This website is part of a creative project submitted to Barrett, the Honors College as an honors thesis by Sarah Syed. The project title is:
A Guidebook to the Muslim Students Association of ASU as an Institution of American Muslim Culture
The introduction to the project is reproduced below for context.
Muslims in America are living at a time of incredible opportunity as well as significant responsibility and must recognize that they are now authoring the story of indigenous Islam in America. For too long in the Western consciousness there has existed the idea of the Muslim Other. The legacy of European thought that greatly influences American culture classically misunderstands Islam as a civilizational threat and a problematic foreign entity. This was historically seen first through the lens of Christianity and empire and has now been replaced by Islam as a challenge to ideals of modernity such as secularization, liberalism and industrialization in the modern Western world. Edward Said has discussed these challenges to the perception of Islam and Muslims in the West at length in his classic work, Orientalism. The question is – what can Muslims do to change this fallacious and dangerous paradigm?
Although some Muslims have unfortunately adopted this dialectic point of view – islamophobes and these short-sighted Muslims seem to agree to view the world in this reductive and unrealistic fashion – traditional Muslim scholars argue that this divide was never part of the Muslim psyche in terms of the potential for acculturation (Abd-Allah, 1). In fact, Western Islam can and does exist and can become a productive and significant cultural entity. British Islamic culture, American Islamic culture, Canadian Islamic culture could one day become as significant, beautiful, and interesting as Indian Islamic culture, Ethiopian Islamic culture or Spanish Islamic culture. Muslims of these backgrounds have developed an authentically Islamic and authentically local form of their faith. Even if it is a minority faith, Islam is not seen as a foreign and invasive entity to India, Ethiopia or Spain, and instead is embraced as an acceptable and respectable way of life in each society.
Popular American Muslim thinkers like Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah and Dr. Sherman Jackson recognize the imperative to consciously begin a similar effort rooted in American culture. As Dr. Abd-Allah says in his famous Nawawi Foundation paper Islam and the Cultural Imperative, “Development of a sound Muslim American cultural identity must be resolutely undertaken as a conscious pursuit and one of our community’s vital priorities” (Abd-Allah, 2). College students and young American Muslims who are looking forward to the future are excited about the prospect of a culture of American Islam. While countries like Bosnia, Turkey, Tajikistan and other areas around the world have developed a distinctive style of Islamic culture, we have yet to see what American Islam is going to look like. The Muslim community in America is at the stage where we have realized that developing our culture and establishing Islam as an indigenous religion and not a foreign entity is crucial for the success of not only our communities here but for the future of America.
The establishment of an American Islam will be beneficial in several ways. If American Muslims succeed in this cultural project, they will be able to model an alternative but authentically American mode of spiritual living, refresh the rhetoric around the role of faith and spirituality in modern life, provide healing and an alternative moral framework for social ills that affect American society at large, and eventually influence national American conversation and even American international relations. American Muslim culture should allow non-Muslim Americans to recognize the value and role of their Muslim neighbors both historically and as part of their global family without fear or distance from the looming specter of the Other. Therefore, in summary, America will benefit from the new ideas, diversity and social services that a holistic Muslim American culture could offer, and from the point of view of a faithful Muslim, provide the spiritual alternative of faith many Americans are seeking.
Of course, developing a culture is no small, short-term project that can be undertaken by any small group. Rather, the development of a culture rooted in and authentically both Islamic and American at the same time requires the vision and collective effort of the entire Muslim community in the West. It depends on the development of models of education that do not yet exist, the efforts of scholars who are as well-versed in traditional Islam as they are in American culture, the contribution of artists, authors, tailors, teachers, songwriters, journalists, politicians, bakers, and others. As Ubaydullah Evans points out in his article “Culture: What is it good for?”, Muslim youth must begin to play an active role as cultural producers and not simply as recipients of the dominant culture. The best way of avoiding the unhealthy aspects of dominant culture is not by avoiding it, as no one can live in a cultural vacuum, but by providing an alternative.
This is where the institution of the Muslim Students Association can play a tremendous role. With over 150 chapters across America, the Muslim Students Association is where the community can engage, connect and develop emerging American Muslim leaders in an American context. Equally importantly, as a microcosm of the nation, the college campus is an ideal space to foster interfaith and intercultural friendships, to educate one another about our respective histories and goals, and to create new thought and contribute culturally. This can combat inappropriate xenophobic national rhetoric and provide a source of new ideas for Americans to help make our society and culture better.
Challenges and Potential Solutions
Ubaydullah Evans ends his piece with the critical and important note pointing out that this organic development of culture is a “messy business”. Young Muslims who are committed to their faith but who have learned from those whose cultural background is not rooted in America are nervous about creativity in the American context. Young Muslims who are less knowledgeable about their faith but who remain creative often lose the Islamic aspect of what they are doing and just become “people who are Muslim doing what everyone else does”, effectively becoming passive consumers of culture and regurgitating what is already there. Neither of these approaches is effective. What can be integrated, what needs to be reinvented, and what needs to be removed completely from popular culture to remain authentically Islamic? There are two possible solutions to this question.
The first solution depends on the development of an Islamic orientation of thought that would naturally filter choices by providing proper intellectual grounding that builds up an Islamic worldview. Of course, this is an idealistic and long-term effort and is also difficult to institute without the resources of accessible alternative educational material and institutions to promote such thought to larger Muslim audiences. Furthermore, this presents the chicken-and-egg conundrum: developing such a worldview would primarily be aided by an already existing, healthy Islamic culture. The second solution depends on respect of scholarship and a conscious reorganization of our current organizational decision-making and leadership based on that respect for scholarship. Even if an organization is lucky enough to have a truly erudite scholar as their masjid-board-imam or MSA advisor, often their advice is brushed off as an irrelevant, limiting or unimportant by the less educated people in leadership of these organizations. Scholars should be trained to be well-grounded in the current issues facing Muslim student communities and young people and really all those entrusted with leadership should be trained to respect scholars and work with them to find out what direction to take their creativity and culture. Communities at large should be funding scholarship and human resources from their local communities to train indigenous scholars, another critically important aspect of promoting a sustainable, successful long-term American Islam.
Arguably, one of the most undervalued aspects of Islamic learning is that it is neither stifling nor does it close minds, but instead redirects and encourages new ways of thinking creatively. One of the best examples of this is the development and perfection of geometrical artwork in the Muslim world because of the discouragement of portrait-making in Islamic law. Instead of following structures put in place and invented by others, we can provide and create new forms of being and cultural contribution that are formed from this creative challenge. In this, we are lucky to be in an American context that encourages innovation. In fact there are many other ways we can be grateful to be in an American context to celebrate qualities that are just as American as they are Islamic: the strong emphasis on fairness and justice no matter the situation, respect for diversity, speaking truth to power, protection of minorities, intellectual exchange and debate amongst many others.