Muslims in the United States: the State of Research

Muslims in the United States: the State of Research by Dr. Karen Leonard
Year of publication: 2003
Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation, 112 East 64th Street, New York, NY 10021
ISBN: 0-87154-530-6
Format: Paperback, pp 199

During the last three decades, Muslim-American communities’ active involvement in establishing and developing civic, religious and political institutions at local, state, regional and national levels have oftentimes brought Muslims public notice and media spotlight. The Muslim national leadership’s decision to enter national political arena, with the goal of creating a Muslim bloc vote in the last decade, was another significant event. This rattled the nation’s politics as well as Judeo-Christian establishments of all colors and stripes. The Muslims’ political maneuverings aroused future concerns and suspicions in view of the probability that Islam might replace Judaism as the nation’s second religion within a few decades combined with events of global consequences happening in the Middle East.

The public’s interest and demand for reliable information about Islam and Muslim communities reached an unprecedented level after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

Renowned anthropologist and distinguished Islamic scholar, Dr. Karen Leonard, has sought to fill this information gap in Muslims in the United States: the State of Research. Leonard describes the origin of this study:

I wrote this bibliographic essay - an interpretative overview of American Muslim histories and the state of research on Islam and Muslims in the United States - for the Russell Sage Foundation in the summer of 2002 with the goal of providing a useful research tool for exploring this large body of social science research.

After realizing a greater demand for a comprehensive review of literature, Leonard has expanded this bibliographic essay into this full-blown evaluation of the state of research on Islam and Muslims in America.

Dr. C. Eric Lincoln’s The Black Muslims in America, first published in 1960, was the first study that triggered a wide-ranging scholarly interest in Muslim-Americans and Islam (for the book review, see The Muslims, www.muslimsny.com, December 8, 2004).

Over the years, many individual scholars have pursued their interests and have conducted narrow studies of various aspects of Muslims and Islam. National studies are a few and far between. However, no one has brought all the published literature together in an authoritative review. For this alone, this study is significant because it marks the first time that such a comprehensive survey of Muslim-American literature has been published. This review also highlights almost all the major scholars and authors, their areas of interests and their contributions to Muslim-American literature.

In this wide-ranging review, Leonard draws from a vast array of academic disciplines. They include history, anthropology, sociology, politics, religious studies, Islamic law, and international relations. Meticulously culling information from these sources, she identifies large and small Muslim communities, their development patterns, milestone events, key spiritual, cultural and political themes and leading personages. Then she weaves all of these information into a rich and textured discussion of African Americans, Arabs, South Asians, Southeast Asians, Turks, Druze, Kurds, Albanians, Africans, European and other Muslims.

Leonard is not reluctant to discuss the sensitive subjects of various sects within Islam. Her assessment that Sunnis and black Muslims have been given overwhelming attention in studies of Islam and Muslims is absolutely correct. She, therefore, gives an equal focus to other under-studied sects - such as, Moorish Science Temple, the Druzes, Sufis, Ithna’ Ashri Shi’a, Isma’ili Shia, Nizari Isma’ili Shia, and other not well-known sects.

In an illuminating discussion, she discusses their major as well as subtle differences of religious dogma, rituals and practices that often cross ethno-racial, linguistic and cultural boundaries. Since international movements and movement from their homelands often influence most of these entities, Leonard brings to light their influences in the developments of these communities in the United States. The case of Iranian Muslims illustrates this phenomenon. The Islamic thought and events in Iran and Iraq, where Shias are in majority, greatly influence the intellectual and religious development of Shia community in the United States. Most members of the Shia community in the United States hail from India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The expose’ of these various sects, communities and groups’ sometimes separate, sometimes overlapping and sometime entangles histories, opportunities and challenges awaiting them and their rapport with kindred sects, communities and groups as well as with the American society at large disproves the widely-held myth that Muslims are a monolithic community.

Leonard’s study is, no doubt, the most comprehensive review of Islam and Muslim communities in America to date. However, discussion of a few topics is conspicuously missing. Hillary Clinton’s return of the political donation, raised by American Muslim Alliance in a Boston fundraiser in 2000, was a strategic piece in the creation of the landmark Muslim bloc vote. Tahir Ali’s book Muslim Vote 2000: Counts and Recounts provides a vivid as well as a detailed account of what transpired before and after this historic event (for the book review, see http://www.amperspective.com/html/tahir_ali-0.html).

Many national studies have been published by national civil rights groups as well as government agencies, like Council of Islamic American Relations, American Civil Liberties Unions, Amnesty USA, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Federal Bureau of Investigations, documenting the deteriorating civil rights conditions of Muslim Americans before and after the events of 9/11. The impact of the Patriot Act, promulgated after the 9/11, has wreaked havoc in the Muslim communities across the nation. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there were deep new suspicions, and widespread roundups of Muslims suspected of connections to terrorism. Racial profiling and anti-Muslim rhetoric have become a widely-accepted, officially-condoned part of the American society. Nearly half of all Americans believe the US government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, according to a recent nationwide poll conducted by Cornell University.

These local and national studies document an important milestone in Muslim history, because they provide vivid glimpses of Muslims’ future in America. Muslims here and abroad are and will be paying a hefty socio-economic price for the 9/11 tragedy. Another hot issue missing from this review is the discussion of low educational standards of Muslim schools in America. Many developments are taking place on this front, and a lot of scholarly material exists on this subject.
Despite these few omissions, Leonard’s book is an unprecedented feat of well-researched scholarship in the Muslim-American literature. It is not only an authoritative survey of literature on Islam and Muslim communities in America, but also a highly distinguished resource for the general public and scholars alike. - Dr. Shahid Sheikh

The reviewer, Dr. Shahid Sheikh, is executive director of American Research Institute (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ariusa). He reviews books written about Muslim Americans. He can be reached at aeriusa@hotmail.com.


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