Sajed Bhandari

America, Books, Cooking, Muslims and some other things

On Muslim Public Intellectual Culture in America

On Muslim Public Intellectual Culture in America

Sajed Bhandari

            It is exciting being Muslim in America these days.  Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, Muslims in general, and Muslim-Americans in particular have been the focus of much media coverage (most of it negative).  It is nothing novel to say that many American Muslims are looking to reconcile their ancient faith with their new homeland due to an external pressure to create a new identity.  Much of this collective soul-searching comes with the territory of being a new immigrant group or emerging minority in America.  America does powerful things to the people who have the fortune of immigrating here, and Muslim-Americans are no different in this regard.  The experience of Catholic and Jewish immigrants and their struggle for indigenization, their struggle for normalization in the American context, in its essence was not very different from the current struggle that Muslims are facing.  Muslims have much to study about the indigenization process of their earlier counterparts.  They have much to learn about what it means for them in their new homeland and what it means for the rest of the Muslim World.  This collective soul-searching connected with a 1400-year history of public intellectualism, I think, has created the vibrant public life that exists for so many Muslims in America. 

            I would be delusional if I was arguing that all American Muslims are consciously forging a new identity for themselves.  Many go about their days going to school, trying to find a career and the normal trappings of modern day life.  All they want is a good job, a good family and a good way to live the rest of their days.  In all honesty, they may even be the great majority of Muslims in America.  But for many of us, (and most of my friends), we each have searched for what it means to be Muslim and American.  This question has many answers and it provides the necessary environment for the public intellectual culture that Muslim-Americans enjoy.  A friend of mine, before he converted, spoke to me about how interesting he thought it was that college age Muslim students would take time out of their busy schedules to go for two weekend seminars with Al Maghrib to learn about a certain aspect of their religion. 

The various MSA’s do a great job of connecting young Muslims with many clerics who were born and raised in America and an increasing amount that also received much of their clerical training in America.  Secular and progressive Muslim figures, such as Khaled Abou Fadl, Omid Safi, Vali Nasr and the various local individuals hold vibrant circles and gatherings, connecting less orthodox Muslims with a different form of Islamic studies; a form less didactic and authoritarian.  Sufis sit around their leaders in an upstate New York mosque listening to him speak about the love of God and the love for man.  Closer to home, in that New York City university, the American-trained Imam teaches his students about how to be more humble, how to serve their community, how to be constructive members of this republic.  Salafis sit in mosques packed with their friends and fellow students, listening to a Sheikh who after finishing his sacred studies in the Middle East started his PhD in religious studies at Yale University.  More traditional minded Muslims sit cross-legged on lush carpets in front of a black convert, who served in the Air Force, taking notes on their newly bought iPAd in sunny California.  Just at my local mosque, an organizer from Atlanta came up north and spoke to a PACKED house (literally a house) of men and women, boys and girls, about the injustices of domestic abuse.  He quoted verses from the Quran, critiqued arguments of some classical scholars, and brought real life examples of his struggle with counseling abused Muslim women in Georgia.  Various statistics and cases from psychiatric studies dotted the young organizer’s speech to the Muslim public. 

In conclusion, the diversity in thought and the passion with which so many of my friends approach their identity search, I hope will continue to foster the vibrant public intellectual life of Muslim-Americans.  I did not write this entry in order to say Muslims are some how unique in this experience.  I did write this entry however, to express the hope I have in our community, a community diverse in thought and skin colors, diverse in belief and in practice, a community of individuals that will embrace both their ancient Muslim heritage (in whatever form the individual sees appropriate) and their proud American one.  I am very hopeful and ever the optimist.  For my friends who are not so active in this public life, the only thing I can say is get out and find what works for you!  Not everyone is going to be a Salafi.  Not everyone is going to be a Sufi.  Not everyone is going to find peace in secular and progressive Muslim circles.  Not everyone will find what he or she is looking for from the Shia clerics.  It’s not so important to me where you go to find answers to your identity; what is important to me is that you realize that there is something out there for you.  As Ali (RA) said, “There is enough light for he who wants to see.” 

Do not sit idly as history is made around you.


Written by sajedbhandari

November 1, 2010 at 11:56 am

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