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Our Place in American History: The Need for Incorporation

By Dr. Abidullah Ghazi Published on June 2nd, 2000, Dr. Abidullah Ghazi reflects upon the state of Islam in America, making the case for a need for an Islamic education and its supporting Islamic curriculum to foster an American Muslim identity.

The history of a people is not only a record of its past but also a reflection on its present and a window to its future. Our role in human society is very often pre-determined by the historical forces that have shaped our particular society. The situation of a people at a particular stage of history and in a specific location is very much decided for them by their past heritage. Hence, each human society has had to look to their past in their effort to go forward. For this reason, it is crucial for the Muslims living in America to define their place within a historical context which relates their past heritage to their contemporary situation. In order to move forward, Muslim Americans need to have a strong sense of self, and a knowledge of their tradition and historical reality, as it relates to their present-day situation. Only in this way, by knowing their place within the American historical fabric, can Muslim Americans begin to progress and make a positive change within themselves and the society in which they live.

The Muslim presence in America is surely not a new phenomenon. For sure, Muslims have been here since the days of DeSoto, but strangely it has been only in the last thirty years that our presence has been made felt. Our case here has followed the earlier treatment of other ethno-religious minorities. Despite the fact that a “visible” Islam is a new phenomenon here in the United States, the roots of misunderstanding go back more than a thousand years. Since the collision between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East in the late seventh century, religious rivalry has defined much of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West. Layer upon layer of mistrust and misunderstanding have built up, which need to be scraped away through organized effort and serious scholarship. The picture of the Muslim that developed in the West at the height of Muslim power was that of a “cruel infidel, fanatic and savage.” And adding to this already negative image were the ideas which came with post-colonialism. The ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Kosova and Kashmir, shape the images by which we Muslims are perceived.

“...this new generation of Muslim Americans often receives a crude ingraining of a narrowly portrayed Islamic heritage in our Weekend/Sunday schools, and ruefully less Islamic education from their parents.”

Many of the immigrant Muslims who live in the United States were born and raised in other lands and have an identification with their history, culture, values and heritage. They are still alienated from the American historical experience and may not find any common ground to relate themselves to it. Their connection is still to their native lands. However, for Muslims who were born and raised in America, be they the children of immigrants, or American reverts to Islam, matters of identity are not always so clear. Born into the “American experience,” these Muslims often find difficulty in identifying fully with either American or Islamic history. In school they read about the Founding Fathers, the Revolution, westward expansion, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Depression, etc., but do they really feel a part of that heritage? On the other end, this new generation of Muslim Americans often receives a crude ingraining of a narrowly portrayed Islamic heritage in our Weekend/Sunday schools, and ruefully less Islamic education from their parents. The result is that the American Muslim child is left unsatisfied, with no historical view to which he may relate himself.

Some of our young Muslims may opt to take courses in Islamic history at the college level, but here they have to deal with a point of view that many times is at variance with their own Muslim identity. Fortunately, broad-minded scholars have begun to make their voices heard, opening the way for Muslim Americans to fortify their identity in institutions of higher learning. Professors like Edward Said, John Esposito, Karen Armstrong, Wilfred C. Smith, and Marshal Hodgson, though not necessarily members of the Muslim community, have striven to provide an objective view of Islamic civilization, one that is divorced of preconceived notions. In addition to these outstanding non-Muslim scholars, we as American Muslims are fortunate to now have positions of serious historical research held by the likes of Syed Hossein Nasr, T.B. Irving, Ali Mazrui, Khalid Blankinship, A. Sachedina, Alan Godlass, Marcia Hermanson, Hamid Algar, Amina McCloud, Sulaiman Nyang, and others, who are for the most part active Muslims. These scholars have been able to bridge the wide gap between modern standards of historical research and interpretation within the Islamic worldview. But despite the well-meaning approach of such scholars and professors, the effort to reshape the deeply held negative impression of Islam and Muslims in Western society is extremely daunting, given the miniscule number of Muslims who are actively engaged in historical research.

“We need to encourage our children to take an interest in history, culture, religion and social studies.”

Then where do we American Muslims start in all of this, especially in providing our posterity with an identity that could give them confidence and enable them to become active partners in society? Taking a survey of Islamic History books written by Muslims for Muslim children would sadly take no more than a few minutes. They simply do not exist in any quantity or sensible quality. Those few books that we do produce tend to lack the very objectivity that we demand from non-Muslim writers on the topic. Just as their history has been markedly Euro-centric, ours in many instances is “Arab-centric.”

The task of developing a modern as well as comprehensive Islamic History is daunting indeed, the task made much harder by the fact that it has to be geared towards a youthful generation of Muslims who know of no other homeland than these United States. They know more of Custer than ibn Qasim, Walt Whitman than Sa’di. But it is work that must be done, if we desire that our future generations living here in North America, Europe or anywhere in the world, are helped to maintain an identity as Muslims, are given the opportunity to feel a part of the human experience, and are shown that their ancestors made a difference in the way human civilization stands today. We at IQRA’ International Educational Foundation, which has played a part in sharing the goal of preserving Islamic identity and belief in our youngsters, have embarked on a humble start in fulfilling this vast project. We have scheduled for a two-volume history of Islamic civilization to be ready for classroom-use by the end of 2000 at the high school level and we also have a multi-volume and multi-level social studies project that will be launched this fall, inshaAllah. But frankly, the work is overwhelming in many respects. The sheer amount of time spent on just research and initial drafting has taken years.

Our individual concerns cannot stand without the action of the Muslim community as a whole. We need to encourage our children to take an interest in history, culture, religion and social studies. In the above-mentioned project, the difficulties in finding competent and well-read historians who are Muslim was arduous to say the least. The American Muslim community needs to establish one or more centers for historical research that would be able not only to serve as a focal point for scholarly activity, but as groundwork from which scholarships and chairs could be generated. More importantly, such a center would be a resource from which students, young and old, could obtain information on Islamic History in any myriad of branches (regional, cultural or theological histories, for example). It likewise could serve as a place where the ongoing history of the American Muslim community would be recorded, written down, analyzed and preserved. There is urgent need to start working in the following areas:

  1. History of Islam in North America.

  2. History of world civilization from a Muslim perspective.

  3. History of America as our own history.

  4. Islamic history in the perspective of the “global village” for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

  5. Contribution of Islam and Muslims to contemporary American life.

No matter how poor our situation may be in terms of current historical and scholarly Islamic research, we must all agree that we can no longer afford the continual trivializing of the importance of history in the identity formation of our youth. If they grow up in a confusing state of affairs, not able to identify fully with any clear historical worldview, we will see disastrous results, as our youth will completely assimilate into the American melting pot, or else end up with confused and disintegrated personalities. The time to act is now.

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