All-American Islam

hamza yusuf2Like many Americans, I became extremely curious about Islam and its adherents in recent years. I joined a local study group to read the Quran and learn about Islam and have read many books on Islamic teachings. But even though I'm pretty sure I know a bit more than the average American, I'm not sure how much I really understand about this religion. Which is why I get so frustrated with most media coverage. We here at GetReligion repeatedly have expressed our concerns with the weaknesses in reporting about different schools of thought in Islam. So I have to point out Laurie Goodstein's New York Times piece about two American Muslim clerics:

Most American mosques import their clerics from overseas -- some who preach extremism, some who cannot speak English, and most who cannot begin to speak to young American Muslims growing up on hip-hop and in mixed-sex chat rooms. [Sheik Hamza] Yusuf, 48, and [Imam Zaid] Shakir, 50, are using their clout to create the first Islamic seminary in the United States, where they hope to train a new generation of imams and scholars who can reconcile Islam and American culture.

The seminary is still in its fledgling stages, but Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir have gained a large following by being equally at home in Islamic tradition and modern American culture. Mr. Yusuf dazzles his audiences by weaving into one of his typical half-hour talks quotations from St. Augustine, Patton, Eric Erikson, Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Auden, Robert Bly, Gen. William C. Westmoreland and the Bible. He is the host of a TV reality show that is popular in the Middle East, in which he takes a vanload of Arabs on a road trip across the United States to visit people who might challenge Arab stereotypes about Americans, like the antiwar protesters demonstrating outside the Republican National Convention.

It's a long piece, but one that is very enjoyable. I get the feeling that Goodstein invests a great deal of time in understanding the perspectives of her subjects. Whatever her method, it pays off. Her descriptive profile enables the reader to get a feel for these American-born clerics. I was fascinated by little tidbits, such as Yusuf's conversion from Greek Orthodoxy and upbringing in Marin County, Calif. Shakir converted while in the Air Force.

Goodstein's challenge is to describe the theology of the men she is profiling. They are not easily categorized, and rather than try to force a description, she admits that they are complex individuals and shares details that let the reader form an opinion:

Though Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir do not denounce particular scholars or schools of thought, their students say the two are challenging the influence of Islam's more reactionary sects, like Wahhabism and Salafism, which has been spread to American mosques and schools by clerics trained in Saudi Arabia. Where Wahhabism and Salafism are often intolerant of other religions -- even of other streams within Islam -- Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir teach that Islam is open to a diversity of interpretations honed by centuries of scholars.

Mr. Yusuf told the audience in Houston to beware of "fanatics" who pluck Islamic scripture out of context and say, "We're going to tell you what God says on every single issue."

"That's not Islam," Mr. Yusuf said. "That's psychopathy."

Goodstein also mentions where the clerics previously spoke or wrote against Jews and America -- and whether they regret what they said. Of course, it would be wonderful if she could have spent more time on where these men stand doctrinally. I love it when reporters covering Islam get specific about religious tenets. Here's an example of how Goodstein tells readers about one teaching of the clerics. She tells of a discussion group where men and women are discussing the merits of polygamy:

Mr. Shakir told the students that Islam allows polygamy because it was a "practical" and "compassionate" solution in some cases, as when women are widowed in war. But in the modern context, he said, "a lot of harm ensues."

It says a lot about how hungry we are for details about Islam that even a detail such as this could satiate. I only wish the article could have gone on longer and told more about how these men differ from other schools of thought in Islam. And more about where, exactly, they stand.

The piece also has great multimedia accompanying it. I got this picture of Mr. Yusuf, however, from Flickr.

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