Krista's Journal: A Home Like No Other

July 28, 2005

The terms "progressive Muslim" and "moderate Islam" are not familiar in our media landscape. News coverage, understandably, is riveted on acts of terror committed by extremists in the name of Islam. Voices of reason can scarcely compete for attention with calculated bloodshed. In our programming, we'll continue to explore the terror and extremism that represent a crisis of the highest order within Islam. But I'm also deeply committed, as always, to shining a light on the moderate, nuanced middle — the vast territory that on so many important issues in our society is too often overlooked for the headline and sound bite value of the extremes.

My first guest in this week's program, Omid Safi, expresses this directly and in his own impassioned words. Safi, a descendant of Persian poets, mystics and ayatollahs, draws on a classic Islamic lineage as much as his modern American upbringing. He is a lover of his faith, a scholar, a teacher, and an activist. In these years since 9/11 he has been both dismayed and mobilized by the repeated rhetorical question of talking heads: Where is the moderate Muslim voice? Meanwhile, Safi says, he is a moderate who is hoarse from talking. And he has come defiantly to claim as a virtue that he lives in "the messy middle where real folks live and breathe."

I first interviewed Omid Safi just weeks after 9/11. I stayed in touch with him and watched his activities unfold in the following months and years. I have observed the conversations and projects that he and other Muslims have set in motion — an energizing convergence of faith, scholarship, and activism that is evoked in this week's program but is rarely charted in the news. Nevertheless, it is happening. And here is the most important theme that emerges from the voices in this hour, I believe: in America, Islam has found a home like no other. They suggest that there are provocative echoes of the best of Islamic history and thought in American history and political culture.

Precious Rasheeda Muhammad has a distinct and intriguing American Islamic heritage. She is a third-generation African-American Muslim. Her father was a member of the Fruit of Islam, the original Nation of Islam's paramilitary group. He helped lower Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad's body into the grave and stood honor guard as his son, W. Deen Muhammad assumed leadership and took mainstream African-American Islam down a moderate course. Precious Rasheeda Muhammad was raised in a world of Muslim reformation. I have written in this journal before about my consistent discovery that Islam is a religion, at heart, of daily lived piety; violent, headline-grabbing acts betray the very posture of this faith. Precious Rasheeda Muhammad tells a story about picking up trash in her neighborhood with her father as a child, and how this was bequeathed to her as an essential, gentle discipline of the devout Muslim life. Such acts of piety are easy to oversee and dismiss in the face of terrible headlines of our day. But as much as any young suicide bomber in the news today, Precious Rasheeda Muhammad is the face of Islam's future.

Each in their own way, Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, Michael Wolfe, Kecia Ali and Omid Safi, are quintessentially American. That is not to say that their ideas fit comfortably in a mainstream American perspective. They eloquently describe a proactively faithful, rigorously thoughtful Islam that many Americans long to know more about. But leading progress and reform within Islam, they insist, means they must question the secular values of Western culture even as they probe and revitalize their own tradition. They are determined to tap Islam's own intrinsic power to nourish lives, cultivate mercy and justice, and correct religious excesses. Such efforts, conceived in the service of global Islam, can surely enrich American society as well.

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is Kay Fellow in Islamic Studies and Women's Studies at Brandeis University.

is associate professor of Islamic Studies at Colgate University, co-chair of the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion, and editor of Progressive Muslims.

is a columnist, filmmaker, and editor of Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith.

Precious Rasheeda Muhammad

is founder and president of the Journal of Islam in America Press and founder of the Islam in America conferences at Harvard Divinity School