Returning after his most recent visit to the United States of America, IMAM DR ABDUL RASHIED OMAR reflects on how the Muslim community in that country has developed over more than two decades that he has been travelling to the US for educational and teaching purposes.
I was present in the US during the attacks on the New York twin towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. I have also personally witnessed the negative repercussions that Islam and Muslims suffered in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Notwithstanding this difficult period, in the immediate aftermath of what has come to be known as the 9/11 attacks, just over 20 years later, and against all odds, I can confidently testify that Islam and Muslims are not only growing but are currently thriving in America. An official Pew Research estimate reveals that roughly the number of Muslims living in the US has doubled from roughly two million in the year 2001 to roughly four million in 2023. Concurrently the number of masajid in America has increased from 1 2009 in the year 2000 to 2 769 in 2020.
My own experience indicates that this significant growth of Muslims in America is not merely a positive statistic but represents an even more vibrant reality in practice. To give you an example, during my university’s Spring Break in mid-March 2023 my wife, Leila, and I decided to travel for the jumuah service to one of the biggest masjids in Chicago, the Mecca Islamic Center.
The Mecca Islamic Center is about the same size as Masjidul Quds in Gatesville, Cape Town but in order to accommodate the large numbers of congregants for jumuah, it convenes two jumuah services, one hour apart. Both of these jumuah services are packed to capacity. The Mecca Center also convenes a robust Islamic educational programme for children and adults (See here: https://meccacenter.org/).
Yet another example of the vibrancy of American Muslims is that in the small rural university town of South Bend, Indiana where I teach. During Ramadan the local Islamic Center of Michiana catered for up to 200 iftar meals every night and on weekends the numbers were up to 500. Interestingly, to accommodate the diverse cultures, the Michiana Islamic Center catered for Arab cuisine on Friday evenings, South Asian cuisine on Saturdays and Bosnian cuisine on Sundays. Curiously, however, every evening the Islamic centre also had to provide pizzas for iftar since this was the favourite cuisine of all of the children who were born in America, no matter where in the world their parents may have immigrated from. The daily iftar meals were served in a huge basketball court hall that was located adjacent to the masjid. Pizza’s for iftar and basketball court halls adjacent to masajid are symbols of what one of the many influential US-based Islamic scholars, Shaikh Omar Faruq Abdullah, calls an American cultural expression of Islam.
Muslims in the midst of the American culture war
Ironically, while Muslims are slowly beginning to forge an American cultural expression of Islam, the broader American society is embroiled in a bitter culture war for defining mainstream American values. At the centre of this culture war are debates such as whether ordinary American citizens should have the right to own an assault gun, and whether a woman who has been raped has the right to have an abortion. This culture war for the soul of American society, together with the daily CNN and other media propaganda clamouring to support the Ukrainians with more arms in order to defeat the Russians, has led to the so-called threat of Islamic terror to being relegated to low down on the American agenda.
The American culture war and the Russian-Ukraine War have presented an ironic but welcome relief for the burgeoning Muslim community in America. While there are still many challenges and problems facing Islam and Muslims in America, I can confidently attest that on the whole the growth and development of Muslims during the past two decades in the US is positive and encouraging.
Challenges facing Muslims in America
Notwithstanding the tremendous growth and flourishing of Islam in America, a number of significant challenges and problems remain. Chief among these is the tendency for some influential sections of the American Muslim leadership to seek self-aggrandisement and to ensconce themselves within the mainstream power centres in America. This proclivity among some American Muslim leaders and institutions does not bode well for the critical role of Islam and Muslims in witnessing to justice and displaying solidarity with marginalised communities.
For example, while African Americans constitute close to one third of the total number of Muslims in America and have the longest history of any other Muslim community, they continue to remain marginalised within mainstream American Muslim culture. This indeed is a major challenge facing Muslims in America. They need to do more to reach out to especially marginalised communities, such as African Americans and Native Americans in justice and solidarity initiatives. American Muslims need to forge strategic alliances with progressive civil society organisations to constrain the imperialistic US foreign policy and to unapologetically call for US political leaders who are guilty of crimes against humanity to held accountable by the international criminal court.
Reassuringly, some American Muslim Leaders and Institutions are courageously taking up the challenge of speaking truth to power. The online news outlet, Electronic Intifada, based in Chicago is an excellent example of this inclination. Furthermore, on May 10, 2023, the first ever Muslim woman representative in the US Congress, Rashida Tlaib, commemorated the 75th year of the Palestinian Nakba in a US Senate committee room. The House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, failed in his attempt to stop the event from taking place and the commemoration ignited a bitter and abusive response among the pro-Zionist mainstream American political leadership and media, including CNN.
The key lessons from my portrayal of the growth and flourishing of Islam and Muslims in the United States of America is a counterintuitive one. Islam and Muslims are not only resilient in the face of difficulties but such challenges and difficult tests (ibtila’) often bring out the best in Muslims. This is not to glorify or romanticise suffering, difficulties and poverty but rather to embrace both the test of difficulty, as well as the test of comfort and ease, as both essential dimensions of the human predicament.
It is instructive to note, however, that our exemplar and guide, Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) proclaimed in an authentic hadith tradition recorded in the collections of both Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim that he did not fear the test (ibtila’ ) of poverty or difficulty for his ummah as much as he feared the test (ibtila’) of wealth, ease and comfort because he was apprehensive that the latter would render his ummah complacent and self-righteous.
The above is a critical lesson that we as South African Muslims know too well from our own early history of slavery and the banning of the practice of Islam in public for the first one hundred and fifty years of Islam at the Cape. It is a critical lesson that all Muslim communities need to embrace.
May Allah grant us all sabr (resilience and perseverance) during times of difficulty and an even greater amount of shukr (gratitude and thanksgiving) during times of comfort and ease.
May Allah bless the Muslims of America to continue their remarkable growth and guide them in fashioning a positive American cultural expression of Islam and rendering them as a shining beacon for all other communities.
- Imam Dr Abdul Rashied Omar is Associate Teaching Professor of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and Imam at Main Road Masjid, Claremont, Cape Town.