The Unique Opportunities and Challenges of Western Muslims in the 21st Century

by James Morris

No doubt everyone at this conference is aware of the Qur'anic passage (2:143) which speaks of the "central," model role of the Prophet's own community: And thus We made you-all a central community (ummatan wasatan) so that you might be witnesses against the (ordinary) people-and that the Messenger may be a witness against you…. It is a verse that well expresses all the special opportunities and challenges I would like to speak of tonight. And I should emphasize from the start that my remarks should not be taken as some sort of prediction or exhortation; they are simply based on observation of the very special situation in which American Muslims find themselves, and on a historian's awareness of the relative rarity and great importance of moments of genuine creativity in any religious tradition. Finally, in speaking of the "next century," I am not referring to some far-off future, but to the adult lives of our children and grandchildren, to conditions and challenges that those of us who are educators (and parents) can already witness directly in the lives and dilemmas of young Muslims growing up in America today.

The unique opportunities I have in mind are three special conditions which most Americans, and probably most Americans Muslims as well, tend to take very much for granted: the means, the diversity, and the freedom to create. Certainly freedom is the most primordial of those three, but in real life it needs diversity and adequate means to be actualized and realized in any lasting way. And as soon as we turn our attention to other Muslim communities anywhere in the world, it is very clear that virtually all of them lack one or more of those three conditions. Even in Western Europe, for example, where many Muslims may enjoy the requisite freedom and prosperity, the strong social pressures of ethnic identity and the usual predominance of a single Muslim immigrant background (Maghrebi, Turkish, or South Asian, depending on the country in question) tend to encourage group-feeling and solidarity, a narrow focus on the interests of one's own familiar group, in ways that are quite familiar among many immigrant communities here in the past. Indeed, what is really unique about the American Muslim community at present-but what has also been typical of many of the most creative Muslim communities throughout the past-is a fourth historical factor: the necessity of creating and innovating, if their faith is to survive and flourish in coming generations. I should not have to belabor the fact that today Americans of any faith, Muslims included, live in (again, historically unique) circumstances such that they can hardly assume that their own children will follow their own religious traditions, and can only influence their children's eventual commitments in often indirect and subtle ways.

To a great extent, of course, that necessity grows out of the unique diversity and relatively equal balance among American Muslim groups, which is such that no single group is able to dominate the others in any significant way. Not only have American Muslims come to their faith by three very different routes: through recent immigration from Islamic countries, rediscovery of the deeper roots of their African heritage, or the teaching and inspiration of Sufi paths. But in fact each of those three larger categories (immigrants, African-Americans, and Sufis) are subdivided in their actual religious practice, motivations and commitments, into incredibly diverse sub-groups scattered throughout this continent and virtually all social and economic classes. While that diversity must frustrate those who might seek to translate it into more visible political power, it has always been, historically speaking (and not only in Islamic history), a most effective kind of "greenhouse" or nursery for developing and testing different spiritual and practical emphases and new forms of communication.

Now it may be somewhat shocking to the adherents of certain ideologies to speak so openly of freedom, diversity and creation or innovation as opportunities (as well as necessities), but what I have in mind is above all the deeper spiritual sincerity and clarity which are generated by these circumstances, when nothing in inherited tradition can be taken for granted and when the entanglements of worldly or personal motivations of any sort are fairly transparent-perhaps most of all to one's own children and students. Here one may recall the centrality and deeper meaning of that spiritual sincerity, expressed in the complex Arabic expression tatawwu', in the marvelous long "hadith of intercession" recorded in several versions by both Bukhârî and Muslim. There, in the most dramatic circumstances, the Prophet insists that only those souls who bow down in prayer "for God's sake," out of entirely voluntary and heartfelt tatawwu', will be immediately admitted to the Garden-where one of their special tasks will be to return to the Fires of this world and attempt to bring out their friends and companions. If one may translate that eschatological drama onto the plane of our communal life in this world, it is interesting to note as a historian the way that the effective, lasting history of virtually every significant religious movement is above all the story of such (most often anonymous) faithful souls, not of the visible, momentarily striking religious entanglements of kings, states and empires.

So the three broader groups of American Muslims already mentioned-all relatively recent and for the most part first-generation Muslims in the American setting-are equally faced with a common challenge: they must move both together (toward greater cooperation and institutional collaboration) and at the same time outward (witnessing and appropriately engaging their neighbors, relatives, co-workers and the other communities of which they are a part), if they are to fulfill the intentions of the Aya with which we began-and indeed if that community is to survive in any significantly influential way. The areas in which that cooperation will have to take place are not abstract or difficult to discern-and a conference such as this one is a remarkably hopeful and pioneering sign of the sort of efforts that will be increasingly necessary. Nor will this cooperation and creation be the preserve of a handful of specially trained or "activist" individuals. In reality, for the most part the challenges in question will necessarily engage each Muslim at the levels of family, work, local masjids and communities, not to speak of larger forums.

In the remaining time, one can simply indicate four key challenges or areas in which American Muslims will increasingly have to work together as a genuine community. However, this brief listing is not meant to be exhaustive or prioritized in any order of importance; obviously the particular items highlighted here, and the aspects of them that we shall mention, are rooted in (and limited by) my own experiences as a teacher, lecturer and parent, and everyone here should easily be able to add to it on the basis of their own life-experiences and concerns:


Considering that, as we have already noted, most American Muslims are still of the first generation (with their children as the second), almost everything remains to be done in this area, and the needs are so self-evident that no one can be oblivious to the enormous range of institutions, trained people, teaching media, and skills which must be developed in this area. At the same time, though, we are all aware that the social pressures and definitions of "success" and prestige in this society, which are often felt disproportionately by children in the second generation, are not likely to encourage the traditional Islamic devotion to values of religious learning, wisdom, and devotion to teaching and sharing that knowledge. This unavoidable reality only heightens the importance of encouraging those rare individuals who do discover a true vocation in this domain.

Education is also an area, of course, in which the American history of other, earlier immigrant groups and their educational efforts (most obviously of Catholic and, more recently, Jewish communities) may offer both helpful lessons and even potential models. But at the same time, one must keep in mind (a) the sometimes very different emphases of Islam and Islamic tradition (which would not normally, for example, encourage the formation of a narrow group closed off from the wider community); (b) the historical particularities (such as the great diversity and geographical dispersion) of contemporary American Muslims, which we have already noted; and (c) the particular wider social circumstances of our time (greater mobility, rapid social change and uncertain values, pressures toward 'secular' lifestyles, etc.) which young people of any background cannot escape.

Since the fundamental needs in this area are, for the most part, already quite obvious to American Muslims from any background, I would simply point out two larger, long-term areas whose importance might not be so self-evident to concerned parents and community leaders. The first of these points is that although the first and natural impulse is to adapt to the American situation educational practices, methods and materials already used elsewhere in the world, such an approach can only be of limited utility-and may in many cases have something like the opposite of the initially intended effect. This is an area where appropriate means of creativity and innovative adaptation can only be discovered by well-intentioned trial and (all too frequently!) error. And in those cases where "copying" older or foreign methods and materials does not work, what is brought in to replace them needs to be grounded in a deep understanding of the Qur'an, hadith and Islamic tradition which itself depends on a level of education and readings (or other media resources) which often do not yet exist.

This last point brings me to the challenge and importance of higher education, by which I am not referring to the formation of Imams and religious figures in the traditional sense, but rather of a much wider and more numerous range of Muslim professionals-active in all walks of life-who are also at home with and deeply versed in the foundational elements of Islamic tradition. My own experience as a professor in religious studies (and one shared by most of my colleagues) is that in perhaps the majority of cases today, young Americans-of every religious background, including Islam-are often encountering their first serious discussion of religious issues and traditions only at the university level, in ways that will continue to engage them for the rest of their lives. Whatever the causes of that phenomenon (which we can only affect in limited ways in the wider society), it does highlight the importance of supporting and establishing appropriately oriented university-level courses and professorships in Islamic Studies-educational developments which should also have a major long-term impact as well on the wider public awareness of many dimensions of Islam and related political and social issues. In fact, if one can judge by the effects of the proliferation of endowed Jewish Studies programs throughout the country over the past generation, it is precisely such serious independent programs at the university level which can best encourage the full spectrum of creative minds, community leaders and committed vocations which are so obviously needed to develop Islamic educational and social institutions in different local settings.


If American Muslims from any of the three above-mentioned larger groups are to develop the sorts of community which are needed to survive and flourish in the next century, they cannot afford to be totally delimited by either imported or native-grown divisions and inherited enmities and suspicions. This does not mean that each group must give up its specific allegiances, roots, traditions and emphases, and so on-which is something that will certainly not happen. But those involvements and historical inheritances-whether they have to do with national political struggles abroad, Shiite-Sunni divisions, the age-old competitions of Sufi tariqas, or recent proselytising groups and their charismatic leaders, and the like-are often incomprehensible to younger American (or Canadian) Muslims who typically are far more concerned with asserting or discovering their common Muslim identity (already felt to be a somewhat endangered minority), than with encouraging further divisions and sectarian disagreements.

The overcoming of those divisions may well be impossible for Muslims born in and still deeply involved with the struggles and stakes concerned-and it will surely be painful and challenging for anyone rooted in those earlier situations. But it is still an unavoidable historical necessity in this new American situation where the net result of perpetuating such disputes would be to render serious forms of cooperation and social influence all but impossible. And on the more positive side, it does not take too much imagination to see that American Muslims who work to cooperate-both among themselves and with other local groups and faiths sharing common interests and goals-will be far closer to fulfilling the Qur'anic injunction and ideal (of the umma wasata) with which we began, both in this country and in their impact on the wider global scene.


It is obvious to anyone, even without knowing any of the historical details, that the spread of Islam as a world religion, to perhaps a wider range of cultures and geographical settings than any other faith, has constantly involved processes of creative adaptation to those circumstances, in which the spiritual intentions that are central to the Qur'an (and indeed to far more hadith than people might suspect) were expressed and communicated in forms appropriately adapted to and drawn from those local circumstances. (The clerical forms and institutions of the Arabic "religious sciences," which many have come to take as "traditional" Islam, are only one of the more dramatic expressions of that ongoing process of innovation. ) And indeed one might argue that not only Muslims, but people of faith all over the globe (not just in America) are facing just such a set of radical new historical circumstances in our own time.

But be that as it may, there is surely no doubt that while many American Muslims have already become Muslim precisely through such historical processes of creative innovation (most obviously with the origins of many influential African-American Muslim groups), the children of immigrants (and their parents!) in particular are faced with especially dramatic challenges in this regard-challenges familiar enough to most Americans through their dramatization in the vast array of literature and films reflecting the experiences of earlier immigrant groups. The challenge of first discerning what is essential and central in the inherited forms of one's religious and cultural traditions-and it is part of the particular adaptive genius of Islam in the past that so many outwardly distinctive cultures have come to express its intentions in every area of life-and then going on to find completely new ways of communicating and establishing those values in a radically new social and cultural setting is a daunting one. But it is also an everyday necessity for many families (and not only of Muslims!) in this country at this time. Moreover, out of that necessity and the experimentation which it unavoidably imposes on so many parents and communities, one can be sure that new tools and methods, of proven efficacity, will gradually develop.

Here I may mention one striking personal experience in this regard. As a teacher in religious studies raised and educated in a culture of books and reading, I was painfully aware-as a new generation of students largely raised on television, video, and media culture began to reach university age-of the challenge of finding new ways of making the connections, for these new students, between religious scriptures and related classical texts, on the one hand, and the perennial existential dilemmas and experiences in which those religious forms and scriptures are rooted. It was really through my observations of my own children, to begin with, that I began to experiment using certain feature films (not ostensibly "religious" ones!) to dramatically illuminate for those students, collectively and in a very short period of time, the actual archetypal spiritual, ethical and political issues dealt with in the traditional religious texts. And it was only through the remarkable success of that experiment, which I have since fruitfully verified and extended with all sorts of groups of different ages, religions and national backgrounds, that I actually became aware of the way how so many classical and even "scriptural" forms of Islamic tradition (such as many of the stories and symbols in the hadith) were actually providing very similar forms of communication in their own original cultural settings.


Finally, each of the challenges I have briefly mentioned here-and, I suspect, whatever others one might readily add to this list-will necessarily force American Muslims, whatever their historical background and commitments, toward a deeper awareness of and more profound reference to the Qur'an. For in the midst of such extraordinary diversity of expressions of Islam (which is in itself an encouraging sign of health), it is only in the Qur'an that all these different groups can expect to find what is common, central and primordial-indeed, not only what they share in common as Muslims, but also what links them in community with all the other human beings they encounter in the other domains of life. And here-to complete a kind of circularity among these different challenges-it is quite evident that we, as educators and shapers of the future community, face great challenges in finding the appropriate forms of translating and teaching the Qur'an (not to mention other Islamic classics) in English that will actually begin to communicate its intentions, essential meanings and unique forms and qualities in an effective way to the vast majority of Muslim students and young people who are no longer able to spend years learning the necessary levels of Arabic and related knowledge. Surely no other responsibility could be more important in the longer run.

In conclusion, no one can be under the illusion that there is any simple or wholly adequate answer to any of these challenges, or that the answers of one family, community, or group will be adequate to the needs and circumstances of others. But we can take heart from another Qur'anic verse (5:48) which so beautifully describes all the infinite divine intentions that are manifest precisely in this situation and this responsibility we all must share:

…For each one of you We have placed a path and a way; and if God had wished, He would have made all of you a single community. But instead [He made many] so as to test you all concerning what He has given you. So strive to come first with all that is good. For to God you are returning, altogether; and He will inform you all about that wherein you differ.

Appendix: The "Hadith of the Intercession"

[... from Abû Sa'îd al-Khudrî , who said:] Some people during the time of the Messenger of God asked him: "O Messenger of God, will we see our Lord on the Day of the Rising?"

The Messenger of God said: "Yes! Do you have any trouble seeing the sun at noon, on a bright clear day when there are no clouds? Or do you have any trouble seeing the full moon on a clear and cloudless night?"

"No, O Messenger of God!," they replied.

He said: "You will have no more trouble in seeing God on the Day of the Rising than you have in seeing either of them!"

[The Prophet continued:] Now when it is the Day of the Rising, a Caller called out "Let every Umma follow what it was worshipping!"

Then there is not a one of those who were worshipping idols or graven images other than God, but that they all go on falling into the Fire, one by one.

(This continued) until none remained but those who were worshipping God, both the pious and the sinners, among the People of the (revealed) Book who lived long ago... [But most of them also turn out to have "associated" others in their worship of God, so that their "thirst" is recompensed by the "mirages" of the Fire.]

(This continued) until none remained but those who are worshipping God (alone), both the pious and the sinners. The Lord of the Worlds came to them in the form farthest from the one in which they imagined ('saw') Him. He said (to them): "What are you-all waiting for?! Every Umma is pursuing what they used to worship!"

"O our Lord," they replied, "we kept away from those people (while we were) in the world, no matter how much we were in need of them, and we had nothing to do with them!"

So he says (to them): "(But) I am your Lord!"

"We take refuge with God from you!," they say. "We don't associate anything with God!" (And they keep on saying this) two or three times, until some of them are just about to turn around and go away.

Then he says: "Is there any Sign (âya) between you-all and Him by which you would recognize Him?"

And they say: "Yes."

Then (the True Reality) is revealed..., and the only ones who remain, who God allows to pray, are those who used to bow down to God spontaneously, out of their soul's own desire. As for all of those who used to bow down in prayer out of social conformity and to protect their reputation (out of fear of what others might say or do), God makes them entirely into 'backs,' so that whenever they want to bow down in prayer, instead they keep falling back on their backs!

Then they will raise up their heads (from prayer), and He will already have been transformed (back) into His form in which they saw Him the first time (i.e., in this world).

Then after that He said: "I am your Lord," and they are saying: "(Yes), You are our Lord!"

Then after that the Bridge (al-jisr) is set up over Gehenna, and the Intercession takes place and they are all saying: "O my God, protect, protect! "

Then someone says: "O Messenger of God, what is this 'Bridge'?"

He said: It is a slippery, precarious toehold, covered with hooks and spikes and thorns like a bush in the desert they call "al-sa'dân." The people of faith pass over it as quickly as the glance of an eye, or like lightning, the wind, birds, fast horses or camels. Some escape untouched; some are scratched and torn, but manage to get away; while others tumble into the Fire of Gehenna. (And this continues) until the people of faith are safely free from the Fire.

Now by Him Who holds my soul in His Hand, not one of you could implore and beseech (someone) in seeking to gain what is (your) right and due any more intensely than the people of faith plead with God, on the Day of the Rising, on behalf of their friends who are in the Fire!

They are saying: "O our Lord, those (friends of ours) used to fast with us, and they were praying and they were loving!"

Then it is said to them: "Bring out whoever you-all knew (among them)!" So their forms are kept protected from the Fire, and they bring out a great many people whom the fire had already consumed halfway up their legs, or to the knee.

Next they say: "O our Lord, there does not remain in the Fire a single one of those whom You ordered us (to bring out)."

So He says: "Return, all of you, and bring out anyone in whose heart you find even a dinar's weight of good!"

So they bring out a great many people, and then they say: "O our Lord, we did not leave in the Fire a single one of those whom You ordered us (to bring out)."

Next He says: "Return, all of you, and bring out anyone in whose heart you find even half a dinar's weight of good!"

So they bring out a great many people, and then they say: "O our Lord, we did not leave in the Fire a single one of those You ordered us (to bring out)."

Next He says: "Return, all of you, and bring out anyone in whose heart you find even 'an atom's-weight of good' !"

So they bring out a great many people, and then they say: "O our Lord, we didn't leave in the Fire any good at all!"

Now Abû Sa'îd al-Khudrî was saying [as he recounted what the Prophet said]: "If you-all don't believe what I'm recounting in this hadith, then read, if you will, (the Qur'anic verse) 'Surely God does not do even an atom's weight of wrong, and if it be a good-and-beautiful (action), He multiplies it many times, and He brings from His Presence an immense Reward!' (4:40)."

Then God says: "The angels have interceded; and the prophets have interceded; the people of faith have interceded. Now none remains but 'the Most Loving and Compassionate of all.' "

Then He grasps a handful from the Fire, and He brings out of It a group of people who never did any good at all, who have already returned to charred ashes. Then He throws them into a river in one of the openings of the Garden, a river that is called "the River of Life." And they come out of (that River) like a seed that grows out of the muddy silt carried along by the flood: haven't you seen how it grows up next to a rock or a tree, green on the side facing the sun, and paler on the shady side?

He continued: They will come out like pearls, with seal-rings on their necks. Then the people of the Garden recognize them: "These are those who have been set free by the All-Compassionate, Who has admitted them into the Garden without any (good) deed that they did or sent before them."

Then He says: "Enter the Garden (cf. 89:30)--whatever you see there is yours!"

They say: "O Lord, You have granted us blessings which you did not grant to anyone else in the world!"

And He says: "There is with Me (a blessing and favor) better than this."

And they reply: "O our Lord, what could be better than this?"

He answers: "My absolute Love-and-Satisfaction: I will never be angry with you after this!"

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