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Can Muslims Be Both Pious and Progressive? : AMERICAN JIHAD: Islam After Malcolm X, By Steven Barboza (Doubleday: $25; 384 pp.)

January 30, 1994|Gerald Early | Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, is the author of "Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture" (Ecco Press) and of the forthcoming "Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood" (Addison-Wesley)

Steven Barboza's "American Jihad" is trying to be something that is both simple and complex. Most obviously, Barboza wishes to give Islam an uncomplicated human face by introducing us to the lives of a wide variety of American Muslims. On a more profound level, though, he would like to demonstrate that the religion itself, as a theological and social entity, exemplifies both the problems and promise of American multiculturalism.

What's promising, Barboza argues, is Islam's dynamic of variety and difference; what's perilous is the same notion that bedevils the other two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity: namely, if it is possible for a Muslim to be many things, then what, finally, is a Muslim? Most of those interviewed here say he or she is pious, moral, hard-working, devoted to family and to the Qu'ran, mystical or a hard-headed practical money-getter. Like Christians and Jews, then, Muslims say that the root of faith is faith: In the business of religious belief, justification is nice, but sanctification is everything.

On the other hand, Barboza also wishes to show that Islamic devotion is unique and perhaps even superior among American religions. That "American Jihad" becomes a sort of Islamic apologia is almost unavoidable considering that it was written by a practicing Muslim who wishes to garner public understanding and respect for his religion. And to be sure, as with other religious apologias, these pages are alternately lively in their compulsive energy and boring in their mythologizing.

Islam in America bears a particularly heavy burden of misunderstanding and misinterpretation largely because it was first portrayed in the mass media not as a religion but as a set of political views, a type of political and social behavior, divorced from tenets but rich in rhetorical posturing. In the popular culture, Islam in America is largely associated with militant blacks bearing stern, angry faces; with separatists who, during the height of the civil rights movement, accused black integrationists of being Uncle Toms and whites of being murderous, unjust devils.

Nevertheless, the two most famous American Muslims, without question, are Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, two charismatic black figures--the former the most noted black nationalist in American history, better known than Marcus Garvey or even his teacher, Elijah Muhammad; the latter probably the most famous professional athlete ever, exceeding the fame even of Babe Ruth, John L. Sullivan, Jim Brown, Jack Dempsey or Joe Namath. Both were members of Elijah Muhammad's home-grown Islamic movement, the Nation of Islam, and both were ultimately to outgrow that movement and become "orthodox" Muslims.

Whatever might be said of the influence on the Nation of Islam by Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Assn,, in truth, Elijah Muhammad, consciously or unconsciously, picked up less from orthodox Islam than he did from Mormonism (the idea of race war and separatism within the United States) and from Father George Baker Divine (cooperative economics, God as a human being, God as a black man, heaven and hell on earth and in this life). In short, despite its Eastern veneer, Elijah Muhammad's sources were thoroughly American, as was his movement. But Americans, whether white or black, could scarcely recognize their own American-ness in this movement.

Or perhaps, more significantly, they did not want to. In more recent years, Islam's association with Arab terrorism, with Middle Eastern unrest, with violent censorship (Salman Rushdie), with an intense mood of anti-Americanism has made it difficult for Americans to understand it in any sense as a religion. It simply becomes something that Americans irrationally fear, hate and wish to eschew.

"As disillusionment with Western values spreads, Islam gains momentum," Barboza writes in his introduction. But Islam cannot thrive only as an exotically un-Western spirituality, as an utter repudiation of a "sick" Western culture or as a denial of modernity itself.

Many of the interviews in these pages--with Muslims ranging from Sufi mystics to Harvard professors--are intriguing and often informative, especially for someone with little or no knowledge of Islam. But the core of "American Jihad" specifically concerns African-Americans who have converted to Islam: They are, without question, its most enthusiastic, most numerous and most politically charged members.

Barboza offers an informal history of what has happened to the Nation since the death of its founder, Elijah Muhammad, and of the fate of some black American Muslims who converted to orthodox Islam because of Malcolm X. The story here is not as complete as it could or should be: Little mention is made of the Nation's forays into drug trafficking and extortion in the late 1960 and early 1970s in some of the East Coast mosques, the murder of Major Coxson, a good friend of Muhammad Ali, and other unsavory matters.

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