Let me begin with a brief explicatory statement about the word ‘Islamization.’ I use this term here in reference to a two-stage process. The first stage is conversion to Islam,’ and the second is the reinforcement, strengthening or deepening of Islam in the individual. Of course, most Muslims in the world are born into a Muslim family, and thus they do not pass through the first stage, or so it would seem. But many of them do have social, intellectual and spiritual experiences which are the essence of the second stage of Islamization. An example of this would be the effects of the international phenomenon called “the resurgence of Islam”.
In America, the situation is somewhat different. Recent immigrants from Muslim societies-say during the last eighty years-and their offspring generally do not pass through the first stage per se. However, American Muslims, who are descendants of people who arrived here from Europe (European-Americans or “white Americans”) and Africa (African-Americans or “black Americans”) several centuries ago, passed through, in varying degrees, both stages. Now let us consider some factors which promote and restrict Islamization in America.
No doubt America is amongst the most tolerant countries in the world with respect to freedom of expression and religious practice. And despite this society’s many democratic shortcomings and lack of will to make its practices more congruent with its ideals, America’s legal guarantees of basic freedoms foster Islamization. Muslim visitors and immigrants appreciate this fact much more than many other American Muslims, whose vision is often blurred by particular inadequacies and injustices in the American system.
Theoretically, American democracy is not disturbed by, nor does it disturb much, the new adherent of Islam, provided he/she ‘renders unto Caesar’ that which Caesar considers his right. To be sure, there are few countries in which many thousands of people are permitted to follow openly other than the official religion or ideology of the state, to propagate it publicly, to erect places of worship and schools to teach that the standing order should be replaced by an alien one, and to build institutions to facilitate the growth and reinforcement of a foreign way of life. Further the United States’ system allows foreigners and citizens to denigrate the character of foreign leaders, and to call for their forcible removal. This type of political or religious opposition is permitted in this country even when the government has no vested interest in the aims of the resident activists. Indeed, many Muslims in America believe that they enjoy more freedom of speech, assembly, and religious and ideological expression than their coreligionists and countrymen in the Muslim world.
Another factor which promotes Islamization in America is the diversity of sources of Islamic knowledge. These include public, school, college, university and some mosque libraries, and bookshops and publishing companies owned by non-Muslims and Muslims. Additionally, several international Muslim publications from Europe, Asia and Africa are available in some of the libraries, bookstores and Islamic centers in this country.
Also, there is a growing number of knowledgeable individuals-Muslims and non-Muslims-some of whom teach in educational institutions and Islamic centers across the United States. Others are pursuing higher education in various fields, or are employed in a wide diversity of professional and skilled jobs; still others are imams and officials in mosques and Islamic centers. National, regional and local meetings and conferences sponsored by various Islamic/Muslim organizations also promote, Islamization, especially the second stage-that is, reinforcement. A number of non-Muslim and Muslim academic associations provide a treasure of information about Islam through their annual conferences, journals and other publications.
We should not forget that the media in this country is a source of Islamic information, and that, in some cases, it is a primary source for the first stage of Islamization-conversion. The media, which provides such information, consists of the non-Muslim and Muslim-owned press, radio and television programs, and documentary films. While not all of the public media is intended to impart Islamic information, it does so, and sometimes in spite of itself. Again, in some cases, the daily and weekly media have aided the first and second stages of Islamization. I dare say that there exists in this country a greater diversity in the published materials on Islam than in many Muslim countries.
A third factor that contributes to Islamization is social contact between Muslims. Certainly, there are many cases in which friendly contact between Muslims and non-Muslims have resulted in conversion to Islam. Direct contact is definitely the most effective reformer of Islamization in its first and second stages. Undoubtedly, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) appreciated this fact to the fullest extent, for the Hadith literature is replete with exhortations, commands and even admonitions relevant to social cohesion amongst Muslims. The Prophet’s sayings and acts in this regard elucidate and further reinforce the injunctions and precepts contained in several Qur’anic verses.
As a student of social history, I believe that Islam would not have spread much beyond the Arabian Peninsula had it not stressed social contact and cohesion amongst the believers. The best manifestations of that social contact and cultural cross-fertilization in the early centuries of Islam is to be found in the exegetic or commentary literature on the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet, as well as in the Islamic legal works of Asian and African scholars. While this kind of social and intellectual exchange contributed to the rise of schools of thought, madhahib, it also served as a sort of cement which, to a large extent, held together the fabric of the international Muslim community. It was through social intercourse and similarities in interests, especially in local areas, which substantially account for the early spread and reinforcement of Islam. To be sure, the initial spread of Islam amongst African-Americans and its reinforcement amongst twentieth century immigrants are largely due to social exchange and commonality of interests.