American Muslim Identity

Building Muslim American Identity

by Jenan Mohajir

The story of the Mosque in Morgantown is not a new one.  Nor is the issue raised by Asra Nomani regarding women’s space in the Morgantown mosque unique.  In fact, it reminded me very much of the mosque in my own community, the American Islamic Association (AIA).  Comprised of mostly South Asian immigrant families, attendees of AIA stretch across the religious spectrum, including those labeled as “conservative” and as “progressive”.  My parents and I have attended the AIA since our migration to the south suburbs of Chicago, when the mosque was still housed in an old airplane hanger.  For years we waited & worked to collect enough money to construct a new building for our beloved mosque.

Finally, at the start of Ramadan in 2005, the new building for the AIA had been constructed — and of us all, my mother was most ecstatic.  But upon returning from the mosque’s open house, I sensed my mother was disappointed.  The women didn’t have a separate prayer space, she told me.  Instead, the prayer sanctuary was one big hall, where men and women would both pray, men in the front rows and women taking up the back ones.  But on Muslim holidays, when the number of congregants overflowed the space of main hall, the men would pray in the main hall upstairs and the women would pray in the community room, downstairs in the basement, like so many other mosques across the country.  Feelings of disappointment and betrayal rang high amongst the “conservative” women who preferred a segregated space — while the more “progressive” women were excited about having an incorporated space for women in the main prayer hall.

The issue of women’s space in mosques is one that our Muslim American community is still grappling with.  The real issue is not about where Muslim women pray, but rather what roles do they play in the space between the prayer hall and the parking lot?  The women in the AIA have taken key leadership roles in our community since its inception.  They played a lead in making many decisions — whether it was deciding on the Sunday school curricula, the architectural design of our current building, or organizing the annual food drive collected for the Chicago Food Depository.  And women in mosques across America are playing similar roles.  It is this story of the roles that Muslim American women play in their communities that defines our emerging Muslim American identity.

Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah, one of America’s leading Muslim scholars and the Nawawi Foundation’s Scholar-in-Residence, addresses the topic of an indigenous Muslim American culture in his essay, Islam and the Cultural Imperative.  He begins with a simple metaphor: Islam is a river, a river with crystal clear waters that takes on the color of the bedrock over which it flows.  So, in India Islam looks and feels Indian.  And in China Islam looks and feels Chinese.  In America, this river flows over a mosaic made of many colors — indicative of the ethnic and cultural make up of the Muslims who live here.  A recent Gallup report, Muslim Americans: A National Portrait, shows that the Muslim American community is the most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the United States.  With no dominant ethnic majority, the varieties of ritual and cultural practices of the Muslim American community are representative of its diversity.

So what happens when we engage this inherent diversity?  Despite the many ethnic and cultural differences that exist within the Muslim American community, any intra-faith conversation will reveal the values shared by most Muslim Americans, indigenous and immigrant alike.  Values like service, hospitality, compassion and mercy — all of which connect to our religious and ethnic inheritance, but also connect to our American ideals.

Over the last few decades, as Muslims in the United States have flourished, our mosques have transformed from places of worship into spaces of community.  While our mosques have expanded to include Islamic schools, community centers, youth groups, health clinics and more, Muslim American culture has grown alongside those expansions.  Despite our differences of where women pray, Muslim women have shouldered equal parts of creativity and responsibility in constructing our community.  As we have engaged in our building our community, we have also engaged in building our Muslim American identity.  We must continue to act on the values that we share within our mosques and beyond its walls, in our lives as citizens, as Americans, and as Muslims.


Jenan Mohajir is the program associate for the Outreach Education & Training program at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings together young people from different religious traditions through an emphasis on shared values. Jenan is a frequent speaker at college campuses nationally and trains youth leaders in organizing local interfaith youth service-learning events. Prior to joining IFYC, Jenan was a full-time teacher at the Universal Muslim Day School and worked with the Inner-city Muslim Action Network. She has also volunteered with the Nawawi Foundation since 2001. She is originally from India and grew up in Qatar and the United States.

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Feminism and Islam

Looking at the World As If Women Matter

by Tayyibah Taylor

“Looking at the world as if women matter” is just one of the many ways feminism is explained.  Some definitions are more academic and others are less generous, but searching through the philosophical pile of feminist theory and movements, one will discover first-wave and second-wave feminism, post colonial feminism, Western feminism, Black feminism, radical feminism, Islamic feminism and more, all with varying solutions to the issues women face.

As the Muslim American community grows and develops, the feat of building institutions requires our social architects to consider the religious, intellectual and political discourse on women’s equality.  Standing at the intersection of gender and Islam, Muslims are looking down a road with some smooth stretches, as well as some huge potholes.

Muslim scholars and imams who begin their ‘Women in Islam’ chapters and lectures with glowing reports of the rights Islam restored to women, then proceed to interpret the primary sources of Islam in ways that negate those rights, have created confusion and illusion.  To clarify we may ask, “When it comes to leadership in Islam, can gender trump competency?  If so, what else can trump competency and what else can gender trump?”  These and many other questions are asked in the conversation about the construction of the Muslim American landscape and culture.

Let’s look at who we are.  In the Muslim American community we have over 80 ethnicities represented; there are people following every school of Islamic thought, on all levels of adherence and observation.  In this fantastic mosaic there are people who are Muslims by choice and those who are Muslims by chance; there are Muslims of culture and Muslims of conscious.  There are those whose ancestors were here before this nation was founded and others who just arrived from Muslim-majority countries.  There are those who are learned in the nuances of Qur’anic hermeneutics, and those who cannot read or write a word of Arabic, relying on translations in English, Urdu, Persian and other languages.

It stands to reason this multiplicity of ethnicities, experiences, expertise and excitement about Islam is bound to yield varying readings of the Qur’an and different interpretations of women’s equality.  Some of us want to fill those potholes with material to neutralize patriarchal privileges, others want to fix them with secularism, while others want us to maneuver around the potholes.

In a community this complex, one size really does not fit all and neither does one style.  It becomes problematic when one Muslim’s experience, be it positive or negative, is the point of extrapolation from which to typify solutions for all Muslims.  Some would have us teetering in stiletto solutions that are two sizes too small, and others would have us lumbering in laced-up boots with solutions three sizes too big.

Expecting others to be where we are, spiritually, intellectually or socially, is second in folly and futility only to forcing our perspectives and beliefs on others.  The Muslim community in particular, and humanity in general, will stunt its evolution until each and every person can be viewed as a spiritual being on their way back to the Creator; until we each master the ability to slip from one frame of reference to another with the same grace, ease, understanding and non-attachment, that we can move from speaking one language to another.

Muslim women in America are in a privileged position.  On one hand we have our American legacy of freedom of speech, freedom of movement and an academic heritage of critical thinking (things not always present in some Muslim-majority countries).  On the other hand we have our Islamic legacy of spiritual agency, a contract to pursue knowledge, and a universal worldview.  We are poised in this privileged position to create a community where all voices are heard and respected; a community where our plurality is acknowledged and where unity does not hinge on uniformity.

Islam is more than a religion and it’s more than a way of life; Islam is a state of being.  When we truly live our lives in the state of Islam, that is in a state of wholeness, serenity and in alignment with the laws of the universe, every second of existence, and every fiber of self is centered on connecting to the Divine.  In that state, the flame misogyny has no oxygen.  In that state, a world is created where women, and all humanity, matter.


Tayyibah Taylor is the founding editor-in-chief and publisher of Azizah Magazine and has presented workshops and lectures on Islam and Muslim women throughout the country.  Born on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, Taylor grew up in Toronto, Canada and studied biology and philosophy at the University of Toronto.  She lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for several years and attended King Abdul-Aziz University for Arabic and Islamic studies.  She presently serves on the steering Committee of WISE, an organization that convenes global Muslim women leaders and fosters Muslim women’s participation in Islamic law and contemporary debates.  She presently sits on the board of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and the board of directors of Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters and has also served on the board of trustees for the Georgia Council for International Visitors. &nbspTaylor is the mother of five children.

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Interpreting the Quran

Mixed Up in Morgantown: Reclaiming Islamic Diversity

by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

I was deeply impressed to see how painstakingly, as well as how defiantly of our soundbytes-and-snark culture, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN endeavored to explore the various viewpoints germane to its featured conflict.  For me as an American Muslim woman, the film highlighted both what I myself find most beautiful about my religion and what I am most uncomfortable with about the way it is being practiced in my country.

Watching the film, I found it unsurprising that, in a mosque where so many people from different countries converged to worship, different interpretations and cultures would clash.  A similar situation might arise in a church comprised of Evangelicals, Unitarians, and Catholics, both progressive and conservative, originating from over 30 different countries, all attempting to decree the correct form of worship at the church.  Any similar situation would pose challenges.

However, in the Muslim case at least, diversity of opinion is built into the very structure of the religious law.  Over five hundred schools of Islamic law once flourished in various areas of Islamic civilization, and disagreement between them was acceptable.  Even now, the remaining four main Sunni schools and one main Shi’i school accept each other as valid, whether or not they agree.   Muslims have never had a single authority, like the Pope, to lay down what Islamic law is or isn’t.  Numerous historical examples illustrate long theological debates waged over decades and distance (including those regarding women’s places in society), considering a wealth of factors, including geography, culture, hardship, and context.  These debates were preserved in the historical record even by those jurists who did not agree with them, because they recognized that Islam allowed for various interpretations, freedom of thought, and critical thinking.

How is such diversity possible, if there is only one Qur’an and only one Sunnah (words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad)?  The Qur’an contains both general principles and specific injunctions, and it allows room for interpretation.  Muslims are allowed to ask questions: Is a verse metaphorical or literal?  Was it revealed in response to a particular historical situation?  If the Qur’an mentions a particular practice, does that mean that every other practice is disallowed?  What is the historical, circumstantial, and textual context in which the verse was revealed?  What was the “reason for revelation,” a factor that formed an integral part of the development of Islamic law and understanding?  On all these points jurists could disagree and still be consistent with the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

This was why Islam flowered.  Muslims were not afraid to engage their tradition and respect the opinions and writings of even those with whom they vehemently disagreed.  Muslims were secure enough in their tradition that they could read other juristic interpretations of the Qur’anic text and debate them rather than close off their minds with cries of “No!  That’s haram because I don’t agree with it!”

Asra on Literalism

Yet, the trend I see in the mosques — though not in the general population of American Muslims — is dogmatism.  This is highlighted in the film not only in the way the religious conservatives relegate women to the back door, but also in the way that Asra Nomani aggressively forces her views into the mosque.  The women condemning Nomani claim that it is “God’s law” that they are following — but what is God’s law?  If the religious scholars through the centuries debated the specifics of God’s law when it came to (among other things) women, then who are these modern women to say that their own personal view is God’s law?  Similarly, when Nomani isolates Qur’anic verses from their 7th century historical context and attributes to them the roots of Daniel Pearl’s murder, she engages in the same kind of one-dimensional, thoughtless rhetoric as her opponents.  She is right to want to discuss the status of women in the mosque and in Islam.  She is right to read the Qur’an.  But there is a huge spectrum between religious conservatives (even misogynistic ones) and Daniel Pearl’s murderers; to connect them by calling them all extremists is counterproductive to dialogue.

It is this type of unawareness of diverse valid opinions that is currently causing conflict and isolation within the American Muslim community, most of whose members do not attend mosques.  To illustrate: suppose an Islamic jurist somewhere issues a fatwa (a reasoned legal opinion by a recognized religious jurist), and then suppose imams all over the United States start proclaiming this fatwa as shari’a (“the way of God”).  A fatwa is not binding or enforceable.  Contradictory fatwas may be just as Islamic.  So where are the other possible fatwas on the same issue?  Where is the debate? For an imam to choose one view as “shari’a” and exclude other, equally valid Islamic views, would be presuming he knows God’s will and other scholars do not.  And if I, as a Muslim, disagree with that fatwa but am told that it absolutely amounts to shari’a, might I not be completely disillusioned by what I am told is my religion?

Why then, for example, are some imams dictating that women must pray in separate rooms?  Not all Islamic jurists would agree.  At the Ka’ba itself, men and women pray in the same room. Isn’t it time Muslims again allowed intellectual debates to flourish in a civil manner in mosques and meeting places?  Each group in the film had trouble listening to its opponents.  Each side insulted the other by saying, “I’ll pray for you,” as if they were doomed otherwise.

Throughout history, when Muslim shaikhs conducted religious classes, some required women to sit in the back, some in the front, and some on the side.  All forms were acceptable; one could choose which to attend.  Today, if we Muslims cannot practice together or reconcile varying interpretations in the same mosque, then perhaps we need to form separate mosques to accommodate our different interpretations.  But whatever we decide, we must dispense with dogmatism and reclaim our Islamic heritage of respect, dialogue, and diversity of interpretation.


Sumbul Ali-Karamali has a graduate degree in Islamic Law and is the author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing (White Cloud Press, Sept. 2008). Please visit her website at

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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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