Islam in America

Interfaith leaders in support of American values, and Muslims

Posted in America by hossamaljabri on September 8, 2010

I was deeply touched today with the tremendous show of support from the interfaith community in our  beautiful city of Boston. The words of these friends, colleagues and leaders touched my heart, and reminded me of the beautiful values that we cherish. The press conference in front of the MA State House was covered in TV and print media. Please sign the online petition that is created by the interfaith group in Boston.

Recent Poll about what Americans believe about Islam, Muslims, and Obama

Posted in America by hossamaljabri on August 31, 2010

This article in the Huffington Post highlights a most interesting Newsweeks poll.

  • 24% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. What is interesting is that this is almost double the percentage of those who thought he was a Muslim 2 years ago, during the election (only 13% during the election) ! (question 17)
  • If you look at republicans in particular, 52% believe Obama to be trying to impose global Islam !! (A full 14 percent of Republicans said that it was “definitely true” that Obama sympathized with the fundamentalists and wanted to impose Islamic law across the globe. An additional 38 percent said that it was probably true — bringing the total percentage of believers to 52 percent.)
  • 58% of Americans today do NOT know a Muslim at all. But this is lower than 2 years ago (63% did not know a Muslim in 2008). (question 18)
  • Compared to 2 years ago, there are more Americans today (60%) who have a more favorable view of Muslims (about 7% more) (question 19)
  • 23% say that they would NOT want a mosque in their neighborhood (question 20)
  • 52% are worried about radicals within the US Muslim community (question 21)
  • In a different poll (Pew Research), 85% of Americans say that they do not know much (or at all) about Islam

Reflections on these numbers:

  • Some in America are looking for a way to blame a foreign evil enemy on our domestic problems (economy, wars, etc..). It seems that the best way to rally the troops, so to speak, is to blame a minority group (oh where have we seen this before?). In fact, these people will tell you, the reason Obama is so bad, and should be replaced as soon as possible, is that he is a closet Muslim! An African American leader recently said: they cannot call him the “N” word, so they will call him the new “M” word!
  • It seems that there are more people today who are against Muslims (because they need to pin point an enemy, and find a something to blame) ; but also there are more people who are standing with Muslims (because of the tolerant values upon which our society and our constitution is built).
  • There is a definite need for Muslims to reach out more. Muslims must come out of the closet and open their homes, houses of worship, and hearts to the larger society. It is not acceptable that 58% of society do not know a Muslim. Most likely one of these people is your neighbor.
  • Most people who personally know a Muslim have a much more favorable view of Islam and Muslims.(this is from a different poll). This highlights the importance of Muslims reaching out.
  • The worry about radical Muslims is a genuine worry. In fact, American Muslims are worried (or should be worried) about radical Muslims. However, it is obvious that this worry is currently inflated for political reasons. What should we do as American Muslims? 1) combat radicalism in our community: not in the Name of Islam! And 2) be much more inviting of the larger society into our community in order for them to know Islam and Muslims
  • The bottom line is this : American Muslims are caught in the middle of a battle not of their own doing. Some in America need an enemy to “rally the troops”. They are positioning Islam/Muslims as this new enemy. Anything Muslim is bad for America. With the small microphone that we have, American Muslims are yelling out: this is not true. This is not what Islam is about at all. American Muslims must not get caught in this political fight though. We need to focus on reaching out to others – even if it is done individually and one on one. We need to decrease the chance that this hype would play in the hands of the extremists in either side. Because this is the stuff that extremism, on both sides, thrives on.

Your thoughts?

Shariah between two popes

Posted in Politics by hossamaljabri on August 31, 2010

This is an interesting article about Sharia by Sherman Jackson.

The article describes the different view of Sharia from two popes. Here is an excerpt :

While it started out as a minor footnote, opposition to sharî’ah has now morphed into the mantra by which many justify their opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” If we allow this mosque to go forth, so the logic goes, the next thing you know, all the bars in the country will be shut down (and those infidel lushes flogged!), all the women will be draped in sheets, and Muhammad will replace Jacob as the most popular name in America. Allahu akbar!

While some of this hysteria is clearly being peddled by people who know better, most Americans are probably just engaged in a good-faith attempt to understand and respond to sharî’ah through the only prism they have: their own historical experience. I was recently reminded of this on a visit to Cairo, during which time two popes, one Catholic, the other Coptic, expressed almost mutually contradictory sentiments about sharî’ah. The chasm separating their perspectives related not to their different levels of knowledge aboutsharî’ah but almost entirely to their differences in historical experience.

…..

The most interesting position, however, was that of the [Coptic] Church itself. In addition to religious freedom it invoked sharî’ah in its defense! Time and again, Church officials publicly invoked such sharî’ah maxims as, “When confronted with People of the Book (Jews and Christians), adjudicate among them on the basis of their own religion.” The Coptic patriarch, Pope Shanoudah III, even went so far as to quote the Qur’ân directly in his weekly sermon: “Let the People of the Bible adjudicate according to what God revealed therein. And whoever does not adjudicate in accordance to what God reveals, they are among the corrupt” (5: 47). As if these statements were not explicit enough, in an interview published on 10 June in the official Ahram newspaper, Pope Shanoudah stated plainly and without equivocation, “We simply ask the judges, if they want to reconcile with the Church, to apply the Islamic sharî’ah.”

Read full article here.

A much more comprehensive article on Sharia is written by Noah Feldmen, of Harvard Law School, can be read here.

A World Without Islam

Posted in Books by hossamaljabri on August 30, 2010

This is a very interesting book : A world without Islam, by Former CIA official and Historian.

I read the first chapter, and it seems like a very good good so far.

Here is the excerpt from NPR :

What would the world be like without Islam? In A World Without Islam, former CIA official and historian Graham Fuller says it wouldn’t be much different from the world today.

According to Fuller, the West’s fraught relationship with the Middle East isn’t really about religion — and actually predates the spread of Islam.

Fuller tells NPR’s Neal Conan that he found “deep-rooted conflicts that still exist over ethnicity or economics or warfare or armies or geopolitics [that] … really don’t have anything to do with Islam, and indeed, existed long before Islam came into existence.”

One of those conflicts can be traced all the way back to antiquity.

“The ancient Greeks fought wars with the ancient Persians for several hundred years, from about 500 to 300 B.C., struggling over the same turf,” Fuller says. “The people who came to occupy them later, the Byzantine Christians, fought the same wars, and then the Turkish Muslims came and they fought the same wars.”

In his book, Fuller says, “I try to run through a whole lot of events and take Islam out of the equation, and see what we’re left with.”

And what was left was the idea that the continuity of geopolitics and grievances across the Middle East doesn’t need Islam to explain it. Rather, he sees Islam — and religion in general — as a banner in that Islam provided the organizing principle for the Muslim empire that took over much of the world.

“I’m not arguing that Islam has not had great impact on the Middle East region and its cultures and civilization,” he says. “But I’m arguing that the nature of conflict between the West and the East does not depend on that, and precedes Islam.”

Consider, for example, the struggle over oil and energy in the Middle East.

“If the area were Christian, would the region be any more accepting of big Western oil companies trying to come in and dominate those things?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”

Fuller says that while he finds imagining the world this way an important and informative exercise, he is in no way advocating for a world without Islam.

“I’m really focusing on the nature of struggle between the East and the West,” he says, “and whether Islam plays a significant role in that.”

You can buy the book here from amazon.

Why I love my country

Posted in America by hossamaljabri on June 8, 2010

A sister called me today expressing concern about the new message she feels is now more often expressed by Muslim leaders:  “we love America”.  “How can you love America?” She asked. How can you turn a blind eye to all the injustices both inside and outside America being done by our government and our people? Look at our history. Look at the current reality. Look at the invasion of Iraq, supporting Israel at any cost, the prejudices against Muslims, American Indians, African Americans, Japanese Americans, and other minorities. Look at the social inequalities in our own society between rich and poor. Look at all the promiscuity. When you say “I love America” you are putting yourself in the same side of the right wingers who use this as a blank support for our military expansions overseas. How can you keep saying “I love America”? Is this some sort of a new PR campaign? Well, it is not working!

What was even more interesting is that this sister is actually a white American convert. You wouldn’t think of it, right?

I shared with the sister the following:

-          Our love to our people, our love to our country, America, is not a blind love. It is the love that is advocated by the prophet PBUH: that causes us to correct the wrong, and to advocate for justice. Like a person who corrects his friend, out of love, not out of anger or envy.   It is the love expressed in the hadith: support your brother whether wrong or right. If wrong, help him correct the wrong.

-          A prophet sent to his people must care for, and love his people. Allah called each prophet a “brother” to his non-believing people. The prophet loved Mecca, although Mecca was turning away from him. He loved Mecca in the sense that he wanted the best for his people, and worked hard to help them be better. He was sad and crying when he was leaving Mecca. When an Angel came to him offering to destroy a neighboring tribe, he refused the offer, and prayed for their wellbeing and guidance. This is how we love America, our people.

-          Most Muslims love their country of origin, although their government may be doing horrible things.  An Egyptian has no more right to love his country more than I have a right to love mine.

-          This love does not stop us from speaking out and acting against injustices that are happening around us. However, to be authentic to our faith, we cannot only speak out against injustices that are happening to Muslims. The prophet did not advocate for justice only for Muslims; he was sent to stand up for Justice and mercy for everyone. That means recognizing and speaking out against injustice when it happens by Muslims against others (terrorism, oppression, rights of nonMuslim minorities, etc..). It also means speaking out against injustices happening against other people who are not Muslims.

-          Our recognition of the wrong in America does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to all the good that is in America. Like any other country, America is not perfect; but there is a lot of good in America. Some of this is good is well aligned with Islamic values: rights of minorities, freedom of religion, democracy(shura), respect for the rule of law, respect to others, fulfilling opportunities, willingness and desire to accept the truth, ability to change for the better, honesty, courage,  hospitality, etc…

-          In fact Islam recognized the good that the Meccans had, although they stood against the prophet in the beginning. There is often a section in Islamic history books that talks about why Allah chose Mecca to be a place to receive His message: generosity, strong belief, commitment, loyalty, strength, etc… Islam channeled this good in a better direction to become a more positive presence in the world. We must recognize the good that is in America, and not only look at the bad. To be fair, we should also use the same scale when we evaluate America as we would other countries. It is not fair to compare the worst of America with the best of Islamic history, or vice-versa.

In 2010, America’s ideals and principles are likely the closest that the human mind has come to divine guidance. This is in fact why Muslims often find it easier and more accommodating to practice our religion, and live our lives as Muslims in this beautiful land.

America also has a lot to learn and gain from Islam and Muslims. Islam offers a more complete knowledge of the creator who sent not just one, but many prophets. Islam is the same religion of Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them). Islam offers an authentic, practical, preserved, and dynamic religion that can be rationally and practically applied in our daily life. Islam offers wholesome solutions to many problems in the family and society. Islam offers a comprehensive view that, when applied correctly, fosters progress and development at all level. Islam offers an authentic, final message from the Creator that has not been altered by humans. Islam offers a balance between the material and the spiritual that makes a human being whole and fills a deep void in humanity today.

Therefore, as a Muslim, I am genuinely proclaiming to my Lord that I love America. I love the people to whom you have sent me, oh Lord. I love them and I genuinely care for their well being. I hope that they become the best in the world, and that Islam touches their lives like nothing has touched them before. I am grateful that you have given me the opportunity to take your message to this beautiful land of promise and opportunity. I pray that America will be a role model in the world, and will live up to your ideals. I look forward to strengthen the good ideals that are part of America. I look forward to change the injustices that are in America. I only ask you to allow us as Muslims to live up to this huge responsibility, and to appreciate your gift and opportunity that you have given us.

Educating Muslim religious leaders in America

Posted in America by hossamaljabri on March 26, 2010

Religious leaders go through specialized formal education in the United States. Numerous universities cater to the religious educational needs of Jews and Christians across the U.S. There are also many institutions, such as the renowned al-Azhar University and the University of Medina, which cater to the needs of Muslim scholars across the world. However, such specialized religious institutions focusing on the needs of Muslim Americans are nearly non-existent.

For the Sunni Muslim community in America, the following options apply in identifying religious scholarship. They are listed below from the most common to the least common:

1. Immigrant imams commissioned from overseas to serve Muslim communities, usually in local mosques, or Islamic schools.

2. African American local imams.

3. Lay leaders who develop rigorous Islamic knowledge, while maintaining another full time career/commitment.

4. Individuals taking courses, and sometimes obtaining degrees, from fledgling Muslim American educational institutions (such as the Islamic American University or American Open University).

5. Individuals graduating from American secular institutions

6. American Muslims going overseas to gain scholarly Islamic knowledge and then returning to the U.S. to serve their communities.

Naturally, the above categories are not mutually exclusive.

There are approximately six million Muslims in America. Of those, nearly two-thirds are immigrants or children of immigrants, and one-third  are converts, mostly African Americans. The Muslim American community is in the initial phase of building religious institutions and scholarship in America.

1a. Immigrant Imams

This is a simple model. Thousands of imams across the Muslim world are available to come to the U.S. These Imams have usually experienced traditional schooling and a religious university education in a Muslim country. It usually takes the Imams who come from overseas 3-10 years to begin to grasp the unique dynamics and challenges that face Muslims in America. There are no systematic mechanisms to educate these new Imams on the realities of the Muslim American experience. In most cases, they capably fulfill the immediate worship related needs of the community—leading prayers, delivering sermons, and providing religious guidance on common issues. However, they often struggle in helping the community to fully integrate with the larger society and achieve its full potential, since they are still struggling with the realities of a whole new environment and culture. In a mature community that can provide more support, these Imams can grow into religious leaders who more fully understand and appreciate the American society and the Muslim American experience. In order for this to happen, they need support from other community leaders, who are more experienced in the American context. Imam Basyouni Nehela (Boston) and Imam Mohammed Magid (Washington, D.C.) are two successful examples of immigrant Imams who were able to adapt to the American context. These Imams are respected by their communities and play an influential role in community decision making.

1b. African American Imams

African American Imams understand the social needs of their African American community. The majority do not have formal religious schooling or degrees. Moreover, few have studied in religious institutions overseas, while some will have studied formally respected teachers such as Imam WD Muhammad and others.

2. Lay Leaders

These individuals have a special interest in Islamic sciences, and in serving their community. They find creative ways to learn Islamic sciences, which enables them to play a role as community or religious leaders. They are not considered “scholars,” and are often called “students of knowledge.”To gain this knowledge, they usually do one or more of the following:

  • Take courses by correspondence (see below)
  • Read books and engage in self study
  • Study with local scholars or Imams in the mosque
  • Engage in some classes overseas for a short period of time (3-18 months)

These individuals are influential in shaping the Muslim agenda, since they are respected leaders and are more able to articulate a vision to engage the community with the larger society. However, they lack rigorous scholarly knowledge. Every Muslim community will have a number of these individuals who usually give Friday sermons in the majority of mosques which do not have a full time Imam. They are also influential in shaping other policies in the community at large (integration of women in society, interfaith relations, etc.).

3. Imams Graduating from American Muslim Institutions

This is a new but growing trend. Institutions such as the American Open University and Islamic American University have been offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in Islamic studies for a number of years. However, they are struggling to attract students. They have some physical classes in few locations, as well as correspondence and online courses that can be counted towards a degree, or as standalone courses. The Zaytuna Institute, Deen Intensive, and Al-Magrib Institute also fall in this category. However, they do not offer undergraduate degrees per say.

Zaytuna College is a new exciting project that may take this initiative to a higher level by offering a full fledged accredited university style program for aspiring American Muslims.

4. Imams educated at non-Muslim American institutions

American colleges have been offering degrees in Islamic studies for decades. For example, Harvard University, Georgetown University and Boston University offer such programs, among many others. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, several universities invested in new Arabic and Islamic studies programs catering to the increasing demand for such focused coursework. But without additional Muslim-based religious credentials, these degrees are often looked upon skeptically by the Muslim community, especially for religious leadership roles. Oftentimes individuals with these degrees are influential as Muslim scholars in the larger American society. Still, the community often questions whether secular academic institutions are able to fully educate a person in their religion.

Hartford Seminary and other similar religious seminaries have often been received more favorably in the community for educating religious leaders, as they are perceived as more nuanced than the purely secular academic institutions. In the past five years, and especially since 9/11, American academic institutions have had a keen interest in recruiting American Muslims to their Islamic studies programs. There are a number of reasons for this: a) There is more interest in having American Muslims “at the table,”and b) diversity within these institutions is highly desirable.  This has positively influenced the programs to become more understanding of Islam and Muslims, rather than simply viewing Islam with a skeptical lens, or as the traditional “other.”

Although with some hesitancy, more young American Muslims are pursuing the academic path as a possible alternative to more formal religious education. Some of them also enroll in additional formal scholarly institutions to enhance the quality of their Islamic education.

Scholars such as Sulayman Nyang have been able to combine both an academic as well as religious leadership in the Muslim community. On a local level, individuals such as Mohamed Lazouni have been able to do the same.

5. Eastern (overseas) education

Although this option requires more commitment, it has so far produced more positive results. American-born and raised Muslims engage in rigorous studies in overseas institutions or with individual scholars, and come back to the U.S. as scholars and leaders for their community. For instance Imam Hamza Yusuf, a well known national figure, has engaged in this process. The Islamic American University (IAU) has sponsored many students, for 3-10 years each, to live overseas, and gain an education from a Muslim religious institution. With their natural understanding and affiliation to their American culture, these students are able to articulate a relevant message for Muslims in America. Many of these aspiring scholars come back to the U.S. in the summer to “practice” their knowledge in America, so that they are not “isolated from the motherland,” and are able to continuously refresh their analytical skills to apply what they learn overseas to the reality of Muslims in America. There are several women, such as Muslema Purmul of Southern California , who are part of this initiative through the IAU. Suhaib Webb has been a beneficiary and supporter of this initiative as well. Zaytouna Institute has also sponsored individuals to study Islam in Mauritania for more than a year.

The success of this option depends on a number of factors:

  1. The commitment of the individual to learning: Living overseas can be a difficult transition. Participants need to have a high level of commitment to be able to withstand the pressures of a new country, culture, and environment.
  2. Finances: Five to ten years of education can be costly. In most cases, a Muslim American institution will be needed to fund an individual through a scholarship.
  3. Quality of education: Not all religious institutions are equal. For instance, there are some institutions overseas that tend to lean on a more conservative approach to religious education (such as some Saudi universities). This makes it more difficult for the student to apply what he/she learns in a way that is relevant to Muslims in America
  4. The support system in America: Some mentoring during the foreign learning process is important to ensure that the student is able to reintegrate into their community and benefit the American Muslim community with their knowledge.

Scholarship in Islam

To the Muslim individual, a scholar’s opinion is highly regarded and needs to be taken into serious consideration. It cannot simply be dismissed. However, a Muslim (individual or community) has the ability to “shop around” until they find the scholar that they are most comfortable with. This comfort should, ideally, not be based on personal desires, rather, on what an individual feels is closest to the truth.

In the Sunni tradition, Muslims do not have a pope like-figure. Scholars do their best to interpret God’s rules and commands but they are susceptible to mistakes in interpretation. If the mistake is an “honest” mistake (one done with utmost sincerity and with a clear desire to look for the truth, while taking the necessary scholarly steps in the research), then they are not held negatively in account (by God) for their position or fatwa (religious edict). Muslims are often wary of following their personal opinion without scholarly “backing.”

Many Muslims will have an Imam or scholar that they trust, and will seek their guidance in order to make a decision on some aspect of their daily life. Lay leaders also play this role in many communities in North America. More learned individuals will often consult with scholars and make up their own mind as to the fatwa or opinion with the most “backing,” and then follow that particular opinion.

An Imam is by definition an individual who leads the daily prayers, and may not necessarily be a scholar. Scholars need to go through more rigorous training in Islamic studies. Every scholar is an imam, but not vice versa. Female scholarship is allowed, and in fact encouraged in Islam. History has ample examples of female scholars who were teachers to great male scholars. The majority opinion in Islam holds that females are allowed all forms of scholarship and leadership in Islam, except leading males in formal congregational prayers.

Is American Muslim scholarship different?

In the Muslim world, Al-Azhar University in Cairo is one of the most renowned religious institutions .In Europe, there are more established Islamic scholarly bodies, which issue legal opinions and fatwas (eg: European Fatwa and Research Council). Muslim American institutions are less established than Europe. One of the more prominent bodies is the ISNA Fiqh Council.

Muslims in America need to build their own systems and institutions to produce scholars that understand the western and American dynamics well enough to shape Islamic opinions based on the realities of western (and more specifically American) Muslims. This is a model that scholars such as Tariq Ramadan are applying. This is also a process that shaped most societies where Muslims lived. For example, the application of Islam in Saudi Arabia is different than Egypt, which is also different than Malaysia or China. Each society faces different realities, which allows culture, politics and other dynamics to shape the legal opinions provided.

Islam has a core that is fixed (ex: belief in One God, the five pillars of Islam, Prophethood, etc). But the other part of Islam is dynamic and evolving, and has changed across different times and different cultures.

In fact, this was one of the reasons that traditional scholars (such as the Four Imams of Schools of Fiqh) differed in their fatwas (legal opinions). For example, Imam Shafi’i changed his fatwas after moving from Iraq to Egypt, instituting an important rule in Islamic jurisprudence: religious opinions change depending on the context (including time, place, and culture).  This rule was applied all over the world for different Muslim communities.

Shaping an authentic American Muslim religious education is important but will take time. It will be facilitated by the presence of authentic scholars who are (a) well trained in traditional Islamic sciences, (b) well aware of the American context, and (c) able to formulate opinions that fit our existing reality. The challenge will be how to shape the American Islamic viewpoint in our context, while not undermining the core values of Islam.

Action Alert to American Muslims: The Straight Path Campaign

Posted in Uncategorized by hossamaljabri on January 22, 2010

An Alert to American Muslims

The Muslim American Society (MAS) has launched a national initiative, currently called the Straight Path Campaign, addressing the issue of extremism in our community. We are calling on all Muslims to contribute to this important discussion. Below is some background and starting point for the discussions.

NOTE: view more information about this campaign here : islampath.org

Discussion 1: Why is this initiative important, and what are its key goals?

  1. Muslim youth across America are exposed to extremist ideas, whether through interaction with radical groups, or through the internet.
  2. The goals are to (a) provide people with an alternative way to express themselves aside from violence; (b) provide young people with positive tools for social change; (c) educate people about the high cost of extremism for their communities and for themselves.
  3. Extremism is a big problem in many countries around the world. It is also highly contagious. This is our chance to address it early on, before it becomes an even bigger problem in our own country.

Discussion 2: What Obstacles or challenges might we face in addressing these issues?

  1. Some external elements will not desire the call for moderation to prevail amongst Muslim youth
  2. Finding creative ways to connect effectively with a positive message to all Muslim youth
  3. Overcoming misconception that extremism is part of Islam
  4. Islamophobes misrepresenting our efforts
  5. Full engagement from all segments of our community in this effort.
  6. Some may believe that the issue is mostly media-hype, and that it is not a real problem.
  7. Raising funds to sustain the initiative.

Discussion 3: Why should the Muslim community address this problem?

  1. Peace and moderation are key Islamic concepts.
  2. An opportunity to connect, mobilize, and organize Muslim youth around a positive message.
  3. An opportunity for Muslims to play a key role in addressing a need that is clearly a priority to our country.
  4. Sends a clear and actionable message, that Islam stands against extremism

What you can do:

During the next few weeks, please take the following action

  1. Initiate a discussion on the topic with your family, friends, in your study circles, in an Islamic center, in town-hall meetings, and in your organizations. Start with the points mentioned above. Add other discussion questions such as : what is extremism, is it a threat to your community, what fuels extremism, what is the cost of extremism, what are the arguments used by extremists and how do we refute them, how is Jihad misinterpreted by extremists,  who are our allies in this campaign, what are creative means to combat extremism?
  2. Send this blog to your friends and your local email lists
  3. For discussion leaders, share your discussion notes using this new online survey. Also, pass on this other survey to discussion participants after the discussion.
  4. Volunteer, identify and recruit individuals who have interest to work on this project locally and nationally. Fill out this online survey to volunteer for this initiative. You will be placed in local and national teams, based on your skills, interests, and availability.
  5. Recommend candidates to apply for the full time position of Director for this national campaign.

We plan to synthesize all your inputs to shape our current plans

The Muslim American Society (MAS) has the largest network of dedicated Muslim youth and volunteers across America. We have a duty to answer the call to address this challenge facing our country and our community.

Hossam AlJabri

Executive Director, Muslim American Society

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