March 20, 2012


American Islam (Scott Korb, 3/18/12, The Chronicle Review)

Here's what I know. These three men, all converts, appeal to young American Muslims. They appeal, in large part, because they were born and raised in this country and have a vision for Islam that is unmistakably American. Though they've all spent time studying in Muslim-majority countries--Imam Zaid and Sheik Hamza were away for years--their focus remains on building a Muslim community that looks and feels, in every way possible, American. They are not alone, of course, and they do not always agree, but they have been in the vanguard over the last 15 years, at least; their students are just now growing into leadership roles of their own, compelled by the notion that the religion must adapt, within the norms of the tradition, to the culture of the lands where Islam has moved over the centuries.

Committed to building things up and not tearing things down, Siraj Wahhaj, throughout the 1980s, revitalized his little corner of the world--the dangerous corner of Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn--through the efforts of his community at Masjid At-Taqwa, or the Mosque of God-Consciousness. When last December he celebrated the 30th anniversary of the masjid and raised funds to build a state-of-the-art community center in Brooklyn, including space for a school to serve hundreds of local kids, he invited not just Imam Zaid and Sheik Hamza but also called on the Brooklyn native, Muslim emcee and film star Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, to offer his reflections on the neighborhood before the imam brought it back to life.

It's true, of the three Muslim leaders named in the NYPD report, Imam Siraj remains the least comfortable with modern American life, and especially modern American policing. According to the NYU adjunct law professor Paul M. Barrett, who writes about Imam Siraj in his book American Islam (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), he's most inclined to think of law-enforcement allegations against Muslims as "evidence of a government conspiracy," not one among the Muslims. My own interactions with Imam Siraj suggest he's eased up in recent years. It's also worth noting that his effort to clean up the crack houses of Bed-Stuy was met with high praise by the NYPD. The Brooklyn borough president honored the imam with an official Siraj Wahhaj Day on August 15, 2003.

As his own community in Brooklyn has grown, Siraj Wahhaj has become a national figure. He served for a time as vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, currently leads the Muslim Alliance in North America, and lectures and preaches around the country, usually on matters of special concern to inner-city communities. "Islam came," he has said, "to deal with the inequalities in the neighborhood." Moving seamlessly from English to Arabic and back, he brings Islamic ideas of justice, for instance, to bear on chronic unemployment among African-Americans, and in a recent speech, located within Islam the roots of black pride and self-love, bringing together two passages from the Koran: "It was Allah who created you in the womb--as He pleased." His gloss: "So if Allah was pleased to make me a black man, I was happy to be a black man."

Imam Zaid, who like Imam Siraj is African-American and who also has roots in poor, urban neighborhoods, has been likened to his hero Malcolm X. Born Ricky Mitchell in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in housing projects from Georgia to Connecticut, Imam Zaid, with Sheik Hamza, went on to found Zaytuna College, the nation's first four-year Muslim liberal-arts institution.

Embodying an American story if ever there was one--including proverbial bootstraps, military service, political activism, and deep religious commitment--Zaid Shakir draws young Muslims to himself because his message of social justice in the face of poverty and racism he has known first hand makes him endlessly and, it often seems, effortlessly relevant. He is as approachable a man as I've ever met; tall and somewhat too lean--he fasts one day per week--he's all wingspan when embracing his followers at the mosque. To them he says, "Islam is calling us to be bigger than what the world has made us." And they see in him--whether in his tirelessness, his intelligence, or his fire--a model.

His students call him Superman. When I first heard him preach in Oakland, not far from the new college in Berkeley, he faced what he called a "humble gathering ... representing 30 or 40 different ethnicities and national origin." To them he issued the charge: "We have to raise our voices, we have to present our example, and we have to institutionalize our example. We have to develop institutions that reflect our diversity. We have to develop institutions that bring all of this potential power ... of these people, coming with all of their collective experience, all of their collective spiritual and emotional energy, all of their collective histories ... and say, 'This is how we can live in this country.'"

Like Imam Siraj's Brooklyn mosque, Zaytuna College is one of those places where Muslims come together to learn how to live in this country. With a reputation for classical Islamic scholarship and community building dating back to 1996, when Sheik Hamza established the Zaytuna Institute and began his public life, the founders see the college in historic terms and as an essential part of the nation's religious fabric. Speakers at Zaytuna's inaugural convocation in August 2010 included Virginia Gray Henry, a descendent of Patrick Henry; the keynote speaker was the Jesuit-trained president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the ethicist James A. Donahue. His address highlighted the work ahead for Zaytuna, as the school incorporates into its mission the value American democracy places on rights and liberties, pluralism, pragmatism, democratic justice, and creative novelty. "Zaytuna," he said, "is an academic institution--a college. It is not a mosque; it is not a community center; it is not a gathering space for religious rituals; it is not a cultural center--although elements of each of these will surely be part of Zaytuna. The challenge for Zaytuna will be to determine in what ways it will serve the Islamic tradition and how it can enable that tradition both to preserve and grow."

Sheik Hamza Yusuf, perhaps the most influential Muslim scholar in the country, praised Donahue for his remarks and drew connections between the challenges to founding Muslim institutions and the struggle Catholics faced to establish themselves in this country. 
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Posted by at March 20, 2012 6:30 AM

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