American Muslim Identity

Response to The Mosque in Morgantown

by Ali S. Asani

“This is Islam for you; it is not Islam for us”

— Sajdia Nomani in


RELIGIONS ARE LIKE RECIPES.  Each tradition has its own ingredients but since these ingredients can be combined in different ways, the result is a variety of recipes, each distinctive in its own way.  Over the centuries, on account of the diverse historical, political, social and economic contexts in which they have lived, Muslims have come to interpret the core components of their faith in different ways to support a wide spectrum of worldviews.  For example, the Quran, the scripture that lies at the heart of the Islamic tradition, has been interpreted by Muslims to champion tolerance and intolerance, peace and war, feminism and anti-feminism.  Since understandings of religion are essentially human constructions, it is hardly surprising that descriptions and characterizations of Islam, like those of other faiths, are contested.  THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN vividly captures some these contestations.

Intra-Islamic pluralism — that is, diversity of religious beliefs amongst Muslim communities — is a subject which most contemporary Muslims are uncomfortable discussing and which some even regard as taboo.  There are several reasons for this, perhaps the most significant being that many Muslims, living in contexts in which Muslim identities and cultures are being threatened by non-Muslim (Western) hegemonies, mistakenly perceive that acknowledging and accepting a plurality of religious beliefs and practices amongst themselves is a sign of disunity and hence weakness.  They, therefore, respond to questions concerning diversity of interpretation and practice within Islam by vehemently denying that it exists.  Differences among Muslims are cultural, not religious, they proclaim; there is only one true Islam, frequently meaning the one in which they believe.  The Swiss Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, points out that this conception of Islam as a uniform theological monolith, and the inability to recognize and engage with intra-Muslim religious diversity has resulted in the paradoxical situation in which Muslims, either as individuals or groups, will exclude one another, even go as far as to declare each other to be infidel, and yet claim to the outside world that “we are all brothers and sisters.”

Given deep historical wounds that have festered for centuries, the mutual demonization of groups, and the ongoing competition for religious and political hegemony, intra-Muslim dialogue may seem an impossibly difficult task.  Dialogue with one’s nearest is emotionally fraught with many risks and fears.  Grappling with points of view that are different from one’s own and respectfully agreeing to disagree can often be challenging, testing one’s patience and humility.  But these obstacles should not, however, deter us from aggressively pursuing this as a worthwhile goal.  As His Highness the Aga Khan, a Muslim leader who has dedicated his life to fostering dialogue between civilizations and religions, aptly puts it: “When our diversity divides us, the results can be tragic. But when we welcome diversity — and the debate and dissent that goes with it — we sow the seeds of stability and progress.”

According to a well-known saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, “Difference of opinion in my community is a blessing.”  A rapidly globalizing world in which Muslims from diverse backgrounds are encountering each other in unprecedented ways requires a paradigm shift in the ways in which Muslims relate to their co-religionists.  Key Muslim nation-states, particularly in the Middle East, have yet to recognize that the notion of a monoethnic, monolingual, monoreligious state is an idea that has outlived its usefulness, for it fails to come to terms with the fundamental aspect of humanity: its diversity.  This failure poses a serious threat to the fabric of several Muslim societies, which are increasingly being torn by sectarian and ethnic conflicts.  It is only by recognizing pluralism as an organizing principle that these societies will be able to embrace the religious and ethnic diversity among their Muslim (and non-Muslim) populations.

Among the world’s Muslim communities, Muslim Americans are uniquely poised to undertake the difficult task of engaging with pluralism. They are faced with an unusual set of challenges and opportunities, for no other country in the world has a Muslim population as culturally diverse as that of the United States.  Belonging to over 60 different ethnicities and nationalities, Muslim Americans, in fact, mirror the diverse face of the United States itself.  In addition, they are theologically diverse representing many different interpretations of Islam, ranging from ultra conservative to liberal.  Thus, while in some Muslim American communities women assigned to pray at the back of the prayer hall, in others they pray side by side with the men.  As we try to understand what it means to be a Muslim in the United States today, it is crucial that this plurality be recognized.  We should also be careful not to make broad generalizations about Muslim Americans based solely on the interpretations of a minority that happen to catch the attention of the media.

As members of a religious minority, Muslim Americans are also engaged in the age-old struggle within the United States itself between those who want to define the nation in exclusivist (Christian) ways and those who want to uphold the pluralist ideals enshrined in the Constitution and in civic norms.  Pluralism both within and outside their communities provides Muslim Americans with remarkable opportunities to think creatively and in innovative ways as they interpret their religious beliefs and practices within the framework of the American dream.  No doubt in a couple of generations this engagement will lead to the emergence of distinctively American forms of Islam.  Already, the imam or prayer leader is being increasingly referred to as a Muslim chaplain.  And just as American forms of Catholicism and American forms of Judaism have had an enormous impact on their traditions globally, it is very likely that American forms of Islam will, in the future, be at the vanguard of dialogue on diversity in the greater Muslim world.  In this sense, the United States is the crucible in which new principles of intra-Islamic pluralism are being forged, sometimes painfully, and one in which the Quranic injunction that God created diversity so that we may know each other is realized for all humans, regardless of religious affiliations.


Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Ali S. Asani is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard.  After completing his high school education in Kenya, he attended Harvard College, with a concentration in the Comparative Study of Religion.  He continued his graduate work at Harvard in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, receiving his Ph.D. in 1984.  He currently holds a joint appointment between the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Study of Religion.  He also serves on the faculty of the Departments of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and African and African-American Studies.  A specialist of Islam in South Asia, Professor Asani’s research focuses on Shia and Sufi devotional traditions.  He is interested in popular or folk forms of Muslim devotional life, and Muslim communities in the West.  He teaches a variety of courses on the Islamic tradition at Harvard.

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