Islam in America: Lessons in Diversity

After waiting his turn to take part in a question-and-answer session during the "Islam in America" conference at Harvard last weekend, a young man approached the microphone, introduced himself, and said, "I'm a Muslim, and therefore, by definition, I'm a feminist."

The statement drew laughter and brief applause from an audience of around 150 ethnically diverse men and women who dotted the blue and green seats of the Science Center's vast Lecture Hall B on Sunday morning. Although the young man quickly added that his declaration was not meant to be funny—but was made sincerely because "I think we are truly blessed by the religion of Islam, which has unfortunately been misused through the ignorance of both men and women to [hinder] the rights of women in Islam"—his statement was among several points of challenge to conventionally held views about Islam that the student-run conference elicited over three days. Challenges to preconceptions ranged from the presence of the high-level professional and highly visible women who participated in the panel "Muslim Women as Leaders in America" to the traveling exhibit in the lobby of the Science Center showcasing artifacts, stories, and photos of Muslims in America as early explorers in the 17th century and as African American slaves.

Such provocations were part of what Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student Precious Rasheeda Muhammad had in mind when she set her goals for the 2001 "Islam in America" conference. This was the second conference on the topic that Muhammad had spearheaded to help fulfill the field-education requirement of her master of divinity degree, which she anticipates completing this spring. Perhaps more important, the conference, subtitled "Domestic Challenges, International Concerns & Historical Legacies," was Muhammad's way of filling a gap in her Divinity School education concerning the study of American Muslims, especially African-American Muslims. "If people come to the conference, they will see African Americans, Latinos, Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Sufis, among others," Muhammad said. "When the media talks about African Americans in relation to Islam, they nearly always discuss the Nation of Islam because it can be controversial, but the Nation of Islam is probably one of the smallest groups among African American Muslims.

"I wanted to do this conference with so many different Muslims, to let them tell their stories," Muhammad said, noting that many non-Muslim Americans may get to know just one practicing Muslim and base their entire understanding of Islam on that one person. She added that Muslims, too, do not always have opportunities to meet with others who practice the same faith, albeit somewhat differently.

Other goals were to provide an academic forum on the growth and development of Islam in America, to address critical issues in the lives of American Muslims, to encourage Muslims to document their history, and to inform the larger community about these findings, and promote religious understanding. The student-run conference was co-sponsored by the Harvard Islamic Society, the Divinity School's Center for the Study of World Religions, and some 25 other organizations, as well as anonymous donors. Sulayman Nyang, Professor of African Studies at Howard University and co-principal investigator of Project MAPS (Muslims in the American Public Square) at Georgetown University, launched the dialogue focus of the conference on Friday afternoon. Reflecting on the growth and size of American Islam (most scholars cite between 6 million to 8 million adherents in the United States), Nyang addressed American Islam's growing institutionalization, as well as its diversity.

Later, Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a public service agency with the mission of disseminating accurate information about Islam to the American public, led a panel on intra-religious inquiry.

One of the questions taken up at the conference was: With their growing presence, should Muslims have their own court system? The panel "Feasibility of Muslim Courts/Tribunals in the United States" looked into the pros and cons of Muslims operating Muslim courts or tribunals in the same way that Jews have rabbinical courts and Native Americans hold tribal courts for civil justice concerns. As part of the presentation, Mark Saraceni, writer and producer of the CBS television show JAG ("JAG" stands for Judge Advocate General), showed film footage of a possible JAG episode of a case tried in a Muslim court.

Alexander Kronemer's talk and video clips from a television documentary on the life of the Prophet Mohammed, intended for public television, was also well-attended. Kronemer has undertaken the project with author Michael Wolfe, renowned for his writing on the hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Islam's holy city, Mecca, Saudi Arabia). Kronemer, a 1985 master of theological studies (MTS) graduate of the Divinity School, lectures and writes about religious diversity, Islamic awareness, and cross-cultural communication.

"It's an effort to help develop interfaith understanding," Kronemer says of his work. "In order to achieve true pluralism, there needs to be understanding . . ." 

"What we're trying to do is bring a balance," Kronemer adds. "This isn't to say that bad things don't happen in the Muslim world. They do. But bad things happen all over the world, and yet somehow or other we seem to stigmatize the religion of all these people based on really in the end a handful of news items."

The panel of greatest interest for many attendees was Sunday morning's "Muslim Women as Leaders in America: Precedent & Present Day," which again brought to light the diversity of Muslims and the roles of women in Islam. Despite their shared goals of promoting Islam and Muslim leadership among women, the panelists differed in their views and practices.

Ayesha Mustafaa, editor of The Muslim Journal, said that the issue of men leading prayer in the mosque is a "small item" within the prayer process and argued for placing more emphasis on aiding Muslim women in countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, India, and Pakistan. On the other hand, Amina Wadud, a theologian and author of Qur'an and Women: Re-Reading the Sacred Text From a Woman's Perspective, strongly challenged men's exclusionary practice, calling it "male hegemony in Islamic public ritual." Zakiyyah Muhammad, founding director of the Institute of Islamic Education in America and principal of a Muslim school, for her part, was more concerned with finding ways to bring Muslim principles to children's education.

Panel moderator Leila Ahmed, Professor of Women's Studies in Religion at HDS (and faculty adviser to Precious Muhammad and Al-Husein Madhany, an HDS student who assisted Muhammad on the project), noted that while the conference did not mark the first time that Muslim women in leadership positions had come together at a conference, the range and experiences of the women in this panel represented something new.

Whether it was the women's panel, the cumulative effect of the conference—or, perhaps more likely, the kind of personal conversion experience Ayesha Mustafaa earlier in the day described as "the Islamic genetic code just woke up one day and kicked in"—near the end of the conference one woman chose to convert to Islam. Those participants and attendees milling about the auditorium between sessions became her witnesses as she "took shahadah," or testified her faith by repeating three times in Arabic that "there is no God worthy of worship except Allah, and that Mohammed, peace be upon him, is his servant and messenger." Thus, the conference "Islam in America" brought yet another new voice and story into the religious landscape of American Islam.