Beyond Rhetoric: A Future for Islam in American Thought

According to this admittedly rough calculation, being American means you are five times more likely to be a violent criminal than a Muslim is of being a terrorist. I am certainly not a statistician, but I feel that we in the United States need to realize that on a global level there is no link between being Muslim and being a terrorist. If there were, then the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide would be engaged in acts of violence or mayhem instead of farming, transacting business, and raising families like their fellow men.

Complaint: "Muslims want to spread the Shariah in America."  -- Much of the controversy surrounding the Cordoba initiative involves Imam Faisal Abd al-Rauf's supposed desire to bring Islamic law to the United States. The first fact that should ease such a fear is that Muslims themselves cannot agree on what the Shariah actually is! Do Muslim women have to wear headscarves or not? Are interest-bearing transactions prohibited or not? Any group of Muslim jurists will disagree on these questions and others like them, so congregating to pass some U.S.-wide Shariah package would be nothing short of a miracle.

Second, when I read about this fear of "Shariah-fying" America, I wonder how such a take-over would ever occur? Would some band of Muslim radicals take over the Capitol by force, then make Congress pass a law at gunpoint mandating Islamic law for the whole nation? That seems unlikely and, more importantly, invalid. What if Muslims integrated themselves into American society, were elected to Congress, and ultimately achieved a majority in the House and Senate (how un-American!) . . . and then they passed the Shariah into law? If that were the case, then the U.S. would already be a Muslim majority country, and the whole parameters of this debate would have changed. That's a risk we run in a democracy.

Third, even if Muslims were to try to pass some Shariah ordinance such as a prohibition on alcohol, would this be any more "un-American" than passing the Eighteenth Amendment, banning the sale and consumption of alcohol, into law was in 1920?

Apart from such unlikely scenarios, Muslim Americans live by and uphold the laws of the United States on a daily basis. Muslims who get married in the mosque must first provide a marriage certificate from their respective state registry, and divorce is conducted according to state law and not the Shariah. Even if a Muslim couple wanted to enter arbitration to dissolve their marriage and divide their assets according to Shariah norms, would this totally voluntary act be any less acceptable than a non-Muslim couple entering arbitration?

I am stupefied that public voices in the United States believe that the religion of 1.3 billion people worldwide is somehow perverted or violent despite the fact that the vast, overwhelming, undeniable majority of those people live normal lives like the rest of mankind. I am bewildered by the palpable fear that Muslim Americans are going to "Shariah-fy" the United States when the only way this could ever conceivably happen is through the very democratic process that Americans hold so dear.

Beliefs that Islam or Muslims are the problem are so far from reality and so clearly driven by a mixture of fear, xenophobia, and racism that I am left much more worried about the future of America than the future of Islam. Muslims worldwide, whether a doctor in California or a farmer in Bangladesh, continue to derive a variety of meanings from their faith even as they struggle with the same tensions over Tradition-and-Modernity, Reason-and-Revelation, Religion-vs.-Culture that task the minds of all people of faith. The Cordoba initiative is an attempt by of a group of mainstream Muslim Americans to establish themselves as part of a diverse, religiously tolerant, and ultimately united America, just as religious and national groups from Jews to the Irish have done in the past. The question is: will the mainstream of America accept them?


Jonathan AC Brown is Assistant Professor of Islam and Muslim Christian Relations in Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Dr. Brown has studied and conducted research in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, and Iran, and he is member of the Council of Foreign Relations. His book publications include The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon (Brill, 2007), Hadith: Muhammad's Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oneworld, 2009), and Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). He has published articles in the fields of Hadith, Islamic law, Sufism, Arabic lexical theory, and Pre-Islamic poetry and is the editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic Law. Dr. Brown's current research interests include the history of forgery and historical criticism in Islamic civilization, comparison with the Western tradition, and modern conflicts between Late Sunni Traditionalism and Salafism in Islamic thought.

8/16/2010 4:00:00 AM
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