M.A.R. Habib
Department of English, Rutgers University

Islam, as both a religious and cultural phenomenon in South Jersey, is still in its infancy. Only in relatively recent times have Muslims begun to establish communities and centres of worship. It is estimated that there are approximately seven million Muslims in the United States. African Americans comprise more than forty per cent of this number (this group is quite distinct from the adherents of the so-called Nation of Islam). Many of the Muslims in the United States, both black and white, are converts to Islam. Though American Muslims originate from many parts of the world, a large proportion of them has come from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. At present, both first generation Muslims and their children are struggling to adapt to a new society, to achieve an integrated identity as both Americans and Muslims, and to clarify their true beliefs against the grain of  certain negative political  images and stereotypes. Given these factors, the seeds of Islamic art and literature, though they have flowered for centuries in a vast and rich heritage, have barely been planted  in the new soil of America.

Instead of focusing exclusively on Islamic culture or art, then, this article will adopt a broader approach. It will offer an introduction to Islam, its origins, basic beliefs and practices. It will then provide an overview of Islamic cultural traditions, including Islamic art. Finally, it will consider the work of certain nationwide Islamic organisations in America so as to contextualise the subsequent account of the activities of Muslims in South Jersey.

Introduction to Islam

“Islam” means “submission” to the will of God; a “Muslim” is a person who submits to the Divine Will. The religion of Islam is characterised primarily by its uncompromising monotheism, its absolute insistence that God is One, and that the prophet Muhammad was His final messenger to humankind. Islam sees itself as continuing what is true in Judaism and Christianity and reveres the Hebrew prophets, including Christ. Its main prescriptions and tenets, known as the “five pillars” of Islam, are the profession of faith, prayer, fasting, charity on behalf of the poor, and a pilgrimage to  Mecca, the birthplace of the religion. Islam also enjoins humility, honesty in trade, personal cleanliness, and insists on the absolute spiritual equality of all human beings before God.

The prophet Muhammad was born in the year 570 A.D. in the town of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Unhappy with the idolatry that was prevalent in Arabia, he developed the habit of meditating in the desert outside of Mecca. In the year 610 A.D., when he was forty years old, he received his first revelation from God. The archangel Gabriel appeared before him and gave him the first verses of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the Islamic sacred scripture and it literally means “recitation.” Muhammad’s wife Khadijah was the first convert to Islam. The new religion of Islam appealed to those who were sensitive to the inequalities and iniquities of Arabian society: Islam insisted on improving the treatment of women, orphans, slaves and even animals. It forbade cruel tribal practices, and prescribed fairness in business dealings.

The new religion, with its increasingly large following, was a threat to the established Meccan economy and customs, as well as to the entire hierarchical social order. The Muslims were persecuted, tortured and killed. Eventually, they were forced to flee to the city of Medinah in the year 622 A.D. This journey is called the Hijrah or “flight” to Medina ; so important was this journey to the survival of Islam that Muslims date their calendar from it.

Eventually, through making converts, Islam triumphed over the old idolatrous religions. In the year 630 A.D. Muhammad marched peacefully into Mecca at the head of ten thousand men and retook the city. Mecca became the central point of worship for Muslims and remains so today. After Muhammad=s death in 632 A.D., Islam spread rapidly, first overtaking the whole of Arabia, and then, the Byzantine Empire to the West and the Persian Empire to the North and East. Islamic civilisation reached its height as a world empire during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, with dazzling capitals first in Damascus and then in Baghdad . Various Islamic empires continued until the early part of the twentieth century when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Islamic Cultural Traditions

 Over the last fouurteen centuries, the Islamic world has produced a brilliant constellation of great scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers and poets. The Arabs, who translated the writings of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, were responsible for transmitting these texts to the Western world in the Middle Ages. The first piece of literature in Islam is the Qur’an  itself. All the revelations to Muhammad during his lifetime were compiled shortly after his death into the Qur’an, a book whose Arabic text has survived unchanged for over fourteen centuries.

Here is a well-known passage from the Qur’an, which I have translated into English with the help of an Arabic-speaking person. I hope it exhibits something of the beauty of this scripture:

God is the Light 
Of the Heavens and of the Earth; 
His Light is a parable, of 
A Lamp within a niche; without the lamp, a glass 
Haloed as a brilliant star, lit 
From an olive tree, blessed; 
Whose soil is neither East nor West; 
Its very oil would shine forth 
Though untouched by fire: 
Light upon Light. 
God raises to His Light whom He will; 
He engenders parables for men, He 
Whose knowing is beyond horizon.  

His Light abides in houses, sanctified 
For the adoration of His Name. There 
Is He glorified, morning and evening 
By those whom trade nor profit can 
Divert from remembrance of their God 
Or from steadfastness in charity and prayer; 
Whose sole fear is for the Day 
When heart and vision awake 
In a new world 
Where God rewards their deeds 
Giving ever more from His Grace 
For God furnishes measurelessly 
Those whom He will. 
Qur’an XXIV. 35-38.  

The second source of authority in Islam, after the Qur’an, is the sunnah or example of the prophet, which is known largely through the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to Muhammad.  Here are some of the prophet’s statements, which embody the spirit of Islam:

“The world is green and beautiful
and God has appointed you His stewards over it.”

“The best richness is the Richness of the Soul, 
The best provision is piety, 
The most profound philosophy is the fear of God, 
The Exalted, 
The Great.”

“God is gentle 
and loves gentleness in all things.”

“The world 
and all things in it are valuable 
but the most valuable thing in the world is 
a virtuous woman.”

“He is not a believer 
who eats his fill 
while his neighbour 
remains hungry by his side.”

“God will have mercy 
on a man 
who is easy when he sells and when he buys 
when he demands the honouring of an obligation due to him.”

The long traditions of Islamic theology and philosophy, flourishing from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries and stagnating somewhat thereafter, were highly eclectic, drawing on Greek, Persian and Christian thought. Their concerns overlapped considerably with those of Christian theology: freewill, predestination, anthropomorphism, the nature of the Divine, the connections between human and Divine law, and the reconciliation of reason and revelation. Many of the thinkers prominent in these traditions have long been known through their influence on Western thought: the Neoplatonists al-Farabi (Alfarabius) (870-950) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037); the sharply non-conformist al-Razi (Rhazes) (d.923?); al-Ghazali (1058-1111) who attempted to reconcile orthodox Islamic doctrine with the insights of Sufism (Islamic mysticism); and the Aristotelian Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-98).

The literary figures of Islam include the great mystical poets from Persia such as Hafez (c.1320-c.1389), Sa’di (c.1213-1292) and Rumi (1207-1273); the spanish Arab thinker Ibn Hazm (994-1064), who anticipates some of Freud’s ideas; and the renowned sociologist and historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406). There are many more stars in the constellation of Islamic letters. Literary traditions have continued into modern times in the work of figures such as the Urdu poet Iqbal (1877-1938), the female Persian poet Farugh Farrukhzad (1935-1967), the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (b. 1911) and the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal al-Sadawi (b. 1931).

There is also a long tradition of art in the Islamic world. Much Islamic art has been shaped, at least in part, by a strong aversion to idolatry and, by implication, to the representation of living beings. One prominent style has been the arabesque, which is based on abstract and symbolic design.  Islamic art has also used highly intricate geometric designs, expressing a sense of order and stability. One of the highest achievements of Islamic art has been calligraphy, especially prized for its ability to render in beautiful (and sometimes mystical) form the language of the Qur’an. All of these forms of art are non-representational: they refrain from depicting human beings or even the world of nature.  Even where representation occurs, it tends not to be three-dimensional and to effect a different use of perspective than Western art (for example, objects are painted without casting shadows; and objects farther away are sometimes portrayed as larger than closer objects). While there is hardly any tradition of sculpture in the Islamic world, there is a rich heritage, still flourishing, of architecture, as seen in some of the dazzling mosques and palaces in Spain,Iran,India and many other parts of the world.

Islam in America and New Jersey

Many of these Islamic traditions are being continued today in America generally and locally in our own state of New Jersey. Organizations such as ICNA (the Islamic Circle of North America) and ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America) are working hard to promote knowledge, understanding and practice of Islam. These groups produce monthly magazines, a wide range of books, pamphlets, videotapes and computer resources; they also host large annual conventions in various American cities. In addition to these central organisations, there are numerous groups devoted to the disssemination of Islamic art and culture; to womens’ rights; to the understanding of Islamic law; and to the examination of Islam’s stance on democracy and individual rights.

At a more local level, the primary task of each Muslim community, including the communities of South Jersey, has been to establish a masjid or mosque: this is not merely a place of worship but a centre for the lives of Muslims. There are well established Islamic centres in Palmyra, Delran, Lawnside and Mount Holly, and numerous mosques in Philadelphia. Recently, the Muslim American Community Association in Voorhees, through the initiative of its Managing Trustee and  Director, obtained permission to build a mosque. This group was graciously supported by a coalition for multi-faith democracy composed of various religious groups including Catholics, Quakers, Jews and Unitarians. This coalition has been instrumental in opening up avenues for Islamic education.

Typically, the members of South Jersey ‘s Islamic centres congregate every week for Friday prayers in the early afternoon, and many centres are open for the five prescribed daily prayers from sunrise through the evening. At the weekends, they also conduct classes in Islamic education for both children and adults; these classes include Arabic (the language in which the Qur’an was revealed and written), Qur’anic interpretation and exegesis, the life of the prophet, Islamic law, the hadith or sayings of the prophet, and all areas of Islamic life such as the learning of appropriate manners, respect for parents, and personal cleanliness. All of these centres make special arrangements during the holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims are required to fast from sunrise until sunset; special prayers are conducted every evening, and members of the community break their fast together in the mosque. A celebration called Eid ul-Fitr is held to mark the end of Ramadan. Another festival, Eid al-Adha (The Festival of Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice) is held at the end of the pilgrimage or Haj, and this too marks the occasion for a joyous celebration in the community.

Islam places strong emphasis on an endeavour to spread knowledge and understanding of the religion. Muslims in South Jersey have been increasingly active in giving talks on Islam in schools, libraries and colleges, attempting to foster more accurate understanding of Islamic doctrine and practice. They have also engaged in inter-faith dialogues with various churches. Islam attaches great importance to charity, and virtually all of the Islamic organisations so far mentioned, both national and local, are actively involved in raising money and procuring adequate food and clothing for poor and hungry people in many parts of the world.

One of the most successful local institutions is the Islamic Centre of South Jersey in Palmyra. Established in 1993, it has a membership of about 300 people, and runs a very successful school with about 200 students. In addition to the usual activities such as holding Friday prayers, this centre has arranged large fundraising dinners, contributed to several charities, and invited many prominent speakers to talk on various aspects of Islam. Its members have published articles in local newspapers and given talks on the radio (some of these are still accessible on lifenetradio.org). Affiliated with the mosque are various youth groups who have participated in Muslim youth activities such as a “fastathon” during Ramadan, intended to raise money for a soup kitchen, a food drive, the local “Meals on Wheels” program, and visiting old people. The Muslim Youth Association at the Palmyra mosque is part of a network of local youth groups across the United States and Canada, whose purpose is to build a sound understanding of the principles of Islam.Members of the Centre have given talks at several churches on various aspects of Islam such as the status of women, charity, forgiveness and the connections of Islam with Judaism and Christianity.

The cultural activities of local Muslims have included the hosting of a celebration for Pakistan Independence Day, which falls on August 14, commemorating the anniversary of the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. In the fall of 2003, this celebration was organised by the founder of the Pak-American Cultural Society of South Jersey. A number of local dignitaries, including the Mayor of Voorhees Harry Platt, were invited, and both Americans and Pakistanis took the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of  mutual understanding and co-operation. The occasion was celebrated with an exhibition of fashions from various parts of Pakistan, recitations of poetry and musical performances.

Other cultural endeavours fall in the realm of literature. There is a long and rich tradition of poetry in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan and one of the major languages of India. It is still spoken by many Americans who have emigrated from the Indian subcontinent, and public poetry readings, known as mushaire, still occur in some of the larger American cities. Recently, one member produced an English translation of the work of major poets such as N.M. Rashed, Miraji and Akhtar-ul-Iman, as well as major feminist poets such as Fahmidah Riaz and Kishwar Naheed.  A former student of Rutgers University has produced a lively and entertaining collection of short stories.

The Future: Challenges and Prospects

The most pervasive and profound challenge faced by Muslim communities in South Jersey and in America generally is to propagate an accurate understanding of their religion. We hear that Islam is a violent religion, that it is opposed to Judaism and Christianity, that it oppresses women, that it is anti-American and denies individual rights. Such misconceptions — which have no foundation in the life of the prophet Muhammad, in the Qur’an or in the traditions of Islamic jurisprudence — are multiplied by certain politicians, news networks, and radio stations. One of the first practical and fundamental steps we can take is to ensure that an accurate knowledge of Islam (as well as of Judaism and Christianity), is fostered in our public school systems, whether in social studies or other programs. It is vital that appropriate textboo kwritten by knowledgeable authorities, be used. Some of the current textbooks need to be re-examined; even the Norton Anthology of World Literature, used widely at Rutgers and other universities, presents an imbalanced and  misleading selection of passages from the Qur’an with no adequate contextualisation or explanation; such uninformed attempts at enlightenment tend to perpetuate misconception and to deepen current stereotypes.

If we truly wish to encourage understanding between different cultures and religions, and to make America a safer and more tolerant place, we need to facilitate a comprehensive dialogue between school boards and leaders of local communities, especially scholars. Our children — that is to say, all American children — should be brought up in an atmosphere of mutual toleration and respect, regardless of religion or ethnic background. But this cannot be achieved by mere good will; it requires knowledge. It is vital that our children be furnished with balanced and informed perspectives on the world’s major religions, and the doctrines that they so fundamentally share. In turn, our teachers themselves need to receive a broad education, one that prepares them to deal with children of different faiths and cultures. American universities and colleges have already taken steps to achieve culturally diverse curricula; this broad endeavour needs to be supported and developed..

Having said all of this, our students also need to learn what it means to be “American.” We do not need to rely on the reductive definitions given by politicians and outspoken talk show hosts. There is a beautiful and rich tradition of writing that analyses the nature of American identity,  ranging from Native American narratives through Franklin, de Crevecoeur and Equiano to Emerson, Whitman, de Tocqueville, Du Bois, Howells and many others. In like manner, if we desire a knowledge of Middle Eastern cultures, we should go not to partisan radio broadcasts but to the poets and writers of these cultures, whether Egyptian, Israeli or Palestinian, who have a long and rich literary heritage. These are the writers — both Eastern and Western — who can show our students that we share a common humanity; that we can be both American and Muslim; that Jews, Christians and Muslims have far more in common than is often admitted by political  and sectarian interests. In short, our educational programs, both at colleges and schools, need to provide broad-based, culturally integrated curricula that stress the connections between diverse traditions. Training in such curricula may inspire our students and future teachers to do their part in promoting understanding between people of different faiths and cultures, and in propagating the knowledge that will facilitate this humane endeavour.