A nation of Islam

IslaminAmericaHarvard religion professor Diana Eck’s New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Now Become The World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation looks at how changing immigration laws have shaped the country. She tells stories about Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

I actually didn’t like the book because it was annoyingly Pollyanna-ish, unnecessarily pluralistic and avoided criticizing any religion apart from Eck’s own: Christianity. But her section on Muslims was the best. I don’t have my notes from the book, but as I recall, she shows how a small number of slaves retained their Islamic beliefs and continued to practice them. It was a bit like a game of telephone, as far as how well traditions and doctrines were kept in the absence of any scholars. But it was from this cadre of believers that more prominent American Muslim groups, such as the Nation of Islam, arose in the 1930s.

I was glad to have that background when I read a fantastic piece in The New York Times by Andrea Elliott. She uses the story of how two different imams bridged their cultural divides to show the tensions among Muslims in America. One imam, a first-generation Muslim, serves a congregation of American blacks while another, a first-generation American, serves a congregation of Arabs and Asians:

For many African-American converts, Islam is an experience both spiritual and political, an expression of empowerment in a country they feel is dominated by a white elite. For many immigrant Muslims, Islam is an inherited identity, and America a place of assimilation and prosperity. . . .

African-Americans possess a cultural and historical fluency that immigrants lack, said Dr. [Faroque] Khan; they hold an unassailable place in America from which to defend their faith.

For Imam [Al-Hajj] Talib, immigrants provide a crucial link to the Muslim world and its tradition of scholarship, as well as the wisdom that comes with an “unshattered Islamic heritage.”

The article does mention that black American Muslims trace their roots to the arrival of West African slaves in the South. Elliott also mentions the Nation of Islam and other movements in the early 20th century. She mentions the racism of these groups and their negative reception by Muslims overseas. Some of these groups eventually aligned with Sunnis. I wish we knew more about the theological differences between the historic American Muslim groups and Sunnis. I also wish we knew more about the theological differences between the two groups profiled by Elliott. It’s mostly a story about social and political differences.

One interesting detail — in a story full of interesting details — was that the sexes worship separately in the American Musim mosque while the immigrant mosque has no partition for the sexes. At the immigrant mosque, sermons are given in English and most female worshipers do not cover their heads outside of the mosque.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the religious angles were woven into another story on Muslim families dealing with tragic death. It turns out that the two families that lost nine family members last week in a Bronx row house were Muslim. Reporters Timothy Williams and Manny Fernandez look at a community that has rallied around immigrant families facing unspeakable grief:

Visiting the mosque was a public ritual, but there were private ones, too. At a crowded apartment in a Bronx housing complex, friends and relatives of the Soumare and Magassa families — women and children only — sat on the couches, beds and even the floors, quietly mourning together at the home of an aunt of Fatoumata Soumare, who died in the blaze.

People whispered in the three-bedroom apartment, the television news in the background. No one raised their voices. Women cooked rice and chicken, cutting chunks of goat meat.

They described it as a Muslim tradition, the women mourning together and the men mourning together, separately for now.

Last week we highlighted a story about a polygamous family in Utah. One reader wondered whether polygamy was now legal in the United States since the family was identified by name and apparently feared no repercussion. This story, while not about polygamy, had a fascinating tidbit about the same that provoked more questions than answers:

[Moussa] Magassa has two wives. His wife Manthia was uninjured but lost five children; she spent much of yesterday with him. His wife Aisse jumped to safety, breaking a leg. Her four children lived. She remains in intensive care. Two other children were thrown to safety, caught by neighbors who ran to the building as it was consumed by flames and smoke.

Polygamy is forbidden by law in this country, right? So in what sense does Magassa have two wives? Presumably he took his multiple wives under Sharia or another legal system. But how does this work for an immigrant? A bit of explanation is definitely in order.

Anyway, this isn’t a religion story per se, it’s a local story about a major event. But like so many stories that we read about each day, the players are religious and are existing in a notably religious realm. I think far too many reporters shy away from details about religion, which is unfair to readers and just makes stories less interesting. When the reporters delve into the funeral details — mentioning how even non-Muslims in the community are helping with arrangements — they include the note that usually Muslim funerals are held within 24 hours. Just seamlessly placed into the story. A good show on both counts from The New York Times.

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  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    I second your high rating of Andrea Elliott’s article, Mollie. I think she’s the best religion writer the Times has, which is why I’m glad they have her on a local beat, even if she deserves all the promtions the paper has to offer. I thought her piece on a halal slaughterhouse, about a year ago, was one of the best short pieces of writing the paper has published — I put it on my syllabus along with Mahmood Mamdani’s “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” as an example of journalism that falls into neither trap.

    As for Eck, I think you’ve missed a religious ghost. Her tone is true to her faith tradition. Isn’t that sort of very polite self-deprecation a classic mainline move? Do you make the same critiique of Hirsi Ali, who has sharp words only for her own tradition?

  • Don Neuendorf

    Actually, Ms. Hirsi Ali is very critical of her *former* faith. She has not criticism of her new faith, atheism. In fact, she has been criticized in Europe for being too easy on Western culture.

  • http://postwatchblog.com Christopher Fotos

    But it was from this cadre of believers that more prominent American Muslim groups, such as the Nation of Islam, arose in the 1930s.

    The relationship between Islam and The Nation of Islam is extremely tenuous. Depending on what year you’re looking at, it can be essentially counter-factual to describe the Nation of Islam as an “American Muslim Group.” Original teachings dating back to Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad (and by original we’re talking 1930′s) include the creation of the “white devil” race by an evil scientist, Yakub. NOI can be understood as a black-power movement that took on some of the trappings of Islam but, and I say this simply in a descriptive way, with bizarre and deeply non-Islamic core teachings. It eventually dissolved under the leadership of Wallace Muhammad (son of Elijah Muhammad) in the 1970s after moving toward traditional Islamic teaching, but was revived in its original form by Louis Farrakhan.

  • http://jivanta-dharmashaiva.blogspot.com/ NewTrollObserver

    I have one minor criticism of an otherwise insightful article:

    Imam Talib and other black Muslims trace their American roots to the arrival of Muslims from West Africa as slaves in the South. That historical link gave rise to Islam-inspired movements in the 20th century, the most significant of which was the Nation of Islam.

    The sentences imply that there is a direct, historical connection between a few slaves who continued to practice Islam, and the Nation of Islam; whereas there is no evidence of a genetic linkage. I’m sure some Blacks of the 1910s and 1920s knew that a few slaves continued to be Muslim, but there is no indication of freed slaves practicing Islam who then transmitted their practice to the proto-Nation of Islam.

  • Dennis Colby

    I thought the Times article was absolutely terrific, and a fine example of insightful journalism. Too often, we like to refer to Muslims, Christians, etc. as monolithic groups, and articles like this show why that’s impossible.

    That said, I would have liked to learn a little more about the theological differences between native and immigrant Muslims. A lot of African-American Muslims seem to have roots in the Nation of Islam, which was pretty much heretical by Sunni standards until the 1970s, when the group split.

  • http://www.geocities.com/frgregacca/stfel.html Fr. Greg

    I heard report concerning the fire on NPR. No mention of polygyny.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    Don — I referred to Hirsi Ali’s “tradition,” not her “faith.” Faith is a particularly Christian word, and in its contemporary usage, one might argue (one smarter than me, that is), particularly Protestant in its emphasis on personal experience and knowledge of the divine as THE defining characteristic of religion.

    As for Hirsi Ali’s atheism — it has, recently, tipped into an uninformed crush on Christianity, which in public addresses (including here at NYU, where I am), she has come to conflate with all things good in the world — democracy, freedom, puppies — while Islam is responsible for all evil in the world. Hirsi Ali makes Hulk Hogan sound like a thoughtful debater.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Jeff – Perhaps I misunderstood because you referred to Eck’s “faith tradition” and to Hirsi Ali’s “tradition.” On the other hand, I find it hard to discern much of a difference between the two. I haven’t noticed a generally agreed upon convention for their usage. If anything, tradition would be much broader, more cultural. And yet Hirsi Ali has not only abandoned Islam, but also Islamic (or Arabic if you wish) culture in favor of the “western tradition,” of which she is, as I said, quite uncritical.

    I haven’t seen any reason to impune Hirsi Ali’s intellect. She was evidently considered thoughtful enough to be elected a member of parliament.

    Back to the proper subject for this comment space, I don’t find it particularly helpful for journalists to make nice and attempt to avoid sensitive issues. If Eck is from a “mainstream faith tradition” that indulges in “polite self-deprecation” then she should learn to do a little polite questioning of other “traditions” as well. Christianity is fair game for such questions, asked respectfully, as other faiths should be as well.

  • http://postwatchblog.com Christopher Fotos

    Islamist thugs want to murder Ayaan Hirsi Ali for expressing opposition to Islam as she has experienced it. That experience includes a knife stuck into the expiring body of her friend Theo van Gogh, affixing a letter that threatened Hirsi Ali and other infidels with murder.

    She’s lots of things. Unthoughtful ain’t one of them.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I don’t mind Eck’s self-criticism at all. I just would have liked a more balanced approach to the other groups she covers. I’m just very suspect of people who are cheerful all the time. I never quite thought we were getting the full story with her positive stories about EVERYBODY.

    I think you can have a bit of criticism in there and still have an excellent and positive book. I really did appreciate her treatment of these various groups (although more substance and fewer anecdotes would have been fine, too). But some thoughtful analysis about possible points of contention with American legal, social or political systems would have been welcome.

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  • http://www.freemakkah.com Free Makkah

    To Save Islam from extremism, we Muslims must recapture Makkah and Medina from the extremists and put them in the hands of a democratic body of 51 Ulemmas chosen by all 51 Islamic countries. Then and only then Islam will be reformed and moderated.
    Please check our new web site http://www.freemakkah.com . We welcome your comments and a link..

  • http://nickdupree.blogspot.com Nick Dupree

    To learn about the theological differences between the Nation of Islam and Sunnis (and why they often don’t regard them as real Muslims) check out the well-done treatment of the issue here.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    It would be interesting to look at how the government deals with immigrants in polygynous marriages. Although I am not an American, and have practically zero knowledge of American law, I would suggest it’s probably not illegal to married to two women, it’s just illegal to try and register both those marriages. For example, as a Muslim I only need an offer from one party, an acceptance from the other party and two adult witnesses for a marriage to be legal from an Islamic perspective. So I would consider myself married Islamically. Applying state marriage laws (signing legal documents, having the marriage recognised legally according to the state) is a whole different thing.

    As for immigrants, my understanding is that some Western governments turn a quiet blind eye.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    Oh, and on the topic of faith versus tradition. In Islamic terminology, there are a number of different words to describe religion, faith and belief. The equivalent to “faith” in terms of ‘personal experience and knowledge of the divine’ – the word for this is “iman” which is considered to be a higher state of religious faith and belief than “islam” that refers to the basic religious belief and practice.

  • http://jivanta-dharmashaiva.blogspot.com/ NewTrollObserver

    #13 Umm Yasmin,

    Interesting point. Many Americans already practice polygamy of one sort or another — but they just don’t base such polygamy upon religious tradition. Such ‘polygamy’ is, of course, legal (if not widely respected) in America. I suspect the Islamic polygyny of the sort you mentioned would likewise not violate any American laws.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    I find it interesting that you say you like Eck’s book yet criticize Eck’s book as “unnecessarily pluralistic,” when that was in fact the very point of her book. With regard to the historical examination of imported African Islam compared to the development of indigenous American Islam via the Ahmadiyya movement and other influences, your piece here makes some good points, but could also benefit from examining Sherman Jackson’s “Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection.”

  • Abdul Q. Shahid

    I have been living in this country since 1987 and am happy that people of America are finally interested in Islam. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Islam is not being examined thoroughly from its core. I hate writing but felt compelled to write as it is a dear topic to me. I am not of the opinion that Islam or any religion for that meter is forcible. Religion is a compulsion of ones heart. Every religion that came the prophets never forced them on people so is the case with Islam. Islam states that it is a comprehensive religion and can answer all of the issues of life through its teachings and fulfills this claim through its teachings. It shows tolerance at one extreme while gives
    freedom to exercise self protection on the other hand even if it requires picking up arms [isn’t that what we practice in America and other civilized societies}. In other words it gives you a range of teachings and requires that you be well versed with its teachings before choosing your moderate life style in accordance to the needs of life. I am using only one example here but the range is limitless and covers the needs in range of time and time. It did so over first few centuries where Islam was presented to the people in its entirety by those who knew it well. People who converted by seeing its beauty understood it in that manner as well. As the time passed and people mixed the practices of local customs and religions the distance between practiced Islam grew further in its essence. So much so that people have chosen the extreme versions due to their surface knowledge
    of this comprehensive teaching. As no law in our judicial system can be understood and exercised in its true essence so is the case with Islam. So called Mullahs of time are doing exactly that preaching extreme versions as the only choice of religion and the ignorant followers have the book
    sitting on shelves collecting dust. Unless the people of time understand the religion in its completeness, the very
    followers of this beautiful philosophical teaching, are disgracing it themselves and when the western media examines these haphaser interpertatio

  • Abdul Q. Shahid

    haphazard interpretations against the standards of society, no doubt finds weaknesses. Here to blame are the Muslims not the media although they could present the versions practiced by a few who do practice the moderate version of Islam and claim to be the reformed Muslims of the time. Since they do not create the sensation needed for a good story to be sold to the public
    they are ignored. As mentioned in an earlier comment presented by free Mekkah the need to reform Islam is presented this issue was addressed by the Prophet of Islam and that reformed organization is presenting the reformed version of Islam to the people who need it but unfortunately is rejected and thrown out of the fold of Islam as foretold by the Prophet of Islam and that is Ahmadiyya community in Islam. You may visit the website alislam.org where Islams teachings are presented.
    Now let me make very simple statement which is the core teaching of Islam “it is a religion of peace and tolerance which accepts all monotheistic religions as being from God and allows no compulsion even to the very sons and daughters of Muslims if in their adulthood they want to renounce it.”

    Love For All, Hatred For None

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    Just to set the record straight: I wasn’t defending Eck, being nice, good manners, or the lack of criticism. At all. My point was that Get Religion is rightly peeved when the press doesn’t get the religion of its subjects, but that seems to be the case w/ Eck — hers is the religion that brought us pluralism as some kind of harmonious experience. I’m not just a little critical of that, I think it’s just plain wrong. But that doesn’t mean that I insist that Eck embrace values not her own, any more than I’d demand that Doug LeBlanc develop a more critical attitude toward evangelicalism.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Jeff, if you think I’m uncritical toward evangelicalism, you really ought to speak with some of my fellow evangelical Episcopalians.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Of course, immigrants with multiple wives are not the only instance where civil and religious definitions conflict. Another which has attracted attention is that of Jewish women who are “divorced” in the eyes of the law, but are still considered “married” Jewishly because the husband has not signed a get — or indeed, vice versa.