A Portrait of American Muslims:Diversity, Dilemma and Debate Variations

Quintan Wiktorowicz

Islam in America

By Jane I. Smith

New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

By Quintan Wiktorowicz

Scholars are beginning to recognize that Muslims are no longer external to the fabric of American social life, but constitute an important and growing segment of American religious life. 

America’s landscape now includes mosques and other symbols of Islam, reflecting both the influx of Muslim immigrants and the increasing number of converts to Islam. Aware of this growth, scholars and academic institutions, such as the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, have initiated a number of projects to study Muslim communities in the United States.

Jane I. Smith’s “Islam in America” represents part of this effort and joins a small but growing body of research on Muslims in Western societies. She provides a broad portrait of American Muslims that transcends stereotypes to illuminate the complexities of practicing Islam in a non-Muslim country. The book explores the difficulties of reconciling Islamic values with the realities of American society and outlines various responses to this challenge by a diverse Muslim community. Smith depicts the everyday practices and concerns of Muslims in America, realities that are frequently overlooked and obscured by a media obsessed with violence.

“Islam in America” makes itself accessible to a wide audience by first providing background on Islam itself. To put the experiences of Muslims in the United States in context, the first few chapters outline the basics of the faith and trace its historical development. The book explains the elements and pillars of faith and describes the impact of Muslim thinkers throughout the centuries, such as the Prophet Mohammed, the rightly guided caliphs, philosophers and the political activists of the 20th century. This overview prepares unfamiliar readers to understand the specifics of Muslim life in contemporary America.

With the background established, Smith moves to the particulars. Though no history of Islam in America exists as such, Smith effectively pieces together a summary of its development.  She shows how Islam spread through a variety of paths, groups and geographic locations.  Particular attention is given to the development of Islam in the African-American community. Somewhat disappointingly, less emphasis is given to other ethnic groups, such as Arab and Pakistani Americans, who have received little coverage in scholarly publications.

The rest of the book examines the issues of greatest debate and concern in the Muslim community, such as women and the family, education, economics, nutrition and health and public practice. For the specialist, this is the most interesting material, though it comprises only half of the book. This part depicts the most pressing dilemmas faced by the Muslim community. What is the role of women in shaping the spread of Islam in America? How do Muslims deal with the pressure of discrimination due to differences in appearance and dress? How do Muslims find proper mates in a predominantly Christian society? How should parents raise and educate their children in America? What are the most effective mechanisms fordawa (proselytization) in a society often hostile to Islam? Smith does not offer solutions; she instead allows the Muslim community to speak for itself and represents the diversity of perspectives on these and other issues. 

The strength of the book is certainly its breadth, covering a variety of issues pertinent to Muslim Americans and depicting the multifarious nature of the Muslim community in the United States. As a result, it is an excellent introductory book on Islam in America. 

However, the book’s wide reach prevents Smith from fully examining some tantalizing themes. For example, Smith notes that “Muslim students, diplomats, and businesspeople bring American Islamic influences back to their home countries,” but this is not fully explored.

Elsewhere, while Smith describes the diversity of Muslim practices and beliefs, she does not analyze the ways in which this diversity causes Muslims to face the challenges of practicing their faith in America in different ways. This is most prominent in Chapter Five, “Women and the Muslim American Family,” in which the reader learns that there are several views on the roles and responsibilities of women, but is not told which Muslim groups hold which views and why. Do certain Muslim groups hold particular views of women? Can differences be explained in terms of ethnic differences? Does class or status play a role? In fairness, such issues may be beyond the scope of the book, but they are often implied without full exploration.

Although the book provides an outstanding description of Islam in America, it lacks theoretical bite, limiting its scholarly usefulness. It does not address a theoretical issue, framework or question and as a result the findings are difficult to apply to other situations, for example, to Muslim minority communities in other countries. Framing the study in terms of a broader debate would have enhanced its relevance and the applicability of its findings.

These quibbles aside, Smith has constructed a wonderful portrait of American Muslims that is accessible to the specialist and non-specialist alike. She has masterfully described a rich and complex religious community and the problems it faces. “Islam in America” is a welcomed addition to the growing literature on Muslim minority communities and raises interesting questions that I hope will spark further research.

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).

Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid