor of African and Islamic studies at Howard
University in Washington.
Until now, the
main model in the Islamic world for modernization had been Turkey, which
excised Islam from public life in the name of progress. America gives
Muslims an alternative--an example of a society in which the faithful are
free to be both modern and religious. Here, more women are voluntarily
donning the hejab head covering as a mark of religious pride and
identity--even rendering it hip with T-shirts touting it as "Good in the
Nyang argues that the potent
combination of modernity and piety demonstrated by Muslims in the U.S.
could catch on in the Islamic world, offering a compelling alternative to
The American faces of Islam
belong to people like Dany Doueiri and Shamshad Hussain.
Doueiri is a co-founder of one of the
world's most popular Web sites on Islam, http://www.islam.org/. Every day, the Los
Angeles-based site receives 140,000 hits. More than half the visitors are
from outside the United States. They are shown an expanse of Islam that
bypasses the divides of cultures, religious sects and schools of Islamic
law that often separate Muslims from one another.
For instance, when numerous Bosnian
Muslim women were raped by Serbian soldiers during the Balkans conflict,
the site was flooded with queries on the Islamic position on abortion.
Doueiri says his team presented without judgment two opinions from
different schools: one holding that any abortion is forbidden, the other
saying that the procedure is allowed for up to 120 days into the
pregnancy, after which, adherents believe, the soul enters the body.
The neutral presentation of differing
views within the vast Islamic tradition, though rare, is equipping Muslims
worldwide to think through their own Islamic practices rather than simply
accepting the rulings of the local scholar, Doueiri says.
"This site has brought so much happiness
overseas, because people say they find a much more objective point of view
than they get from their own scholars," he says.
The rise of the electronic fatwa,
sometimes by self-styled experts, dismays some classically trained
scholars. But experts say the trend is irreversible.
The Internet, satellite TV and steady
gains in literacy are prompting a quiet but dramatic shift in the source
of Islamic authority throughout the Muslim world--from political and
religious leaders to the common educated people, says Dale F. Eickelman, a
Dartmouth College anthropology professor and co-author of the book "New
Media in the Muslim World."
Muslims in the West, unprecedented numbers of believers are debating the
fundamentals of their faith and practice in a new Islamic reformation, he
"Nobody is controlling anymore,"
Eickelman says. "Even if you're not getting an increase in liberalism or a
shift from authoritarianism, you're now getting large numbers of people
who know what they're missing."
pipeline of fresh Islamic views to younger Muslims abroad is the Iqra
International Educational Foundation in Chicago. Iqra--the Arabic word for
"read" and God's first word to the prophet Muhammad, according to the
Koran--is pioneering American-produced, English-language Islamic
textbooks. In the last few years, overseas demand has skyrocketed and the
foundation now exports tens of thousands of books annually to 16 countries
in the Mideast, Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Europe.
The books' distinction, according to
managing director Hussain, is that they promote the idea of self-study of
the Koran and hadith and present the tradition's essence shorn of regional
and sectarian differences.
The quest to
crystallize Islam's essence, free of the overlays of cultural tradition,
is perhaps most advanced here because America's diversity is forcing
Muslims to strive for a common understanding. Doueiri's Internet group,
for instance, represents Muslims from both the majority Sunnis and
minority Shiites who hail from 30 countries. Doueiri, for example, is an
African-born American of Lebanese ancestry.
American Muslims are producing the first
modern "hajj model of community," says Agha Saeed, who teaches ethnic
studies at UC Berkeley, referring to the annual gathering of Muslims in
Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
say they are striving to restore their faith to its essence of tolerance
and pluralism. Two decades ago, the Islamic Center of Southern California
was a pioneer in arguing for an American Muslim identity based on "finding
ways in Islam to make bridges to 'the other' and live together," as center
co-founder Maher Hathout puts it.
time, his was an odd voice among Muslim leaders who were focused inward
and viewed America as dar ul-kufr, or "place of unbelievers." Today, the
concept is mainstream.
Michael Flemming represents the small but growing number of Muslims who
are marrying cross-culturally. An African American graduate student in
Islamic studies at UCLA, Flemming says his in-laws from India initially
resisted his request to marry their daughter. But that resistance began to
melt, he says, after he made his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Still, the challenge of pluralism looms
unmet for many. "Some African Americans get the feeling that even with our
Muslim brothers, it's still 'us and them,' " Flemming says. "I think the
youth, because they've grown up together here, will be able to overcome
In the academic arena, striking
American voices of Islam belong to people like Khaled Abou el Fadl. The
UCLA professor of Islamic law is breaking intellectual ground with bold
social critiques based on a blend of classical Islamic training and
Western academic grounding. He trained in Egypt and Kuwait and at
Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.
Over the last four years, Abou el Fadl
has published searing critiques on sexual abuse, wife-beating and other
problems among Muslims, analyzing how Islamic tradition sometimes promotes
such behavior. Without America's academic freedom, he says, such
scholarship would have been impossible.
Using case studies of mistreated
Muslims, Abou el Fadl has admonished the tradition--and present-day
imams--for the general silence on incest and sexual abuse. He has
challenged divorce laws favoring men and concluded that expectations of
blind obedience from women is immoral.
So far, he has not been able to punch a
doctrinal hole in the laws of apostasy, although he would like to: He says
he is morally offended by the laws, which punish those who leave Islam
with penalties of death or imprisonment in many countries.
His unflinching scholarship is
controversial, but it is gaining notice abroad. Abou el Fadl has been
asked to lecture in the Mideast, North Africa and Europe and has received
e-mail from around the world. Some people chastise him, but he says the
vast majority back his efforts to reinterpret the Islamic legal tradition.
He has no patience for those who claim
that Islam is perfect.
"Instead of being
brave and gutsy in confronting the flaws and shortcomings of the
tradition, they are being apologists," Abou el Fadl says. "It is our moral
obligation as Muslims to speak the truth."
American Muslims have even established
an organization that counts gender equality as a core value. Jamal
Al-Muslimeen was established in 1977 in Minneapolis and now has chapters
in Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ghana, Britain, Germany and Canada, according to
Ali Siddiqui, an imam based in Chino who is a member of the group.
Siddiqui tries to walk the talk,
delivering sermons at area mosques on spousal abuse as a consequence of
misplaced ideas of male superiority. When he marries couples, he tells
them that Allah has made women and men equal. Sometimes, he says, he is
challenged--especially by elders from remote areas.
Such experiences temper his idealism
about the impact American Muslims can have in changing values both here
"We have a lot to
contribute, but it's a very slow process," Siddiqui says. "Ideas take time
to take hold, especially when people have been doing something for so
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