In the study of religion, is ‘thought’ more important than the everyday reality of those who practice religion? By ‘thought’ I include all the teachings, conceptions of ‘ideal society’ and life that every religion teaches. This is a hard question to answer, as ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are two sides of the same coin, but in some cases, the practice assumes greater significance, as ‘ideal conditions’ for practice of the religion do not exist and those who believe in a certain religion tend to improvise and adapt their practices to the situation they find themselves in.
In the case of American Muslims, I suggest that the study of praxis is more important than that of ‘thought’ or ideal conceptions of society. The latter is not insignificant, but marginal, since the strategies that American Muslims have used to survive, build their communities and thrive have been based on pragmatic decisions, improvisational practices and a more ahistorical understanding of Islamic practice. Much of scholarship on Islam in the Academy normally occurs with the lens of ‘Islamic thought’ and in analyzing how classical scholarship by Imam Ghazali, Imam Hanafi or others has continued to influence day to day life of Muslims. On the other hand, there a strong focus on analyzing political movements and radical movements in the Middle East – in terms of trying to understand how these could
One instance of such practice is offered by Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, who argues that Muslims in Portland, Oregon are offering such examples, as praying in the car, when it is time for prayer, instead of missing it – while doing away with the prostrations – as it is not possible, while driving. He suggests that such instances are not uncommon in the U.S. Another example he offers, writing, as part of the Portland Pluralism project is that of not washing one’s feet during the ablution (wudu), before the prayers. This practice, while allowed in the fiqh, or Islamic legal tradition is not often practiced by Muslims in other parts of the world, but is done, quite regularly by those in the U.S., as many Muslims are uncomfortable washing their feet in public bathrooms.
Even in the case of practicing philanthropy, I have seen this improvisation taking place. The very notion of international humanitarian giving can be seen as an improvisation, based in the pragmatic needs of the community. While original conceptualization of zakat and sadaqa encourage believers to give to their immediate relatives, or neighbors, this form of trans-national giving can be seen as a recent innovation.
Another area of improvisation in philanthropy is interfaith work. It is regarded with some suspicion, among the more conservative members of American Muslim society. By philanthropy, I mean all forms of ‘voluntary action for the common good’. While organizations such as Islamic Relief, Helping Hands for Humanity and the like are focused on international work, with some significant work being carried out locally, as well; there are hundreds of local community organizations, operating independently or through mosques – in some cases – that are working to not only build networks of support, but also
One of the most interesting cases I have seen, during my time living in Washington D.C., was the practice of using a church for Jum’ah (Friday) prayers. This is a regular practice and has been ongoing for a while now. The ADAMS Center in Washington D.C. uses the Church of Epiphany for the congregations. This has been an ongoing activity, much earlier than the recently publicized event of Muslims praying in the National Cathedral in D.C. While the symbolism of Muslims praying in the largest Cathedral in the city is not to be dismissed, some see it as a PR stunt. Note that this occurred during the troubles in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. A rather cynical friend in Blacksburg connected these two events and suggested that it is a conspiracy of the ‘zionists’ to tell Muslims that they should offer their sites to Christians and Jews to pray. While his logic is indicative of some of the suspicions that some Muslims harbor, it doesn’t take into account the improvisational nature of Muslim practices in the U.s., where Muslims have taken Christian names, married their women and have had a fluid and accommodating relationship with other religions, races.
Another example that I can offer from my own experience is that of the definition of a ‘Muslim’. In the U.S. unlike in many other parts of the world, the definition of who is a Muslim is very fluid. For instance, does the Ahmadiyaa community, which is considered ‘heretical’ in the Indo-Pak region is a full member of the broader Muslim community, at least in theory. While there are not as many interactions between the community and its non-Ahmadiyaa Muslim communities, the situation is at least better than in the Sub-continent, where members of the community have been actively persecuted for their beliefs and Pakistan has labelled them non-Muslim, as they believe in the prophethood of their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed.
All of this is not to suggest that somehow orthodox beliefs or systems of thought are irrelevant in the U.S., but only to indicate that the way we study traditional practices among American Muslims must be re-looked at, in the context of the growing felt need of American Muslims to find common ground and find space for their way of life, among others, who do not always share their beliefs. Does this answer all our questions about how Islam is evolving in America? Not really, but at least, it offers a honest and true perspective of things as they are, not as they should be.