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Cultural challenges for Muslims in North America

Farzana Bukhari

Muslims living in non-Muslim societies cannot remain complacent about their value system. If the society around them faces serious social problems, so do the Muslims. The divorce rate among Muslims, though as not as high as the North American average (nearly 50 percent), is rising alarmingly. Muslim children in increasing numbers are rebelling against their parents and abandoning Islamic values.

While no statistics are available, there is hardly any Muslim who has not known about a family with some problems. Marriage break-downs are becoming messier, ending up in courts. Children’s custody is a big issue and reconciliation between couples is becoming more difficult. Often, children end up with non-Muslim families. What are the reasons for this sorry state of affairs?

The presence of Muslims in large numbers in non-Muslim societies in a subservient role is a new phenomenon and most Muslims are not able to cope with it. In the absence of extended family support structure, most fall prey to the pressures of the society around them.

Muslim presence in any substantial numbers in Europe and North America is a recent phenomenon and dates back to the early sixties. This of course excludes the earlier Muslims, both in Europe and North America, who arrived many centuries ago. Muslim armies had landed in the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century but their rule ended with the mass execution and/or expulsion of all Muslims some 700 years later.

Similarly, Muslims had been present in North and South America long before Columbus set foot here. Increasing evidence of this is now emerging. Then came the arrival of Muslims as slaves from Africa. They suffered brutally at the hands of the white slave masters: their culture, religion and indeed their identity were virtually erased. The most horrible crimes were perpetrated against them. Only now are African-Americans discovering their Islamic roots.

The arrival of immigrant Muslims in substantial numbers began in the mid-sixties. Today, there are estimated to be some six to eight million Muslims in the US and another 350,000-400,000 in Canada. In the US, the ratio of indigenous (most but not all of them African-American) and immigrant Muslims is about 50-50. In Canada, the overwhelming majority is of immigrant background.

Most immigrant Muslims came in search of economic prosperity. They are professionals with good educational background and skills. A large number of students have also come over the years and many settled here once they completed their studies.

The overwhelming concern with economic prosperity has meant that Muslim parents have not been able to pay as much attention to the upbringing of their families, especially children, as the situation warrants. The negative influences of the host society are all too obvious in Muslim communities across North America.

The dominant culture clashes in a number of ways with the values that Islam teaches. Islam considers a stable family essential to peace and security in society. In North America, the concept of the family itself is under attack; family no longer means a husband, wife and two or three children. Now family is defined as any couple - both could be male or female - living together and bringing up children born out of wedlock through liaison with other women or men. This has turned the whole concept of family on its head.

In the US, for instance, in the now rare event of marriage between men and women (yes, in the US, men are getting married to men!), the divorce rate is 60 percent. It is difficult for others, even those who do not believe in this, not to be affected by it. There has been an alarming increase in divorce rate among Muslim families, for instance. Part of this stems from the economic independence of women but the major reason is the prevalent attitude of ‘having fun.’

Men and women are encouraged to enjoy themselves. Unfortunately, all too often, Muslim women, especially if they are young and go out to work, fall under the influence of non-Muslim women. Going out and dating becomes not only acceptable but also fashionable. Many a parent have found themselves helpless and in tears at the sudden departure of their teenage daughter. Even the law is not much help. In fact, it encourages the girl/woman who wishes to leave home, to do so.

There is also the flip side of the coin. Muslim women in hijab have had to brave the taunts of peers and colleagues but withstood their ground. This is admirable but alas, it is rare. Muslim women really have to put up with a great deal of pressure. Those who have withstood this have found themselves in a much stronger position. Often men would leave space for them when they approach. This needs to become more widely accepted before Muslim women and girls can walk free from the taunts of others in this supposedly ‘free society.’

The breakdown of marriages among Muslims is now being recognised by Muslims as well and one frequently encounters the topic being discussed at conferences. One such conference was the Muslim Students Association (Persian-Speaking Group) in Chicago after Christmas. It was interesting to note that the session dealing with family issues was well attended and there were numerous questions asked of the panelists.

The panel consisted of a number of ulama as well as other Islamic activists such as Imam Abdul Alim Musa and Haj Massoud. Sister Ayatullahzadeh was also on the panel as were Shaikhs Biria, Abbas Aliyeya and Hijazi. Their presence brought out the kinds of questions that sisters have often posed and found inadequately addressed.

One issue that has been a bone of contention relates to the ‘right’ of the husband to hit his wife. It was explained that it is not a blanket permission but pertains to very specific circumstances and if at all necessary, it is a gentle slap on the wrist. Unfortunately, many Muslim men, unaware of their Islamic duties and obligations which they do not fulfil, assume that they have a licence to beat up their wives. This is not permissible.

Those who call themselves Muslims must bear in mind that the noble Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, never lifted his hand upon any of his wives. Those who want to follow his sunnah ought to bear this in mind.

Imam Abdul Alim Musa made an interesting point in response to what Muslims should do to avoid costly court cases in the event of a marriage breakdown. He said that most African-American Muslims do not register their marriages and settle for the nikah performed by the Imam with the mahr determined between the parties. This is the Islamic way and it avoids expensive court procedures. It is perfectly legal since many non-Muslim families already live as common-law husband and wife. Muslims do it through the proper nikah ceremony.

Family issues are going to become more, not less important. Muslim organisations should begin to pay attention to this aspect of life in North America. One should not underestimate the pressure on Muslims - be they adult men and women or children - of the society around them.

Muslimedia: February 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 23

Shawwal 04, 14181998-02-01

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