Muslims in the United States: Influence and Innovation
May 11, 2005

Gholamreza Aavani, Iranian Institute of Philosophy; Ali Asani, Professor of the Practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture, Harvard University; Osman Bakar, Malaysia Chair of Islam in Southeast Asia, Georgetown University; Ibrahim Kalin, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, College of the Holy Cross; Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies, George Washington University; Sulayman Nyang, Professor of Political Science and African Studies, Howard University; Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Assistant Professor of Religion, University of Florida; Jane Smith, Professor of Islamic Studies, Hartford Seminary; Tamara Sonn, William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Humanities, College of William and Mary; Amira el-Azhary Sonbol, Associate Professor, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University.

In May 2003, two speakers at the Division of U.S. Studies' conference on "Muslims in the U.S.: Demography, Beliefs, Institutions" suggested that American Islamic thinkers have the potential to become influential in Muslim nations around the world. The Division's follow-up conference, co-sponsored by the International Institute of Islamic Thought and PaL-Tech, was designed to identify American Islamic thinkers who currently are influential in various parts of the Muslim world and others whose innovative ideas hold the promise of future influence on Islamic thinkers abroad.

The first panel of the day assessed the influence of Islamic thinkers in the U.S. upon Islamic thinkers in Asia and the Arab world. Although Joseph Lumbard, Special Advisor to His Majesty the King for Interfaith Affairs, Royal Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, was unable to be present, an abstract of his paper on "The Influence of American Muslim Intellectuals in the Arab World" was read. Lumbard found that few American scholars have any influence on traditional Arab Islamic thinkers, as opposed to an elite of more secular Arab intellectuals. Few works by Westerners are translated into Arabic and only Islamic thinkers fluent in Arabic and trained by Arab scholars are perceived as legitimate. Lumbard highlighted scholars Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hazma Yusuf Hanson and Khaled Abou El-Fadl as among the exceptions. Tamara Sonn said that similarly, American Islamic thinkers are not influential in Pakistan, but that is a change from the 1980s. The potential impact of U.S. thinkers has been undermined in part by American foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine and, perhaps most importantly, by the high illiteracy rate of the Pakistani public. For U.S. Islamic scholars to reach the majority of Pakistanis, Prof. Sonn declared, they must use the modes of communication most frequently utilized by the masses: cassette tapes and word of mouth. She noted that the language of human rights is already being heard in taped sermons and presents a possible opening for some U.S. Islamic thinkers. Osman Bakar reported that while for many years the major influences on religious thought in Southeast Asia were Middle Eastern or European, the work of Dr. Nasr, Ismail Ragi al-Faruqi, and Fazlur Rahman are now widely read. Younger U.S. Islamic scholars such as Sulayman Nyang and Amira Wadud are also becoming influential in the region, especially as younger Muslims seek new thinking about Islam.

The second panel focused on the influence of American Islamic scholarship in Iran, Turkey and Africa. Gholamreza Aavani found very little influence of American Muslim scholarship in Iran with the exception of the work of Dr. Nasr, who was born in Iran and has the background and knowledge to speak to what Aavani described as the "spirit of the culture." Nasr, along with Faruqi and Rahman, has also been influential in Turkey, according to Ibrahim Kalin. Kalin spoke of the long and positive ties between Turkey and the U.S., beginning with the friendship between Sultan Abdul Hamid II and American novelist Lew Wallace, this country's ambassador to Turkey from 1881 to 1885. The first American Muslims to be influential in Turkey were Malcolm X and other leaders of the Nation of Islam. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was translated into Turkish and Malcolm, along with American Muslim athletes such as Muhammad Ali, are regarded as heroes there. Like Pakistanis, Turks today are uncomfortable with U.S. foreign policy, and this limits the influence of U.S. Islamic thinkers. Nonetheless, Nasr's and Rahman's views remain influential, in spite of their quite different emphases: Nasr, on the Islamization of knowledge and Rahman, on the modernization of Islam. They, along with Faruqi, are also influential in Africa, according to Sulayman Nyang. "American Muslim intellectuals are now part of the mental furniture in Africa," he noted, suggesting that intellectual influence can be measured by the number of times authors are cited by intellectuals, referred to by newspapers, and summarized in textbooks, as well as by the frequency with which their books are sold in stores specializing in international publications. Nyang and others commented that publications of the International Institute of Islamic Thought are translated by and widely read in the Muslim world.

In his luncheon address, Seyyed Hossein Nasr emphasized the many impediments to the crossover of Western ideas into the Islamic world – most notably, the lack of credibility American scholars have in Muslim countries. He nonetheless noted those areas in which U.S. Islamic scholars are and should be active, including the Abrahamic dialogue among Islamic, Christian and Jewish theologians. People in the Muslim world, he suggested, should be told about the kind of interfaith dialogue that is occurring in this country. American Islamic scholars must similarly help Islam catch up with the kind of thinking about the environment that is already being done by scholars from other religions and with questions revolving around bioethics, which constitutes "one of the most fluid intersections between religion and modern life." The relationship between religion and science in general, the ways Muslims should deal with being a minority in countries like the U.S. and with the minorities in Muslim nations, and the reexamination of the meaning of family that is taking place in the West are additional areas in which America Islamic thinkers are potentially important.

The afternoon session focused on thinking about gender and pluralism in Islam. Amira el-Azhary Sonbol and Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons emphasized that while the Qur'an came from God, it has traditionally been interpreted by men who have ignored the female experience. All interpretation, they asserted, is grounded in human experience, and patriarchal interpretations have resulted in discrimination against and the subjugation of women. While Simmons argued for new interpretations of the Qur'an derived from the international ideals of human rights, Sonbal maintained that the Qur'an itself supplies the basis for equal treatment of women. Drawing on research in archival Islamic texts, Sonbal found that Muslim women enjoyed greater equality prior to European colonialism, which encouraged more patriarchal interpretations of the Qur'an.

Defining pluralism as "engagement with diversity that is based on respect for difference," Ali Asani declared that the Qur'an provides for tolerance of those who practice Islam differently and, to some extent, for non-Islamic religions, particularly those that are monotheistic. He, too, saw readings of the
Qur'an as being influenced by the religious, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts in which Muslims live. The strong pluralist ethos in Islam is based in part on the Qur'an's declaration that God's message is universal but its manifestations are plural and that salvation is not exclusive to Muslims but will include anyone who is righteous and pious. Asani interpreted the exclusionist Islamic discourse as the result of the Arab and Muslim drive for political hegemony during the 8th and 9th centuries, when a unified reading of Islam fostered solidarity among tribes and religious dissent was equated with threatening political dissent. The United States, home to Muslims from more than 50 nations, can be the crucible for a new Islamic pluralism. Jane Smith agreed that pluralism is implicit in Islam but indicated that there is not a great deal of Islamic writing about it, in part because the idea of pluralism is puzzling for many people who believe in one truth and in part because of intellectual confusion about descriptive and ideological pluralism. Does pluralism describe a situation that exists and therefore must be accepted, she asked, or is pluralism a desirable goal? Surveying the thinking of pluralistic U.S. Islamic thinkers such as Wadud, Nyang, Sherman Jackson, Farid Esack, Hussain Kasim, Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im, Muqtedar Khan and Abdulaziz Sachedina, she described them as writing about pluralism as part of the Qur'anic vision, a modernized Islam, or an issue of justice. What is perhaps most important about their thinking, she concluded, is that their emphasis on pluralism makes Islam completely compatible with democracy.

Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4147