Islam in the USA
By: Muhammad-Bassiru Sillah
Author: Sulayman S. Nyang
Book Name: Islam in the United States of America. (ISBN 1-87103- 68-9)
Publishers: Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1999
Pages: 165 pages
Price: $ 14.95
The book under review examines the history of the introduction and evolutionary growth of Islam in the United States. Although Islam is the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths, it is the world’s fastest growing religion. Its presence in rich industrialised nations like the United States is a recognised fact. As the author says in his brief Introduction to the book, Islam is here to stay in the United States, side by side with Christianity and Judaism.
The discovery of the New World by Columbus resulted in the transplantation of millions of African slaves to America, where they would work on the farms of white settlers. A large number of slaves were captured in West Africa, a region where Islam had already struck deep roots after its birth in Arabia. Raising such issues in the opening chapter, Professor Nyang succinctly narrates the story of African Muslim slaves in North America. But the nature of slavery itself (as it was practised in America), coupled with the separation of children from their enslaved African Muslim mothers and fathers, proved to be a great impediment to the rise of Islam in North America. For one thing, the operation of the institution of slavery in the United States prevented the African Muslim slaves from freely practising their religion. This lack of religious tolerance caused many African Muslims to convert to Christianity the preferred faith of the slave ‘masters’. In the midst of this religious uncertainty and dilemma experienced by the Muslim slaves in the New World, ‘The Futa Jallon, a [West African] region of expert traders who practised a strident form of Islam,’ according to Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family (1999), ‘… banned the capture and sale of Muslims’ as slaves. In the same chapter, the author talks about the new wave of Muslim immigrants that came to the United States during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Among these were Muslims from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Southern and Central Europe, as well as Central Asia. Some of the Muslim immigrants went back home, but many decided to stay, hoping to realise the American Dream. The perception of Islam took a turning point with the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; the impact of the revolution was felt deeply in the United States because of its close alliance with the ousted shah.
Some of the points highlighted in Chapter 1 overlap with the points made in Chapter 2, in which the author talks about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent creation of new states such as Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. He also discusses the involvement of Muslims in the building of institutions and organisation in order to consolidate Islam in North America.
Chapter 3 discusses the professions and occupations of the Muslim immigrants in America. Those immigrants who could not communicate fluently in English became merchants, petty trades, and peddlers. Marriages between Muslim immigrants and their American hosts contributed to the spread of Islam in the United States. In order to protect the values and principles of Islam in a predominantly Christian America, the Muslims decided to establish a system which the author calls ‘inter-group co-operation.’ But social activities like dancing, drinking, and ‘dating American style’ were not allowed to prevail within the confines of Muslim families in America.
In Chapter 4, Nyang informs the reader that ‘black Africans came to the New World before Christopher Columbus,’ but adds the caveat that there is not enough evidence to substantiate such claims, not withstanding the fact that the original sources in this regard had come from such credible scholars as Ivan van Sertima and Basil Davidson. The author raises some interesting points when he cites President Lyndon Johnson’s immigration reform laws of the 1960s, which led to an increase in the number of Muslim immigrants in the United states. In the Cold War period, both the United States and the Soviet Union catered to clients from the developing regions. When the Soviets opened the doors of higher learning to students from the developing countries, America with its enormous wealth counterbalanced the soviet initiative by launching scholarship programs. Muslim students from poor countries benefited from this Cold War rivalry. Despite the successful penetration of Islam in American society, however, institution-building by the Muslims for ‘greater Islamisation’ in America did not pick up enough momentum in this phase. This was due to sectarianism and the differences in approach among Muslims, whether conservative or liberal. In other words, the Islamic Ummah, while theoretically a single entity, has forces of schism and division present in it.
In Chapter 5, Nyang identifies two major indigenous Muslim communities in the United States – namely, the Elijahian group, which consists of those African Americans who follow the teachings of the late Honourable Elijah Muhammad, who, during his leadership of the Nation of Islam, advocated a ‘rigid separation of races,’ and the Webbian group, which consists of those who followed Alexander Russel Webb, a white American diplomat who converted to Islam when he served as U.S. Consul in Manila in the early 1890s. Webb preached an Islam that was ‘colour blind’ and could be embraced by any human being. While some African Americans accepted Islam, intending to change their lives in accordance with its teachings, others perceived the religion ‘as an ideological weapon in the fight against white racism.’
Chapter 6 also raises the significant issues of identity – which became a major challenge for Muslims in North America. Indeed, as the African scholar Ali A. Mazrui notes in his ‘African Series’: ‘[T]o know who you are is the beginning of wisdom.’ Since Islam is a way of life, Nyang argues, Muslims want to live in America with their own identity, and to see their Muslim communities nation wide as an integrated part of the American political life. Today, Muslims are part of mainstream American society, and even serve in the U.S. military.
The author discusses the role of the Islamic press in the United States in Chapter 7, where he talks about Muslim magazines, newspapers, and referred journals produced in the United States. Though some works have folded, more and more publications continue to appear. In Chapter 8, Nyang gives a statistical analysis of Islamic centres in Canada and the United States. For instance, there are 250 mosques and centres in Canada and more than 1,000 mosque and centres in the United States.
Despite these impressive figures, the author shows his dissatisfaction about the negative reports Islam receives from the American print and electronic media. Some non-Muslim American journalists, intellectuals, and priests or preachers are disinclined to find out about and understand the true nature of Islam. The situation was further exacerbated with the eruption of the Iranian Islamic Revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini. The media gave a fabricated version of Islamic fundamentalism. The majority of American intellectuals, preachers, journalists, and student do not know the difference between an Islamic state and a Muslim country. They are not aware that many Muslim countries are not true Islamic states. The American media ‘confuses Islam with Arab nationalism’ and the struggle for freedom with terrorism.
In the final chapters, the author speaks about ‘tele-village’, and considers the role of science and technology in bringing human beings closer to one another than ever before. ‘Tele-village’ has indeed reinforced human interdependence, which underscores the need for Muslims and other religious adherents ‘to live together and to spend greater time trying to understand one another.’ In America, Muslims are aware of what their religion permits (Halal) and what it forbids (Haram). With this in mind, Muslims can coexist peacefully and harmoniously with the other People of the Book and with atheists alike. This stance on the part of Muslims does not, however, imply that Muslims will compromise their unequivocal belief in the unseen (God and His angels) and life beyond the grave (the eternal world).
Professors Nyang’s book is a well-written work, though part of the weakness of the study lies in the repetitions the reader will come across. The repetitions are understandable, since the volume is a collection of essays written for and presented at conferences during the past several years. The strength of the book is the clarity of vision presented in it and the powerful message it conveys. The book is well documented, citing as it does a variety of both primary and secondary sources; it also has a selected bibliography and a general index. One would recommend this book to students in Islam studies, American government, and even to political decision-makers, as it will enlighten them about the active role Muslims will continue to play in nation-building in the United States of America. (Courtesy: Studies in Contemporary Islam, Fall 1999)