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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.

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.
As one 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.


The 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.


A great religion is like a mighty ocean. It throws up historical currents commensurate with the forces acting upon a specific location and at a specific time.
It was 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.
This 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 over them.


I have 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.


The 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.


Age 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.
The Muslim presence in the West calls for fresh thinking. The solutions that were developed in Pakistan or Egypt in the previous centuries may not apply here.
Man is 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.


In 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 differences.
As an 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.


Two of 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.


Divine 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.
The 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 business.
On the 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.
We 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 Muhammed.


Let 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)


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