The Year Ahead: A star-spangled Islam?

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  Dec. 30, 2001 at 2:56 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- Green is the color of Islam. Will there be a red, white and blue version of it as well? "This is the best country to bring up a family," says Abdulwahab Alkebsi, executive director of the Islamic Institute in Washington, sounding like a true-blue Southern Baptist.

Asma Gull Hasan, by her own definition "a Muslim feminist cowgirl," predicts a "new Golden Age of Islam." In her crisply written book, "American Muslims -- the New Generation," she writes: "This Golden Age of Islam will occur primarily in the United States because Muslims in America are more comfortable than in other Western nations."

Sayyid Sayeed, a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed and secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, bases similar hopes on a new breed of Islamic scholars, who interpret their religion within the contemporary scientific and economic context, without giving up its authenticity.

It seems almost ironic that it took Sept. 11 "for the American mainstream to try to understand the Muslims in their midst," as Sayeed phrases it. On the other hand, Sept. 11 also prompted many of the 6-7 million Muslims in the U.S. to ponder their place in this society. Thus began a process that will doubtless accelerate in the New Year.

Nevertheless, it will by no means be completed in an artificially constructed timeframe of 12 months. "It will take years," Sayeed says. Muslim leaders in the U.S. readily acknowledge that other Americans bent over backwards to show their tolerance. Christians and Jews fasted with Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, and prayed with them. There was much talk of the need "for the children of Abraham to stay together," declared Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, Calif. And there was a rush on Korans throughout the country.

But then some read it and were taken aback. They found that the Koran did not only describe Christians and Jews favorably as "people of the book."

Andy Rooney of Sixty Minutes, for example, came across Surah (chapter) 5:51, which says: "Take not the Christians and Jews for friends and protectors." He didn't find it very funny.

Commentators on cable television didn't appreciate Surah 9:30 calling Allah's curse on those who believe that Christ is the Son of God. And the Koran's threat that "fire will be the abode" of people making this elementary Christian statement of faith did not sit well with some instant experts on Islam after the first wave of sympathy had ebbed.

In short, there occurred a pendulum swing of sorts, which was given an extra push by Middle Easterners averring that Israel's Mossad was really behind the attacks on the World Trade Center, and that the Osama bin Laden tape was a fake.

That was of course what some imams and mullahs preached in Islamic countries, but not, Abdulwahab Alkebsi insists, in the United States. He does allow, though, that some Muslims in America's streets might have said something to that effect.

But then, brooding over Islam's near and distant future in the United States, Muslim leaders here seem eager to develop a star-spangled brand of their religion, independent from its Middle Eastern cradle. Indeed, Sayyid Sayeed, the Prophet's descendant, even speaks of a schism between Muslims over here and over there, a schism that may well become even more apparent in the new year.

He strongly disagrees with a statement by Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, a prominent London-based Iraqi Shiite cleric, who says that America lacks Islamic scholars competent enough to issue a fatwa, or legal opinion.

Of course we have renowned scholars here," thunders Sayeed, pointing to Taha Jaber Al'Alwani, president of the North American Fiqh (jurisprudence) Council.

If evidence for the nascence of a quintessentially American way of Islam is needed, Al'Alwani has just given it. When a Muslim military chaplain requested a fatwa asking if it was all right for U.S. soldiers of Islamic faith to fight fellow Muslims, Al'Alwani forwarded this query to renowned Middle Eastern scholars, who at first issued at fatwa, saying in the affirmative.

But then they sort of withdrew this legal opinion, but Al'Alwani didn't care. He stated U.S. Muslims could of course fight other Muslims, period.

Says Al'Alwani now: "This is an issue we should settle here in the United States -- between Christian, Jewish and Islamic theologians." If that is not a declaration of independence -- what is? Still, only a fool would predict with certainty at this point that a red, white and blue Islam distinct from its green counterpart in the Middle East will emerge for good.


There has been, in the wake of Sept. 11, much talk about a "Reform Islam." Two of its chief protagonists commute between Western Europe and the United States.

One is Bassam Tibi, a German of Syrian descent -- and also one of the Prophet's offspring--who teaches political science at Goettingen University and is a research scholar at Harvard.

The other is Tariq Ramadan, who lives in Geneva, tries to integrate Muslims in French-speaking countries and attempts the same with their African-American coreligionists.

Both readily admit that the protagonists of reform make up no more than 1 percent of the world's Muslim population, and even those were plagued by a schismatic proliferation matching that of American Protestants.

Is it conceivable that, like Protestants, some of these groups will become so secularized that they embrace what is clearly against Scripture, abortion and homosexuality, for example?

Hardly. Writes Asma Gull Hassan, the "Muslim feminist cowgirl": "The majority of Muslim children do not use drugs, drink alcohol or engage in pre-marital sex, providing, therefore, 'positive peer pressure' on other kids their age."

So a "mainline Islam" gone awry is not a prospect for the near future. And whether the strict judicious balance between civil and ecclesiastical government that is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition will become generally ingrained in the American Muslim mind anytime soon is not yet certain.

But Tariq Ramadan makes one point, which leading Muslims in North America find intriguing, too: According to the Islamic prophetic tradition, God raises once every 100 years a Moujaded, who renews the faith.

"While the Koran remains the same," says Ramadan, "the Moujaded makes it comprehensible to people reading it from the perspective of any given era."

Sayyid Sayeed, who is based in Indianapolis, explains that the word Moujaded can also be read in the plural. Thus, those who renew the faith may well be a collective of thinkers grounded in Scripture, yet in the vanguard of science.

These scholars, Sayeed believes, are the hope of Islam. They may even lead their backward Middle Eastern brethren into the new millennium, Muzaffar Iqbal, president of the Center for Islam and Science in Edmonton, Canada, suggests.

But whether they will really bring in a new Golden Age of Islam, reconnecting with that religion's glory days one thousand years ago, is impossible to know. "To create this second Golden Age of Islam, the American Muslim community must unify," states young Asma Gull Hasan. And if and when that will happen is a question for another day.

(Uwe Siemon-Netto is UPI's religion correspondent.)

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