The USA began as a haven for Christian outcasts. But what religion fits our current zeitgeist? The answer may be Islam.
Americans tend to think of their country as, at the very least, a nominally Christian nation. Didn’t the Pilgrims come here for freedom to practice their Christian religion? Don’t Christian values of righteousness under God, and freedom, reinforce America’s democratic, capitalist ideals?
True enough. But there’s a new religion on the block now, one that fits the current zeitgeist nicely. It’s Islam.
Islam is the third-largest and fastest growing religious community in the United States. This is not just because of immigration. More than 50% of America’s six million Muslims were born here. Statistics like these imply some basic agreement between core American values and the beliefs that Muslims hold. Americans who make the effort to look beyond popular stereotypes to learn the truth of Islam are surprised to find themselves on familiar ground.
Is America a Muslim nation? Here are seven reasons the answer may be yes. Islam is monotheistic. Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians. They also revere the same prophets as Judaism and Christianity, from Abraham, the first monotheist, to Moses, the law giver and messenger of God, to Jesus not leaving out Noah, Job, or Isaiah along the way. The concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition only came to the fore in the 1940s in America. Now, as a nation, we may be transcending it, turning to a more inclusive “Abrahamic” view.
In January, President Bush grouped mosques with churches and synagogues in his inaugural address. A few days later, when he posed for photographers at a meeting of several dozen religious figures, the Shi’ite imam Muhammad Qazwini, of Orange County, Calif., stood directly behind Bush’s chair like a presiding angel, dressed in the robes and turban of his south Iraqi youth.
Islam is democratic in spirit. Islam advocates the right to vote and educate yourself and pursue a profession. The Quran, on which Islamic law is based, enjoins Muslims to govern themselves by discussion and consensus. In mosques, there is no particular priestly hierarchy. With Islam, each individual is responsible for the condition of her or his own soul. Everyone stands equal before God.
Americans, who mostly associate Islamic government with a handful of tyrants, may find this independent spirit surprising, supposing that Muslims are somehow predisposed to passive submission. Nothing could be further from the truth. The dictators reigning today in the Middle East are not the result of Islamic principles. They are more a result of global economics and the aftermath of European colonialism. Meanwhile, like everyone else, average Muslims the world over want a larger say in what goes on in the countries where they live. Those in America may actually succeed in it. In this way, America is closer in spirit to Islam than many Arab countries.
Islam contains an attractive mystical tradition. Mysticism is grounded in the individual search for God. Where better to do that than in America, land of individualists and spiritual seekers? And who might better benefit than Americans from the centuries-long tradition of teachers and students that characterize Islam. Surprising as it may seem, America’s best-selling poet du jour is a Muslim mystic named Rumi, the 800-year-old Persian bard and founder of the Mevlevi Path, known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes.
Even book packagers are now rushing him into print to meet and profit from mainstream demand for this visionary. Translators as various as Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, and Kabir and Camille Helminski have produced dozens of books of Rumi’s verse and have only begun to bring his enormous output before the English-speaking world. This is a concrete poetry of ecstasy, where physical reality and the longing for God are joined by flashes of metaphor and insight that continue to speak across the centuries.
Islam is egalitarian. From New York to California, the only houses of worship that are routinely integrated today are the approximately 4,000 Muslim mosques. That is because Islam is predicated on a level playing field, especially when it comes to standing before God. The Pledge of Allegiance (one nation, “under God”) and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (all people are “created equal”) express themes that are also basic to Islam.
Islam is often viewed as an aggressive faith because of the concept of jihad, but this is actually a misunderstood term. Because Muslims believe that God wants a just world, they tend to be activists, and they emphasize that people are equal before God. These are two reasons why African Americans have been drawn in such large numbers to Islam. They now comprise about one-third of all Muslims in America.
Meanwhile, this egalitarian streak also plays itself out in relations between the sexes. Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, actually was a reformer in his day.
Following the Quran, he limited the number of wives a man could have and strongly recommended against polygamy. The Quran laid out a set of marriage laws that guarantees married women their family names, their own possessions and capital, the right to agree upon whom they will marry, and the right to initiate divorce. In Islam’s early period, women were professionals and property owners, as increasingly they are today. None of this may seem obvious to most Americans because of cultural overlays that at times make Islam appear to be a repressive faith toward women but if you look more closely, you can see the egalitarian streak preserved in the Quran finding expression in contemporary terms. In today’s Iran, for example, more women than men attend university, and in recent local elections there, 5,000 women ran for public office.
Islam shares America’s new interest in food purity and diet. Muslims conduct a month long fast during the holy month of Ramadan, a practice that many Americans admire and even seek to emulate. I happened to spend quite a bit of time with a non-Muslim friend during Ramadan this year. After a month of being exposed to a practice that brings some annual control to human consumption, my friend let me know, in January, that he was “doing a little Ramadan” of his own. I asked what he meant. “Well, I’m not drinking anything or smoking anything for at least a month, and I’m going off coffee.” Given this friend’s normal intake of coffee, I could not believe my ears.
Muslims also observe dietary laws that restrict the kind of meat they can eat. These laws require that the permitted, or halal, meat is prepared in a manner that emphasizes cleanliness and a humane treatment of animals. These laws ride on the same trends that have made organic foods so popular.
Islam is tolerant of other faiths. Like America, Islam has a history of respecting other religions. In Muhammad’s day, Christians, Sabeans, and Jews in Muslim lands retained their own courts and enjoyed considerable autonomy. As Islam spread east toward India and China, it came to view Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism as valid paths to salvation. As Islam spread north and west, Judaism especially benefited. The return of the Jews to Jerusalem, after centuries as outcasts, only came about after Muslims took the city in 638. The first thing the Muslims did there was to rescue the Temple Mount, which by then had been turned into a garbage heap.
Today, of course, the long discord between Israel and Palestine has acquired harsh religious overtones. Yet the fact remains that this is a battle for real estate, not a war between two faiths. Islam and Judaism revere the same prophetic lineage, back to Abraham, and no amount of bullets or barbed wire can change that. As The New York Times recently reported, while Muslim/Jewish tensions sometimes flare on university campuses, lately these same students have found ways to forge common links. For one thing, the two religions share similar dietary laws, including ritual slaughter and a prohibition on pork. Joining forces at Dartmouth this fall, the first kosher/halal dining hall is scheduled to open its doors this auturnn. That isn’t all:
They’re already planning a joint Thanksgiving dinner, with birds dressed at a nearby farm by a rabbi and an imam. If the American Pilgrims were watching now, they’d be rubbing their eyes with amazement. And, because they came here fleeing religious persecution, they might also understand.
Islam encourages the pursuit of religious freedom. The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock is not the world’s first story of religious emigration. Muhammad and his little band of 100 followers fled religious persecution, too, from Mecca in the year 622. They only survived by going to Madinah, an oasis a few hundred miles north, where they established a new community based on a religion they could only practice secretly back home. No wonder then that, in our own day, many Muslims have come here as pilgrims from oppression, leaving places like Kashmir, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where being a Muslim may radically shorten your life span. When the 20th century’s list of emigrant exiles is added up, it will prove to be heavy with Muslims, that’s for sure.
All in all, there seems to be a deep resonance between Islam and the United States. Although one is a world religion and the other is a sovereign nation, both are traditionally very strong on individual responsibility. Like New Hampshire’s motto, “Live Free or Die,” America is wedded to individual liberty and an ethic based on right action. For a Muslim, spiritual salvation depends on these. This is best expressed in a popular saying: Even when you think God isn’t watching you, act as if he is.
Who knows? Perhaps it won’t be long now before words like salat (Muslim prayer) and Ramadan join karma and Nirvana in Webster’s Dictionary, and Muslims take their place in America’s mainstream.
Michael Wolfe is the author of books of poetry, fiction, travel, and history. His most recent works are a pair of books from Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca:
“The Hajj” (1993), a first-person travel account, and “One Thousand Roads to Mecca” (1997), an anthology of 10 centuries of travelers writing about the Muslim pilgrimage. In April 1997, he hosted a televised account of the Hajj from Mecca for Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” on ABC. He is currently at work on a four-hour television documentary on the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad.