Defining Islam in America
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Notwithstanding the current hostile climate in the United States, Islam
in America has the freedom to transcend the physical dimensions of
color, language, origin, nationality, and culture and construct a social
edifice that reflects the universal spiritual dimension of man. It is a
historical opportunity, not available in Islamic history since the
earliest years of Islam.
embraces the social, cultural, legal, political, psychological and
spiritual dimensions of man. It is a composite rainbow of many colors.
When it is illuminated in time and space, one hue or the other becomes
radiant. The others are obscured.
scans the fourteen centuries of Islamic history, one can find the
accentuation of one aspect or the other in different periods. The Islam
of the Companions was an integrated whole reflecting the lessons they
had learned from the great Master. Then, as Islam spread and found a
home in Persia and Egypt during the late Umayyad and early Abbasid
periods, the various schools of fiqh were founded and the legal
dimension of Islam was consolidated. In the eighth and ninth centuries,
there was a brief flirtation with speculative philosophies when the
Muítazalites found favor in the Abbasid courts. The repudiation of the
Muítazalites in the ninth century gave birth to the golden age of
science and civilization. It lasted until the Mongol onslaughts of the
thirteenth century. When Baghdad fell to Hulagu Khan (1258) the curtain
fell on the classical age and there began the age of tasawwuf which
found a welcome home in India, the Archipelago, Africa and parts of
Europe. The pendulum swung towards jurisprudence in the seventeenth
century and this period lasts until to this day.
current anti-Islamic climate opens up vast opportunities for creative
applications of Islam in the West. Islam in America cannot be the same
as it is in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia. It will have its own modalities,
its own culture, its own taste and flavor.
It is the
like the ocean and the waves. The ocean contains all the waves. But not
all waves are alike. Some are high and mighty, and some are gentle and
frolicking. Each one manifests the forces that it is specifically
subjected to. But each one is different in character.
great religion is like a mighty ocean. It throws up historical currents
commensurate with the forces acting upon a specific location and at a
Ibn Khaldun, the father of historical sociology, who first proposed a
theory for the rise and fall of civilizations based on asabiyah. In his
view civilizations are held together by forces of racial and tribal
cohesion (asabiyah). When these forces are strong, as they are among the
nomads, civilization moves forward. When they are weak, as happens when
the nomads settle in cities and are softened by the pleasures of city
life, civilization withers.
theory breaks down when applied to Islamic civilization. Islam is
against asabiyah. It discourages associations based on race, color or
origin pointing out that God made mankind into groups only so that they
may know each other and celebrate their differences rather than fight
proposed, in my published books on Islamic history, an alternate theory
for the rise and fall of civilizations based on internal renewal. When
faced with challenges, a great civilization, such as Islam, has the
innate capacity to renew itself. Lesser civilizations recoil and perish.
source for Islamic renewal is its spirituality. It is embodied in the
Qurían and the example of the Prophet. It asserts the transparency of
the physical but it emphasizes its utility as a sign for divine Reality.
This spirituality is embodied in the Shahada. It is the mighty ocean
that generates wave upon wave of fresh ideas that bring throw up in
their wake the gems of renewal upon the sands of time.
after age Islam has renewed itself. Such was the case when the doctors
of law codified the schools of fiqh in the seventh century. Such was the
case when the empirical method flourished in the age of science. Such
was the case when the awliya saved the day from the Mongol devastations.
And such was the case when Islam went through a reformation in the
seventeenth century and was thrust back to its jurisprudence roots.
Muslim presence in the West calls for fresh thinking. The solutions that
were developed in Pakistan or Egypt in the previous centuries may not
first spirit. It surrounds the physical inside and out. The physical is
subject to the vicissitudes of time. The spiritual endures. The function
of religion is to realize the spiritual essence of man in the matrix of
the physical world. For religion to arrive at this station, it must
transcend the ritual and find the spiritual source that feeds the
rituals. Islam is first and foremost a religion of the spirit. It
asserts that the purpose of manís creation is to serve and worship the
divine. The social and political struggles of Muslims must never lose
sight of this transcendental goal.
spite of the current difficulties, America offers a unique opportunity
to realize the spiritual potential of Islam. By necessity the Muslim
presence in America transcends physical differences. In this land, the
physical differences that separate people from one another fade away. It
is a melting pot of nations and tribes. Islam in Pakistan has a
Pakistani flavor. In Egypt, it has an Egyptian flavor. In Nigeria, it is
Nigerian. In America, where Pakistanis, Egyptians and Nigerians come
together in a common land facing a common destiny, differences of race,
language and tribe melt and fade away. Out of this fusion springs a
universal Islamic personality transcending parochial loyalties to race,
color, language, tribe or national origin. The opportunity that America
offers would be a dream come true for the reformers of the past who
struggled to find a universal Islamic personality that transcended local
illustration, we cite here the evolution in thinking of one of the most
celebrated thinkers of the twentieth century, Mohammed Iqbal. In his
Reconstruction of Islamic Thought Iqbal started with the premise that
man is first spirit. But during the elaboration of this premise, he
stayed within the traditional mold and confined the development of
Islamic civilization to the development of Islamic law. He asserted that
the principle of movement in the structure of Islam was Ijtihad, namely
a vigorous struggle to apply Islamic law to social and political issues.
From this premise he went on to assert, as had the Turkish poet Zia,
that ijtihad was not just the privilege of an individual but the right
of an elected legislative assembly. As Muslims in British India were a
minority, he questioned how a non-Muslim assembly could engage in
ijtihad. Hence he proposed an autonomous region in the North Western
portion of British India where the Muslims could exercise their
collective ijtihad. This line of thinking provided the ideological
foundation to the concept of Pakistan.
Iqbalís premises need reexamination. The first one, namely that it is
ijtihad that is the moving principle of structure in Islam, is only an
assertion. While ijtihad as applied to the Shariah is indeed one of the
movers of Islamic history, it by no means is the only one. It is
tantamount to asserting that the engine that propels Islamic
civilization runs on only one cylinder.
compassion has provided multiple engines for the growth of civilization.
Civilization is a vehicle that fires on several cylinders all at once.
These include Adl (justice) and Ehsan in addition to ijtihad in the
domain of fiqh.
second premise, namely, that ijtihad may not be exercised by a
non-Muslim legislature would close the doors to ijtihad in a non-Muslim
society. In an environment such as that of the United States, it is the
law of the land that governs. Ijtihad in the domain of fiqh has only a
limited scope and may at best be applicable to personal matters and
consensual contractual relationships such as marriage, divorce and
other hand, the scope for Adl and Ehsan is infinite and embraces in its
fold even a secular structure such as that in America. It offers
unlimited opportunities for civilizational growth as well as interaction
with other civilizations.
commend the Muslims in America to embrace a framework of Ehsan and stand
firm, together with their fellow citizens, for justice for all. Ehsan
must be the basis of Islamic spirituality in America and the means for
reaching out to people of other faiths, indeed people who may not have
any faith. The fruit of Ehsan is Akhlaq, sound character. The most
perfect example of Akhlaq is to be found in the character of our Prophet
the Muslims of America be the architects of their own history on the
basis of Ehsan. Ehsan ought to be the principle of movement of Islam in
North America and the basis of a spiritual democracy. (To be continued)