As a professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford, Jane I. Smith wrote this book to inform American laypeople about the Muslim faith, especially profiling citizens that have converted to the fastest growing faith in the world. By studying the Muslim tradition in great detail over the course of her academic career, she has a vast reservoir of scholarly texts, personal experiences, colleagues, and past studies to draw from. Clearly defining each element of American Muslim society, she easily convinces readers to relate to them as fellow Americans rather than repressive, fanatic, terrorists in training. Written before the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, Smith’s objective was to present a fair picture of this little understood religious group. Christianity is the dominant religion in America, and other major religious groups are not studied to any depth outside a course in religious studies.
As time passes, more Americans are declaring their faith in Allah with Mohammed as his final prophet. Indeed, it is one of the three largest religious groups in America. While the Muslim community includes many immigrants from the Middle East along with their descendants; many African-Americans and increasing numbers of Caucasians are exploring Islam, if they have not yet converted. This development is leading to the formation of a powerful American Muslim Community. Interestingly enough, Americans pre-911 were unaware of this rapidly growing American Muslim community.
Ever since the War on Terror erupted in 2001, Islam had come under severe scrutiny from several nations in the Western world. Many countries in Europe have a large Muslim immigrant population that refuses to assimilate into the culture. However, in America, most Muslims are native born Americans. Interestingly enough, the material is very non-controversial and sympathetic in light of the correlation of Islam with repression and terrorism. Smith wants Western readers to regard Muslims as part of the social fabric rather than as a frightening foreign enigma, and the topics she collected for study served this aim. With respect to religious ethics and approved behavioral norms, Muslims are very similar to American Christian conservatives.
The material in this book is written at an introductory level, introducing the basic tenets of the Muslim faith, tracing the history of Islam in America, including biographies and interviews with American Muslims. Other topics covered include: women in Islam, reconciling their beliefs with a “secular, materialistic Western culture,” passing on beliefs to the next generation, determining proper behavior and standards of modesty, mainstream prejudice, and other areas of life that have not yet been covered in great detail by popular culture. In the first chapter, she starts from the beginning of Muslim history, presenting realistic accounts of Mohammed and his followers, including the conquest of the Arab world. At one time, Muslim society was more advanced than Christian Europe. Secondly, she writes about the introduction of Islam to Americans when immigrants in search of a better life brought their beliefs with them and shared with those open-minded enough to listen.
Third, she speaks of Islam as a prominent part of American thought among many African-Americans, as a superior alternative to Christianity, introducing the concept of the five percent, which neither perceives God as a spook nor self-destructs under an immoral code. Fourth, she brings up the more controversial subject of repressed women in Islam. According to her, this repression is a rather modern phenomenon. Afghanistan went back to the stone age in the 1990s when the Taliban assumed power, and . The author accomplishes her purpose quite well. Readers will have greater knowledge of this interesting minority religious community, and hopefully greater understanding too.
Smith begins her narrative in an inner city mosque, with a predominantly African-American congregation. Since most African-Americans are presumed to be Christian, one stereotype is already shattered. Introducing her audience to the basics of Muslim theology such as the Qur’an, the five pillars of faith, and the “affirmation of divine being and human responsibility,” Smith introduces the Articles of Faith to give the basic structure of the religion. In this initial chapter, she clearly states her argument for educating Americans about Islam. “While most Americans decry the negative assessments of Mohammad that have characterized most Western judgments over the centuries, blatant examples of them still appear”(5). Referring to the web page that characterized Mohammed as lecherous, power-crazed pervert, she alludes to a common perception many Americans have. In contrast, Muslims view Mohammed as the Ideal Man divinely inspired by Allah. The picture of the inner city mosque and careful pontification on the articles of faith invites the reader’s understanding and hopefully empathy because many practitioners are not Arabs from the Middle East, but citizens that grew up with “baseball and apple pie.” The expanding Influence of the Qur’an in American society proves that Islam and the West are no longer diametrically opposed entities, but can peacefully co-exist with one another.
Later in the first chapter, Smith reviews the history of Islam from the days of Mohammed until the present day. Apparently, early Muslim society was quite egalitarian, “Many Muslim women in America today look to the time of the Prophet as one in which women’s rights were fully acknowledged and implemented and which women were encouraged to assume positions of leadership in the community”(26). In contrast, twenty-first century some Muslim theocracies completely exclude women from participating in economic and religious life. Regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ayatollah’s Iran curtailed the freedoms of women, using scriptures out of context to further the agenda of male supremacy.
In the past, Western exploration of Islam was done on the outside looking in, taking an anthropologist’s approach. People were observed, and adherents were questioned rigorously about their beliefs. Smith’s writing is characteristic of modern historians, wishing to engage a subject from multiple perspectives. In the beginning, she is an involved participant, getting involved with religious services and befriending many in the Muslim community. Combined with this open approach, she pulls back and assumes a more scholarly tone, achieving as complete a picture as possible.
In a class that sudies current events as well as historical trends, Islam in America helps Western readers to understand that Muslims are not the enemy we were conditioned to believe they were. They are not all in a backwater Middle Eastern country the hawks of the nation wish to bomb into oblivion, they are very much a part of our society, and their influence on American life will only grow more significant. History teaches us to look at people, politics, and culture critically in order to remove the repressive veil of ignorance from our minds.