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American Islam:  Forging a New Identity


As thousands of American Muslims prepare to undertake the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca next month, a debate continues over whether Islam in the United States should be more open to liberal interpretation.

With an eye toward Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where men and women pray side by side during the annual pilgrimage, many American Muslims are questioning the way Islam is interpreted.

According to a recent study in Detroit, Michigan, home to the largest concentration of U.S. Muslims, 38 percent of American Muslims prefer a more liberal approach to understanding Islam. Twenty-eight percent follow the mainstream, traditional school of Islamic practice. Eight percent advocate the strict Wahabi school of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

A Question of Interpretation

Many Islamic experts, especially those who advocate equality between men and women, point out that Islam is often interpreted according to the cultural origins and customs of its adherents. They say some followers of Islam choose to ignore the fact that their faith gave equal rights to women 1400 years ago.

Many second and third generation American Muslims, who want to revive those liberal practices, are challenging the old interpretations of Islamic law and are looking for new ones that accommodate their way of life.

Ihsan Bagby who teaches Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky says many second generation Muslims are more conservative than their parents in the way they dress, but are more liberal with regard to the role of women in Islam.

“In one focus group I did with some Detroit females in one particular mosque, they said their biggest challenge was trying to convince Muslim women to come to the mosque because they were so used to the old pattern overseas of not participating in the mosque. Now that there is a chance to participate, their job was to get them to come whereas their children were fairly frustrated with the situation and wanted change to take place a lot faster so they would be more empowered as women,” says Professor Bagby.

Reinterpreting the Reinterpretations

Amina Wadud, Professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says practices such as excluding women from leading prayers and praying alongside men are not fundamental to Islam. Rather, she says, they are the result of cultural interpretations, local traditions and Islamic law developed by men.

In advocating that true Islam does not exclude women, Amina Wadud has, for more than a decade, lead mixed-gender prayer services in New York. Despite death threats and religious edicts issued against her by male religious jurists, she says a reinterpretation of Islamic law is necessary to include women.

“There are things that can be reinterpreted and there are things that can be reexamined throughout tradition in order to come up with more compatible means of sustaining the basic egalitarian message of the Quran, vis-à-vis the agency of women as a component of what it means to be created as human by Allah,” says Amina Wadud.

Some analysts take issue with this position, saying that Islam’s holy book, the Quran, designates men as leaders in society.

Abdullah El-Amin, the Imam of the Detroit Muslim Center, disagrees with some of the arguments made by many progressive American Muslims in favor of mixed-gender prayers.

Nonetheless, Mr. El-Amin says some interpretations, such as those that condone confining women to the home or acts of violence or terrorism to attain martyrdom, need to be addressed. He adds, “Some of these practices from different countries are going to have to be phased out of the practice of the religion. So there is going to be a more progressive type of Islam, not only in this country but all over the world.”

Adapting to New Environments

But many analysts say Islam has to adapt to American society the way it has adapted to other cultures in countries such as China and Indonesia.

Khaled Abou El Fadhl, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, says American Muslims want to have their own interpretation of Islamic law. “What a substantial number of Muslims in the United States want or advocate is that there be an Islamic jurisprudence that is responsive to their own needs, demands and particularities.”

However, Professor El Fadhl warns that western Muslims need to learn more about the five schools of Islamic law before they try to reinterpret them.

Nonetheless, Maher Hathout, Senior Advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group in Los Angeles, says U.S. Muslims can play an important role in revitalizing the practice of Islam. He goes on to say, “Muslim Americans should snatch Islam out of stagnation and rigidity. I think Islam is a dynamic religion. So it cannot stagnate or be solidified in a rigid frame that does not adapt to change.”

Most analysts agree that Islam in the United States will ultimately develop in a way unique to American society, enriched by the experiences of Africans, Hispanics and many others who practice the faith.

And as Muslims turn toward Mecca during next month’s pilgrimage, many American Muslims hope that the ideals of equality and openness practiced there can be incorporated into a more progressive interpretation of Islam in the United States.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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