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Gregory OrfaleaSeptember 24, 2014
What Is an American Muslim?by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im

Oxford University Press. 232p $27.95

This book is a dry, almost too careful, yet important inquiry into the nature of Muslim participation in American society, particularly in the political and juridical realm. It is written by an accomplished Sudanese-American law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, dedicated to young Muslims in the United States. Despite this hortatory stance (and to some extent because of it), Abdullahi An-Na’im makes a true contribution to the woefully underrepresented literature on Americans of Muslim faith.

Na ‘im offers important ideas and a bold call for change. He is generally upbeat about the future of Muslims in American society: “For American Muslims who want to embrace their citizenship in the United States—along with their right to religious self-determination—the outlook is promising.”

For the most part, An-Na’im’s stubbornly refuses to delve into stereotyping or “charges of ‘un-Americanness,” but he could have gained by giving more of the community’s fascinating history (which dates from the first recorded Muslim immigrant Haj Ali, who led a camel train toward Arizona for a future president of the American Confederacy in 1857). The lively history of Muslims in these lands could have leavened the turgid political science. It is too bad, as well, that An-Na’im took a pass on confronting the writings of Sayyid Qutub, who spent two years in Colorado in the 1950s and joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on return, railing against sexual looseness in America. Qutub has been cited as an influence on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Fuzzy abstractions at times hurt Na’im’s arguments. Still, to the reader determined to find some gold flickering in the mica, and willing to climb over the excess of subheads throughout the text, there are rewards.

This short, but densely packed book is divided into four main subjects: the complex identity of Muslim Americans, their practice of citizenship, “religious self-determination” and legal dimensions. Interestingly, An-Na’im views identity—both as self and as citizen—not in some sacrosanct vacuum but with a “relational dimension .” This is not Ralph Waldo Emerson’s way of looking at self-reliance; it is, however, a Mediterranean’s way. One might say the self is better known and served by being reliant, and having others rely on it. It is also refreshing to be reminded by An-Na’im that “the subject of reason and reasoning is one of the dominant themes of the Quran.” In fact, he says, the Quran shows the whole purpose of divine revelation is “to inspire deliberation and reflection.” Rationality, cogitation, balance—these are primary to this careful author.

Na’im makes no bones about what kind of state should most appeal to a practicing Muslim: a secular one. And perhaps this is no surprise, given the horrific sectarian bloodlust unleashed, for example, in Syria. “I believe that the secular state—more so than even the so-called Islamic state—provides the best environment in which one can be a Muslim by choice and personal conviction, which is the only valid way of being a Muslim,” he states. That last is an important addendum: much of the West still sees Islam as a religion uniquely built on force (as if there had never been Crusades!), with a decidedly skewed interpretation of the notion of jihad, which means not holy war, but struggle.

He asks a key question: What is, should be, or is likely to be the role of Sharia in secular societies? Though his examination is too complex to summarize here, about the charge that Muslims want to superimpose Sharia law in the United States secular courts, An-Na’im makes clear, “There is absolutely no indications of such an effort in practice.” Indeed, even if there were, at one percent of the population, how could Muslims ever achieve it?

Most American civil law is consistent with Sharia, but that does not mean the state is enforcing Sharia, “any more than banning the death penalty means a government is enforcing Catholic doctrine.” An-Na’im often sounds the clarion for Muslim Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights reasonably, respectfully and smartly. The State can cooperate and still be consistent with its constitutional requirements in several areas, like diets (halal) in public schools, religious holidays, or even extended leave granted for a grieving Muslim widow. Proactively, An-Na’im recommends, for example, Muslims establishing their own banks that do not charge interest on loans (following Quranic injunctions against usury).

Family law is dicey for Christians, Jews, atheists and anyone who has ever gone through a divorce court. Muslims are no exception, and An-Na’im guides the reader though some of the thickets. Child visitation rights can be particularly thorny for a religion that gives the father much more precedence than the mother—the exact opposite of most American civil court tendencies.

Though only 10 percent of the first wave immigration from Arab lands (pre-1924) were Muslim, in the third and fourth Waves (post-1967) 60 percent are Muslim—a huge change. The total American Muslim population today is 3.48 million (Pew Research, 2013). Two-thirds of current Muslim Americans are immigrants. The two countries sending the most Muslims to the United States are not Arab ones but rather Pakistan and Bangladesh.

On the complex issue of assimilation, Pew surveys in 2007 and 2011 found that almost two-thirds of Muslim Americans see no conflict between practicing their faith and living and contributing to a modern, secular society. Thus An-Na’im underscores the chief intent of his book: “I am calling on American Muslims to take a proactive, affirmative view of their citizenship of the United States.”

One of the problems in disseminating Islam is at the local leadership level. Local imams, it seems, receive theological training in the old country, but not to lead American congregations. There is no American “seminary” so to speak. An-Na’im deemphasizes, if not devalues something extremely valued in old world Islam, the concept of the umma, or unified community: “Unity is an illusion, one that has been a source of horrendous suffering and bloodshed throughout Muslim history.” This is an arresting thought, and applies with no small measure to the other monotheisms.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is the chapter on legal dimensions of being a Muslim in America. The ever-balanced An-Na’im recommends what he calls “civic reason.” Employment discrimination, rather frequent in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was the basis of a 2006 suit against Alamo Rental Car, which forbad woman employees from wearing a Muslim headscarf at the sales counter. The rental company lost. On the other hand, in 2009 the City of Philadelphia successfully overturned a lawsuit of a policewoman who wanted to wear her hijab on duty. The distinguishing factor? Apparently, a headscarf in a patrol car brought “undue burden” to the city, while one at the Alamo counter did not.

Unilateral repudiation of marriage ties by the husband (talaq), the notion of an inadequate dowry (mahr), and the fact that in traditional Islamic law “the modern legal concept of custody does not exist” present strong challenges to being Muslim in these United States. Nevertheless, An-Na’im recommends accommodation to the law of the land, which could not, in any case, allow a practice such as talaq.

In an uncharacteristically stirring conclusion, An-Na’im urges his community to “re-imagine” itself. And he goes further. Change Islam, with pride in it, of course, and its durability. Rethink separate places of worship for men and women in mosques. There is no better place to do so than these shores.

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