Even Angels Ask: 1. Introduction

“Brothers, I Lost Him”

The most recollected image from William Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage has to be the Persian rug,[1] the one that Philip, the main character, repeatedly contemplates, following the advice of a friend, in an effort to discover the meaning of life. Upon reaching an especially low point in a young existence filled with terrible and senseless tragedies, lived and observed, he wanders the streets of London. And, once again, the oriental rug possesses his mind. As Philip contemplates its intricate designs, he is suddenly seized by a wondrous insight: the carpet does indeed contain the answer to the riddle that has vexed him. He finally sees that life, like the interwoven patterns of the rug, is always complex, sometimes beautiful and sometimes bewildering – but, in the end, utterly without meaning or purpose.

It was difficult for many critics to empathize with Philip’s subsequent contentment at his discovery, and this, I believe, contributed to the book’s mostly ambivalent initial reviews. However, those who reached the same conclusion as Philip after their own conservative religious upbringing could surely understand.

Of Human Bondage is a very western novel, part of a genre of literary works that explored the same difficult issues and often arrived at similar conclusions. Not that other cultures entirely bypassed conflicts of faith and reason, but western civilization seems to have been at the front the longest, battling such problems for well over two thousand years. While the declarations of victory for science and rationalism some twenty-five years ago were probably premature, it does appear that religion has had the worse of it and may lose even more of what little ground it still possesses. The ways we live our lives are shaped by the meanings we read into them, and the course of this battle has greatly informed our society’s viewpoint. The question of the purpose of life is fundamental, and we can hardly know a person or a society until we understand how this question is treated.

It is common these days to hear psychologist discuss the modern crisis of meaning. C. G. Jung, one of the first to recognize and publicize it, remarked that most of his patients over the age of forty were suffering from it in one form or another.[2] Where the answers supplied by religion once satisfied a largely illiterate western Europe, in modern times religious dogmas are only deepening the crisis and alienating many from spiritual considerations. Some reject religion entirely, and many who preserve some ties to a faith may find it in conflict with their rational thinking. The result is that religion is pushed ever farther towards the back of the shelf and substitutes must be found for the answers and services that belief once provided. Jung, and many others after him, claimed that this trend will continue unless faith can be made to conform with current knowledge and experience. This is seldom seen as a positive trend, because it appears that human nature includes spirituality and that this can not be ignored in what seems to be our instinctive need to see our lives as meaningful. Victor Frankl frequently states that if one can provide man with a positive “why” to live, he or she will inevitably find a positive and productive “how” to live. But it cannot be just any “why”; it must be one that he or she finds compelling rationally, intellectually, and spiritually.[3]

Enter the Muslim. The last three decades have witnessed a sudden growth in the American Muslim community, spurred mostly by immigration and African American conversion since the civil rights era. The Muslim also finds himself being drawn into the same conflict. With full confidence he critiques, “I don’t think that the two major religions in America make much sense.”

He receives the reply, “I don’t think that any religion makes much sense. For example, from your religion’s viewpoint, what is the purpose of life? Why did God create us to suffer here on earth?”

The Muslim thinks back on what he was taught as a child. “I believe He created us to test us.”

Of course he is then asked, “So your religion rejects the omniscience of God, for otherwise, what could He possibly learn from testing us that He does not already know?”

The Muslim feels cornered and searches his past for the universally accepted answers he was forced to memorize. “No, that is not quite it. Ah! Yes!! We are created to worship Him!”

With a sly smile his opponent inquires, “Then you must believe that God has needs and weaknesses, for why else would He demand our worship? When a human demands our devotion, we label him a tyrant or psychopath. Do you hold that God has character flaws?”

The Muslim’s head is now spinning in ill-defined questions and doubts. He gropes for a clue from his childhood. It comes to him! “Adam sinned and his punishment was this earthly life!”

His adversary has the cool, calculated look of one about to say “Checkmate! Putting aside scientific difficulties, it appears that you believe that God is unjust; for why punish all of Adam’s descendants for Adam’s sin? Why not give each his own chance? Do you Muslims also believe in original sin?”

“No! No! Of course not!”

The game is over.

A Muslim living in America may have to confront these questions many times; for they are part of the intellectual basis of western civilization. Sometimes the result may be a loss, even an abandonment, of faith. Salmon Rushdie is, for many Muslims, the archetypal case. He confessed in an interview that he had been a very religious child. However, during his education in England, his faith was shaken severely by western attitudes toward religion and Islam in particular. His case is not unique. I have met many university professors in America with Muslim names who disavow any belief in Islam and quite a few who go out of their way to make a point of it.

Most often, however, the faith of a Muslim immigrant will remain intact. He may feel a bit rattled or he might retreat slightly from his belief that “Islam makes sense” to the position that “Islam makes more sense”, but the fervor of his commitment, for the most part, will abide, because it is grounded in the life-long experience of being a Muslim. Born into an environment where Islam is practically universally accepted – where it is to one’s disadvantage to be a non-Muslim – his faith has had the opportunity to take root and grow unimpeded. Through many years of steady participation and practice there came security, pride, meaning, community, and perhaps, awe inspiring, spiritual encounters – maybe even perceived miracles – that together made the sweetness of faith more real and powerful than any challenge some logical sleight of hand could provide.

The convert’s state is more precarious, and there has been a somewhat high rate of apostasy among them in recent years. Whether a convert will remain a Muslim for long usually depends on what originally brought him to the decision and whether that initial need continued to be met long enough to root him in the religion. Frequently, if the initial motivating factor fades and the convert finds that certain negative aspects of being a Muslim outweigh the perceived benefits, the option to leave the community is taken. Like the immigrant, the convert’s commitment to the religion will depend on his or her personal, emotional, and spiritual faith experiences; the same could be said of any religion in the West. As the convert is fully part of the surrounding society and subjected to its intellectual challenges and criticisms from the very start of his entry into Islam, questions of faith and reason may have greater influence on his religious choices than they do for immigrant Muslims.

Yet the future of Islam in the West, and America in particular, is not primarily about immigrants and converts; it is about children, and the “success” of Islam in Europe and America will be measured by the religiosity of their descendants. The grandchildren of today’s Muslims in the West will undoubtedly be western in their attitudes and thinking – their survival depends on it – but to what degree they will claim allegiance to Islam or the worldwide Muslim community is far from certain.

At the 1993 ISNA meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dr. Jamal Badawi recalled how, during a recent visit to Australia, he saw a good number of buildings that resembled the mosques that one sees in Muslim lands. However, they were being put to secular uses, such as office space, meeting halls, and the like. He was informed that there was once a large population of Afghani immigrants to Australia and that the now-converted mosques are the last remnants of a community that had been completely assimilated by the dominant culture. Dr. Badawi used this example to highlight the urgent need for Islamic schools in

Islamic schools may help Muslim children preserve their religious identity, but there looms the larger issues of what and how they are taught. Many an agnostic or atheist today attended church or synagogue schools as children. If a religious community is to produce leading scholars and scientists, its approach towards education will have to be compatible with modem critical analytical methods of study; this, I feel, is absolutely necessary. It requires an environment of free inquiry and expression, where self-criticism and objectivity are encouraged and questioning and doubt tolerated. If the approach to general education conflicts with that of religious education, then the students will be left with a choice, perhaps a perpetual one, between alternative modes of thinking. In this way, religion for its children will be delimited – westernized, so to speak; it will become a compartment of thought to be entered into in limited situations and abandoned in others.

For Muslim children, this dilemma is particularly acute. If Islam can not be shown to be in harmony with rational thought, then faith for the western Muslim, like many adherents to other religions in the West, becomes solely a personal, experiential, and spiritual matter. It loses much of its persuasiveness. Reasoning can be communicated quite effectively, but not spiritual experiences. We cannot really share our mystical encounters; we can only interpret and approximate them. I am not saying that faith can exist on an exclusively rational level or that it cannot exist in disharmony with reason. What I am saying is that if a rationally compelling case is not made for Islam, one that Muslim young people in the West can relate to, then Islam will be seen by many of them as just another religion, a religious option among more or less equal options. In addition, in an environment where their religion is greatly feared, where of all the great world religions theirs is the most despised, where its rituals and practices are the most demanding, where its constraints seem to go against the larger society’s trends and lifestyles – in such an environment, we should not at all be surprised if a significant fraction of children born to Muslim parents leave aside the faith they inherited.

A few years ago, I read an article in a Muslim American magazine that stated, according to a study it had conducted, that nine out of ten children born to Muslim parents in America either become atheists or claim allegiance to no particular religion by the time they reach college age. The article did not state what statistical methods were used to obtain this fraction, so I doubted its reliability. But even if only half as many of these children ultimately leave Islam, it will still be a crisis for Muslims in America. Yet perhaps such a statistic should not be such a shock. Why should American children born of Muslim parents be very different from those born of Buddhist or Hindu parents or of any religion unfamiliar to the West, especially in consideration of some of the above-mentioned special obstacles they face?

It is said that it takes about three generations before an immigrant family becomes fully assimilated into American society. I have not conducted a scientific study, but I have met through my teaching at the university a good number of third-generation Americans of Muslim descent, and so far, I have not found a single one who professes belief in Islam. When I ask these students if they are Muslims, the typical response I obtain is “My parents are”, which is exactly the same answer I used to give when asked if I was a Christian. This may paint an excessively pessimistic picture, since the grandparents of these young people were part of an infinitesimally small Muslim minority group. Now that there are suddenly several million Muslims in America and Canada, we should expect that a large number of their grandchildren will identify themselves as such, although it remains to be seen to what extent this will reflect an active religious commitment. In my travels to various Islamic conferences in America, I always ask about the participation of young people in the local Muslim communities; I inevitably find that it is extremely small.

I first became interested in the relevance of Islam to American Muslim children a little over ten years ago when I lived in San Francisco. One night, after the evening ritual prayer, about a dozen of us sat in a circle on the floor of the masjid engaged in chitchatting. We had been led in the prayer that night by Muhammad, who, at forty, was the oldest among us and one of the most loved and respected members of our community. Someone asked him how his son was doing, as we had not seen him in some time. He answered that he had turned sixteen that day, and the little room was immediately filled with smiles, laughter, and congratulations, for our oldest boy had become a man. However, Muhammad was not sharing in our joy, and we suddenly all fell silent, because we saw large, round teardrops falling from Muhammad’s downcast face. He looked up and his voice cracked as he exclaimed, “Brothers, I lost him – I lost my son!”

No explanation was necessary. We had seen or heard of too many similar cases in the neighboring communities. If his son, at sixteen, was still attached to the religion, he would have been an exception; it was only that our confidence and esteem for Muhammad was so great. All we could do was sit there, speechless, belittled by an irresistible and unfeeling power.

As I drove home from the masjid that night, I could not rid myself of the expression on Muhammad’s face or the desperation in his plea. I thought about my first child, who was soon to be born, and how I would be feeling sixteen years from now. The more I thought about the whole matter, the less I found myself in agreement with Muhammad. I was not convinced that he had lost his son, because I was not sure that he had really found him.

Muhammad was a truly devout Algerian Muslim who had done everything to raise a good Algerian Muslim son. But his son was not an Algerian; he was as American as apple pie, and whatever used to work back in Algeria had failed in America, as it did for so many others.

We used to remark how very quiet Muhammad’s boy was at our community functions. A child’s silence may be a sign of respect or assent, but it could also represent indifference to what is being said. I wondered if Muslim American children had as much difficulty relating to the perspectives and traditions of the mosque as I did.

Through the years, conversations with Muslim children and parents supported this suspicion and led me to conjecture that if the Americanness that I shared with Muslim young people was alienating many of us from the viewpoint of the mosque, then perhaps at some stage in their lives these children may come to relate to what other Americans and I discovered in Islam. As I discussed the matter with other converts, it emerged that our reflections intersected at many key points that approximate a certain characteristic path to Islam. Therefore, I would like to take you, the reader, along that path. I would like to invite you to a journey: A Journey to Islam in America.

You need to know what to pack and how we will get to our destination. To the first of these the answer is: as little as possible. You are requested to leave behind as much religious baggage as you can; ideally, you should pretend you are an atheist, with perhaps many objections to belief in God, yet open-minded enough not to dismiss a point of view without at least considering it. As for the second question, our guide will be the Qur’an, the principle source of guidance and spiritual compass of billions of Muslims, and, for many newcomers to Islam, their main introduction to the faith.

Source: Chapter1 Introduction | Even Angels Ask

  1. William S. Mangham, Of Human Bondage (New York: Vintage Books. 1961). ↩︎

  2. C. G. Jung, An Answer to Job, trans. by R. F. C. Hull (New York: Meridian Books, 1960). ↩︎

  3. Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, trans. by I. Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992). ↩︎