Most Muslim events are held in anonymous rooms in suburban hotels, silently sending the message that American Muslims ought not concern themselves with the great issues of our time and place. Much of the talk is about the old days in other places – Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, the Palestinian territories. Most of the talkers are aging men with long beards (“uncles”, we call them), first generation immigrants who tell long stories about pure places far away. Their identities were formed in those settings. Their memories of other times on distant shores are sweet.
And who can blame them? Every immigrant community – Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, Poles, Russians, Indians – knows this story. Who hasn’t heard granddad’s tales of the homeland?
In this narrative, America is a place to make a living. But to truly make a life, to genuinely follow your faith? For that, you have to be elsewhere.
The Zaytuna Institute – America’s first Muslim seminary – believes that both America and Islam will be poorer if American Muslims continue that narrative. So for their recent event in Chicago they chose a location which told a very different story – the magnificent Museum of Science and Industry, just blocks away from the University of Chicago. The message was clear – Muslims need to place themselves at the heart of what is happening here and now, to conceive of themselves as citizens who contribute to matters at the center of things, not people who pass through on the margins.
In other words, it is time for the narrative to shift. American Muslims can no longer see themselves as primarily an immigrant group. We have to see ourselves as a community indigenous to America, a contributing member of a pluralist society.
It is a story that has the added benefit of being true. A significant number of the African slaves brought to America’s shores were Muslim. (See Unity Productions excellent film A Prince Among Slaves). Approximately 25 % of the American Muslim community today is African American, not immigrant, and includes some (actually, most) of American Islam’s most prominent members – Congressman Keith Ellison, comedian Dave Chappelle, hip hop artist Mos Def, and former boxer Muhammad Ali. And the children of the immigrant generation are coming of age, taking our places in professional life, buying homes, raising our own children. We have no dreams of returning to India or Indonesia. We are American. And Muslim.
The mantra of the Zaytuna event was ‘creating an indigenous Islam’. The main program was the presentation of awards to Imam W.D. Muhammad, Dr. Umar Abd-Allah and the staff of the Inner City Muslim Action Network.
Each one, in powerful ways, embodies American Islam.
Imam Muhammad courageously broke with his father Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, and created a community now called The Mosque Cares based on traditional Sunni Muslim teaching that counts the majority of African American Muslims as members. Muslims today who speak of an “American Islam” are adding a chapter to a book that Imam Muhammad started, and which most immigrant Muslims ignored when they came to this country.
In his acceptance speech, Dr. Umar Adb-Allah said that it was Imam Muhammad’s legacy that he was continuing in his own scholarship about American Islam. “It is this generation’s responsibility to indigenize Islam in America,” he told an audience of young Muslim professionals of all races and ethnicities. “The next generation will either build on our successes or be the victims of our failures.” Dr. Umar’s article Islam and the Cultural Imperative is a seminal work of scholarship on indigenizing Islam in America.
The mission and staff members of the Inner City Muslim Action Network provided the perfect image of this American Islam. White, black, Arab and Asian; covered and uncovered; PhD students and high school dropouts; hip hop artists and corporate lawyers (and one guy, Capital D, who is both!) – all making the Muslim goal of being a mercy upon humankind a reality through their grassroots work on the Southwest Side of Chicago.
In his closing address, Shaykh Hamza spoke of Muslims and America’s Destiny. He cited the range of American groups who had found themselves on the margins – African Americans, Jews, Irish Catholics. Each group had to struggle for their place. What made the struggle particularly American is that each community realized that its freedom, equality and dignity rested on an America where everyone had those privileges.
“It’s the Muslims turn now,” Shaykh Hamza told the audience. “It is the historical destiny of this community to help realize the historical destiny of America.”
If it comes true, it will be a story worthy of the principles of America. And the principles of Islam.