By Musa Maguire, Director of Community Relations, MA’RUF
What is American Islam?
There is a lot of talk and enthusiasm these days about “American Islam”. As Muslim communities take root in the United States and confront unprecedented social, political, and cultural realities, we are faced with difficult decisions about how to define our identity and practice our faith in this land. Despite its popularity, however, the exact definition of American Islam remains unclear.
In this discussion, it is fair to say that there are two absolutes. First, the core beliefs and foundational principles of Islam will remain the same. There is nothing about our life in America that will change the nature of Paradise and the Hellfire. Islam will remain the only faith with a direct connection to God, both spiritually (through tawheed—Islamic monotheism) and historically (through the fortress of scholarship). In other words, we pray directly to God without partners or intermediaries. And when we quote the speech of Allah and the sound statements of his Prophet (S) we can be certain of their veracity. And even here in America, the Companions of the Prophet (S) will remain the standard bearers of faith, character, and conduct. And as would be the case anywhere else, we should hold in grave suspicion anyone who slanders or dishonors them.
The second absolute is that we must actively communicate the message of Islam in America. This would seem obvious, but too often we find ourselves in a defensive posture. We ask our neighbors to accept us, but we refrain from calling them to accept Islam. It is not always easy to convey Islam in a hostile environment. There is no better example of this fact than our beloved Prophet Muhammad (S). He suffered, bled, and starved to convey the message of Islam. We are unlikely to ever face such hostility in this land, so what is our excuse if we hide the truth? May Allah grant us the courage and wisdom to convey Islam in this land!
Beyond these two absolutes, there are several other ways to conceptualize American Islam. Each has some merits and drawbacks. First, some may define American Islam in a cultural sense, emphasizing the need to integrate within the society. This definition is problematic for two reasons. First, for converts like me, or second generation Muslims, or even immigrants who have spent a good portion of their life here, we are already culturally American. Muslim youth, no matter where their parents come from, are proof of this. They choose football over cricket. They eat burgers rather than biryani. And when they sing their favorite song, it’s “yo shawty” rather than “ya habibi” (neither of which I condone, by the way!) So, cultural integration is not really an issue, because it has already happened. This brings us to the second problem. Islam has always been flexible in accommodating different cultures, but integration has its costs. We still have to recognize the clear limits of Islamic law and do our best to abide by them. To rely on a cultural definition of American Islam, we miss the crucial point. Yes, we need to be ourselves, but we must do so lawfully. What do we gain by integration if we lose our souls?
On this note, another way to think about American Islam is through jurisprudence. Given the wide variety of unique and unprecedented issues that face our community, many have called for the development and application of “minority fiqh”. To the extent that this environment requires specific dispensations or unique rulings that are not applicable elsewhere, it may be possible to speak of American Islam. However, this is also problematic. Islamic law has always been sensitive to contextual factors, potential outcomes, and social benefits. Why describe this as American Islam when it is more accurately an illustration of Islam’s universality? Still, this is a complex matter, and one that will remain highly controversial for the foreseeable future. For the common Muslims, we must remind the scholars to have taqwa (piety, fear of God). Don’t plunge us neck-deep into doubtful matters. Guide us to live a life of principle rather than one defined by exceptions and excuses. And likewise, we must heed the advice of the scholars to be tolerant and forgiving, to focus on the basics, and hold ourselves to account before judging others.
Finally, in America, there are advantages and opportunities that remain unavailable in the historically Muslim world. This relates not only to material and financial gain, but also to social and ethical principles. Some may object to this statement, but anyone who lives here, at some level, knows it to be true. Two clear examples come to mind. First, America just witnessed a major historical milestone: a member of a historically oppressed minority group reached the highest political office in the land. So what does it say about us that Muslim communities are still dramatically divided along ethnic and national lines? Even here in Milwaukee, there are Muslims who refer to people from other ethnic groups as “slaves”. What does it say about our Muslims communities that American society, in this respect, has proven to be more Islamic than us? There are few places in the world where Muslims from every background and ethnicity live in such close proximity. But instead of being our greatest asset, this diversity is often our greatest liability.
Likewise, the historically Muslim world is besieged by materialism and classism. These social diseases have tragic results when transplanted in the American context. Consider, for instance, the issue of marriage. Our youth are growing up in a cauldron of indecency. Their peers, their desires, and Shaytaan all conspire to lead them astray. Yet, for the most part, we have not presented them with a viable, lawful alternative? In effect, we have established a system where only the strong can survive. And why? All too often, marriage—the only lawful way for the youth (and this includes boys and girls) to fulfill their desires—is put out of reach due to financial, class, and ethnic barriers. The American environment presents some very difficult challenges in this regard, but it also gives us an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Piety is the only characteristic that really matters in marriage. And marriage itself can be a means to attain piety. Despite all the problems with gender relations in America, you will find an egalitarian spirit in love and marriage that is often absent from our Muslim communities. Let us remove the evil and artificial barriers from marriage so our youth can live an honorable life in this land.
So what is American Islam? It is nothing other than Islam lived fully, practically, wisely, and confidently in America. We don’t need to reinvent our faith. The Quran and sunnah are revelations from Allah, applicable to all times and places. However, America does give us the opportunity to examine and reform ourselves, to revive the faith, to love each other for Allah’s sake, and to prove our ideals through action. This may seem like a grand task, but Allah says:
“And [Allah] joined their hearts together. If you had spent all that is in the earth, you could not have done so; but Allah united their hearts. Indeed, He is Exalted in Might and Wise.”
Allah is certainly capable of planting faith firmly in our heart, uniting us upon the truth, and enabling us to overcome the evil that divides us. Could there be any better American Islam than this?
Is Islam a Fairytale When told to the Poor?
Muslims like to tell the legendary stories of centuries past—the battles, the victories, the just leaders, the ascetic scholars, the generous kings. We love to talk about the time when Allah granted honor and ascendancy to Muslims, when the word of Allah was raised high. And as we relate these tales, we love to fancy ourselves as the rightful inheritors of that noble legacy.
In reality, we do not have any share in those past glories. We are not accumulating reward for the deeds of our predecessors. Though certainly, to the extent that we follow their example, they are accumulating reward from us.
And just as we love to reflect on a past that we did not author, we also like to dream of the eventual revival and resurgence of Islam. Yet, there is no guarantee that we will have much of a share in that either. In fact, we may be remembered as one of the lost generations that failed to fulfill its covenant with Allah.
2:83 And remember We took a covenant from the Children of Israel (to this effect): Worship none but Allah. treat with kindness your parents, kin, orphans, and those in need; speak good to people; be steadfast in prayer; and practice charity regularly. Then you turned away, except a few among you, and you continue to backslide.
Let us keep in mind the various purposes of such verses. One is to teach us how the people of the past have gone astray. This is the aspect we like to talk about.
But there is another aspect, one that is more frightening. These verses also serve as a warning to us. They serve as a forecast of the way that this ummah will go astray. The Prophet, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, said,
“You will follow the ways of those nations who were before you, span by span and cubit by cubit (i.e., inch by inch) so much so that even if they entered a lizard’s burrow, you would follow them.” We said, “O Allah’s Apostle! (Do you mean) the Jews and Christians?” He said, “Who else?”
So let us hold ourselves to account and consider just two of the virtues mentioned in this verse—providing for orphans and the poor. Providing aid to these two groups is so central to our faith that it spans all ideological and sectarian divides.
Before offering some concrete suggestions, I want to mention two important principles to guide our practice of charity. They are the generosity of giving, and the generosity of our hearts. I only mention these because their opposites are tragically common. First, there are so many opportunities to give; so many projects on a local, national, or global scale that need support. This creates a logistical dilemma. Should we split our giving between as many different causes as possible? Or should we spend more or a few select projects? There is no definitive answer to this question…or rather, the only definitive answer is that we should give generously from our wealth, no matter how it is apportioned.
But the second principle that I want to mention is even more essential—the generosity of our hearts. It is tragic that some Muslims do not truly care about all those in need. Some argue that we should not support local causes, especially those that assist non-Muslims, when so many Muslims are suffering overseas. Others resent this negligence toward local communities, responding in turn with callousness toward the traditional international causes. This attitude is truly a disease, for even if we lack the funds to support one cause or another, or we prefer to give to one cause or another, we can always dip into the inexhaustible resource of sincere empathy and du’a for all those in need.
Giving to Orphans
At the 2007 Texas Dawah Convention, Islamic Relief, a major international Muslim charity, hosted an inspiring session. One of the brothers from Islamic Relief gave a presentation about his travels to natural disaster zones around the world. This is someone who works on the ground to make relief efforts happen. And when listening to the tragic and touching stories about what goes on after an earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane, our comfort and ease of life starts to feel like negligence.
Islamic Relief offers a simple formula to guide charity: Think-Care-Act. First, take the time to withdraw from your daily routine, from your worries and concerns, and think about the suffering that occurs all across the world. Then, assuming that your heart is not hard, and you actually care about those in need, you will start to feel their pain. And finally, don’t leave the good intentions, or the moment of awareness, without acting upon it. Give.
Islamic Relief, and many other Islamic charities—Muslim Hands, Zakat Foudation, etc.—put a major priority on orphan sponsorship. In places where natural disasters occur, thousands of children become orphans in an instant. Think about their situation. For those of you who are parents, think about your own kids. Consider all that they face in this world, and the little bit of security you feel knowing that you are there to protect them. But what if you were no longer there? How would your kids fare?
The Prophet said, “I and the one who sponsors an orphan will be like this in Paradise” – and he gestured with his index and middle fingers, holding them slightly apart.
Do we need any incentive other than this?
Alhamdulillah, there are many Muslims doing great work in this regard. While conducting some cursory research on Muslim charities for this article, I discovered that over 20,000 orphans have been sponsored by Islamic Relief (www.irw.org) and over 4000 by Muslim Hands (www.muslimhands.org). Many other Muslim charities are also active in orphan sponsorship.
I also learned that there are many orphans currently awaiting sponsorship. At present, there are 161 orphans awaiting sponsorship through Islamic Relief, 148 through Muslim Hands, and 29 through the Zakat Foundation of America.
That’s 338 orphans who are waiting to be sponsored right now. 338 opportunities to be like “this” with the Prophet, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam. And all you have to do is go to the website, fill out a form, and you are charged 40-60 dollars per month.
But let’s reflect on this from another angle. What does it say about us that these charities have orphans on a waiting list? What does it say about our wealthy communities in the West that hundreds of children are a mouse click away from their basic necessities and education, but somehow we fail to make the effort to assist them.
Is this the way it should be? No, exactly the opposite should be true. These charities should have a waiting list of donors. We should be eagerly checking our email everyday to see when we will get this wonderful opportunity to sponsor an orphan. Poor children in Palestine, or Mali, or South Africa, should be able to visit an Internet café and choose their sponsor. They should be able to browse our photos and short bios, selecting whoever seems most worthy to receive the abundant reward or orphan sponsorship.
So ask yourself, what is stopping you from spending the $40, $50, or $60 a month for orphan sponsorship? This is one trip to the grocery store, one month of cappuccinos, a dinner at Red Lobster. What is preventing you from this small act that may very well earn you Paradise?
In light of this situation, I am calling on all of our readers to help create a logistical headache for the charities. Let us deplete their waiting lists of orphans and redefine how sponsorship works. Let’s force the charities to make new databases of potential sponsors and new web pages to register for the waiting lists. Let us not leave the orphans waiting when we are the ones in need.
You can access orphan sponsorship programs through the following websites. All of these charities operate legally and under the supervision and regulations of multiple governments, so there is no risk to your security in making a donation. Don’t let Shaytaan or your vain desires sway you from making this small sacrifice. Think. Care. Act.
www.alyateem.com (UK site)
Zakat Foundation of America
Serving the Poor in America
Without a doubt, supporting the poor is a core principle of Islam. And the extent to which we support the poor is a good indicator of the level of our faith. This is not an issue that requires us to look far from home. I live in Milwaukee, one of many rust belt cities that suffer from serious economic problems and a high rate of poverty. On August 28, 2007, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Milwaukee has the eighth highest poverty rate among the largest cities in America. The numbers are startling, 26.2% of the population, or 143,000 people, live below the federal poverty line.
The fact is that most of us live very close to poverty, but we may never see it. It may just be sad stories on the evening news, or a blighted neighborhood that we pass on the highway. But across America, poverty is real and abundant.
This is what’s going on right around us. In Milwaukee, there are 143,000 people living in poverty. That is 143,000 people living in a society where corrupt politicians blame poverty on the poor. It is 143,000 reasons why the wealthiest country in the world is a disgrace. And for those who only wish to focus on poverty and suffering overseas, it is 143,000 potential recruits for the armed forces, 143,000 people who may risk their souls in Iraq or Afghanistan because there are no alternative opportunities for a decent life in America.
Of course, as Muslims, the calculus is a bit different. We should see 143,000 opportunities for seeking the pleasure of Allah, 143,000 guaranteed investment opportunities for this life and the Hereafter.
Keeping all this in mind, it is befitting to ask: who are the leaders in the fight against poverty in Milwaukee?
When I gave a khutbah about this topic several months ago, I sent the following message to the head of a local charity:
“Hi. I am giving a speech to a small group tomorrow (as a component of the Muslim Friday prayer) about the importance of charity, feeding the hungry, sponsoring orphans, etc. I was wondering if you could answer a short question to help me prepare. When you think of the leaders in the fight against poverty and hunger in Milwaukee, what groups (religious, non-profit, community, etc.) come to mind? I want to use this as motivation to encourage my community to step up to the plate.”
“Thomas–hope I’m not too late in responding.
The Episcopal Diocese sponsors both the Gathering soup kitchens and Sojourner Truth House.
Lutheran Churches make up more than 30% of all pantry operators and are all volunteer run.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee (Catholic Church) is a strong contributor to shelters, pantries and soup kitchens and their Saint Vincent DePaul Societies are voluntary organizations that form the backbone of the work.
Interfaith of Greater Milwaukee organizes the annual Crop Walk, raising food, money, and awareness for both local and international hunger causes.
Non-profits with a clear and obvious history–Salvation Army, American Red Cross who both operate shelters for the homeless.
If your group wants to get involved, we can help them to get organized. Let me know”
Notably absent from the list is the Muslim community, and this is not a local anomaly. Muslim communities across the country are not doing enough for their impoverished neighbors. If we made it a priority, Muslims could solve, or at least severely mute poverty in America. Our numbers and wealth are sufficient for that.
Poverty and hunger are vast problems, but we can make small steps to get ourselves involved and, more importantly, to develop a culture of giving within our communities. There are many ways to go about this, but I will mention just one.
Most cities have organizations that deal directly with hunger issues. In Milwaukee, the Hunger Task Force is a non-denominational organization focused entirely on the collection and distribution of food for the poor. Hunger Task Force accepts food donations in all quantities, and they provide marketing and logistical support for food drives.
One of the local masjids in Milwaukee has started a continuous food drive program. This idea is not to accumulate a great deal of food in one shot. Rather, it is designed to help nurture a culture of giving in our communities. Muslims are encouraged to make regular donations of non-perishable food to collection boxes in the masajid. To meet this call, all one needs to do is buy a little extra food during each trip to the grocery store. When there is a 10 fo $10, or 8 for $5 deal at the local supermarket, it is a wonderful opportunity to give. This is a small effort, but it is important for several reasons. First, it is realizable given the existing financial capacities and organizational dynamics of the community. It would be nice to offer food pantries and other meal services across the city, but that may not be realistic at this stage. Next, and more importantly, it adheres to the principle that the most beloved deeds to Allah are those that are done regularly, even if they are small. A box of cereal here, and a can of soup there, may add up to a mountain on the Day of Judgment. This program is something that all communities can implement to help feed the hungry in their respective locales.
This title of this article presents a questions: “Is Islam a Fairy Tale When Told to the Poor?” Let us renew our efforts in this regard, so when future generations tell our story, it is not one of miserliness, self-absorption, and selfishness. Are we the exemplary community that one finds in the history books? Or are we like the people who came before, more certain of our own virtue than we are of our imminent Recompense?