Muslim Milieu: Then and Now

June 7, 2007 by  


By Roze Kadri

I recently came across an announcement for Dawah packages: available marketing material that helps increase the efficacy and rate of conversion to Islam. I welcome and encourage conversion, as we all should, and realize that conversion is a reality of living and being in this country. Nonetheless, our future depends on retaining Muslims, both who are born to Muslim parents and those who embraced Islam as adults and then themselves have children. In other words, our future depends on the children of all Muslims. I, therefore, put to you the idea of a Retention Package that can by applied to converts and children alike.

We should not think that once a convert “signs on” we, as an Ummah, have completed our mission. Our ability to successfully work with converts is not dissimilar to and is a measure of how well we will deal with our own children. A second or third generation Muslim presents with almost the same issues as a convert to Islam does.

So many Muslim groups and publications proudly tout our number strength in America- ranging in number from 4 – 6 million. This number does not reflect Muslim growth as much as it reflects Muslim immigration to America. Large numbers of Muslims immigrated to the US especially from the 1900’s on. Where are their descendents? The high conversion reversion rate combined with the low Muslim retention rate underscores the need and importance of working harder to retain our people. Our surrounding American society does not provide directional support for young Muslims (be they converts or children); therefore, we must.

My views come from a historically relevant context because my Islamic consciousness goes back four generations. The following story epitomizes of the state of Muslims in America. My grandmother’s uncle was educated in a Damascus university where he studied religion (Islam). By all accounts, he was a wonderful, intelligent, Islamically motivated man. He emigrated to North Dakota and was an Imam and married an Arab Muslim woman from the area.

In addition to being a farmer, he served as the Imam for the “local” community. Sadly, his efforts resulted in all six of his children marrying out of Islam and converting to the religion of their spouses. Even though the first masjid in America was established in North Dakota in the early 1900’s, the Muslim communities living there were not large enough to maintain and sustain themselves. Those families that did not move away to areas with larger Muslim populations (like mine did) lost their religious identity. All that remains of that first masjid in America is the door, which is on display as an artifact at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn!

American Muslim generations prior to our own (most of which were ethnically Arab) were a psychologically healthier, happier group and did not suffer from the culture shock that new Muslim immigrants to America feel. Earlier American culture and social norms were more conservative and less divergent with Muslim values: issues involving social conduct, attire, and sexuality were more uniform and morally based than they are today. Additionally, Islam was not so politically involved or popularly disputed as it is today. Although not much was known about Islam in everyday society decades ago, whatever was known was not frightening or threatening to mainstream America.

The other reason for the heightened culture shock of the newly immigrated may be the variation that exists among practicing American Muslims with respect to their religious positions and observances. Suddenly, adherents feel that the “right” way is being attacked not from without but from within. There seems to be an intransigent polarity amongst our people and that instead of embracing the variety, many choose to cling to extreme positions that do not serve us well (Quran prescription for moderation 4:17). Orthodox Islam recognized and respected the variant positions without debunking one for another. Variance is lately being inappropriately equated with deviance. The Prophet (s) considered such a variance in his Ummah to be a source of strength (Hadith).

Islam is a universal religion meaning that it can easily exist in America. Even though I consider the East to be the heart of Islam, maintaining with tenacity a displaced culture will effectively disenfranchise us and render us vulnerable to attack and discrimination.

Lest we think of ourselves as immune from situations involving a loss of faith that the earlier generations faced, the following comparisons are made between the older Muslim generations and our own. Our own current situation may improve by examining them.

Similarities:

a.. Although our knowledge of Islam is improving, the community’s overall knowledge of Islam is weaker than it should be. We need to broaden and deepen that knowledge base both inside and beyond the American Muslim community.
b.. The people that came before our time were as proud of their Islamic heritage as we are and did much to preserve it but the communities were small in comparison with the surrounding larger community.
c.. A third similarity is that previous generations had trouble connecting with their youth and difficulty transmitting an Islamic identity to them. Those communities with more Muslims had a higher retention rate; those communities that had isolated Muslim families had a lower retention rate. Our present retention rate is probably higher because of the greater presence of Muslims in our society and the existence of Islamic institutions (more masajid, Islamic schools, Islamic organizations, etc.), a variety of communication means (Internet, telephones), and an ease of travel. Nevertheless, our failure to retain our people must be addressed and remedied. We must be ever vigilant of the situations and circumstances that our children find themselves in and the actions and choices that they make. We have no fear of losing our own Islamic identity, but there exists a very real and historically proven danger that our children’s Islamic disposition will be diluted with each successive generation.

Differences:

a.. Our Muslim numbers are much greater overall than previous generations enjoyed. These numbers provide us with an Islamic safety net.
b.. Previous generations were more complacent about their situations – we are not. Recent Muslims have a stronger sense of urgency regarding our societal situation. We are very cognizant of the relevant realities and the pressures we all are under.
c.. There is now more hypocrisy in terms of our actions and positions than existed in previous generations. Hypocrisy is our biggest failing; the onus is on us to walk the talk. If it is not attended to and remedied, hypocrisy will be our undoing.
The importance of working to retain Muslims is that Islam and Islamic practice will make our lives easier in this world and in the hereafter. (see Quran 4:134, 47:2, and 49:17) Secondly, we are responsible for teaching Allah’s (swt) laws to our children and we will be held accountable for such instruction. Our young Muslims are troubled and seek to block out their complicated identity. Understanding Islam and knowing is laws and injunctions (what to do and when to do it) will ameliorate their confusion. Lastly, so much of our religion is based on social interactions: zakat, prayer, neighborly actions, laws of inheritance, etc. We cannot adequately perform our Islamic duties in a vacuum without an Islamic societal presence.

The following suggestions could constitute a Muslim Retention Program:

a.. Inculcate an Islamic ethos in all developing Muslims.
b.. Teach and learn Islam and the lessons of our Islamic heritage and Islamic history at an early time and continually reinforce those lessons throughout a person’s life. Religious observance and religious knowledge are not hereditary- they must be taught.
c.. Encourage involvement in healthy and supportive outlets (sports, music, service groups).
d.. Involve youth in mixed age gatherings, governing boards, etc.
e.. Involve adults in traditional youth activities (sports venues, etc.).
f.. Become active in shaping society (political, educational, social, etc.).
g.. Establish a support group of like-minded people for developing Muslims and their spouses.
h.. Increase the number of Imams and their real knowledge in terms of Islam, its history, and their communication skills.
i.. Be sincere in our faith and actions – evaluate all actions and cleanse ourselves of hypocrisy.
j.. Build a masjid on every corner.

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