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Book Review

Islam and Muslims through the eyes of an American convert

STRUGGLING TO SURRENDER: SOME IMPRESSIONS OF AN EMRICAN CONVERT TO ISLAM by Jeffrey Lang, Amana Publications, Beltsville, MD, US. 1994, pp. 232, Pbk US$11.75. :: EVEN ANGELS ASK: A JOURNEY TO ISLAM IN AMERICA, by Jeffrey Lang, Amana Publications, Beltsville, MD, US. 1997, pp 230.
Aisha Geissinger

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world today, and the number of its adherents is increasing everywhere, including North America. Much attention has been paid to the issues facing immigrant and African-American Muslims in North America, both by Muslims and by others. Little has been written about issues facing white converts to Islam. The main reason for this is that the number of such converts is relatively small. Another, one suspects, is that delving into such issues raises questions which Muslims and non-Muslims alike find difficult to deal with.

White converts, by their very existence, implicitly call into question the claim that modern western culture is universal and provides for the fulfillment of every human aspiration. Muslims are often interested in knowing how and why such people convert because such information boosts their morale in the face of the constant negative images of Islam put forth by the media. However, the issues faced by white converts in trying to live Islam in North America are a lot less comforting to deal with.

The influence of white converts on the North American Muslim community far outweighs their numbers. Many such converts are articulate, well-educated and active. Some are in the upper echelons of Muslim organizations, and some speak publicly or write books on Islam. Struggling to Surrender and Even Angels Ask are written by Dr. Jeffrey Lang, an American mathematics professor who accepted Islam in the early 1980s. Neither book is intended to be a work of scholarship; the author considers them more like personal journals. He realized that many of the doubts and questions he had to deal with are common among converts and the children of immigrant parents who are being raised in North America. Lang believes that such questions have to be explored openly and patiently, for many converts are leaving Islam, and many second-generation Muslims are rejecting their heritage and blending into the ‘mainstream’.

In Struggling to Surrender, Lang describes his conversion and the role played by the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet (pbuh) in the life of a Muslim. Questions and doubts about revelation, faith and reason, the authenticity of the hadith and the role of the Sunnah, are all discussed in detail. Then he turns to issues such as: women and the family, jihad, apostasy, and relations with other religions. The book ends with some parting thoughts about a convert he knew who left Islam.

Even Angels Ask was written after Lang returned from a year’s stay in Saudi Arabia. He realized there that he could never be anything but an ‘American Muslim’ - a Muslim who asks investigative questions - but found that this approach to Islam was at odds with the Saudi environment. In this book, he refers to many of the questions discussed in Struggling to Surrender, and considers others as well, but with more passion and a greater sense of urgency regarding the future of Islam in North America. The first chapter draws the readers’ attention to the fact that many Muslim children are leaving Islam. The next considers issues of faith, such as the Qur’an, predestination, evil, and the finality of prophethood. Social and cultural issues such as the role of women, conflicting political loyalties and practicing the Sunnah are dealt with in chapter three; while chapter four considers the five main acts of worship. He includes a self-critical account of his own Hajj. Spiritual problems which he encountered when he was placed in a leading role are the subject of chapter five, and the final chapter discusses the future of Islam in North America.

Lang discusses all these questions by referring to what both Muslims and non- Muslims say about Islam. He notes that Muslims tend to be reluctant to discuss sensitive issues, or may overlook questions which are primarily of interest to outsiders, while non-Muslim ‘specialists’ in Islam have their own biases. Lang considers what both sides say, and adds his own and other Muslims’ reflections and experiences to the discussion in order to arrive at answers which he considers persuasive in the North American context. He believes that Islam must be shown to be compatible with reason, or it will become solely a personal matter. Like other religions, Islam will be seen as one choice among many faiths, or even as a non-viable choice, because it is so despised in North America and its rituals and requirements much more demanding. In his participation in youth activities, Lang found that young Muslims are asking many of the same questions asked by Americans interested in Islam. Most of these questions relate either to the issue of divine justice, or the relation between culture and religion, especially as this relates to women’s roles. Moreover, he heard young Muslims say that they felt torn between Islam and their identity as Americans. Lang’s discussion of the Qur’an and the authenticity of the hadith simplifies complex issues without distorting them. He manages to answer many questions which are commonly asked, and provides references to sources. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will find this discussion informative and convincing.

His discussion of Islamic rituals is a good introduction to the topic. Though some readers may find his personal reflections about Hajj and his problems as a public speaker on Islam tedious, others will find the difficulties of being a university-educated, white male convert in the public eye of interest. It seems that any privileges such a person possesses in terms of fame and influence are more than outweighed by the disadvantages, which include loss of privacy and spiritual difficulties. These problems are partly the result of the racial and class problems which bedevil many Muslims in this age.

However, the other issues considered in these books are much more controversial and an author requires a great depth and breadth of knowledge of both the Islamic tradition and modern western thought in order to do them justice. Lang’s concern to avoid putting unnecessary stumbling-blocks in the way of North American Muslims leads him to advocate that Muslims ‘separate the essentials of Islam from the nonessential historical and cultural adaptations and interpretations, and should try to communicate it in the language of rational thought.’ (Even Angels Ask, p. 223) Few Muslims would argue that one should confuse divine commands with cultural conventions, and most would agree that Islam should be explained in terms which people can understand. However, in the secular environment of North America religions are under pressure to jettison not only cultural practices but also basic theological and ethical teachings. Who, therefore, decides what is ‘nonessential’, and by what criteria the ‘essential’ should be defined?

In North America, the temptation is almost overwhelming to decide that ‘nonessential’ should mean anything which is too obviously at odds with North American societal norms or difficult to explain rationally. The difficulties this approach causes can be seen from Lang’s discussion of many socio- political issues. For example, Lang quotes from Muhammad Asad’s interpretation of Qur’anic verses discussing hijab in which he says that the verses are ‘time-bound’ and deliberately vague, meaning that they are a ‘moral guideline to be observed against the ever-changing background of time and social environment’ rather than an ‘injunction’ that a head-covering must be worn. (Struggling to Surrender, p. 174). Lang admits that many Muslims will not find this interpretation persuasive. He admits that he does not find it ‘entirely convincing’, for hijab is an ideal upheld by almost all Muslims, it conforms to the spirit of the Qur’an and fourteen centuries of custom, and deters sexual exploitation of women (Struggling to Surrender, p. 175) This discussion leaves the reader in some doubt as to whether or not hijab is necessary, and cites rather narrow grounds for believing that it is. Arguing from fourteen centuries of custom is not conclusive unless one can show that the basis of the custom is sound. The findings of the traditional interpreters of the Qur’an, whose knowledge of classical Arabic was greater than Asad’s and who did not find these verses ‘vague’ should, one hopes, be more convincing. Although hijab can protect women from some types of exploitation, this type of rationalistic explanation is based on a concept borrowed from feminism and is as such vulnerable to attack on feminist grounds. Lang did not refer to these grounds, much less try to refute them, and in this respect his discussion is flawed.

Similar problems occur in Lang’s discussion of the concepts of dar al-Islam, dar al-harb and apostasy. North American Muslims are often viewed as a potential fifth column, and it is not to their advantage to publicly proclaim that they consider America dar al-harb. Many Muslims also feel more free to practise Islam in America than they did in their home countries, which makes the classical division of the world seem absurdly dated. Most consider America their home, and find the conflict between this feeling and traditional formulations unacceptable.

Lang argues that the division of the world into dar al-harb and dar al-Islam is not essential to Islam. However, he admits that this still does not resolve the dilemma of conflicting loyalties - can one be a loyal citizen of a state whose policies oppress one’s fellow Muslims? ‘A small minority of Muslims living in the West definitely would say so, while the great majority would prefer not to think about it’ (Even Angels Ask, p. 135). He believes that communicating the Muslim point of view on religious and political issues to the western governments under which they live is an acceptable way of resolving this dilemma. Obviously, this book was written before the 1997 anti-terrorism legislation was passed, under which a suspect can be detained and expelled from the US on the basis of secret evidence. Similar laws either exist or are on the drawing-board in many other western countries. These suggest that Lang’s third option is unlikely to be viable, for activists lobbying for Muslim concerns are increasingly likely to be targeted. The demand for a rational approach to Islam leads to the expectation of easy answers, and in such cases none can be forthcoming. It would have been more respectful of the readers’ intelligence if the author had recognized this. Likewise, Lang’s conclusion that death for apostasy is limited to those guilty of high treason may be more palatable to the average western Muslim but fails to consider the socio-political realities of today’s world. At present, apostasy and blasphemy are a way to achieve fame and often wealth. In the west, rock groups with names like Jesus and Mary Chain, and the makers of films that mock Christian beliefs, try to cash in on people’s interest in those who flaunt their defiance of what once were unquestionable limits. A secularist might find nothing wrong with this, but surely a Muslim must see that allowing such things invites the wrath of Allah. In addition, it rationally undermines people’s religious beliefs by showing that disbelief brings honour, and that religious belief is simply an opinion which one may or may not chose to hold. Society punishes crimes such as theft because it is certain that such acts cause unjustifiable harm. A believer who regards apostasy as a personal choice in effect says that harm perceived by the physical senses is of more consequence than spiritual harm or the possibility of divine punishment.

This approach to such issues shows that the problem with American Muslims is not that they ask too many questions, but that they often do not inquire deeply enough into the issues they raise. Both these books raise important issues which Muslims in North America cannot afford to shy away from. They discuss questions which Muslim activists in North America need to be aware of and reflect upon. At the same time, they demonstrate that no resolution of such questions is possible without a critical understanding of the secular assumptions underlying modern American culture.

Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 2

Dhu al-Qa'dah 28, 14191999-03-16

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