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From a Western Minaret

From a Western Minaret (

Michael Wolfe

Islam: The Next American Religion?
The U.S. began as a haven for Christian outcasts. But what religion fits
our current zeitgeist? The answer may be Islam.

Americans tend to think of their country as, at the very least, a nominally
Christian nation. Didn't the Pilgrims come here for freedom to practice
their Christian religion? Don't Christian values of righteousness under
God, and freedom, reinforce America's democratic, capitalist ideals?

True enough. But there's a new religion on the block now, one that fits the
current zeitgeist nicely. It's Islam.

Islam is the third-largest and fastest growing religious community in the
United States. This is not just because of immigration. More than 50% of
America's six million Muslims were born here. Statistics like these imply
some basic agreement between core American values and the beliefs that
Muslims hold. Americans who make the effort to look beyond popular
stereotypes to learn the truth of Islam are surprised to find themselves on
familiar ground.

Is America a Muslim nation? Here are seven reasons the answer may be yes.

Islam is monotheistic. Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians.
They also revere the same prophets as Judaism and Christianity, from
Abraham, the first monotheist, to Moses, the law giver and messenger of
God, to Jesus--not leaving out Noah, Job, or Isaiah along the way. The
concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition only came to the fore in the 1940s
in America. Now, as a nation, we may be transcending it, turning to a more
inclusive "Abrahamic" view.

In January, President Bush grouped mosques with churches and synagogues in
his inaugural address. A few days later, when he posed for photographers at
a meeting of several dozen religious figures, the Shi'ite imam Muhammad
Qazwini, of Orange County, Calif., stood directly behind Bush's chair like
a presiding angel, dressed in the robes and turban of his south Iraqi youth.

Islam is democratic in spirit. Islam advocates the right to vote and
educate yourself and pursue a profession. The Qur'an, on which Islamic law
is based, enjoins Muslims to govern themselves by discussion and consensus.
In mosques, there is no particular priestly hierarchy. With Islam, each
individual is responsible for the condition of her or his own soul.
Everyone stands equal before God.

Americans, who mostly associate Islamic government with a handful of
tyrants, may find this independent spirit surprising, supposing that
Muslims are somehow predisposed to passive submission. Nothing could be
further from the truth. The dictators reigning today in the Middle East are
not the result of Islamic principles. They are more a result of global
economics and the aftermath of European colonialism. Meanwhile, like
everyone else, average Muslims the world over want a larger say in what
goes on in the countries where they live. Those in America may actually
succeed in it. In this way, America is closer in spirit to Islam than many
Arab countries.

Islam contains an attractive mystical tradition. Mysticism is grounded in
the individual search for God. Where better to do that than in America,
land of individualists and spiritual seekers? And who might better benefit
than Americans from the centuries-long tradition of teachers and students
that characterize Islam. Surprising as it may seem, America's best-selling
poet du jour is a Muslim mystic named Rumi, the 800-year-old Persian bard
and founder of the Mevlevi Path, known in the West as the Whirling
Dervishes. Even book packagers are now rushing him into print to meet and
profit from mainstream demand for this visionary. Translators as various as
Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, and Kabir and Camille Helminski have produced
dozens of books of Rumi's verse and have only begun to bring his enormous
output before the English-speaking world. This is a concrete poetry of
ecstasy, where physical reality and the longing for God are joined by
flashes of metaphor and insight that continue to speak across the centuries.

Islam is egalitarian. From New York to California, the only houses of
worship that are routinely integrated today are the approximately 4,000
Muslim mosques. That is because Islam is predicated on a level playing
field, especially when it comes to standing before God. The Pledge of
Allegiance (one nation, "under God") and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (all
people are "created equal") express themes that are also basic to Islam.

Islam is often viewed as an aggressive faith because of the concept of
jihad, but this is actually a misunderstood term. Because Muslims believe
that God wants a just world, they tend to be activists, and they emphasize
that people are equal before God. These are two reasons why African
Americans have been drawn in such large numbers to Islam. They now comprise
about one-third of all Muslims in America.

Meanwhile, this egalitarian streak also plays itself out in relations
between the sexes. Muhammad, Islam's prophet, actually was a reformer in
his day. Following the Qur'an, he limited the number of wives a man could
have and strongly recommended against polygamy. The Qur'an laid out a set
of marriage laws that guarantees married women their family names, their
own possessions and capital, the right to agree upon whom they will marry,
and the right to initiate divorce. In Islam's early period, women were
professionals and property owners, as increasingly they are today. None of
this may seem obvious to most Americans because of cultural overlays that
at times make Islam appear to be a repressive faith toward women--but if
you look more closely, you can see the egalitarian streak preserved in the
Qur'an finding expression in contemporary terms. In today's Iran, for
example, more women than men attend university, and in recent local
elections there, 5,000 women ran for public office.

Islam shares America's new interest in food purity and diet. Muslims
conduct a monthlong fast during the holy month of Ramadan, a practice that
many Americans admire and even seek to emulate. I happened to spend quite a
bit of time with a non-Muslim friend during Ramadan this year. After a
month of being exposed to a practice that brings some annual control to
human consumption, my friend let me know, in January, that he was "doing a
little Ramadan" of his own. I asked what he meant. "Well, I'm not drinking
anything or smoking anything for at least a month, and I'm going off
coffee." Given this friend's normal intake of coffee, I could not believe
my ears.

Muslims also observe dietary laws that restrict the kind of meat they can
eat. These laws require that the permitted, or halal, meat is prepared in a
manner that emphasizes cleanliness and a humane treatment of animals. These
laws ride on the same trends that have made organic foods so popular.

Islam is tolerant of other faiths. Like America, Islam has a history of
respecting other religions. In Muhammad's day, Christians, Sabeans, and
Jews in Muslim lands retained their own courts and enjoyed considerable
autonomy. As Islam spread east toward India and China, it came to view
Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism as valid paths to salvation. As
Islam spread north and west, Judaism especially benefited. The return of
the Jews to Jerusalem, after centuries as outcasts, only came about after
Muslims took the city in 638. The first thing the Muslims did there was to
rescue the Temple Mount, which by then had been turned into a garbage heap.

Today, of course, the long discord between Israel and Palestine has
acquired harsh religious overtones. Yet the fact remains that this is a
battle for real estate, not a war between two faiths. Islam and Judaism
revere the same prophetic lineage, back to Abraham, and no amount of
bullets or barbed wire can change that. As The New York Times recently
reported, while Muslim/Jewish tensions sometimes flare on university
campuses, lately these same students have found ways to forge common links.
For one thing, the two religions share similar dietary laws, including
ritual slaughter and a prohibition on pork. Joining forces at Dartmouth
this fall, the first kosher/halal dining hall is scheduled to open its
doors this autumn. That isn't all: They're already planning a joint
Thanksgiving dinner, with birds dressed at a nearby farm by a rabbi and an
imam. If the American Pilgrims were watching now, they'd be rubbing their
eyes with amazement. And, because they came here fleeing religious
persecution, they might also understand.

Islam encourages the pursuit of religious freedom. The Pilgrims landing at
Plymouth Rock is not the world's first story of religious emigration.
Muhammad and his little band of 100 followers fled religious persecution,
too, from Mecca in the year 622. They only survived by going to Madinah, an
oasis a few hundred miles north, where they established a new community
based on a religion they could only practice secretly back home. No wonder
then that, in our own day, many Muslims have come here as pilgrims from
oppression, leaving places like Kashmir, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where being a
Muslim may radically shorten your life span. When the 20th century's list
of emigrant exiles is added up, it will prove to be heavy with Muslims,
that's for sure.

All in all, there seems to be a deep resonance between Islam and the United
States. Although one is a world religion and the other is a sovereign
nation, both are traditionally very strong on individual responsibility.
Like New Hampshire's motto, "Live Free or Die," America is wedded to
individual liberty and an ethic based on right action. For a Muslim,
spiritual salvation depends on these. This is best expressed in a popular
saying: Even when you think God isn't watching you, act as if he is.

Who knows? Perhaps it won't be long now before words like salat (Muslim
prayer) and Ramadan join karma and Nirvana in Webster's Dictionary, and
Muslims take their place in America's mainstream.