Existential questions: Musings on being American and Muslim

On a plane bound for Washington, DC and the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America, I can't help but contemplate what it means to be Muslim and American.

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On a plane bound for Washington, DC and the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America, I can't help but contemplate what it means to be Muslim and American. The roots of Islam in America have already been well established. Freed African slaves of Muslim persuasion fought valiantly in the Buffalo Soldier regiments of the Union army. Their pictures haunt the walls of our museums.

As the indigenous Muslim presence in North America grew in the early 20th century, mainstream Sunni affiliation would be hard fought and won. Islam got its boost with the American Noble Drew Ali and his heterodox Moorish Science Temple. The immigrant Qadiani movement also drew effective attention to the nascent, yet alternative, American religious direction. It wasn't easy being Sunni back then, but commitment to the message and mission of Mohammed bolstered their resolve. One would have to sympathise with the frustration of those courageous men and women when the new immigrant community from the Holy East continued to support all types of wayward sects in a myopic attempt to secure their piece of the proverbial pie.

In the late 1970s a group of American Sunni converts would take the poor Egyptian imam of the Washington, DC central mosque hostage. They were incensed at his vocal support of Elijah Muhammad, eponym of the Nation of Islam movement that shared little with the religion other than the name. I would find myself in a similar state of puzzled frustration in the late '90s when the Grand Mufti of Syria gave away the glowing support of Muslims to Minister Louis Farrakhan even after his implication in the assassination of our beloved Imam Malcolm X had been explained to him. I guess the thought of tapping into "a million men" in America after the Soviet dissolution was too hard to resist.

I must admit that I hadn't thought of kidnapping him though. Even now a number of prominent Middle Eastern scholars have aligned themselves with a fringe group in the West that advocates the transcendental unity of all religions. It appears that even one prominent Eastern educational centre has jumped on to the syncretistic bandwagon during a recent Islam and the West conference. Can a Sunni brother get some backup in here? This seems like too much a disingenuous and unnecessary price to pay to get a seat at the table. I think this "darker brother" would rather eat in the kitchen.

Much ado has been made of late about the development - or shall we say engineering - of an "American Islam". Well, can you blame people? But while that American Islam cannot be about jettisoning anything that might set us apart from what outsiders or newcomers may perceive as the status quo, it is very much about finding a unique cultural expression. An expression that is at once comfortable with the timeless principles of the Way of Islam in a western climate and dovetails with the many-flavoured story that is America - even the bitter flavours.

But even more, it's about commitment. American Muslims have always had a sense of mission. Inspired by the commitment of the Ansar as they stood on the shores of the Red Sea reminding Mohammed of their pledge of fealty to him. He wanted to give them the choice of opting out of a potentially dangerous confrontation with Quraysh. Their retort in one single voice was that, "Were you to strike a path into this very ocean, have no doubt that we would follow right behind you."

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi