The case for an American madrassa. By Junaid M. Afeef


Islam and the Muslim world have both become critically important in the national and international affairs of America. The lack of American Islamic scholars creates a barrier to properly understanding Islam and its relationship to modern American society.
Twenty years ago, it was enough for medical doctors and engineers doubling as mosque presidents and imams to also be the official purveyors of Islamic knowledge at the grassroots level. There was much less of a need for "scholars" in the interfaith arena back then. Things have changed.
I was recently at a benefit dinner for a medical charity and one of my wife's colleagues asked me what I did for a living. "I'm the executive director of a Muslim non-profit", I answered.
"Oh", he responded, clearly not expecting that answer from the guy he just spent the last 20 minutes chatting with about golf and football. He asked me what my "Muslim" non-profit did and what I did for it. I told him that we help mosques and other Muslim institutions to build their capacity and work in interfaith collaboration with other faith-based organisations on public policy issues.
He politely listened to my answer but when I finished he asked, "Islam is not a religion so much as it is an ideology, a way of life, right?"
He mentioned some things he had read about 13th century Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, religious laws and the supposed incompatibility of Islam with Western values. Mind you, this fellow was neither a religious scholar nor a Muslim. It was unsettling because I was just barely equipped to engage him meaningfully.
Today non-Muslim Americans can be sceptical of Islam. Non-Muslim Americans want to know about Wahhabism. They ask challenging questions about taqiyya (when religious identity can be legitimately concealed), jihad (the struggle to serve God) and dhimmis (non-Muslims living under Islamic law). Many times they ask about these concepts having already studied them to some degree. To make matters worse, Islamic scholars overseas and some who now reside in America openly question the legitimacy of lay interpretations of Islam by Muslim American leaders as well.
This is the void that institutions like California's Zaytuna Institute must fill. There are many who perceive Islam as incompatible with American society. There are some that even see America as being at war with Islam. These misperceptions are held by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
These are religious questions that require a deep understanding of Islam and a deep understanding of America. A Muslim American taught in America under the rigours of traditional Islamic study by qualified Muslim American scholars is best situated to dispel these misperceptions. To this end, Zaytuna is proposing the establishment of a "Muslim Georgetown", a four-year accredited college open to all faiths and genders.
Whether the institution is called a college, a university or a seminary is not important. What is critical is that the institution be accredited, that it maintain high standards for admission and retention, that its instructors have the necessary traditional religious training themselves and that there be, among others, a course of study that confers a Muslim American graduate with the requisite knowledge and skills to authoritatively opine on, among other issues, the compatibility of Islamic values and American values.
That such an institution is open to non-Muslims and is not exclusively an imams' training institution could actually be an asset to all who matriculate from its programmes and particularly for the Muslim students who are on an imamate track. Being exposed to thinking and analysis from a non-adherent's perspective can create added depth to a Muslim student's understanding of Islam and of the opportunities and the threats surrounding Islam's hoped-for "integration" into American society.
There is nothing unrealistic about this idea. Scholars like Zaid Shakir, Hamza Yusuf and Umar Faruq-Abdullah have the unique mix of an American upbringing coupled with classical Islamic training to make this form of education a reality.
The greatest challenges will be in securing adequate funding that will allow the institution to maintain a high standard for the prospective students and in attracting high calibre students to this field of study.
Any organisation that undertakes this important work of institution building will encounter the accusations of being an "American madrassa" in the vein of those institutions that are producing Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This challenge is neither here nor there. It is the reality of being a Muslim in America.
Individuals may draw their own conclusions on whether or not Islam and America are compatible. However, in order for Muslim Americans to dispel the misperception of incompatibility, it will take American Islamic scholars who have the educational and intellectual gravitas to go toe-to-toe with foreign-trained and overseas scholars.
Muslim Americans cannot continue looking overseas only for Islamic scholars. American Islamic scholars need to be nurtured and trained in America.


* Junaid M. Afeef, Esq. ( is the executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago and writes for This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.

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