Michael Wolfe is the author of numerous of books of poetry, fiction, travel, and history, some of his works include "The Hajj" (1993), a first-person travel account, and “One Thousand Roads to Mecca" (1997), an anthology of 10 centuries of travellers writing about the Muslim pilgrimage. In April 1997, he hosted a televised account of the Hajj from Mecca for Ted Koppel's "Nightline". In 2002 he produced a two-hour documentary, "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," which won a 2004 Cine Award Special Jury Prize for best documentary and was aired around the world in a dozen languages on the National Geographic Channel. During the same year Wolfe helped produce "Taking Back Islam," a collection of articles by 40 Muslims responding to the 9/11 crisis. The collection won a 2003 Wilbur Award for best book of the year on a religious theme.
Islam: The Next American Religion?
by Michael Wolfe
The U.S. began as a haven for Christian outcasts. But what religion fits our current zeitgeist? The answer may be Islam.
Americans tend to think of their country as, at the very least, a nominally Christian nation. Didn't the Pilgrims come here for freedom to practice their Christian religion? Don't Christian values of righteousness under God, and freedom, reinforce America's democratic, capitalist ideals?
True enough. But there's a new religion on the block now, one that fits the current zeitgeist nicely. It's Islam.
Islam is the third-largest and fastest growing religious community in the United States. This is not just because of immigration. More than 50% of America's six million Muslims were born here. Statistics like these imply some basic agreement between core American values and the beliefs that Muslims hold. Americans who make the effort to look beyond popular stereotypes to learn the truth of Islam are surprised to find themselves on familiar ground. Is America a Muslim nation? Here are seven reasons the answer may be yes.
Islam is monotheistic. Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians. They also revere the same prophets as Judaism and Christianity, from Abraham, the first monotheist, to Moses, the law giver and messenger of God, to Jesus - not leaving out Noah, Job, or Isaiah along the way. The concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition only came to the fore in the 1940s in America. Now, as a nation, we may be transcending it, turning to a more inclusive "Abrahamic" view.
Islam is democratic in spirit. Islam advocates the right to vote, educate yourself and pursue a profession. The Qur'an, on which Islamic law is based, enjoins Muslims to govern themselves by discussion and consensus. In mosques, there is no particular priestly hierarchy. With Islam, each individual is responsible for the condition of her or his own soul. Everyone stands equal before God. Americans, who mostly associate Islamic government with a handful of tyrants, may find this independent spirit surprising, supposing that Muslims are somehow predisposed to passive submission. Nothing could be further from the truth. The dictators reigning today in the Middle East are not the result of Islamic principles. They are more a result of global economics and the aftermath of European colonialism.
Islam contains an attractive mystical tradition. Mysticism is grounded in the individual search for God. Where better to do that than in America, land of individualists and spiritual seekers? Surprising as it may seem, America's best-selling poet du jour is a Muslim mystic named Rumi, the 800-year-old Persian bard and founder of the Mevlevi Path, known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes.
Islam is egalitarian. From New York to California, the only houses of worship that are routinely integrated today are the approximately 4,000 Muslim mosques. That is because Islam is predicated on a level playing field, especially when it comes to standing before God. The Pledge of Allegiance (one nation, "under God") and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (all people are "created equal") express themes that are also basic to Islam.
Islam is often viewed as an aggressive faith because of the concept of jihad, but this is actually a misunderstood term. Because Muslims believe that God wants a just world, they tend to be activists, and they emphasize that people are equal before God. These are two reasons why African Americans have been drawn in such large numbers to Islam. They now comprise about one-third of all Muslims in America.
Meanwhile, this egalitarian streak also plays itself out in relations between the sexes. Muhammad, Islam's prophet, actually was a reformer in his day. Following the Qur'an, he limited the number of wives a man could have and strongly recommended against polygamy. The Qur'an laid out a set of marriage laws that guarantees married women their family names, their own possessions and capital, the right to agree upon whom they will marry, and the right to initiate divorce. In Islam's early period, women were professionals and property owners, as increasingly they are today. None of this may seem obvious to most Americans because of cultural overlays that at times make Islam appear to be a repressive faith toward women - but if you look more closely, you can see the egalitarian streak preserved in the Qur'an finding expression in contemporary terms. In today's Iran, for example, more women than men attend university, and in recent local elections there, 5,000 women ran for public office.
Islam shares America's new interest in food purity and diet. Muslims conduct a month long fast during the holy month of Ramadan, a practice that many Americans admire and even seek to emulate. Muslims also observe dietary laws that restrict the kind of meat they can eat. These laws require that the permitted, or halal, meat is prepared in a manner that emphasizes cleanliness and a humane treatment of animals. These laws ride on the same trends that have made organic foods so popular.
Islam is tolerant of other faiths. Like America, Islam has a history of respecting other religions. In Muhammad's day, Christians, Sabeans, and Jews in Muslim lands retained their own courts and enjoyed considerable autonomy. As Islam spread east toward India and China, it came to view Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism as valid paths to salvation. As Islam spread north and west, Judaism especially benefited. The return of the Jews to Jerusalem, after centuries as outcasts, only came about after Muslims took the city in 638. The first thing the Muslims did there was to rescue the Temple Mount, which by then had been turned into a garbage heap.
Islam encourages the pursuit of religious freedom. The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock is not the world's first story of religious emigration. Muhammad and his little band of 100 followers fled religious persecution, too, from Mecca in the year 622. They only survived by going to Madinah, an oasis a few hundred miles north, where they established a new community based on a religion they could only practice secretly back home. No wonder then that, in our own day, many Muslims have come here as pilgrims from oppression, leaving places like Kashmir, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where being a Muslim may radically shorten your life span. When the 20th century's list of emigrant exiles is added up, it will prove to be heavy with Muslims, that's for sure.
Who knows? Perhaps it won't be long now before words like salat (Muslim prayer) and Ramadan join karma and Nirvana in Webster's Dictionary, and Muslims take their place in America's mainstream.
(Beliefnet 2001/08/9) - edited