Islam in America

Islam in America

by Jane Smith

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231519991
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 11/19/2009
Series: Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Jane I. Smith is senior lecturer in divinity and associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue and Visible and Invisible: Muslim Communities in the West. She is also the coeditor of Educating the Muslims of America and coauthor of Muslim Women in America.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Muslim Faith and Practice

On Friday shortly after noon in the small inner-city mosque, primarily African American, the worshipers slowly gather. A man who has volunteered to vacuum before each prayer service makes certain that the carpets are clean to receive the foreheads of those who will soon bow in prostration to God. Each person removes his or her shoes before entering the worship hall, placing them in a wooden rack near the front door. The carpets, which are really thin runners, are arranged so that those gathered for prayer will be facing in the direction of Mecca, indicated by a plaque in the front of the hall. The room is bare of furniture except for a lectern in the front and a few folding chairs in the back for those who are unable to sit on the floor. Arabic calligraphy on the wall proclaims the Basmalla, or invocation—"In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate"—with which all chapters of the Qur'an save one begin. The vacuum stops. Worshipers, who have performed their ablutions in the basement before entering the prayer hall, individually prepare themselves for participation in the communal worship. A man rises, faces front, puts his hands behind his ears, and sings out the call that will begin the service: "Come to the prayer, come to the time of felicity...." The imam steps forward, and the ritual begins.

    For the Muslim, prayer is not simply a mental or spiritual attitude or even just a matter of thanksgiving of the mind and heart. It involves a total bodily response, not simply sitting but putting oneself through aseries of complete prostrations. For that reason, mosques do not have chairs or pews. Each of the five daily prayers consists of a series of ritual bowings and bendings (each called a raka') accompanied by the appropriate prayers and invocations. Standing shoulder to shoulder, feet to feet, the worshipers are lined in rows facing the imam, or leader, of the prayer, men in the front and women in the back. Children, who are almost always present, remain more or less quietly with the women, the older ones learning the steps of the prayer ritual. Boys who are past early childhood sit with their fathers. Most of the men are wearing small woven or embroidered caps, and the women have long sleeves and skirts or pants, with their hair fully covered. Together they perform the several sets of prayer prostrations, which include standing, bowing at the waist with hands placed near the knees, and kneeling and placing one's forehead on the carpet in full supplication. "When you are in that position of complete vulnerability," explains the imam, "you really get a feel for what it means to submit yourself fully to God."

    The ritual includes the common recitation of the Fatiha, the brief opening chapter of the Qur'an, that functions for the Muslim much as the Lord's Prayer does for the Christian when it is said in unison. The imam renders the phrases of the ritual as much in Arabic as possible so that his congregants can become more familiar with the language. Because it is Friday, the service includes a sermon given by the imam, in English, generally on a topic related to living as faithful Muslims in America or learning to relate to people of other faiths. Listeners remain seated on the carpets during this homily. At the end of the prayer the worshipers say the taslim, or salutation, invoking peace, by which one both greets those who are worshiping around him or her and again signals one's absolute submission to God. When the service is over, worshipers stand, greet one another, and file out to return to their daily activities.

    Meanwhile, across the city, an identical ritual is being carried out, but under quite different circumstances. This mosque, whose congregation is made up mainly of professional immigrant Muslims, has been built on a classical Islamic model. A dome on top, mounted with a visible crescent, leaves no doubt that this is a Muslim house of worship. The prayer hall is large, and thick carpets cover its floor. Women come into the mosque through a separate entrance and worship on the second level in a kind of balcony, from which they can watch the imam and the men through a latticework railing. Children roam freely and feel less constraint to be quiet than when they are in the same room with the men and the imam. Most of the women participate in the prayer ritual, although some prefer to sit and talk quietly with one another in the corner. They too are dressed conservatively, generally in the traditional clothing of their country of origin.

    But while the surroundings are different, the ritual is the same—washing, standing, sitting, prostrating, reciting. Muslims take great pride in the fact that despite architectural and other kinds of variations, no matter where in the world one goes to worship, the essentials of the ritual will be the same. In both the African American and immigrant mosques, those who are not Muslim are welcome to attend the service and even to participate if they so wish, although this is not true of all mosque communities, either in the United States or elsewhere. When the service in the immigrant mosque is over, the men stay and talk with the imam and one another for a while, sometimes about the sermon but more often about community affairs. The women gather the children, greet and hug their neighbors, retrieve their shoes, and leave, they too ready to get on with the business of the day.

    How have rituals such as this become part of the fabric of Islam? What binds Muslims around the world in recognition of the importance of the ritual prayer, whether or not they actually participate in it regularly, and of the other elements of Islamic faith and practice? The answer that American Muslims will give to such questions is clear and direct. Muslims believe what they do, and practice as they do, because of the example of Prophet Muhammad, who established his community in Mecca and Medina according to the directives he received from God. Before looking more specifically at those elements that make up Muslim faith and practice, it is important to get an idea of how important the figure of the Prophet is to Muslims, and why many American Muslims pattern their own lives as closely as possible after the model he set for all succeeding generations.

By the star when it sets, your companion is not in error, nor is he deceived, nor does he speak out of his own desire. Truly this is a revelation revealed, taught to him by one who is strong and mighty in power. He was on the cusp of the uttermost horizon, then he drew near and approached until he was the distance of two bows' lengths or even closer. Thus did [God] reveal to His servant that which He revealed.

(Sura 53:1-10)

With this stirring description of the appearance of the angel Gabriel to a man named Muhammad ibn (son of) Abdullah in the Arabian desert more than fourteen centuries ago, the Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam, confirms that God himself chose to send his revelations to this the last of his messengers and prophets. Nothing is more sure for a people who are accustomed to the regularity of nature than the setting of the morning star, and the chapter of the Qur'an in which this early meeting between Muhammad and Gabriel takes place bears the title "The Star." Muslims believe that as this daily event is utterly reliable, so is the affirmation made here that Muhammad himself, identified in the verse as the "companion," is truly the recipient of divine revelation.

    Muslims accord the highest respect to Muhammad, seeing in him the prototype of spiritual guidance, wise leadership, and moral example for the best of human living, both communally and in relation to God. American Muslims are often particularly conscientious about adding the phrase "may the blessing and peace of God be upon him" whenever mentioning the name of the Prophet. "The tense and delicate balance between the glory of Muhammad's prophethood, his closeness to God and his visionary gifts, the Herculean tasks he undertook and accomplished in the world, and the warmth and liveliness of his household is at the heart of the Muslim view of life; if this is understood, Islam is understood," writes an American convert attempting to convey to those who know little of Islam how important Prophet Muhammad is to Muslims.

    And yet subsequent history was to bear out the implicit concern expressed in these verses of the Qur'an that Muhammad indeed would be charged with the three things specifically denied here. Over the centuries he has been accused, especially by Christians, of being in gross error, of being led astray (deceived) by the powers of Satan, and of being so overcome with his own desires for power that he invented a false and diabolic religion with which to dupe his people. Some have even suggested that he must have suffered from epilepsy, citing the testimony that he was quite overcome with the early revelations he received from God through the angel. Muslims in America today still find that these three accusations characterize the opinions most non-Muslims have about the Prophet. Was he well meaning but simply wrong? Somewhat less charitably, was he somehow in the grip of a kind of malignant power that led him to such erroneous claims? Or worst of all, was he a self-aggrandizing seeker of personal glory who fabricated divine revelations to secure a position of political leadership?

    While most Americans decry the negative assessments of Muhammad that have characterized most Western judgments over the centuries, blatant examples of them still appear. AT&T WorldNet Service, the largest direct Internet service provider in the United States, in June 1998 removed a website that referred to Muhammad as a lecherous hypocrite who clearly was no man of God. Non-Muslims who are uncomfortable with viewing Muhammad as misguided, opportunistic, or simply wrong may with some hesitation allow Muhammad's status as a prophet of God, although generally without the essential Islamic understanding that his was the last and final divine revelation, or without conceding that the message to Muhammad could in any way contravene the truth of the Bible. Muslims are saddened and puzzled that non-Muslim Americans still seem to have little understanding or appreciation of the finest human qualities exemplified in the founder of Islam. It is to him, however, that American Muslims continue to look as the recipient of the final and lasting word of God, and the exemplar for their own modes of public and private behavior. And it is to him that are credited the bases of Muslim belief and practice as they have come to structure the life of the faithful Muslim.

The Elements of Islamic Faith and Practice

The articles of belief and practice that structure the life of the faithful American Muslim today have been developed out of the experiences of Prophet Muhammad (detailed in chapter 2) and drawn from the basic teachings of the Qur'an. Muslims understand that as there are five responsibilities that all the faithful are expected to perform, often referred to as the five "pillars" (arkan) of Islam, so there are five articles of faith that together constitute the Muslim affirmation of divine being and human responsibility. Many struggle to practice all of these as faithfully as possible and to make them evident in their daily life. Others exercise the freedom to pick and choose, and to modify them when they feel it is appropriate to life in America.

The Five Elements of Faith

From an early age Muslim children learn from their parents and mosque schools that Islam is based on five specific beliefs:

    1. Faith in God. Implicit in the Islamic understanding of God is the notion of an unqualified difference between divine and human. The very recognition of God is often expressed by the term tawhid, meaning both God's oneness and the human acknowledgment of it. It presupposes that no other being is like God and that humans must not only testify to God's uniqueness but also must reflect their belief in it through their own lives and actions. As God alone is Lord and Creator of the universe, so the Muslim acknowledges God's oneness by living a life of integratedness, integrity, and ethical and moral responsibility. In the Islamic understanding, the greatest sin a human being can commit is to impugn the oneness of God, to suggest by word or deed that anything else can in any way share in that divine unity. This sin is called shirk, association or participation. Over history, some Islamic mystics have, in the eyes of the orthodox, come dangerously close to heresy in their affirmation of experiences of oneness with God.

    Islam is the only major religion whose very name suggests a bidimensional focus of faith. On one axis it refers to the individual human response to God's oneness, and on the other it means the collectivity of all of those people who form a community of religious faith to acknowledge and respond to God. The religious response of all those people who have affirmed the oneness of God can fairly be understood as personal islam. It was only with the official beginning of the community at the time of the hijra to Medina, however, that there arose a specific recognition that Muslims together form a group, a unity, an umma, although the term Islam itself was not much used in that sense until considerably later. The struggle to identify what umma means in the Western milieu and to determine if there can be a distinctively American Muslim community is one in which American Muslims are deeply immersed, as succeeding chapters will illustrate.

    2. Faith in the reality of angels. In the West, at the end of the twentieth century, angels have been the subject of much speculation. Their popularity seems to have experienced a considerable revival, as depictions of angels even embellish the covers of popular magazines. Muslims might find this somewhat amusing, since the conviction that angels exist and play an active role in human life has been part of their religious awareness from the earliest days of Muhammad's encounter with God through the angel Gabriel. He is only one of a number of angels, one of the most dramatic being Israfil, whose blowing of the mighty trumpet at the end of time will signal the coming of the Day of Resurrection and Judgment.

    3. Faith in God's messengers. Muslims understand that God has sent his revelation (wahy) through a series of communications to humanity in a variety of ways, through a variety of people. The recipients of these communications are referred to as both prophets and messengers. The distinction between prophet (nabi) and messenger (rasul) is that the words of the former are intended for specific communities of people, while those of the latter have universal significance. Thus all messengers are also prophets, though the reverse is not true. The Qur'an is full of references to those who are acknowledged to be prophets, many of whom Jews and Christians recognize for their role in Old Testament history. Only a limited number of prophets are also messengers, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, before the coming of the final prophet and messenger, Muhammad. In recent times, relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in America are often cultivated under the rubric "Abrahamic religions," suggesting that the common ancestry of the three faiths may be a more productive basis for interfaith conversation than the rehearsing of theological differences. Jesus is considered to be the greatest of the prophets and messengers of Islam before Muhammad, although not a son of God or in any way divine. With the revelation to Muhammad, God is said to have concluded the process of revelation. Muhammad is thus referred to as the seal of prophecy. This doctrine is of such great importance in Islam that for anyone to claim for himself or for another the designation of prophet is considered heresy.

    4. Faith in the Holy Books. As the Qur'an makes quite explicit, God sent books, or complete revelations, to both the Jews and Christians before the coming of Muhammad. The message contained in those books is essentially that contained in the Qur'an. Unfortunately, Jewish and Christian communities either purposely or inadvertently changed or distorted God's messages, with the result that the revelation needed to be sent one last, and final, time. The Qur'an is that final revelation. However, Christians and Jews have a special status in the Muslim community because they were chosen by God to be the recipients of his books. The Qur'an consistently refers to Jews and Christians as ahl al-kitab, the People of the Book. American Muslims sometimes suggest this commonality as a basis for affirming the United States as a Christian, Jewish, and Muslim country. The Qur'an itself is often referred to simply as The Book, a term relating it to the previous divine revelations and suggesting its own position as the final word of God to humanity.

    5. Faith in the Day of Resurrection and Judgment. The basic revelation given to Prophet Muhammad was the double message of God's oneness and of a day of final assessment of human actions. In Islam, as the concept of tawhid ties together God's oneness and human responsibility, so God will gather together all people at the end of time for an accounting of how they have lived their lives. As the Qur'an makes abundantly clear, this will be a momentous occasion, signaled by the trumpet of the angel Israfil, the most amazing cataclysmic events, and the resurrection of all bodies, which will be joined with their souls for the judgment. Each person will be given his or her "book of deeds." If the book is put into one's right hand, then the reward will be the gardens of paradise near to God himself. If, however, the book is received in the left hand, the unhappy sinner will face the eternal fires of punishment. The coming Day of Judgment emphasizes the importance of living Islamically. American Muslims often discuss conduct, dress, and other issues in the context of God's final assessment of human actions.

    These five articles of faith are all grounded in the message of the Qur'an and are non-negotiable for Muslims. They are elaborated upon in the literature available to the Muslim community in America and, according to the ability of the child to absorb them, are part of the religious education that is increasingly taking place in mosques and Islamic centers across the country.

The Five Pillars

Even before learning about these articles of faith, however, young Muslims are taught the essentials of living a good and responsible life according to the Islamic understanding. These essentials are expressed in the five pillars, which form the essence of the individual Muslim's personal piety (taqwa). Muslims actively working for the propagation of Islam in America understand that one of its most appealing aspects is the simplicity and clarity of the responsibilities that frame the Muslim life.

    1. Testimony concerning the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. This twin affirmation is called the shahada—literally, "witness"—and comes directly from the articles of faith. While all of the five pillars, or responsibilities, are incumbent on every Muslim, the shahada is basic. One can lapse from any of the others and still be a Muslim, although, of course, one is strongly encouraged to be faithful to them all. But failure to believe in and articulate the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad means that one is outside the community of Islam. Those who wish to affiliate themselves with Islam in America—or anywhere else—need only pronounce the shahada three times in a formal setting to be henceforth effectively and legally Muslims. Many buildings in the United States and Canada have been converted to function as mosques, and one indication of their new status is a calligraphic rendering of the two affirmations of the shahada painted on the walls or hung as a sign or banner in the front.

    2. Peformance of the ritual prayer. Formal prayer was part of the expectation of the Prophet for the members of his community from the beginning. "Worship at fixed hours has been enjoined on the believers ..." (Sura 90:103); "Establish worship at the two ends of the day and in some watches of the night ..." (Sura 11:114). At first, Muhammad ordered believers to face Jerusalem in their prayer orientation, but sometime after the hijra he directed that orientation to Mecca. All mosques contain what is called a qibla, or indicator of the exact direction for the worshiper to face when performing the prayer. In America as in other non-Muslim countries, if a building has not been built specifically to serve as a mosque, the direction of prayer will most likely not coincide with the "front" of that building. Travelers can make use of small mechanical devices to help orient them toward Mecca. Many hotels in Islamic cities provide indicators of the prayer direction in the rooms.

    Ritual prayer, salat, is not a casual thing for the Muslim but assumes a regularity and discipline. God is said to have prescribed to Muhammad the daily ritual of five formal prayers for every believer, although the Qur'an itself does not specify that demand. The exact times of day for performing the salat are clearly established in the hadith, or traditions, and have been codified in the law. Specifically, they are the salat al-fajr at dawn before the rise of the sun, the salat al-zuhr after the sun passes its highest point, the salat al-'asr in the late part of the afternoon, the salat al-maghrib just after the setting of the sun, and the salat al-'isha sometime between sunset and midnight. If one is ill or on a journey, combining the noon and afternoon prayers, or the sunset and evening prayers, is acceptable. As we shall see in chapter 6, Muslims have some difference in opinion as to what to do if one's workplace does not permit prayer at the appropriate time. Some Muslims who find the prayers difficult to perform in the workplace may combine the noon and afternoon prayers. Occasionally, and now more frequently, students in public schools will ask for the right to pray. "My cousin and I were the only two Muslims in the school, and the school did not want to give us permission to leave the room to pray," recalls a Palestinian woman. "I told my teacher that if he wouldn't let me pray, I was going to walk out of class and do so anyway. Finally, they backed down and let us go." Some Muslim students are finding common cause with Christian students who want prayer in the public schools, working around the law by organizing prayer clubs after classroom hours.

    Visitors to the Muslim world over the centuries have seldom failed to be struck, sometimes enchanted, by the call to prayer (adhan: literally, "proclamation" or "announcement") through which the faithful are reminded to interrupt their daily routines to remember God. So important is the ritual prayer in Islam that the one to give that call to prayer, called the mu'adhdhin, has been said to be worthy of special merit in many of the traditions of the Prophet. Throughout the centuries, the call to prayer has been sung from atop a minaret, or tower, of the mosque. While the adhan in some senses parallels such reminders in other traditions, as, for example, the shofar (ram's horn) in Judaism or the tolling of bells in Christianity, it is unique in its reliance on the human voice. The mu'adhdhin receives careful training as to proper intonation and vocalization, and his craft has been seen as one of the great arts of Islam. At the specified time he (and it is always a man who performs this function) ascends to his place on the minaret, or to some other appropriate spot, turns toward Mecca, and begins his recitation. In recent times, particularly in the major Islamic cities, the noises of traffic and industry have necessitated replacing the live human voice with a recording played over a loudspeaker. Some American cities have seen great controversy about whether the call to prayer should be allowed to "disturb" the other residents of the neighborhood in which a mosque is located. Different communities have come to terms with this problem in different ways. Most often in American mosques the call is given inside the prayer hall rather than outside, serving not so much as a reminder to the faithful to pray as a kind of beginning to the prayer ritual. The adhan itself sometimes functions as a kind of prayer, and as such is whispered into the ear of a newborn baby, first in the right and then in the left. Shi'ites sometimes add to the prayer a phrase of special respect for 'Ali.

    The salat cannot be carried out without careful preparation on the part of the worshiper, including entering into a state of ritual purity, which involves both the cleansing of the body and the purification and readying of the mind and heart. Ritual washing (wudu') is performed outside or inside the mosque and includes wiping water over the head, ears, neck, and feet. American buildings that have been adapted as mosques have had to designate certain facilities specifically to this purpose, normally with separate washing places for men and women. During prayer a man's body should be covered at least from his waist to his knees, and by most interpretations a woman should have only her face and hands uncovered. After washing, one performs the niyya, or intention, which serves as the transition from ordinary daily activity to the special state of prayerful attention.

    Ritualized prayer can take place in the mosque, at home, or in any other place that is clean and appropriate. The congregational prayer is traditionally held on Friday, attended by men and sometimes by women (chapter 5 will deal with the topic of women's participation in the prayer). In America this communal ritual is often (also) observed on Sunday because of the difficulty some worshipers have in getting away from their work on Fridays. Muslims also practice a private, personal, and nonritualized form of prayer called du'a, in which the worshiper addresses God in praise and supplication.

    3. Almsgiving. In a number of places the Qur'an specifically enjoins the believer to pay the alms tax (zakat, sometimes rendered zakah). "Truly those who recite God's book, perform the salat, and spend privately and publicly from what We have provided to them, are engaged in an enterprise that never fails" (Sura 35:29). From the earliest days the Prophet preached that those who call themselves Muslims have a responsibility to care for the less fortunate among them. The Qur'an particularly identifies the poor, widows, and orphans as needing attention. The responsibility of giving away a portion of one's personal property on a regular basis has served a number of purposes in the structure of the Islamic umma, not all of them, of course, functioning perfectly in all instances. In theory, however, it does indeed give support for the needy and assures a more equitable distribution of wealth. Zakat provides support for the maintenance of the Islamic state as a whole (a function especially important in the early days of Muhammad's community), and it is a means of thanking God for the blessings he has bestowed. The word zakat itself suggests both piety and purity, underscoring the relationship of financial responsibility to righteous living. Like all Islamic requirements, its observance helps assure the giver of a better chance for a felicitous reward in the hereafter.

    Technically, zakat is a tax of 2.5 percent of what is estimated to be the sum value of all of one's possessions. It is not, therefore, an income tax as such but takes into consideration the totality of a person's holdings. In the early centuries the central authorities kept the monies collected through zakat and distributed them to run the state. Zakat earnings were used not only for charitable purposes but for education, the ransom of captives, and other purposes deemed important for the welfare of the community. Non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians who had "protected" status as People of the Book, had to pay a poll tax instead. The administration of zakat is considerably more difficult now than in earlier days, particularly since so many countries in which Muslims reside have a mandatory income tax. For the most part, giving to charity is considered voluntary today, although Muslims are strongly encouraged to understand regularized giving to worthy causes to be part of their religious responsibilities and an expression of their piety and righteousness. A few Muslim countries insist on the right of the government to levy a zakat tax on its citizens. In most of the Islamic world, the government runs and financially subsidizes the mosques. In America, of course, this is not the case, and the American Muslim community has had much discussion about how to understand and employ zakat to build and maintain mosques.

    Increasingly, zakat is also being understood as a means of providing some kind of service to members of the community. Such service can be handled either by organizations and Islamic centers, small private groups, or even individuals. A Kansas high school senior talks about the work she and her friends do in hospitals, soup kitchens, and retirement homes: "Our youth group ... visits these places and helps people. Many of them are very lonely, and they enjoy and appreciate having someone to talk to. Since many of them have never met Muslims before, we talk to them about our religion and tell them what we believe and why we dress the way we do.... It makes us feel good to do something."

    4. Fasting during the month of Ramadan. While the Qur'an contains a number of references, some direct and some oblique, to the other four pillars, in only one place does it specifically enjoin fasting during the month of Ramadan: "O you faithful, fasting is ordained for you in the same way that it was ordained for those who came before you, so that you may fear God.... It was during the month of Ramadan that the Qur'an was sent down as a guidance for humanity.... Whoever among you sees the moon, then he should fast, but the one who is sick or on a journey, [can fast] an equal number of other days" (Sura 2:183-85). Specifically, this passage means that everyone of an appropriate age (generally recognized to be past puberty) and not too elderly or infirm is expected to refrain from food, drink, tobacco, and sexual relations during the daylight hours of this month. In a kind of subsidiary fashion, Muslims are also expected to follow the strictest ethical codes during this time, being especially careful to be honest, thoughtful, and sensitive to the needs of others and to refrain not only from eating and drinking but also from using foul language and untruthful words. A frequently cited saying of the Prophet Muhammad is "God does not need the fast of a person who does not abandon false speech or acting according to his false speech."

    Like many of the duties required of Muslims, fasting has both physical and spiritual dimensions. As prayer and pilgrimage involve the body as well as the mind and heart, fasting and the breaking of the fast engage the totality of one's faculties. To fast each day from the first morning light to the setting of the sun requires intense mental, emotional, and bodily discipline. The act of eating at the end of the day, when one smells and tastes the first fruits and sweets, involves the heart in thanksgiving and the senses in the enjoyment of food. In Islamic understanding, God has constructed the universe according to a balance (mizan, the same word used for the balance that will weigh one's deeds on the Day of Judgment). Thus each of the five responsibilities balances and supports the others, and all of the constituent elements that go to make up the human person work together in balance and harmony.

    "When I was growing up in Pakistan, we never thought of Ramadan as a month of spiritual reawakening. It was more a kind of cultural festival. It is good that our youth here are challenging the old customs and thinking about Ramadan from a fresh perspective," says a Muslim mother who lives in Chicago, when asked about the time of fasting. "Ramadan should be a time not only for focusing on our own obligations or even our own spiritual needs. We should use it as the occasion to introduce Islam to others, and even to organize special food drives for the homeless and poor," remarks a youth from Washington, D.C. "I eagerly wait for this month. I love being in the mosque every day listening to the divine message. I rediscover myself in this month. I think I grow in every aspect of my personality each year," says a young Muslima in southern California. These comments suggest some of the ways in which Muslims experience the month of Ramadan in the American context.

    Only recently have the American media realized that many Muslims in this country do something noteworthy during one month of the year. It comes as a refreshing change from the concentration of the press on so-called "Islamic extremism" to find some thoughtful and even appreciative coverage of this important time in the life of the Muslim community. Muslims themselves are devoting increasing attention in their journals, periodicals, and websites to sharing with one another the importance of this month-long event, and in particular to hearing the responses of the youth of the community to the experience of participating in it.

    The rigorous and demanding discipline of the fast is exacerbated when it must be carried out in an area of the world lacking ready facilities for its support or understanding on the part of most non-Muslims about its purpose. Not all Muslims in the United States participate fully, or even at all, in this stringent exercise, although many of those who choose not to fast express the wish that they had either the discipline or the support to be able to do so. Those who do fast clearly believe that the rewards fully justify the rigors. "All of a sudden my sleeping and work habits change," insists a teenaged Muslim boy who has only recently practiced the full fast. "I sleep early and wake up early. I feel an urge to read the Qur'an and think about what it means. I really look forward to the breaking of the fast every day not so much because I am hungry, although of course I am, but because it is really the only time of the year when we are sure that the whole family will sit around one table sharing food." "I do fast," says a young woman. "It used to be that I would stop eating some meals, and in between I would smoke or drink a Coke or something. But since then I have begun coming to the mosque, and I realize that fasting really means a commitment to God. Now Ramadan is not just another month for me but a special time for developing self-control."

    Traditionally, the day is said to begin when one can distinguish a white thread from a black one by the early light of the morning, and to end when that distinction can no longer be made at the end of the day. The months of the lunar calendar, which are slightly shorter than solar months, in effect rotate around the Western calendar. Thus Ramadan may fall at any time of the year and "moves forward" a few days each year. Fasting in the winter is generally less arduous because the days are shorter and there is less heat, while strict observance during the summer can be particularly difficult. "I used to work in the lumber yards all day," comments an Arab student who used to live in the Pacific Northwest. "It takes a lot of energy, and particularly in the summer when the days are long and hot it is really hard not to even have any water. My boss sort of understood what I was doing, but not enough to let me take any time to rest like I would have been able to do back home."

    The many Muslim theologians and commentators who have thought, spoken, and written about the fast of Ramadan over the centuries have suggested that it leads to a number of beneficial ends. Considered both a physical and a spiritual regimen, fasting brings a greater appreciation for the blessings of God, which are so easily taken for granted; it ensures that one reflects on what it means to live in obedience to the commands of God; it reminds one that one's life is truly in God's hands; and it serves to unite in fellowship all of those who are participating in this observance. The month of the fast is also traditionally the time in which the faithful extend special forgiveness to anyone who might have offended them. That it may also be a time of reaching out to people outside the Islamic community, while not unknown to Muslims in other times and places, is a particular contribution of those who are living in America. Recognizing that fasting is a part of Jewish and Christian practice, some commentators have suggested that this month is a special time for the promotion of better interfaith understanding. The Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) posts on the Internet detailed suggestions for publicizing the meaning of and the events related to Ramadan. Its "Ramadan Publicity Campaign Summary and Tips" includes proposals for contacting newspapers, television and radio stations, schools, libraries, and hospitals, as well as ideas for organizing daily iftar (breaking the fast) meals for the homeless and food drives for the needy.

    Leaders of the various American Muslim communities currently are giving a good deal of attention to the importance of Ramadan as a time of charitable outreach. Noting that some Muslims, out of concern for their bodies during the fast, tend to go into a kind of hibernation, sleeping excessively and saving energy, they insist that the physical regimen of not eating combined with the proper mental and spiritual attitude should actually serve to give one new energy, which is then to be directed outward. Urging that Ramadan should be a month of increased physical activity, some turn to the example of the Prophet, who, during the nine Ramadans he experienced between the establishment of his community in Medina and his death in 632 C.E., engaged in a series of activities designed to illustrate the power of Islam and the example of sacrifice and submission to God. Particular efforts at outreach during Ramadan might include having young people from one Islamic center go to an orphanage to give out clothes and toys and talk with the children about Islam and the meaning of a month's fasting. With the growing numbers of Muslims in prison, the observance of Ramadan for the incarcerated is drawing increasing attention. Muslims are taking this special time to visit prisons to speak to Muslim inmates about the faith and about the significance of fasting. Some even stay to participate in the special prayers and Qur'an recitation of the Night of Power, which in some prisons may last all night.

    The literature of Islam pays increasing attention to ways of sharing this important time with non-Muslims. Physician and Islamic scholar Dr. Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California, for example, wonders whether it might be possible to let non-Muslims actually experience the benefits of Ramadan, even if just for one day. In an article titled "Visions of a Fasting Muslim" in the Muslim journal Islamic Horizons, he notes that along with Mother's and Father's Days, Valentine's Day, and President's Day, we now have days for secretaries, bosses, and whomever else. "The wild dream that engages one's imagination is this: would it at all be possible for America at large to observe a similar day?" His suggestion is for a "Self-Control Day" with the slogan "Just Say No" prominently displayed to encourage various forms of abstinence. This day might significantly lower the incidence of violence, drunk driving, drug consumption, and crime in general. The purpose, of course, would be to instill in Americans the desire to extend such forms of self-control beyond a single day. "Can the Muslim then invite America to a national day of fasting?" he asks. While such possibilities are more rhetorical than concrete, they do suggest a growing feeling among American Muslims that others have something to learn from their observances.

    5. Performing the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca once during one's lifetime. The Qur'an contains several references to the necessity of visiting Mecca on pilgrimage, as in the following: "Fulfill the pilgrimage and the visitation unto God" (Sura 2:196-97). Although the Prophet moved his community to Medina at the time of the hijra, it has always remained second in the worship life of Muslims to the place of his birth and the home of the Ka'ba, the most sacred shrine of Islam with its venerated Black Stone reportedly given by the angel Gabriel to Abraham. When Muhammad returned to Mecca, he cleansed it of all impurity from having housed idols. The Ka'ba became the symbol of the victory of the Islamic community and regained its status as the central sanctuary for those who worship the one true God. It is the responsibility of each Muslim to make at least one ritual visit (hajj) to Mecca, and many choose to return more than once to experience the thrill of joining with literally millions of fellow worshipers in the adoration of the one God. The official time for the pilgrimage is during the month named Dhu al-Hijja, the last month in the lunar calendar. One may also choose to make an individual pilgrimage at any other time of the year, which is called not hajj but 'umra and is known as the "lesser pilgrimage."

    Those who have reported their experiences on the hajj generally attest to its enormous significance in their personal religious lives. "How was I to know this would be the journey of a lifetime," muses a Muslima from Philadelphia. "Tears poured down my face like a fresh spring shower. The air left a sweet taste in my mouth, as if I had eaten the most succulent piece of fruit. I am here, really here. My eyes scanned this canvas of buoyant faces, effervescent smiles and nodding heads affirming the peace felt in their hearts. The serenade of voices from many tongues, this a cornucopia of Allah's servants, made a soothing welcome.... My Hajj experience served as my vehicle for the placating of my soul. This excursion took me up the paths and down the trails of the human spirit. The internal strength I gained induced a genuine love of Allah." The gathering of so many people in what is considered to be the most holy spot on earth—up to two million may be there at one time—is literally quite overwhelming. Some have expressed their awe as akin to a combination of intense reverence mingled with fear of both the power of the occasion and the practical reality of moving within such giant circles of humanity.

    Because of the sheer numbers, the experience that is supposed to engender such great joy, however, can also be rather intimidating for some. A Pakistani Muslim who teaches high school in Denver, Colorado, relates that she made her first pilgrimage when she was only sixteen. "Even though I clung tightly to the hands of my parents," she said, "I was terrified that I might get swept away from them just because there were such great throngs of people. When I went again in my twenties I was better able to cope and appreciate the experience for its enormous awe and beauty."

    It is often said that during the pilgrimage the true idea of an egalitarian Islam is realized. All male worshipers, whatever their status or position in everyday life, don the same simple white cloth to symbolize a state of ritual purity and participate in the same set of ceremonial rituals. Women are allowed more flexibility in their dress.

    The process of the pilgrimage begins when the pilgrim states his or her intention, niyya, and greets the city of Mecca with the cry "Here I am, Lord, here I am!" During the days of the hajj pilgrims circumambulate the Ka'ba, kiss the black stone, and reenact Hagar's legendary search for water to give her infant son, Ishmael. Toward the end of the pilgrimage, which lasts some ten days, pilgrims journey through Mina to the plain of 'Arafat, where the worshiper recalls the struggle of the patriarch Abraham against idolatry. Back in Mina, pilgrims throw seven stones at a small pillar in the main square said to symbolize the recalcitrant Satan. The last act of the pilgrimage is the sacrificing of an animal with its head facing Mecca. Some of the meat is eaten and the rest distributed to the needy. At this point the (male) pilgrim's head is shaved, and he begins the process of desacralization. Throughout the hajj ritual the worshiper says many prayers and listens to many sermons to help orient himself or herself to the proper attitude and response. Some pilgrims choose to visit the tomb of the Prophet in Medina, although that is not a formal part of the pilgrimage. Passengers on international airlines at the conclusion of the pilgrimage often see returning pilgrims carrying large plastic bottles of water from the well of Zamzam, a life-giving source said to have been provided by God for Hagar and Ishmael. These waters are believed to retain their restorative powers.

    The Saudi state goes to enormous lengths to provide for the safety and welfare of pilgrims. Huge tent cities are erected to house them, many meals are prepared, and transportation to the outlying areas is provided for those who cannot walk. While occasionally accidents happen, there is generally remarkably little illness or other problems, given the massive numbers of people who must be accommodated. The "miracle" of the undertaking, however, is said to pale in significance compared with the personal "miracle" experienced by the individual worshipers during this ritual that is truly the event of a lifetime. Because non-Muslims are not allowed in Mecca, careful procedures are maintained to assure that those who participate are genuine Muslims, sincere in their shahada. The man or woman who has completed the pilgrimage is known, respectively, as a hajji or hajja and is accorded special respect by the members of his or her family and community.

    In recent years, a number of books and films have chronicled the events of the hajj, providing access both for Muslims and non-Muslims to the events and emotions of the experience. Michael Wolfe, for example, in his book The Hadj: An American's Pilgrimage to Mecca, takes the reader through each stage and experience of the pilgrimage. It is recommended for those planning on making the pilgrimage themselves, as well as those who as outsiders can never have the experience but can benefit from the candid perspectives of this American Muslim. As more educational material about the beliefs and practices of Islam becomes available to the American public, and as the media provide more coverage of the ritual observances of Islam, Muslims hope that other Americans can see Islam as a faith of beauty, rigor, and ethical responsibility rather than as the vehicle of terror and the inspiration of "Islamic bombs."

Some American Muslims are particularly critical of their fellows who do not observe the five ritual practices as diligently as they might. A practicing physician who writes about his understanding of the right way to practice Islam, for example, calls those whom he sees as too casual about their faith "Supermarket Muslims." Accusing such persons of being interested mainly in aspiring to the Western upper class, he says, "They don't pray on a daily basis, but usually on Fridays and always on the Festival days to the prescribed prayer. They do not fast for the fear of becoming weak (or have another excuse). They usually do not calculate the poor-due, but do give charity to ward off evil. They sometimes go for umrah but hardly go for the hajj...." Many Muslims are less than appreciative of having their religious observances under such critique, and some are writing publicly about their right as individuals to respond to the demands of their religion in ways that reflect their own faith and understanding. Who has the authority to determine what constitutes the genuine practice of Islam in the American context is one of the many matters to which the community must turn its attention in the coming decades.

Table of Contents

1. Muslim Faith and Practice
2. Contributors to the Development of Islam
3. Islam Comes to America
4. Islam in the African American Community
5. The Public Practice of Islam
6. Women and the Muslim American Family
7. Living a Muslim Life in American Society
8. Islam in America Post-9/11
Resources for the Study of Islam in America

What People are Saying About This

Christian Century

For those who wish to understand the changing American religious landscape, understanding Islam and American Muslims is essential. Jane I. Smith is the perfect guide to start one on that path.


In this acclaimed compendium of information about one of the fastest growing religious groups in America today, a leading authority in the field introduces the basic tenets of the Muslim faith, surveys the history of Islam in this country, and profiles the lifestyles, religious practices, and worldviews of American Muslims. Sections of the book cover the role of women in American Islam, raising and educating children, the use of products acceptable to Muslims, appropriate dress and behavior, concerns about prejudice and unfair treatment, and other issues related to life in a country in which Islam is often misunderstood or unnoticed.

Yvonne Haddad

A comprehensive survey in which the voices of Muslims present the issues that confront them in contemporary America.

Sulayman S. Nyang

An important contribution to the growing literature on Muslims in American society.... Essential for those interested in Islam in America and in the history of immigrant religion in the U.S.

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