Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

Ihsan Bagby: Islam in the United States is Islam’s Future Worldwide

An African-American born in Cleveland who “grew up in the ‘hood,” Ihsan Bagby says he had rejected Christianity by his junior year in high school.

“I thought I had rejected God,” he adds, but in 1969, after studying a variety of religions, he “came to Islam,” attracted by its emphasis on meditation and its spiritual tradition.

Now an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, Bagby conducted a ground-breaking study in 2000, The Mosque in America: A National Portrait, that established him as an expert who is quoted in The New York Times and cited in scholarly studies.

He sees Muslims in America merging two traditions: African-American and immigrant. They are becoming politically active and bringing social justice issues to the fore. Muslims need to respond to post-9/11 Islamophobia and to undercover police playing “dirty tricks” on their community, Bagby says. If Muslims are going to be accepted, “we’re going to have to fight for that,” he says.

Bagby expresses optimism. Muslims, like ostracized groups before them, work hard, pursue education, seek economic advancement and believe in the values associated with America. Those other targeted groups—such as Jews and Irish Catholics—have overcome the kind of prejudice in America that Islamophobia represents, he says.

As Dan Tham’s video excerpt indicates, Bagby also sees Islam evolving, committing to equity—the right to a basic standard of living and to health care—and to equality. Bagby says, “No one has a right to cut people out of decision-making.”

He says American Muslims are leading the way in Islam: Acting as agents of positive change and empowering women. He notes that for four or five years females have headed his university’s Muslim Student Association.

Marriage of Muslim women outside the religion, however, is still not allowed. And homosexuality is not accepted, though Bagby sees “a softening of the position toward interacting with the gay community.”

“What’s happening in Islam in the United States,” he says, “is the future of Islam in the world.”

Loren Ghiglione

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