Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism in the United States of America: An American Muslim Perspective

By Nyang, Sulayman S. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism in the United States of America: An American Muslim Perspective


Nyang, Sulayman S., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Introduction

As we await the closing years of both the century and the millennium, we must begin to say to ourselves that we are, in the language of the Chinese sage, "living in interesting times." Alternatively, we can say with Charles Dickens that "these are the best of times and the worst of times," depending on how one views the world. Regardless of our perspectives on the nature of things in this world, there are three facts that cannot be denied by any human being living in the midst of things on this planet. The first is the phenomenon of globalization, which is tearing down all the walls of separation that have kept humanity apart for centuries.(1) We may disagree as to how we interpret this phenomenon, but the fact that science and technology have now conspired to bring us together physically and electronically is beyond dispute. The second transformation that has taken place in human societies is the growing desire and strong belief among humans that their material well-being could be improved and that they deserve to live better.(2) This View of the Material possibilities in the human condition is made more and more evident by television and other forms of media. The CNN factor is certainly a reality in our times.(3) The third fact to be noted here is the growing realization by all religions, ideologies, and belief-systems that they have to live under one roof and that the days of living in isolation are gone forever. It is becoming categorically clear that secularism and the growing secularization of human life due to advances in science and technology are forcing all human societies to create political systems where the right to think freely and to exercise one's freedom to believe or not to believe in any religious or secular formula for living in this world is respected.(4)

It is against this background that we will consider the issues relating to the subject under discussion. I intend to cover three areas in this essay. The first section provides what I consider the key points to be made in any discussion of Muslim views on religious pluralism in the U.S.A. Here I will identify the Islamic views of these Muslims and give a breakdown of the contending interpretations of Islam and the differential attitudes toward the notion of church-state relations. Attention will be given to the manner in which American Muslims are defining their role and place within the American political system and society's response to them. The second part addresses the question of limits to pluralism in a society that is witnessing the multiplicity of moralities and religious groupings. The third section deals with the relationship between religion and public policy, engaging both the familiar question of the separation of church and state and the issue of state intervention in the amelioration of conditions among the poorer and less fortunate members of society.

I. Islam and the Question of Religious Pluralism

In discussing the pluralistic nature of American society today, one cannot ignore the fact that at least 5,000,000 members of this society are followers of Islam.(5) This fact has been acknowledged in recent years by American presidents and by members of the national leadership and media. Because of this growing realization of the Muslim presence, it would make sense to know how American Muslims view American pluralism and what contributions they can make to the development and strengthening of this political/religious concept that has become the moving spirit of American community-building and self-governance. First of all, I should state that Islam teaches that humanity has the role of khalifah (vicegerency) on this earth, and, because of this acceptance of the Divine Trust (amana) to exercise dominion in this world, Adam and his progeny have the responsibility of creating peace in this world.

The diversity in the world is taken for granted by Muslims because both the Qur'An and the Sunnah (words and life examples of the Prophet Muhammad) teach Muslims to accept the diversity of race, language, culture, and religion among the descendants of Adam and his wife Eve. …

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