Muslims constitute only a small minority in the United States and an even smaller percentage of the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide. However, American Muslim scholars are having an impact on contemporary intellectual life throughout the Muslim World.
Muslim scholars immigrating to the United States have contributed to the emergence of a productive Islamic intellectual life. According to Tamara Sonn, Religious Studies professor at the College William and Mary, several factors have helped them flourish in America. "One of the things that they appreciate about being here is obviously the economic advantages," she says. "So, they can take care of their families and have the time to do their work in a non rushed, non pressured way… the freedom to express themselves and being able to express their commitment to the Muslim world without the pressures of political or other kinds of religious filters."
Before the 1950s, most studies of Islam were conducted by non-Muslim scholars in the West. Later, Muslim thinkers in Europe contributed to the studies in this area. Osman Bakar of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University says the work of American Muslim scholars is very recent. "We don't really have American Muslim scholarship until the 1970s, when professors who migrated from a number of Muslim countries came to the United States," he says. "In particular, I'm talking about Professor Ismail Faruqi, Professor Fazlur Rahman and Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. These three are the most famous Muslim scholars in the Muslim world."
These 3 men were the focus of discussion at a conference held earlier this month in Washington D.C. (5-11-05). Ibrahim Kalin, from the College of the Holy Cross, says their ideas spread as they published and taught in the United States.
"Faruqi was of Palestinian origin," he says. "Faruqi died in the beginning of the 1980s. He's best known for his work on Islamization of knowledge, interfaith relations and the Palestinian question. The second important figure, Fazlur Rahman was from Pakistan originally. He was known for his modernist ideas, especially his concept of the Sunnah, the traditions of the Prophet. Because of these ideas he was criticized in Pakistan and he ended up in Chicago. He taught at the University of Chicago until his death almost 10 years ago. He produced a number of works on Modern Islam, Islamic intellectual history, Islamic philosophy and also Islamic education."
The Islamic Studies professor says the third scholar is perhaps the most influential… and is still teaching: Seyyed Hossien Nasr, a Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. "He continues to have a lot of influence across the Islamic World today, including the United States - among the American Muslim community as well as the larger American public and scholars," he says. "Nasr is of Iranian origin. He has been very influential and has been so prolific in his scholarship. He has produced work on environmental crisis, religion and science debate, Islamic history, Sufism, Islamic Arts, sciences, etc. His works have been translated into almost all Islamic languages and at least 5 or 6 European languages."
Their knowledge of Western society and Islam places American Muslim scholars in a powerful position. As Professor Kalin explains, they can influence how Americans think about Islam, which can affect how Muslims elsewhere in the world perceive the United States. "For example, in the aftermath of the events of 9/11, you know this negative perception of Islam, and misgivings about the Islamic traditions have been commonplace," he says. "These Muslim intellectuals, I believe, did play a significant role in dispelling some of these misgivings. This has a very positive impact on how people look at the variety of opinions in the United States. Although there are serious criticisms of the policies of the United States and there will probably continue to be so. People still appreciate the opportunities, the freedoms given to people who study here, especially to Muslims."
The most serious challenge American Muslim scholars face, according to Ibrahim Kalin, is doubts in the Muslim world about their authenticity and religious devotion. Religion Professor Tamara Sonn agrees that credibility represents a great challenge, but she points to another, perhaps more daunting one: spreading their ideas beyond U.S. borders. "The only real vehicle for them to express themselves outside of America is through books," she says. "But if the books aren't translated into the languages of the Muslim world, or if the people in the Muslim countries are not able to access their books either through a lack of literacy, or a lack of financial means, or a lack of the leisure to study, then their impact isn't felt."
No matter what challenges American Muslim thinkers must overcome, Georgetown University Professor Osman Bakar says their impact on Muslims everywhere is growing. In fact, he's so optimistic about the potential for tremendous intellectual contributions he says he can imagine the United States in the near future becoming a major world center for Islamic learning and intellectual life.