Islam in America: An Interview with Jane Smith

Paul Harvey

As many of you know, Columbia University Press has an excellent series of books on religious denominations/traditions in America -- the Columbia Contemporary Traditions in America series. There are 12 volumes in the series to date, including Thomas Hamm's Quakerism in America, Sarah Pike's New Age and Neopagan Religions in America, Richard Seager's Buddhism in America, Bill Leonard Baptists in America, and several others.

Jane I. Smith's Islam in America, originally published several years ago, has been released now in a second edition; and of course the subject could hardly be more timely. Another good resource, linked to the photo above, is a Speaking of Faith program from 2006, "Hearing Muslim Voices Since 9/11."

The new edition of Smith's text adds a focus on events affecting Islam in America since 9/11. Here's a brief description:

This richly textured, critically acclaimed portrait of American Muslims introduces the basic tenets of the Muslim faith, surveys the history of Islam in North America, and profiles the lifestyles, religious practices, and worldviews of Muslims in the United States. The volume focuses specifically on the difficulty of living faithfully and adhering to tradition while adapting to an American way of life and addresses the role of women in Muslim culture, the raising and education of children, appropriate dress and behavior, and incidences of prejudice and unfair treatment. The second edition of Islam in America features a new chapter on post-9/11 realities, which covers infringements on civil rights and profiling, participation in politics, transformations in Islamic law, pluralism and identity issues, foreign influences, anti-Islamic sentiment, intra-Islamic tensions, and the quest for a moderate Islam.

I'm very pleased today to feature an interview with the author of this work, Jane I. Smith, who is Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs at Harvard Divinity School. My thanks to Professor Smith for her excellent work and for her participation in this blog-interview.

PH: How originally did you come to write the first edition of Islam in America?

JS: To be frank, a friend was offered the task by Columbia. She was overloaded, so asked if I would consider it. Since I had already taught much of the material that could be included in such a book it seemed to be not too daunting a task. As it turned out, of course, it did in fact take a lot of time. But I felt it was time very well spent, and in succeeding years I have drawn from the material in the book to illustrate points I wanted to make in other classes.

What has changed from the first to the second edition?

JS: The most striking change came with the events of 9/11, the effects of that tragedy on American views of Islam, and the many ways in which Muslims have moved from the private to the public arena in America as they have tried to show that Islam is not a religion of violence. In the book I have highlighted the huge difference that that single morning has made for Muslims in America. Along with the aftershock of the horror and the ensuing increase in anti-Muslim prejudice have come some very good things as Muslims find ways to affirm Islam as a religion that they claim with great pride. While the American public has registered increasing concern about Islam, it is also true that a number of striking attempts have been made by non-Muslims to support their Muslim friends and bring them into open discussion of the commonalities that religious people in America share.

PH: What are the most important one or two things you think readers should know about Islam in

The single most important fact, in my opinion, is that never at any place in the history of the world have there been so many different kinds of Muslims represented – racial/ethnically, nationally, culturally and in terms of sectarian affiliation. At the same time there is something that binds them together as Muslims. To define what constitutes that something is a continuing project for the different Muslim communities in America.

How do you understand the association of Islam in America with recent acts of violence and to what decree do you think the media has influenced public response to Islam through its coverage of “spectacular” events such as the shooting at Fort Hood?

JS: Since 9/11 Muslims have been vehement in their denial that the Qur’an sanctions unfettered violence and have insisted on the essential peaceful nature of the scripture and the religion. Nonetheless, violent acts happen (and some are successfully thwarted) in the name of Islam with some regularity. One of the most helpful ways in which Muslims are addressing this issue is to return to the task of re-interpreting the Qur’an. Many are dissociating themselves with the exclusivist and punitive understandings of certain Qur’anic texts that have characterized medieval writings and continue to be influential today. Most Muslims insist that Americans must understand that radicalism represents only a tiny minority of Muslims, especially in this country. Nonetheless, since the first edition of Islam in America it seems that America itself has become a breeding ground for certain kinds of violent expressions of Islam, a development that should not be ignored. It is not the media and their presentations that I worry about as much as the thoughtless talking and blogging on the part of ill-informed people as well as the anti-Islamic literature being generated by some members of the Christian right.

To what degree do you think Islam will change/adapt/evolve, if at all, to the competitive and pluralistic American environment?

JS: Muslims would argue, with some validity, that Islam itself never changes. They will be the first to admit, however, that Muslims do change and that Muslim communities have always found ways in which to adapt to new environments. The fact that many Muslims, especially women, have assumed roles of public responsibility and are both speaking and acting in ways that demonstrate what being Muslims means to them is a remarkable change. Muslims are participating in the political system of America, are finding new ways in which to conduct their financial business in light of Islamic legal restrictions, are constructing new schools and challenging the system of public education, and in many other ways are acting differently than they might have in the cultures in which they or their families originated. Some are even thinking not only of what it means to be Muslim in America, but what it means to be religious (together with Christians, Jews and others) in a society that defines itself as secular.

PH: Should Black Muslims be seen as one variant within the broader “family” of Islam, or as something different?

JS: First, I would recommend strongly that the term “Black Muslims” not be used as it connotes different things to different people. Initially it referred to the Nation of Islam. Then when in 1975 Elijah Muhammad’s son Wallace, later to be known as Warith Deen Mohammed, moved most of the members of the Nation into mainstream Sunni Islam the Nation remained as a very small group. Black Muslims was used by some to mean all African Americans who are Muslim, and by others to that small remnant of Nation members. Today the Nation of Islam is the group that until very recently was headed by Louis Farrakhan, and other African American Muslims have different kinds of identification. African American Muslims are Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis, orthodox, heterodox and most everything else. Therefore I would simply say that they are part of what makes up the totality of Islam in all of its racial-ethnic and cultural varieties.

What are your thoughts about the future of Islam in America?

Most indicators are that Islam will continue to grow in American soil, though not at the rate sometimes projected. Factors such as immigration, revitalization of urban communities, and conversion will certainly play a role. Demonization of Islam most probably will continue as a result of many different factors, including the politics of fear. But I don’t see that fear-mongering will threaten the continued existence, and growth, of the religion here. Efforts currently being put forth by many American Muslims to demonstrate their commitment to being full members of American society, with pride in their country, are paying off in terms of greater understanding and acceptance of the faith despite isolated threats. Americans in general struggle with what it means to be a multi-faith society, and Muslims struggle to define what a distinctive American Islam might really look like. But it seems clear that Islam is here to stay, and that “Blessed Ramadan” will probably come to sound as familiar as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah.”

PH: What are some of the most important points that you, Yvonne Haddad, and Kathleen Moore made in your 2006 Muslim Women in America (Oxford)?

JS: In this book we tried to show the many ways in which Muslim women in America are contributing to the definition of American Islam, not only in their roles as wives and mothers but in the public realm. We looked at why some women choose to convert to Islam, the roles of women in the practice of the faith, how women participate in the public space in a great variety of roles, and Muslim women activists in academia and a variety of other professions. The main point of the book is that women are not the passive creatures often portrayed as being at the mercy of their husbands, but are full participants in Muslim religious life and in American society in general.


Ralph Luker said…
Surely Jane Smith cannot mean this:
"African American Muslims as a whole constitute about a third of the African American community. But they are Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis, orthodox, heterodox and most everything else."
If African American Muslims were 1/3 of the African American community in the United States, there would be nearly 15,000,000 African American Muslims -- of all sects -- in the United States. That is about *twice* as many Muslims, of all ethnicities, as most authorities believe live in the United States.
Paul Harvey said…
Ralph: An editing boo-boo, I think (I've taken that sentence out and will check with Jane, I'm pretty sure she meant about one-third of the American Muslim community).
hanafi said…
America is a free Country.American Musilms are very prudent.Country is the first priority for them.
Brad Hart said…
Wonderful stuff! Thanks for the post!
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