What is an American Muslim?
The question is personal to Abdullahi An-Na’im and it arises from stories of people he knows, friends, family members, students, colleagues—and from his own experiences. Here is one story he tells frequently:
“The grieving mother of the deceased woman stood in a tight circle of her close women friends, away from the crowd of men who were engaged in the serious religious ritual of burial. Of all of us there at the cemetery, the mother was the one who most deserved to participate in the burial ritual, and to lead it if she wished.
For more than 40 years, every day and night, she had taken loving care of her daughter, who had a severe case of Down syndrome and needed total care for mundane functions.
“Yet the mother was prevented from participating in the final rites for her beloved daughter. A man, I was told, had shouted in her face: ‘Women are not allowed!’ The women complied, because from childhood on, they had been socialized into certain social/religious expectations for gender roles. They had long ago internalized and accepted their exclusion.
“My shame is that I stood among the crowd of men, passively observing the whole scene, instead of intervening to try to correct the cruel injustice that was being perpetrated in the name of Islam and ‘Muslim culture.’ I failed to act—to uphold, in practice, the equality and justice for women that I claim to support. By that failure to act on what I preach, I earned the wrath of God. 61:2 and 3 of the Qur’an can be translated as follows: ‘Oh, believers, why do you say what you do not do? It is most hateful to God that you say what you do not do.’”
An-Na’im believes it’s time for American Muslims to tell these stories, to talk about who they are on their own terms, and who they are as American citizens. His book length project on the topic will be published next winter by Oxford University Press. The project arose from a distinguished faculty lecture An-Na’im gave on campus in 2009, “American Secularism and American Muslims: Challenges and Prospects,” and it’s clear the ideas he outlined then are still resonating in the Muslim community and beyond.
“Religious identity is important, but it’s not exclusive of other types of identities,” says An-Na’im. “There are places and times when my Muslim identity is the most relevant thing, but there are times when my political affiliation may be the issue. And on that I’m not in agreement with all other Muslims.”
For An-Na’im, that is precisely the point. With the book project and with his many lectures on the topic, he is interested in mobilizing a conversation among American Muslims that he believes needs to happen on multiple levels, in multiple venues.
“Being a Muslim does not mean being monolithic or uniform, because there are Muslims who are conservative, or who are liberal,” he says. “We should not insist on a single identity as exclusive of everything else. We should live by all the identities we have, each as and when most relevant. That’s the idea of being an American Muslim.”
An-Na’im stresses that by exploring and defining their American citizenship, he is not suggesting “that Muslims merge into and disappear into the mainstream, because there is no uniformity in the mainstream. People talk about ‘American’ when they should says ‘Americans’ in the plural, because there are multiple Americans, not a single entity.”
A native of Sudan, An-Na’im began his career at the University of Khartoum, but was exiled in 1989 for his moderate views. His work as a scholar of Islam and human rights has taken him all over the world for research, teaching and lectures, but his 17 years in Atlanta—he and his family have lived in their Atlanta home longer than anyplace else—has shown him stereotypes other than those of Muslims.
Emory law professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im talks about human rights and being an American Muslim.
“Often I am struck by people talking about the South (meaning the Southern U.S.) as if it’s another country,” he says, smiling. “There’s much more to being from the South or being a Muslim than a stereotype.” While stereotypes have “some basis in truth,” he says, they miss the larger reality.
“By challenging ourselves and each other on the stereotypes we create, by looking beyond our tunnel vision in which we fail to see what is obvious because it doesn’t meet our expectations, we then have multiple possibilities for community building,” he says.
“What does it mean to be a community?” An-Na’im asks the question, then answers it in light of the recent tragic killings in Newtown, Conn. “The whole country is moved by this [Newtown]; it brings together not only all Americans, but all human beings everywhere.”
It is clear that bringing people together as a community, with all its diversity and sometimes disagreements, is his goal.
And the woman kept from the graveside of her beloved daughter?
She was a close friend of An-Na’im’s wife. “And then to be at that scene, the burial at the cemetery, and to see the one person who was the most deserving of being at the graveside to bury her own child, the one who gave her 40 years of her life, is the one who is kept away?”
An-Na’im shakes his head. “It’s very, very hard,” he says of the religious rituals that dictated the woman’s exclusion. “The same men who were turning away this woman at the graveside interact with women in their daily lives; it’s not as if they’re living a segregated life in shops, in workplaces, in public transportation. But then when it comes to the religious, suddenly we’ve created this bubble.”
He tells this story because gender equity is a conversation Muslims need to have with each other, not just as American citizens, but as people. “The force of life for me is more than the force of theology,” he says. “I believe that theology follows life; it does not lead it. And I believe that in all religious communities, life changes, attitudes change, choices change, and theology comes and makes sense of it after the fact.
“Every community is struggling to cope,” says An-Na’im, “and theology should be our ally, not our enemy, in that struggle.”