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Popular Religion in Europe and the Americas

Local Muslim belief and practice in non-Muslim countries reflect the historical experience of the community and the larger cultural environment within which it lives. Conversion and migration throughout the twentieth century have resulted in about eleven or twelve million Muslims living in Europe and America (the Muslim population figures tend to be estimates because of illiteracy, misunderstanding, and concealment of identity for fear of becoming entangled with the law). This large number has complicated the already complex relationship between Islam and the West. Islam is no longer “over there,” in Asia or Africa; it is now a Western religion also.

To bring into relief the complicated processes at work in discussing popular Muslim belief and practice in the West, I will compare two Muslim communities: the Black Muslims in the United States and Muslims in Britain.

The range of belief and practice among these Muslims is wide, including fresh migrants from Muslim countries bringing their orthodox ways and local converts sometimes inventing their own. In some cases, the opposite is true: local Muslims have been notably correct in Islamic behavior and critical of Muslim visitors for being lax or improper. An interesting example, because it contains a paradox, comes from Cambridge University in iggi when British Muslim students threatened members of the University’s Pakistan society with physical violence if they went ahead with their plans for an ethnic folkdance. Dancing, they said, was un-Islamic, and as Pakistan to them represented Islam, the Pakistani students needed to live up to their ideal.

Aghast at such challenges to their “Muslimness,” the Pakistanis in turn complained that these British Muslims oscillated between two points: either very Islamic or very westernized. They have good-humoredly coined a name for local Muslims: BBCD or “British-Born Confused Desi” (“native”); in America, it is ABCD. For their part, the local Muslims call such Pakistanis TPs or “typical Pakistanis.” Both labels contain negative connotations and reflect the inherent cultural tensions between Muslims in the West and those visiting from Muslim lands.

Developments in technology, transport, and communication-fueling the trend to globalization-in recent decades have ensured that no community can remain isolated, least of all Muslims; that all communities, however isolated in the past, are moving toward a defined uniformity. There are increasingly smaller chances for the survival of popular local religious practices in clashes with mainstream and orthodox Islam. Imams from Cairo and Medina, visiting scholars, audio- and video cassettes, ensure that the correct message is available as never before in history (Ahmed, x988, 1992; Esposito, 1991; Nielsen, 1992; Shaikh, 1992).

Another factor in the decline of local customs is the dynamic and increasingly well-educated younger generation. Generally better educated than the previous one, it has higher hopes. Islam gives it an identity and pride. Young Muslims have wide and well-established networks in the academic world and jealously guard the frontiers of Islam.

Media interest in Muslims has been heightened by the growing notion in the West that Islam is the next major enemy after the collapse of communism. Discussion and debate around certain issues-the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s novel, the Gulf War, the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International-have also forced onto Muslims an Islamic identity. In each case, this identity is reinforced in the community, as its members feel identified by their Muslimness regardless of their individual ideas. Muslimness is reinforced by a sense of deprivation, the feeling that as a community they have a long way to go in spite of numbers, education, and in many cases, wealth: there are still no Muslim members of Parliament in Europe or congressmen or senators in the United States.

Black Muslims. Perhaps the most dramatic example of how local Muslim belief and practice in the West differs substantially from orthodox Islam is provided by some of the Black Muslims in the United States. Although their membership was always a small percentage of the total U.S. Muslim population (about six million), their objectives, dedication, and the media’s interest nonetheless gave them a high profile. In fact, they be came the face of Islam in America as far as the media was concerned.

However, the Black Muslim movement cannot be understood without understanding the cultural environment in which it took root. Islam, however improperly and dimly understood, provided a genuine link with an atavistic past in Africa. It also provided a legitimate idiom in the fight for civil rights. Thus, the movement became inextricably linked with the struggle for civil rights, the need to combat slavery and racial discrimination, and the desire to locate dignity and pride in the face of ugly and massive racial prejudice.

Islam gave a coherent philosophy of life to many African Americans, and it provided a viable, ready-made role model in the form of the former slave Bilal, one of the most ardent supporters of Islam in the seventh century and a great favorite of the prophet Muhammad. Indeed, the Prophet appointed Bilal as the first muezzin (Ar., mu’adhdin; the person who calls people to prayer at the mosque). The early African American Muslims called themselves Bilalians; Islam gave them a sense of honor and dignity.

However, there was much unorthodox thinking in the early Black Muslim movement. Although members of the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930 in Detroit, believed in the notion of one God called Allah, they also believed that Elijah Muhammad was the last messenger of God. Heaven and hell were believed to exist on earth, and the number of stipulated prayers during the day was increased from five to seven. The month of December was fixed for fasting. Central Islamic beliefs, such as the finality of the Prophet, and accepted traditional practice, like the daily prayers or the month of fasting, were being challenged.

The belief in black supremacy, that the white race is intrinsically evil, was a major plank of the Nation of Islam’s platform and reflected the racial situation in the United States. This philosophy was consciously inverting the form of racism that the African American community faced, especially in the southern states. There, some believed that blacks were congenitally inferior, their brains were smaller, their morals looser, and so on. Islamic belief and practice provided black groups with social cohesion, a sense of moral purpose, and above all, much-needed dignity. Also, a strict code of dress and conduct sought to stamp out drug and alcohol abuse in the community.

Hatred of white people, however, could not be justified in Islam. The Qur’an emphasizes that all humanity-regardless of color-is equally the creation of God and among God’s wonders. Indeed, this was conveyed in the last message of the Prophet at Arafat when he underlined that Arab and non-Arab, black and white, are all equal before God; only piety makes one person better than another.

Any Black Muslim seriously wishing to learn about Islam would confront many Nation of Islam teachings as un-Islamic and therefore ask questions. This is precisely what Malcolm X, one of the most charismatic of the Black Muslims, did. One of Elijah Muhammad’s most trusted lieutenants, he had risen from the slums, knowing prison and drug abuse.

A pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 opened Malcolm X’s eyes to the true nature of Islam and changed his views dramatically. He expressed the change in his powerfully moving letters. He formally became a Sunni and took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. But by accepting orthodox Islam, he was challenging local belief and practice and therefore antagonizing his alreadyestranged group. Louis Farrakhan, once his friend, now demanded his death. A few months later, in 1965, Malcolm X was shot.

Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X (1992) revealed the complexity and character of Malcolm X. It also revealed his continuing relevance to America today. The first American Muslim martyr, Malcolm X, ironically, has of late been recognized as a modern popular icon-not just a marginal black leader.

In the 1970s, important changes were taking place among the Black Muslims. After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1974, the succession of his son, Wallace (later Warith) Muhammad, the growth of the African American middle class, and the success of the Nation of Islam’s chain of supermarkets, barber shops, and restaurants created a more relaxed community. Wallace Muhammad promptly dismantled the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam’s force of young men trained in martial arts and firearms use.

Postwar Muslim migrants from the Middle East and South Asia were also organizing Islamic societies which interacted with the Black Muslims and further drew them toward global Islam. Most important, increasing contact with and awareness of other Islamic movements outside the United States brought Black Muslim belief and practice more in line with international Islam. This occurred during the late 1970s, a time of increased international awareness of Islam, the era of King Faysal, of Saudi Arabia, General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.

The pressures to reform split the Black Muslims in 1978 between Wallace Muhammad, who became head of the World Community of Islam, the U.S. component of which is the American Muslim Mission (present membership is about 150,000, but it has wide general support), and Louis Farrakhan, who revived the original Nation of Islam (membership about 50,000).

By reappraising the role of Elijah Muhammad-as a great teacher rather than a messenger-and adopting an international approach, the American Muslim Mission has reconciled with Sunni sentiment. This link is further strengthened by the fact that the American Muslim Mission sends some members to study in Cairo and Medina.

Smaller groups, such as the Hanafi Muslims, whose leader, Abdul Khaalis, is accepted as an authority in about a hundred mosques, also split from the Black Muslims to move even more closely to mainstream Islam.

The beliefs and practices of Wallace Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan remain opposed: the former has opened membership to all races and moved toward the Sunni position, the latter flaunts antiwhite sentiments, has recreated the Fruit of Islam, and rejects integration into the American political mainstream; indeed, he demands a separate African American state. Wallace Muhammad enjoys a degree of respectability in America never enjoyed before by a Black Muslim leader, but Farrakhan remains a figure of controversy. [See Nation of Islam and the biographies of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.]

Muslims of the Outer Hebrides. The Muslim community in Stornoway on the Outer Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland, provides a dramatic contrast with the American Black Muslims. This group is almost invisible, grateful to be where it is, and earnestly working away to be accepted and integrated.

On Sundays the island is cut off from the world; there is no ferry or plane. No washing is hung out, and the parks are closed. The children’s swings are chained and padlocked and so are the public toilets. This is high Presbyterian country, and Sunday is exclusively given to the Lord. No one in Stornoway would violate the cultural code that demands that people stay indoors, least of all the Muslim minority.

The group numbers about fifty and is mainly composed of Arain people from the Punjab in Pakistan (Ahmed, 1986). The Arain have specific social characteristics. They are generally small farmers from lowincome groups. They tend to be thrifty, austere, and reflect the work ethic that made the Calvinists such a force in the drive toward Western capitalism (according to Max Weber’s famous thesis).

In Stornoway, the Arain work ethic meets the Protestant work ethic, and the result is the success story of the small Pakistani community. The success, and the community’s respectability, is reflected in the neat, gray suits, white shirts, sober ties, and clean-shaven appearance which the elders favor. Education is another area where the two ethics meet happily. Many of the young generation are pursuing advanced degrees.

The older generation did not build a mosque. There is no imam on the island. Indeed, they celebrate the religious festivals in a low-key manner, by taking an evening off on Saturday; both the work ethic and local cultural sensibilities are thus satisfied.

Muslim culture might seem subdued in Stornoway, but the sense of Muslimness is far from obliterated. In fact, there are many signs that the new generation is asserting itself in a much more distinctly Islamic manner than the previous one. A female Ph.D. candidate at Glasgow University, for example, is preparing for an arranged marriage in Pakistan. She has no qualms about this or her role as a Muslim wife; it is strange to hear this traditional Muslim speak in a strong Scottish accent. The living room of one of the Pakistani household heads is full of Islamic symbolism, of photos of Mecca and Medina; but it is a private room. We have in this Muslim group an example of a minority almost invisible and well integrated but showing signs of Islamic assertion under the surface. However, the harmony of the Outer Hebrides must not be taken as representative of the fife of average British Muslims, which is fraught with change, tension, and challenge.

British Muslims. The main difference between Islam in the American and European contexts is the social and economic composition of the Muslim community. In the United States, the community is largely middle class; doctors, engineers, academics. This gives it a greater social confidence and a positive sense of belonging. In Europe, by and large, the community remains stuck in the underclass, still seen as immigrants. Its failure on the political scene is spectacular: although Britain has about two million Muslims, they have not been able to win a single seat in Parliament. Worse, their leaders tend to be divided and more interested in attacking each other than representing the community.

Another difference is that in the United States there is a greater geographical spread; Muslims are not seen as concentrating in one state or city. In Europe, there is a tendency to concentrate; Bradford, England, is an example. The concentration allows greater uniformity in belief and practice. During the Rushdie crisis, the leaders of Bradford were constantly consulted by the media. Concentration allowed the media to simplify questions of leadership, values, strategy, and organization among Muslims. Only subsequently did people realize that, although the Bradford spokespeople reflected broadly the general opinion of Muslims, they were by no means elected or unanimously accepted leaders of the entire Muslim community of the United Kingdom.

The concentration of Muslims in England has another consequence. The community can-and frequently does-import and perpetuate its sectarian and ethnic characteristics from home. The traditional sectarian tensions in Pakistan between the Barelwis and Deobandis, both mainstream Sunni Muslims, were lifted en bloc to the United Kingdom. For the outsider, the differences between these sects would be confusing and difficult to understand. For example, the holy Prophet for the Barelwis (or Barelvis, who are mostly from the Pakistan province of Punjab) is a superhuman figure whose presence is all around us and at all times hazir (present); he is not bashar (material or flesh) but nur (light). The Deobandis, who also revere the Prophet, argue he was the insan-i kamil (the perfect person) but still only a man, a mortal. This explains why Kalim Siddiqui in the United Kingdom, demanding the implementation of Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet in his novel, found his most sympathetic audience among the Barelwis. [See Barelwis and Deobandis.]

The known characteristics of British Muslims underline the differences between the community in the United Kingdom and in the United States: there is a greater concentration of the Muslim population in certain cities. There is the continuing pull of the old, home country. This has social implications. For instance, many Pakistani families still look for spouses in Pakistan. The larger political confrontation in South Asia between India and Pakistan, between Hindus and Muslims, is also reflected in the United Kingdom. An example is provided by the events following the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, India, in December 1992. Hindu temples were attacked in the United Kingdom, and there was considerable tension between Muslims and Hindus in the traditionally peaceful Asian community.

However, there are also similarities between the United States and Europe. In both places, the mosque is an important center of social and political activity and has provided leadership in times of crises. In both places, the media have been involved in the Muslim debate, particularly in such cases as The Satanic Verses controversy. This in turn has united the community across sectarian and ethnic barriers.

The one major difference between the American and European situation is that in the United States a large percentage of Muslims are local or indigenous. So while the struggle in Europe is between Muslims attempting to establish a foothold, united in their foreignness, otherness, and alienness, in America, it is the move to find a balance between the local Black Muslims and mainstream Muslims from the rest of the Muslim world, between local practice and mainstream Islamic thinking and tradition.

The problem of an accurate population census of Muslims in both the United States and Europe remains. Therefore, not only populations but also percentages can only be estimates at best. Yet it is clear that the dynamics of Muslim belief and practice on the two different continents is affected by the percentage of immigrants in the Muslim population, which is overwhelming in Europe and much less so in the United States. However, this situation is beginning to change as a younger Muslim generation comes of age in Europe and sees itself as both Muslim and European. It is also changing in the United States as Black Muslims themselves move closer to the mainstream Muslim position recognized throughout the world.

Local belief and practice in Europe and the Americas have grown as a Muslim response to the larger nonMuslim community, echoing it. Over time, these beliefs and practices have been aligned more and more closely with the orthodox Islamic position. This process has been helped by the media, by international politics, by fresher migration from Muslim countries, and by a more educated and assertive younger generation. The reconciliation between the demands of local identity and those of universal Islam will be one of the great challenges for Muslims in Europe and America, a process fraught with excitement and, at times, tension.

[See also Islam, articles on Islam in Europe and Islam in the Americas.]


Ahmed, Akbar S. Pakistan Society: Islam, Ethnicity, and Leadership in South Asia. Karachi and Oxford, 1986.

Ahmed, Akbar S. Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. London and New York, 1988.

Ahmed, Akbar S. Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. London,1992.

Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. Exp. ed. New York and Oxford. 1991.

Nielsen, Jorgen S. Muslims in Western Europe. Edinburgh, 1992. Shaikh, Farzana, ed. Islam and Islamic Groups: A Worldwide Reference Guide. Essex, 1992.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/popular-religion-europe-americas/

  • writerPosted On: June 27, 2017
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