Authority, Community & Identity article

An interfaith encounter with America (Part 1)


“If Islam is so great and things are so wonderful back home, why did you come here?” These words are a vivid memory that I carry with me from my first year in college at an American university in 1992. As an international student from Pakistan who had grown up in a relatively privileged household, my transition to college life in America had promised to be seamless. And in many ways it was, at least outwardly.

Culture shock

So my culture shock was rather abrupt, coming in the form of a sudden spiritual crisis. In the course of a midnight conversation on religion and politics, a fellow student had jolted me out of my comfort zone with his jarring question: “Why did you come here?” Since that time, I have been on a quest to reconcile the theoretical greatness of Islam with the actual greatness of America. In this sense, my formative interfaith encounter was with America rather than Christianity.

America presents itself to me in religious terms. It has founding (sacred) texts, requires a pledge of total allegiance, strives to shape the world in its own image, and inspires service, valor, and ultimate sacrifice. America is a “way of life.” It has its own set of preachers, warriors, fundamentalists, apologists, dissenters, and enemies. It also has what might be called a sacred historical narrative, complete with “founding fathers,” a “shining city on a hill,” and an “end of history”. My exploration of the relationship of Islam to America has challenged and shaped how I view myself, religion, history, and God.

After going through college sampling Sufi, Salafi, and Tablighi options, I settled into the arms of an Islamist movement with the aim of re-establishing the caliphate, first in one country and then eventually over the entire globe. I learned Arabic, studied the Qur’an in Lahore, attended an interfaith seminary in Hartford, resigned from my position as a career engineer, and ultimately pursued Islamic studies in a secular graduate school in the Ivy League. These various experiences, particularly in light of the anxiety in which we live our lives after September 11, 2001, have allowed me to see numerous parallels between Islam and America. This essay presents a few provocative impressions of such parallels, which are in the end more intuitive than anything else, along with a personal attempt to grapple with my “Muslim-ness” with an ever increasing sense of “American-ness.”

Muslim or American?

Initially, I was inclined to see a contradiction between being a true Muslim and a faithful American. How could one swear allegiance to a country with human-made laws, while Islam calls to submission to the will and law of God? How could one pay taxes that contribute to agendas that one disagrees with, or consider legislation that conflicts with God’s will as legitimate and binding, simply because the whims of the masses, unwittingly cajoled along their path by the power of sinister corporate interests? It is an Islamist movement that prodded me to ask these questions sharply. According to the Qur’an, “It is He [God] who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that he may uplift it above every religion, though the unbelievers be averse” (61:9).

The logic of scripture as commanding believers to engage in an all-out struggle in the path of God in pursuit of the supremacy of Islam presented itself as ever so clear. It appeared incontrovertible that the Prophet had in fact left his lifelong career as an example for believers to follow. The Prophet’s method was, in a nutshell, the communication of God’s revelation, the Qur’an, to humanity, along with engagement in an organized effort to make God’s word a lived religious, social, political, and cultural reality. One prophetic report sums it up: “The best of you is the one who learns the Qur’an and teaches it to others.” My task, then, was to learn and teach the Qur’an to the world, spread its ideas, teach its beliefs, and establish its law. This is what it would mean to “make God great.” “God is great” are not mere words to be uttered by the tongue (to say “Allahu Akbar”). The task is to demonstrate that God is great by performing, legislating, and institutionalizing His greatness in the world.

Establishing justice

In my spiritual quest that led to political Islam, I had one all-important stroke of fortune. Despite my zeal, I did not happen to get recruited by al-Qaeda! Instead, I landed in a group called Tanzeem-e-Islami, a Pakistani-based movement which had a few unique things going for it… and which I will discuss in my next post.

Dr. Mahan Mirza is on the faculty of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, the only Muslim liberal arts college in the United States.  Zaytuna seeks to “prepare students for a meaningful life as compassionate, productive, and educated citizens of the global community who understand Islam as a living, viable, and relevant faith, and who represent that faith with dignity, wisdom, and honor.” Dr. Mirza completed his doctorate in Religious Studies from Yale University in 2010. His dissertation was on the relationship between reason and revelation in the works of the Muslim polymath al-Biruni. He spent two years at the University of Notre Dame, where he served as assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic studies in the Department of Classics, while concurrently on the faculty of the Program for the History and Philosophy of Science and the Medieval Institute. He was also a fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Contending Modernities

One thought on “An interfaith encounter with America (Part 1)

  1. Dr. Mirza – I am Stephanies cousin Mark’s wife. We have met a couple of times over the years. I just wanted to say that your dilemma about being an american and a faithful Muslim is not so different than the struggle i have had most of my life. I am not religious but I have a strong moral compass and much of the US policies cause me to be ashamed to call myself an american. I feel that to speak with others as a person of conscience and not of policies is the only way I can navigate these days.

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