The first Muslims arrived in the American colonies and later in the United States as African slaves. Although a few and noteworthy Muslim American slaves left written records of their lives, Islam was largely extinguished by the white slave owners. Sectarian and racial forms of Islam were introduced into the United States, particularly within urban African American communities, by Ahmadiyya missionaries and the Moorish Science Temple. The rise of the Nation of Islam under Wali Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad and its bifurcation under the latter’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan deserve special attention, as do the initial appeal of the Nation of Islam’s racial formulation of Islam and, decades later, the willingness of most of its members to move to Sunni orthodoxy after Elijah Muhammad’s death. The second major, though not entirely separate, strand of Islam in the United States, though often interacting or competing with the first, comes from Muslim immigrants. This group brings unique issues, such as living in a largely Christian society, competing with the Nation of Islam, refuting stereotypes in the media and popular culture, finding a political voice, and coping with post-9/11 Islamophobia, all leading to the consideration of the prospects for a uniquely “American Islam” that reflects U.S. pluralism and (supposed) separation of “church and state.”
The ʿAlawis are adherents of an Islamic sect, the origin of which can be traced back to 9th-century Iraq. They are an offshoot of early Shiah Islam with ancient Iranian, Christian, and Gnostic influences. Outsiders often call them “Nusayri,” after the sect’s founder Ibn Nusayr. Practically all ʿAlawis are Arabs. Their total number is about four million, among which some 2.5 million reside in Syria, where they constitute roughly 12 percent of the population. Many ʿAlawi beliefs and rites are still kept secret by the community, being revealed only to initiate male members. One key element in their faith is the belief in a divine triad that has manifested itself to the ʿAlawi community in seven cycles. Other characteristics are an extraordinary veneration for Muhammad’s son-in-law ʿAli, the belief in the transmigration of the soul, and a very large number of holy shrines, which are frequent in all regions settled by ʿAlawis. Because of the esoteric nature of the ʿAlawi religion and the scarcity of authentic written sources, many details of their creed are subjects of vigorous public and scholarly discussion.
For many centuries, the ʿAlawis were an economically weak, socially marginalized, and persecuted group whose heartland was western Syria. The public rise of the community began with the establishment of the French mandate over Syria after World War I and reached its zenith when the ʿAlawi Hafiz al-Assad became president of Syria in 1971. Since then, the disproportionate political and economic influence of the ʿAlawis in Syria has fueled confessional conflicts with the Sunni majority, which culminated in the civil war that began in 2011.
The Alevis are a religious community on the periphery of Shia Islam. The name “Alevi” means “Adherents of ʿAli,” alluding to Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, who enjoys extraordinary veneration among Alevis. Alevism was developed in Central Anatolia during the 13th century by itinerant Muslim mystics. It includes elements of pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism and aspects of mainstream Shia Islam, which influenced it through cultural contacts with Safavid Iran. Alevism never was a unified and homogeneous community but has always had a variety of sub-groups. For centuries Alevis practiced their rites in secret, which created suspicion and rumor among Sunnite Muslims. Today’s Alevis still have to struggle with this distrust, and are often regarded as heretics by the Sunnites. The designation “Alevi” came into use in the early 20th century as a collective term for a number of religious groups such as Bektaşi, Tahtacı, and Abdal, and today is used instead of the former, pejorative term Kızılbaş (“Red-Heads”). The Alevis are the largest religious minority group in the Republic of Turkey, where their estimated number is around 15 million. Large Alevi groups also reside in the Balkan states as well as in Central and Western Europe, particularly Germany and Austria. Roughly two-thirds of the Alevis are Turkish speakers. The other third speak Kurdish and Zazaki.
In the 1980s, the community underwent the so-called “Alevi revival,” a process of exposure and openness that can be partly explained as a reaction against the re-Islamization of Turkish society. Today Alevis perform their rites and express their beliefs openly.
Although they share certain features with them, the Alevis should not be confused with the Alawis (Nusayris), who live in southern Turkey and Syria and who are all Arabic speakers.
Christie S. Warren
The Constitution of Madinah, written by the Prophet after his flight from Mecca and arrival in Madinah (622
Since 2011 and in part due to events of the so-called Arab Spring, the topic of Islam and constitutions has been the subject of heightened interest. In recent years, a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Palestine, have embarked upon constitutional processes, and the relationship between Islam and the state has been debated in each of them. A variety of models has emerged over time; whereas in Saudi Arabia the Qur’an serves as the constitution itself, in Egypt Shari’ah is the principal source of legislation. Similarly, while the 2012 draft constitution of Libya states that Islam shall be the state religion and Islamic Shari’ah the main source of legislation, the constitution of Iraq provides that no law contradicting established provisions of Islam may be enacted. Language in the Afghan constitution is even more precise and states that Afghanistan is an Islamic republic, that no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of Islam, and that in the absence of specific constitutional or legislative language governing the disposition of a case, courts shall implement principles of Hanafi jurisprudence.
In similar fashion, academic scholarship analyzing the relationship between Islam and constitutionalism has increased in scope and vibrancy in recent years. Historically, scholarship in this field tended to focus on issues relating to governance and administrative structures in Muslim-majority countries—not on normative constitutional principles. More recently, Islamic perspectives on constitutional norms have become the focus of significant scholarship. Some constitutional issues of recent academic interest include state sponsorship of a particular religion to the exclusion of others, freedom to practice Islam and other religions, and options for articulating the role of Shari’ah within constitutional frameworks, including the use of supremacy and repugnancy clauses, the role of Shari’ah as a source of legislation, “Shari’ah checks” to ensure that legislation does not contravene Islamic law, review by Shura Councils, and the role of the judicial branch in interpreting Islamic law. Additional constitutional issues impacted by defined relationships between Shari’ah and the state include human and women’s rights, protection of religious minorities; criminal law and hudud punishments; finance law and restrictions on charging interest; rights of freedom of association, expression, and expression; and provisions governing marriage, divorce and inheritance.
Political Islam has generated two ideological strands that use religious ideology to advance their goals, namely, Islamism and jihadism. On the one hand, Islamists have formulated a political paradigm premised on Islamic teachings that are adaptable to the secular framework of the modern state and have, therefore, endured both as domestic and global political actors. On the other hand, jihadis have rejected positive law outright and advanced a global revolutionary paradigm against today’s secular world order. Key to jihadism’s appropriation of Islamic teachings is a quest for a legal code that provides jihadis with both an anti-establishment justification for their violence and a claim to legitimacy in the minds of Muslims whom they wish to enlist as their followers.
Governance in Islamic history has taken many different forms. The formative period saw most innovative deployment of the Arab tribal norms under the guidance of Islamic norms and the pressure of the rapid expansion. After the conquests, the ruling elite augmented their Arab tribal form of governance with numerous institutions and practices from the surrounding empires, particularly the Persian empire. The Umayyads ruled as Arab chiefs, whereas the Abbasids ruled as Persian emperors. Local influences further asserted themselves in governance after the Abbasids weakened and as Islamization took root. After the fragmentation of the Abbasid empire by the
Americans have utilized Islam as a rhetorical device for articulating various understandings of American identity from the time of the earliest Anglo-American settlers. In every period, many rejected Islam and Muslims as oppositional to American identity, accusing Islam of inherent despotism that conflicted with American liberty. Others, though, used perceived traits of Islam to critique American behaviors or focused on similarities between Islam and Christianity. Many citizens of the early American republic assumed their country was essentially Protestant, but founding figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison indicated their support for a more inclusive polity by listing Muslims among the varieties of people they believed could be good citizens. These men meant this abstractly, as they believed there were no Muslims in the United States at the time and did not know some African slaves were Muslim.
American Protestant organizations sent missionaries around the world starting in the early 19th century, including to areas of the Middle East where the Muslim majority was legally protected from proselytization. Therefore, missionaries tended to work with native Christian populations. American missionaries, travelers, and explorers had a great interest in the Holy Land. A frequent theme in their writings was a desire to see this area reclaimed from Islamic rule. They believed the Holy Land could be regenerated through Protestant influence and often suggested Jews could be relocated there. Over time, liberal Protestants moved away from seeking conversions and became more interested in educational and medical aspects of missions. American discussions about Islam intensified again after September 11, 2001. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis argued that Western civilization and Islamic civilization were inherently incompatible. Others, like John L. Esposito and Feisal Abdul Rauf, focused on the historical and theological similarities between Christianity and Islam to suggest common ground.
In both popular and scholarly literature, jihad is primarily assumed to be a monovalent concept referring to “military/armed combat,” and martyrdom (shahada) is inevitably understood to be of the military kind. This assumption facilitates the discussion of jihad and martyrdom as terms with fixed, universal meanings divorced from the varying sociopolitical contexts in which they have been deployed through time. Such a monovalent understanding of these two concepts emerges primarily through consultation of the juridical literature and official histories that were produced after the 2nd century
In contradistinction to this approach, a more holistic and historical approach to the term jihad can be undertaken by focusing on the changing significations of jihad from the earliest formative period of Islam to the contemporary period, against the backdrop of specific social and political circumstances which have mediated the meanings of this critical term. This larger objective entails canvassing a more varied genre of texts to recreate a more multifaceted understanding of jihad and martyrdom as dynamic discursive terms through time. Such sources include Qurʾan exegetical works (tafsir), early and late works of hadith which purport to contain the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, the excellences of jihad (fadaʾil al-jihad) and the excellences of patience (fadaʾil al-sabr) literatures, which are often not consulted on this topic. Furthermore, the comparison of early and late sources and texts from these genres allows one to chart both the constancies and changes in the spectrum of meanings and repertoire of activities included under the terms jihad and shahada. This recovery of a broader semantic landscape undermines exclusively martial conceptualizations of both these terms and has important implications for the contemporary period.
Adam S. Francisco
The geographical extension of Islam into Christian lands generated a wide variety of responses and a tremendous amount of consternation amidst its subject and neighboring populations. This was the case in the early centuries of Islam as well as the age of Ottoman expansion into Europe at the time of the Protestant reformation. Just as the conflict between Martin Luther and the papacy was beginning, the issue of how Europe should respond to the military campaigns of the Turks in Hungary became increasingly paramount. Luther was initially aloof to the matter. But the farther the Turks moved up the Danube River basin toward Vienna, and the more he heard about the pope clamoring for a crusade and German preachers expressing ambivalence toward and sometimes preference for the Turk, the more he was pressed to address the issue of war with the Ottomans. Unsurprisingly, given his view of the secular realm, he came out strongly in favor of war, for in his mind it was just. He continued to support every preparation for it so long as it was not construed as a crusade. He also believed that physical warfare was not enough. It had to be accompanied by the spiritual disciplines of prayer and repentance. About the time of the siege of Vienna, Luther also began to view the Turkish threat as an apocalyptic threat. He was convinced that the rise of the Turks was foretold in the eschatological prophecies in scripture, especially Daniel 7. He also believed that, while the Turks would be successful for a time, their days were numbered as the last days were soon approaching. Until then, Christians needed to be warned about the dangers of Islam. He had heard and read that many Christians who ended up in the Ottoman Empire eventually became Muslims. So he spent most of his energy in writing about and inquiring into the theology and culture of the Turks for the purpose of encouraging and equipping Christians to resist it. Some of his work was practical and pastoral. His later work was polemical and apologetical. Throughout it all, he remained committed to making as much information on Islam available as possible. This culminated in his involvement in the publication of a Latin translation of the Qur’ān in 1543, a work that was included in the first collection of texts relating to Islam to ever be printed.
Throughout the nearly fifteen centuries of Muslim-Christian encounter, individual adherents of both traditions often have lived peaceably with each other. At the same time, Muslim expansion into Christian territories and Christian imperialism in Muslims lands have fostered fear and ill-will on both sides. Repercussions from the Crusades continue to resound in the contemporary rhetoric employed by defenders of both faiths. In recent years relations between Muslims and Christians across the globe have become increasingly polarized, fanned by anti-Islamic rhetoric and fearmongering. While a number of verses in the Qur’an call for treating Christians and Jews with respect as recipients of God’s divine message, in reality many Muslims have found it difficult not to see Christians as polytheists because of their doctrine of the Trinity. Christians, for their part, traditionally have viewed the Qur’an as fraudulent and Muhammad as an imposter. Old sectarian rivalries play out with serious consequences for minority groups, both Christian and Muslim. Conflicts in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere for much of the 20th century were often labeled as ethnic, political, or ideological perpetuations of long-standing struggles over land, power, and influence. These conflicts now tend to be labeled in accord with the specifically religious affiliation of their participants. Understanding the history of Muslim-Christian relations, as well as current political realities such as the dismantling of the political order created by European colonialism, helps give context to current “hot spots” of Muslim-Christian conflict in the world.
It is difficult to imagine a time in history at which there is greater need for serious interfaith engagement than now. We need to understand better the history of Muslim-Christian relations so as to give context to current “hot spots” of Muslim-Christian conflict in the world. It is also important to understand the ways in which members of the two communities experience each other in specific areas of the world today, including the United States, taking note of efforts currently underway to advance interfaith understanding and cooperation. The events of September 11, 2001, and the resulting American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to ugly commentary reminiscent of medieval hyperbole. Right-wing evangelical rhetoric in the United States against Islam has been fueled by incidents of international terrorism involving Muslims, while the well-funded Islamophobia industry in the United States has been producing and distributing large amounts of anti-Muslim material. Since the events of September 2011, American Muslims, caught in a painful position, have decried the acts of the 9/11 terrorists and defended Islam as a religion of peace. American Muslims want to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech in expressing their objection to certain American foreign policies, at the same time that they fear the consequences of the Patriot Act and other acts they view as assaults on their civil liberties. Meanwhile other Americans are struggling to understand that the Muslims with whom they interact in businesses, schools, and neighborhoods are different from the Muslim extremists who are calling for ever more dire measures against the United States. This is the general context in which Christian-Muslim dialogue is now taking place and to which it must address itself if it is to be effective.