Believers in a religion such as Islam can scarcely hope to speak for all Muslims, let alone for all humanity. They must accept the authority of a public sphere in which people are free to make their case to their fellow women and men on the basis of culturally normative modes of discourse. This sounds exactly like the manner in which prophets used to operate back in the day. Moses defeated the magicians in pharaoh’s court, and Muhammad outdid the Arab poets on their home turf.
America and the prophetic voice
It also sounds a lot like America, a place in which the prophets of old would have loved to operate as God’s messengers, freely able to propagate their visions to the rest of the world, enduring any persecution that might come their way. But in assessing the legitimacy of present-day prophet-citizens in America, there is good news and bad news.
Here is the good news: As I see it, America already has ideals — life, the pursuit of happiness, justice for all — that are not in tension with my Islamic faith. The notion of political liberty is more complex, but these ideals may be affirmed, negotiated, and reconciled in light of a particular understanding of the human condition that is rooted in revelation. The opportunity exists for fruitful learning on both sides. Whereas Muslims may certainly learn to appreciate notions of liberty in light of Western experience, they may also teach the West to balance it with appeals to responsibility and restraint, sensibilities that are deeply entrenched in the Islamic tradition.
But there is also bad news: America fights too many wars. We disregard our delicate balance with nature and poison our children with images of sex and violence. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow. And we have sometimes built our greatness on genocide, slavery, and imperialism.
What should a Muslim in America, who finds himself loyal to Islam while appreciative of a tremendous privilege as an American, do in light of this complex set of historical circumstances? My solution is to embrace the privilege and use it to strive for good in the world. It is a dilemma, but not one that is unique to American Muslims. Many Christians, for example, see little or no tension between their Christian identities and American citizenship. They feel comfortable with bringing perspectives from their churches into the public sphere.
Some unabashedly advocate for the shaping of laws based on religious ethics and values, some offer “prophetic voices” of dissent, and some even go to battle on the frontlines in the name of Jesus. Some object to the use of tax dollars for initiatives that contradict religious values. Mike Huckabee, a former Republican candidate for president, famously said: “[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards.”
Perhaps someday a Muslim presidential candidate will have the courage to say the exact same thing with respect to the Qur’an and Sunna — only to wind up with a lucrative talk show on a major news network when the campaign folds!
What I have said so far makes sense largely for a political understanding of Islam. There are, of course, many more Muslims who believe in Islam as a private religion. For them, the questions being posed are irrelevant, in the same manner as the faith-based concerns of people like Huckabee are irrelevant to many Christians. Muslim citizens of America are free to define their faith how they please, form associations, preach, enter into alliances with other organizations, advocate to end war, reform the entertainment industry, or simply live out their lives without thinking deeply about any of these things in private devotion to a personal conception of the Divine. America, therefore, is the perfect soil for humanity — and Islam — to flourish, perhaps just as it was intended by God.
Oddly, I find myself to be somewhat in alignment with the words of President George W. Bush: “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.” Unfortunately, I do not agree with the belligerent manner with which President Bush wished to preach his Gospel to the rest of the world. The Arab Spring has shown that oppressed peoples are capable of negotiating their own liberties, inviting or spurning outside assistance on their own terms. But an aversion to Bush’s policies is far from being un-American. It is something I share with many “antiwar” Americans of many faiths and no faith. One particular voice that appeals to me is that of the Jewish American Rabbi Michael Lerner, who has advocated the total transformation of the tenor of American foreign policy from one of militarism to one of generosity.
This is the greatness of America, where the voice of a Jew can appeal to the Muslim who drafted this essay while he was teaching Islam at a Catholic institution, and who then went on to help start a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley!
The notions that this essay entertains of a deep affinity between what lies at the heart of the religion of Islam and also of Western civilization are not new. Muhammad Abduh, for example, after returning from France to his native Egypt, famously noted, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” The Turkish revivalist Said Nursi, after a study of European philosophy and culture, offered this assessment: “The Ottoman government is pregnant with Europe. It will give birth to a government like Europe. And Europe is pregnant with Islam; and it will give birth to an Islamic state.” The Indian poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal argued that the inner core of modern Western civilization is in line with the spirit of the Qur’an. It will take entirely different essays to elaborate on these sentiments, each of which flow from unique experiences and points of departure. But the pattern is consistent.
My interfaith encounter has driven me into tension with the reality of American consumerism and militarism. At the same time, it has enabled me to embrace the ideals of America. Ironically, it is my engagement with Islamic revivalist thought that has provided my most valuable insights into America, understood as both a religious “other” and a project full of promise and possibility.
Some may say that I have converted from Islamic fundamentalism to Americanism. I would say, however, that I have only come to better understand my own faith.
Isn’t this what interfaith encounters are supposed to be about?
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.