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American Muslims: The Cultural Challenge and Opportunity

by Haroon Najam

Great thought has staying power.  “Muslims, Islamic Law and Public Policy in the United States,”[1] by Professor Sherman A. Jackson – an insightful and courageous analysis of the challenges and opportunities related to Muslim engagement in American politics and culture[2] – is proof of this.  Originally written in the year 2000, presumably in the period leading up to that year’s Presidential Election, which was a time of much excitement about political organization amongst American Muslims, Professor Jackson’s paper is just as accurate in its diagnosis and just as relevant in its prescriptions today, eight years later, as we draw close to another Presidential Election and as Muslims look toward political engagement, again, as the primary way to improve their current social and legal reality.  This continued relevance is a testament, however, not only to the accuracy of the Professor’s analysis, but, unfortunately, also to the continued “inadequacies of Muslim thought in the West, as well as some of the obsessions and biases that tend to limit the scope of its vision.”[3]

The Cultural Challenge

While Jackson’s policy paper was written with the ultimate aim of establishing, on the basis of sharīʿah and not just practical grounds, the legitimacy and necessity of Muslim involvement in American legislative politics[4] – a task that Jackson achieves admirably based on an authoritative and critical reading of relevant Islamic history and legal thought – what continues to intrigue me is his exploration of “other possible means of effecting social and political change” toward the beginning of the paper.  He is able, indeed compelled, to do this because he sees involvement in legislative politics as a mean – and “neither the only nor in every instance the most effective” mean at that – to the end of influencing American society.  To be clear, Muslims seek this influence over American society in order to gain “public recognition and respect for themselves as Muslims and contribute to the creation of a social reality” where human worth and potential is equally recognized and rewarded in all.

According to Jackson, American Muslims confront two basic challenges: the “enterprise of self-definition” and the “problem of self-determination,” and since these two challenges require Muslims to engage politically and socially, both the end of influencing American society and an understanding and availing of all the important means to that end become fatally important to the future of Islam and Muslims in America.  On such recognition, he laments that “very little attention has been paid to the functional limitations of legislative politics, or to other possible means of effecting social and political change,” and claims that “[i]f the aim of any would-be Muslim participation in U.S. legislative politics is to promote a dignified existence for Muslims in America… the parallel necessity of effecting cultural change in America… must certainly be accorded at least equal importance.  For the effectiveness of the former depends fundamentally on success in the latter.”  It is this brief but unequivocal treatment of, what I will call, the “cultural challenge” American Muslims face that I want to highlight below.[5]

The Power and Potential of Culture

Jackson begins his discussion “on the limits of legislative politics,” especially when it comes to effectively confronting the critical tasks of self-definition and self-determination that American Muslims face, by introducing Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony”

via which he [i.e. Gramsci] concluded that it was not control over the means of material production that determined relations of power and authority in society but control over the means of producing and disseminating intellectual products, namely, ideas and images. It was the educational, cultural and religious institutions along with the media and entertainment industry that held the keys to how people saw themselves and interacted with each other in society. And where there existed no challenge to the views and images created by these institutions, politics and economics would do little to change the status quo.…  One of the most glaring confirmations of this can be gleaned from developments in the United States during the 1960s, when black cultural figures like Muhammad Ali (I am the greatest!) and the singer James Brown (Say it loud; I’m black and I’m proud!) succeeded in altering the language and categories through which white supremacy had sustained its status as normal. By smashing the boundaries between the imaginable and unimaginable, between the valued and the valueless, their contributions to the American cultural landscape paved the way for blackness to take on meanings and to occupy psychological spaces theretofore unknown to it. Legislative politics would in turn confirm this transformation in the 1970s[.] (emphasis mine)

Jackson continues his argument for the importance of recognizing how the successes, even the more overtly political ones, of the Civil Rights movement depended, critically, on “developments outside the realm of legislative politics,” especially those in the cultural arena, by reminding us that

[t]he touch-stone of [Martin Luther] King’s genius lay in his success at developing what Hobbes referred to as a political “trump-card,” i.e., a legally sanctioned activity outside of legislative politics via which concessions can be forced from a government... Martin Luther King Jr. located his trump card in the ability to subject the government to public shame and embarrassment.… But… shame is not a sensibility into which the sponsors of unjust social and political orders are easily coerced. How was it, in other words that actions and attitudes that had for centuries been accepted as part of the “normal” operation of the regime of white supremacy suddenly came to constitute a public embarrassment? It is here, in this new attitude toward the meaning of blackness and, concomitantly, toward the unjust treatment of blacks that we come to appreciate the aforementioned role of such cultural figures as Muhammad Ali and James Brown. (emphasis mine)

According to Jackson, then, American Muslims face perhaps their most critical challenge in the task of “effecting cultural change in America, i.e., of changing the language and categories of thought and common experience, of developing and effectively using a Muslim trump-card.”  Of course, this is also where the greater opportunity for a successful “indigenization of Islam” lies, since

[i]n a real sense, the future of Islam in America will depend not on whether Muslims can arrive at an understanding of scripture and tradition that allows for home-mortgages or inheritance between Muslims and non-Muslims, but on whether that understanding will liberate the Muslim cultural imagination and allow it to come into its own, here in America. For the fact is - and every honest Muslim knows it - that one can live with a lot of broken rules of sharīʿah. But what repentance can there be from a broken soul or psyche? And how can the latter be avoided if the world outside the masjid reflect nothing of the Muslim’s thoughts and creative spirit? If Muslims are to establish a real existence here in America, one that will enable them not only to consume but to shape American reality, the Muslim cultural imagination will have to be liberated. Once this is done, Muslims will be able to move… into [the arenas] of literature, poetry, music,  fashion design, comedy, interior decorating, etc., just as has existed throughout Islamic history, and just as exists in virtually every Muslim country in the world!

However, this challenge continues to go unmet and the opportunity still remains unrealized.  Part of the problem, according to Jackson, is that these potentially “positive” incursions into American culture bring up, for many, serious (and legitimate?) concerns about such engagement being a capitulation to the dominant culture.  Another part is the serious implications all this has for such sensitive questions as “Muslim identity” and “Islamic culture,” in the American context.  These and other related concerns, says Jackson,

may explain why such issues as cultural production have received such scant and inadequate attention to date. It may be that the growing consensus among Muslims on the necessity of participating in legislative politics is in the end a cop-out, a safe haven into which we have begun our retreat from the more difficult task of penetrating, appropriating and redirecting American culture. Muslims may enjoy the initial warm feeling that goes along with this; but it may not be long before this cools and we are forced to acknowledge that we wet our pants! (emphasis mine)

Harsh?  Perhaps.  On the mark?  Definitely.

Clearly the task of such a discriminating appropriation of American culture is neither easy nor risk-free.  Nonetheless, it needs to be undertaken, and it needs to be undertaken deliberately, sincerely, courageously, and, most of all, immediately.  No amount of pious posturing or political maneuvering will substitute in its place.

Want of an American Muslim Culture – How we got here?

The sad truth, however, is that the American Muslim community, as a whole, has neither embraced the end of indigenizing Islam in America, nor grasped that “penetrating, appropriating and redirecting American culture is an indispensable mean to that end.  The aftermath of 9/11/2001, which could and should have opened the mind and imagination of the American Muslim leaders and community to possibilities and opportunities theretofore unexplored, seems to have only further strengthened the (already present) imperative to engage politically in some, and the (already present) urge to reject political engagement in others.  Meanwhile, the cultural challenge and opportunity continue to go unacknowledged.

But all this is not without reason: (i) The reactionariness of Immigrant Islam (and most immigrant Muslims such as myself)[6] toward American culture, which has deep historical and psychological roots in the colonial (and post-colonial) experience of the Muslim World, and (ii) Immigrant Islam’s claim to and presumption of the sole and ultimate right and authority to define the face and agenda of Islam in America combine to leave it unwilling and unable to recognize and respond to this cultural challenge.  For truth be told, of all the losses that Eastern Muslims have suffered in their encounters with the modern West, none is more debilitating than the loss of self-confidence and creativity that they feel in the modern world.  In America, this situation is further exacerbated by the simple fact that the doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, etc. from the Muslim world attracted to/by America (i) were not, generally speaking, the most culturally active or creative citizens of their own societies, (ii) have peculiar, historically conditioned, and essentialist attitudes toward the West, bordering either on wondrous awe or bitter rejection,[7] and (iii) have been influenced by an “identity” and “culture-free” internationalist modern Islam.  What is more, as Professor Marcia Hermansen has pointed out with serious concern,[8] a large number of second and third-generation immigrant youth seem to be even more firmly in the embrace of this identity – defined, primarily, vis-à-vis the cultural Other – and culture-free Islam.  She writes that

[o]ne of the major slogans of Muslim youth movements [in America] is the “rejection of culture.”… I am often told that I speak too much about culture in my classes, and that we should be learning about the “true” Islam.

An ideological premise of internationalist identity Islam is that this “true” Islam is apparently floating above everything cultural…. The American immigrant Muslim community welcomed the identity element promulgated by [major] Muslim organizations [with links to Internationalist Muslim revivalist movements] in the 1970s and 1980s because it solved the immediate threat of assimilation into American culture, by keeping the youth “Muslim and proud of it.”[9]

Hermansen notes that all this is in complete contradistinction, of course, to classical and pre-modern Islam, since it is “clear that wherever Islamic civilization took root around the world, it acculturated at the same time that it Islamicized.  The idea of a ‘culture-free’ Islam is therefore derived from modern ideologies rather than from authentic practice or historical fact.”[10] (emphasis mine)

On such an understanding – to the extent that it is correct – it becomes easy to appreciate the inability of Immigrant Islam to face-up to the cultural challenge in America.  However, even with this seeming inability, if immigrant Muslims were only willing to recognize cultural engagement as the opportunity that it really is, they may be open to encouraging and benefitting from the contributions of a culturally vibrant, unique and large indigenous[11] Muslim community in America.  Enter Blackamerican[12] Muslims.

Production[13] of an American Muslim Culture –What is the way out?

Blackamerican Muslims – given the significance of their historic and contemporary contributions to American culture, arts and society, in general – are perfectly capable of producing an indigenous American Muslim culture.  However, (i) to the extent that Immigrant Islam’s reactionariness to the dominant culture in America resonates with Blackamerican Muslims’ “corporate experience as a marginalized racial minority,”[14] and (ii) to the extent that Blackamerican Muslims buy into Immigrant pretensions of ultimate authority over Islam in America, they too are inhibited from facing up to this cultural challenge, as if in denial of their “uniquely rich Afro-American historical and cultural tradition”.  If you are having trouble believing this argument, then here is a contemporary and real-life puzzle that may help us all think through this: How many Muslims, immigrant or indigenous, would (dare to) consider Lupe Fiasco to be of the same (or greater) importance, to the future of Islam and Muslims in America, as Barack Obama? Lupe is a Blackamerican Muslim and a music artist who is on his way to becoming an important contributor to the wider American culture, and Barack is a Blackamerican non-Muslim and perhaps one of the most important (and influential) contemporary American politicians.  The answer to our puzzle, if we are honest, is that very, very few Muslims would rank Lupe as being (even close to) equally important.  This is not to say anything about Barack (or Lupe), but rather to point out where sources of power and influence reside in American Muslim perceptions.

Elsewhere, Professor Jackson, has written about the different ways in which Immigrant Islam’s “culture phobia” – often couched, of course, as piety and always presented as the only proper way of being Muslim – produces catastrophic results for Blackamerican Muslims.  Most important, for our purposes here, is his recognition that the resulting “suppression of Blackamerican creative energy severely jeopardizes the possibilities for the development of a cultural expression of American Islam that is a product of and is at home in the West.”[15]

If Islam is to be the vehicle through which Muslims will come to lead a meaningful, relevant and dignified existence in America, then a serious and discriminating attempt to indigenize Islam has to become a top priority for the American Muslim community, and the production of an American Muslim culture has to be the leading edge of any such attempt.  How else will our children and grand-children be able to move beyond the extremes of total assimilation or blind rejection, voluntary isolation or reckless consumption, and self-contempt or arrogance toward others?  How else can they become healthy, wholesome and contributing members of their society with a sense of agency and purpose?  How else will they develop the ability to think, create and, above all, love?

Blackamerican Muslim Empowerment and Cultural Production

None of this will happen, I believe, unless the (now latent or suppressed) creativity of Blackamerican Muslims is released and their contributions to the broader American culture valued and celebrated (as opposed to being viewed with suspicion, if not shunned outright.)  This project will need and should get the blessings and contributions of Immigrant Islam, but it certainly does not need its permission.  This project will, however, need Blackamerican Muslims to (i) (re)start trusting their own historical and cultural consciousness, (ii) be concerned about their reality, (iii) cultivate “the sources and authorities of historical Islam… in order to authenticate their views and actions and earn these recognition as Islamic,”[16] and (iv) use this consciousness, concern and authority to start addressing and transforming their own reality.  In short, the prospects of Blackamerican Muslims meeting the cultural challenge depend critically on their acquiring a general sense of empowerment as Muslims.

To the degree that organizations such as the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA) – “an organization committed to Muslims issues and concerns that especially impact indigenous Muslims,”[17] which one hopes will include issues of arts and culture, and the Inner-City Muslim Action network (IMAN) – which lists “cultivation of arts in urban communities”[18] as one of its three major areas of focus and is creating some amazing programs in this area[19] – are providing the platform to generate this sense of empowerment amongst indigenous Muslim communities, they can play a critical role in enabling Muslims to meet this “cultural challenge” in America.  For it may turn out – if all this talk by Jackson about political “trump-cards,” opening psychological spaces, and cultural indigenization is correct – that Lupe, and not Barack, will, indeed, be much more important to the future of Islam in America.

And God knows best.

[1] Originally published as Sherman A. Jackson, Muslims, Islamic Law and Public Policy in America in American Public Policy and American Muslims 51-83 (International Strategy & Policy Institute, 2000).

[2] Culture, often identified with “high-culture” like the fine arts, is used here, aditionally, “as a modern anthropological concept and… refers to the entire integrated pattern of human behavior and is immeasurably broader than its highest expressions.”  For more on this meaning of culture, see Umar F. Abd-Allah, "Islam and the Cultural Imperative,", 3-4.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Sherman A. Jackson, Muslims, Islamic Law and Public Policy in America, which is also available online as Sherman A. Jackson, Muslims, Islamic Law and Public Policy in the United States (

[4] For a thought-provoking look at the challenges and temptations confronted by religion (and religious people) in contemporary American politics and law see the works of Professor Stephen L. Carter, specially Stephen L. Carter, God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (New York: Basic Books 2000) and Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books 1993).  While Carter’s main concern is with the trivialization and “domestication” of religion in America, he is also concerned about the frequent and free identification of God’s cause with political causes, for “indeed, if the principal value of religion to a democratic polity is its ability to preach resistance, it is difficult to see any gain to religion from the unswerving effort to take control of the apparatus of the state.  If the religiously devout come to treat their faith communities as simple interest groups, involved in a general competition for secular power, it should come as no surprise if everybody else looks at them the same way.” The Culture of Disbelief, 68.

[5] For a scholarly (and passionate) treatment of this “cultural challenge,” see Umar F. Abd-Allah, "Islam and the Cultural Imperative."

[6] For possible (but in my experience not very often found) differences between Immigrant Islam and immigrant Muslims, see, Sherman A. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 13.

[7] This is, admittedly, an oversimplified account of a long history of mutual mistrust and antipathy between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim West resulting not only from religious polemics, but having much also to do with geopolitical hegemonies, power differentials, misunderstood constructions of the other and oneself, etc.

[8] Marcia Hermansen, “How To Put the Genie Back In the Bottle? ‘Identity’ Islam and Muslim Youth Cultures in America” in Progressive Muslims Ed. Omid Safi (Oxford: OneWorld, 2003), 306-319.

[9] Ibid., 309.

[10] Ibid., 310.  For more on Islam’s history and patterns of acculturation see, again, Umar F. Abd-Allah, "Islam and the Cultural Imperative."  For the basis of this acculturation in Islamic jurisprudence and for examples of how “Islamic jurisprudence helped facilitate this creative genius” see, also, Umar F. Abd-Allah, "Living Islam with Purpose,", 32-36.

[11] While I will focus, below, on Black Muslims, using Black and indigenous almost synonymously, it is important to note that the indigenous American Muslim community is a diverse collection of Blacks, Latinos, Whites, Natives, children of immigrants from the Muslim world, and other important groups.  Each of these groups, based on its roots, history and memory, is and will be making important contributions toward American Muslim culture(s).  I focus on Black Americans because of their unique communal experience in America, and with Islam in America.  The purpose is neither to present some essentialized and non-historical Black Muslim community, nor to create any new hegemonies in the process of dismantling old ones.

[12] For an explanation of the term Blackamerican see, Islam and the Blackamerican, 17.

[13] Of course, human beings are always producing culture(s), simply by living their lives, expressing themselves, creating communal boundaries, etc., so “production,” as used here, really stands for being conscious, reflective and purposeful about the culture(s) we generate constantly and reflexively.  For example, “[h]uman beings generate culture naturally like spiders spin silk, but unlike spiders’ webs the cultures people construct are not always adequate, especially when generated unconsciously, in confusion, under unfavorable conditions, or without proper direction.” Islam and the Cultural Imperative, 2.

[14] Islam and the Blackamerican, 4.

[15] Ibid., 85.

[16] Ibid., 55.

[19] “Asad Jafri, IMAN's Arts and Culture Director, was recently recognized in The Chronicle of Philanthropy for ‘Leaders of the New School’, a project to help young people in Chicago's South Side use hip-hop music, dance, and the visual arts to create and inspire social change.”

Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.

Quran: 16:125
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