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Home > Islam > Brief Essay > Full Story


Circle of devotion: Students and Islam in the US.

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“Avoid any religious organizations. They are full of fundamentalists. Nothing but trouble” With this advice, my father sent me to the US from France. His words made sense to me. I had spent my adolescent years in a school where the discussion of any religion, let alone Islam, was forbidden. The French are extremists when it comes to the separation of church and state – secularism or as they call it, laicite. My parents prayed five (or six, counting the optional night prayer, tahajjud) times a day, read the Quran every day, and fasted during Ramadan. They had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca twice. Yet, not in stark contrast to other Bengali Muslims, they did not believe in making religion, a personal affair, public. I listened to my father’s words and smiled. I was going to an elite boarding school in the middle of nowhere in Massachusetts. I was sure there wouldn’t be any Muslims there. I told him not to worry. I had other more important things to think and worry about: my studies and making friends, fitting in. Religion was not really on my mind.
Five years have passed since I arrived in the US. I have learnt words and concepts such as hijab (head-scarf), ijtihad (interpretation through reasoning); I have studied Muslim scholars such as Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Iqbal. I have gone to mosques, attended Islamic lectures and conferences, browsed Islamic web-sites, bought books on Islam.

I know of the existence of thousands of other Muslim students in the US who do the very same things I have done as though we were all programmed clones of one another. I also know of the existence of millions of Muslim students in Muslim countries who, like me at the age of sixteen, found Islam irrelevent to daily life, dry and boring. In the US, the glossy covers of Muslim publications, fashionably-dressed speakers at lectures and conferences, websites and books emphasizing the use of reason and logic fail to affirm the common Bengali concept of public religion, often reduced to the image of the scraggly-bearded, unkempt, fatwa-splurging mullah. While students who generally cannot find jobs elsewhere engage in religious activity as a last resort back home, it is students from the finest American institutions who are among the most active in learning and informing others about Islam.
The US provides students with the independence and tools necessary to embark on a journey to discover a latent part of their identity. Rather than being bullied into praying by parents and religious teachers or dissuaded from learning about Islam by secularist parents, students in the US have to make decisions on their own. In many ways, the experience of those Muslims who discover and whole-heartedly espouse Islam in the US resembles the experience of converts to Islam: both make conscious decisions to learn about and accept Islam; they find themselves in new communities with as many difficulties as pleasures; they identify and define new goals and missions for themselves. Islam condemns those who blindly follow in the foot-steps of their foreparents. Students who choose to invest time and energy into their study of Islam step out of the sleep-walking and blind following that many associate with Islam. Such conscious decision-making stresses the importance of reason, logic, and knowledge of history to reaffirm Islamic identity.
There are many Islamic organizations, from think-tanks to charities to political groups. Thousands of Muslims flock to the many annual conferences held in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, NYC, and other cities. The Nation of Islam, which most Muslims consider un-Islamic, is also still very active. Lectures on Sufi practices tend to draw crowds larger than those for Eid dinners.

Muslim Student Associations are more or less active in most colleges and universities. Most schools extend their financial and administrative support to MSAs. Friday prayers, guest lectures, eid dinners, informational workshops, and fundraisers for Muslim charities are common. At my college, most Bengali students are actively involved in the MSA. The college is very supportive of Muslim students and considers them an asset. We have a female Muslim advisor, Friday prayers, halal (Islamically-lawful) meals, student-organized guest lectures, as well as collaborative events (lectures, Eid dinners) with nearby colleges. Although the MSA generally acts as more of a cultural than a religious group, it provides Muslim students with a voice. As students come from all over the world, they represent many different points-of-view; we have intense and fruitful debates on the status of women, politics, activism, and other Islam-related issues. We also invite speakers with different opinions.

American Muslims, whether second-generation Asians, African-Americans, Hispanic, Latino, or white, are among the most vocal when it comes to Muslim rights and Islamic teachings. They represent a whole range of views. A well-known convert, a white former bra-burning feminist, speaks at gatherings on the logic she sees in hijab and polygamy. One notable Hispanic convert is a staunch proponent of polygamy while Amina Wadud, an eloquent African-American convert, has spent years reinterpreting Quranic verses in an egalitarian light. The spectrum of different ideas that we can see in any Muslim community in the US attests to the diversity inherent in Islam. There is no one Islamic opinion on any given matter.
In my point-of-view, the glamor and sensationalism of Islam on college campuses and organizations can, however, make us misplace priorities. Many Muslims concentrate so much on the crusade to disprove stereotypes and clear up the repuatation of Islam in the media that we forget to look at our communities and the real social ills that haunt them. In the rhetoric-heavy battle, I have read statements such as “domestic violence does not occur in Muslim communities,” “talking about sexual abuse in Muslim communities will only give Islam a bad name” and so forth. Important issues are swept under a carpet adorned with cliches such as “Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.” We all know or should know that Islam is not responsible for domestic violence or sexual abuse; this does not take long to prove. In our attempts to prove Islam as innocent, however, we assume a defensiveness that often prevents us from using Islam as a solution to such problems.

Stereotypes have certainly taken the lives of Muslims as in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing; yet, there are problems within the Muslim community that stifle lives and happiness on a day to day basis. Fighting stereotypes is important, but so is fighting un-Islamic social ills. To be fair, the number of social services run by Muslims for Muslims is increasing in the US. The Islamic-American Zakat Foundation, for example, makes helping African-American women whose so-called Muslim husbands abandoned them a priority. While it acknowledges that conversion is a happy experience for most people, it identifies and seeks to Islamically correct the problems that can arise – certainly not because of Islam but because of Muslims who fail to live by Islam. When dealing with non-Muslims, we certainly should work on dispelling stereotypes; within the Muslim community, however, we should also try to initiate change where necessary in accordance with Islam.

Aside from the heavy emphasis on fighting stereotypes at the expense of social change, a certain self-righteousness envelops some students. While Islam emphasizes humility, such individuals feel or at least act judgemental toward less overtly-religious parents or people who do not for example conform to some standard of modest dress. Women who cover their hair often look down upon their non-muhajjiba mothers or friends even though respect for others and tolerance are tenets of Islam.
Another problem is anti-Americanism. While most American and immigrant Muslim leaders are very appreciative of the freedom to live Islam in the US as one wishes, some still resort to excessive anti-American rhetoric to stir up audiences. There is no doubt that the US’s foreign and domestic policy leaves much to be desired when it comes to the treatment of Muslims; still, the US has also given people who were born Muslim the opportunity to learn and appreciate Islam and others the opportunity to choose Islam as their faith of choice. My American friends have often been far more supportive of my interest in Islam and related topics than many Bengali family friends and relatives.
Worse than anti-Americanism, in my view, however is the tendency to condemn and criticize all that is culturally Bengali in the name of Islam. While millions of people in Bangladesh practice both Islam and patriotism, some “born-again” Muslims feel as if they must renounce their national heritage. They are simply confusing patriotism with the nationalism that many scholars condemn because of the divisiveness it can cause between Muslim countries.
One thing many of my friends complain about is the apparent absence of God in all the activities and studies. So great is the emphasis on reason in the name of Islam, that little time is left for people to try to sense and remember God. This may be why Sufism provides a refreshing alternative to many students who once viewed Sufism negatively.

I now have a great deal of respect for my parents’ Islam – an Islam that leaves no room for ostentation, an Islam that is authentic because it comes from the heart, an Islam that is not an excuse for socializing. Proofs of Islam’s scientific accuracy, its emancipation of women, its commitment to egalitarianism are at once of paramount and minimal importance. Education on women’s rights in Islam may help mitigate female genital mutilation, unchecked polygamy and repudiation, the prevalence of dowry, female illiteracy and so forth. Of a different type When it comes to submitting to God, that is Islam, only my mother’s night-long prayers stand firmly in my mind. While I demanded proof that God treats men and women equally, my mother unconditionally surrendered herself to God and found everything else irrelevant.


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