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Muslim Communities in the United States
by Nasim Hassan, Delaware, USA

Islamic Centers began to be established in the USA when Muslim immigrants realized that they were here to stay.  Even though many early immigrants were not practicing Muslims, yet  they understood that their children needed a sense of religious identity - particularly to safe guard against the ill effects of the peer pressure in the schools, the influence of TV and to help them preserve their religious and cultural values in this otherwise melting pot.

The pioneering work of our first generation Muslims gave rise to a growing number of Islamic Centers and Mosques throughout the country. A close look at the Muslim communities shows that an Islamic center as an institution usually experiences three stages:

In the first phase of a Center's development, all categories of people are welcome to join - regardless of their ethnic origin or their particular religious sect. Arabs, Pakistanis, Turks and all others join together to establish a place of worship - and to start an Islamic Sunday school. All pervading unity and togetherness characterize this first phase. Simple and moderately disposed people who happen to have access to financial or other resources come out to lead the effort.

This group has links both to the ultra conservatives as well as the liberal segments of the Muslim community. Funds are raised, property is purchased and in effect an Islamic Center or a Mosque becomes a reality on the ground. At this time, the second phase starts in earnest. People of moderate views are still in active control - but sooner or later differences in interpretation of the canonical details of their religion start to show up with increasing intensity.

Then the exodus begins! The 'Liberals', who joined this group early on, are the first to depart. Naturally, they need to get busy with their own lives.
Shiite Muslims are the next group that moves out.  In many communities, they don't even get involved in the day to day affairs of the center,
particularly, as is usually the case, if the Sunnis in the congregation, who are always in majority display acrimony or bias against them, since the more tolerant among them have already left. The second phase can continue for a long time depending upon the community's composition.

The third phase begins when the 'ultra conservatives' in the group muster enough courage to flex their muscle! This ticks off the 'moderates' who gradually begin to depart. They do so because they find they cannot afford to waste their time and resources on "smear" campaigns and "negative" thinking that are generated by inter personal differences or rivalries. In this phase we find that some of the Centers, where dedicated members predominate, doggedly continue on their path of progress, while others languish in the throes of disillusionment.

In this article, I have tried to outline those factors, which contribute to an Islamic Center's success. Conversely, point out those that lead to the stagnation of a Muslim community. This saga is repeated as lots more Islamic centers are being built in this great land of opportunity.

Here are the factors that seem to play a significant role in determining the ultimate fate of an emerging Muslim community in the United States.

Constitution and bylaws

Perhaps the most crucial milestone in the establishment of an Islamic Center is its governing constitution. This document reflects the hopes and aspirations of the community's planners and thinkers. They are also the prime movers who get the project off the ground. The constitution that they install often indicates the level of Islamic knowledge that prevails in a majority of the community.

If a constitution is developed on the basis of long-term thinking and an understanding of the American environment, then the community starts to grow and flourish. On the other hand if it is full of insignificant details and irrelevant clauses it invariably becomes divisive during its early stages and hastens the community's disintegration. When forming a new community, it is best to study the working of other Islamic Centers in the area - and analyze their problems. Thus learn from their mistakes.

No single recipe for success can serve everywhere. I have seen a wide
selection of successful Islamic Centers, which had different kinds of
constitutions and bylaws. It all depends on the basic thinking level that prevails in a majority of the community's members. For instance, a center that runs smoothly in New York City may not be a good model for one in rural Virginia. Each community has to innovate, adapt and find its own path to success.

Those responsible for establishing a Mosque or a center should first do a lot of spadework to understand the community's distinct needs - prior to adopting a constitution. When this is not done, the consequences can be disastrous.

We can cite Islamic centers, where all the dedicated original founding
members were simply evicted! They had failed to incorporate adequate
safeguards for continuity. In one such Center, the constitution called for election of members of the Board and the Executive Committee every single year. After a few years, another group with different ideas came in and took advantage of several loopholes that existed in the constitution!

Tolerating Dissent

For a religious organization, "dissenting views" present a perplexing
dilemma. Can religious dogma withstand dissent? I have seen plenty of very dedicated and religiously inclined people who just refuse to accept an alternative viewpoint - even on the most inconsequential of issues. I am not talking here of different Schools of Thought in Islam. This divergence is a matter of religious belief and is readily understandable. However even on matters which have nothing to do with religion, some people seem to be rigid in their thinking. For them, it is a choice between "My way" or "the Highway!

This behavior can often be traced back to the particular Muslim's country of origin. In many Muslim countries, these people have seen only a monarchy, a dictatorship or straight one-party rule. On the sub-conscious level, a human being's reaction to events stems from his past life experience. Even after long exposure to pluralistic living conditions in the United States, many Muslims find it very difficult to accept a differing point of view. They will accept advice or ideas only from their ideological clones! Never mind, that true Islam places great emphasis on striving for a 'consensus' of ALL concerned - during the decision making process.
By and large, people in successful communities do tolerate and accept
disagreements. Granted that this acceptance deals with minor issues that do not challenge or jeopardize the fundamental concepts of Islam.

The Vision (or Mission) becomes a Driving Force.
Those communities that continue to thrive invariably have a larger vision of their goal - as expressed by their founding members. This vision needs to be clearly articulated. As an example, it might be stated as 'Islamic education of the youngsters', or 'Spread of Islam in the USA', or 'Publication of Islamic Literature' etc.

A long range vision creates a sense of Unity within the community. Thus small personal differences are easily overlooked or forgotten. For instance, the goal of Islamic Education can continue to grow - beginning with a small Sunday School - to a Primary School and then - on to a High School. This vision could result ultimately in the establishment of an Islamic University in the USA. On the other hand, absence of a Vision results in smaller goals that may even compete or collide with one another.

In a typical Islamic community in North America there are three visions that seem to collide. One group wants to see a grand Mosque. A second one wants a learned Imam for the Mosque while a third group likes a Full time Islamic School. All of these worthy goals create a lack of focus, even a sense of disunity. And the end result is a community, which stays in the 'idle' mode!

On the other hand, a common vision keeps the community united. This has been proven in a number of instances in the USA. The exact vision depends of course upon the needs of a community, upon its particular circumstances and upon its location.

Adaptation to the environment

Changing environments are a challenge that everyone has to face--be they individuals or organizations. After an Islamic Center has become established, it is very difficult to make even a small change. People prefer the status quo - even if it means shutting their eyes to changing needs of community members.

In the USA, people continue to move from place to place. Only a few remain anchored or stay put. In some areas, young people move in with small children - while in others the population has started to level out and mature. Each situation presents its own challenges and opportunities. Leaders in any successful organization must keep their ears to the ground and determine the changing needs of their community.

While Islamic Education of young children receives top priority in most
Islamic centers across North America; so far no community has analyzed or understood the needs of an aging Muslim population. Prevailing thinking kindles a view of elderly people in the home country. As they grow older, people are supposed to become more 'religious' and start preparations for the Hereafter. I have seen aged Muslims become more religious - spending more of their time in the Mosque - so that Almighty Allah may be pleased with them!

Actually these people, who may often be highly educated, could spend their time as volunteers - thus set an example for coming generations. There are often many social problems where mature people can help the younger generation in their family life. By doing so, retired people can also develop a sense of self worth and a direct connection with the community.

Unfortunately I haven't seen a single program of this nature anywhere in the United States. In many Islamic Centers, this matter is not seen as an 'Islamic' problem. Rather, they think of it as a social, cultural or family issue.

Development of new leadership

After a Community has acquired a property for a Center or Mosque, it requires a Board of Trustees or Directors to manage it. To ensure continuity, the trustees should be elected for a longer term - with staggered expiration dates. Trustees can advise, train, and provide broad vision, while representatives elected annually manage the day to day affairs.

Almost every Muslim community fails in developing new leaders for itself. In fact, such development is never very smooth or harmonious. It seems that current leaders just don't want to relinquish 'the chair'! Once people are elected, they get the idea that they are indispensable to society! This attitude prevents younger people from getting 'hands-on' experience in running a non-profit organization. As a result, the communities are often confronted with a sudden leadership vacuum when a certain leader dies or moves away. The new officials start often without prior experience or with little or no knowledge of the affairs of the organization. A Mosque or center suffers because of this; it stays at the same level and never grows.

Service to the community

No organization can survive if it does not serve the needs of community. Such needs could consist of such things as 'Performance of Islamic Rituals', 'Education of Children', 'Propagation of Islam' etc. Each Islamic Center has to understand the need(s), then provide a service to fulfill that need.

Successful Islamic centers are generally those that provide the best Service to its membership. A direct correlation exists between the Service and Success. I have seen centers that grow continuously because they provide good education for school going kids in an Islamic environment.


What then is the defining mark of a successful Islamic center in North America? In one word, it is Service. However, this service has to be inclusive, not exclusive. By this I mean that leadership must include ALL those who accept Islam - regardless of their ethnic, social or cultural background.

If at any time, leadership starts to discriminate between liberal, conservative, Pakistani, Arab or orthodox Muslims and insists on a monolithic definition of Islam, then there is no end to divisions within the community.
For example, if leaders think that good Muslims wear beards, it generally means that people without a beard do not understand or follow pure Islam.

In the ideal situation, everyone would be welcomed with open arms in a Mosque. Then, once people are there, they can be convinced by the power of ideas. If any community starts to place restrictions based on narrow interpretation of religion, then people with other ideas start to leave.

The inclusion of people of other ethnic backgrounds gives everyone a sense of 'belonging'. For example if in a geographic area, the majority of Muslims come from Pakistan, the leadership should actively look around - to try and get Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and other regions involved in the decision making process.

In fact, this is the very message that Prophet (pbuh) propagated very early in Islamic history. The same model was followed by the 'Aulia-i-Karam' in spreading Islam in South Asia. In short, the universal message of extending Love, Peace and Service to fellow human beings everywhere, that was articulated centuries ago should be a source of guidance to Muslims in North America.

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