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Keynote Address by Sherman Jackson: Overview of Muslims in America

By Haley Poland

Muslims in America are locked into a hidden battle over who will get to decide what Islam means in the modern world.

Keynote speaker Sherman Jackson, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan and a specialist in Islamic law and theology, discussed the history behind this predicament, and what it means for media coverage of Islam in the United States. 

Jackson began by defining Muslims in America as an amalgamation of ethnicities, races, classes, and histories – all of which are only loosely bound by their common commitment to basic religious and theological postulates.  There exists an ongoing exchange about what that means and how that will affect Muslims’ search for a dignified existence in America.

Jackson said that Islam’s authority crisis is exacerbated in the United States because groups are competing for the authority to define and speak for Muslims in America.

History
The most important period in Muslim history (which Jackson referred to as the “period of sacred history") was the three centuries following the death of Muhammad.  During that era, Islamic scholars methodically and painstakingly teased out the meanings of the Qur’an and Sunna.  They developed an accreditation process for what he called “doctors of the law” and a methodology through which scriptures could be validated.

As the authority of the Islamic scholars declined, and nation-states started taking over, literacy increased and people began to read the scriptures themselves.

"That vacuum of authority resulted in an interpretive free-for-all,” Jackson said.

From the language of the texts alone, all kinds of possibilities for Islam could emerge.  What must exist, for any version of Islam to last, is a conversation with that period of sacred history when the meanings were originally decided, according to Jackson.  This is comparable to the “strict constructionist” movement that often gets mentioned in news reports about potential Supreme Court Justices who believe that America should stick to the exact Constitutional language set down by the Founding Fathers.

While Jackson said that the realities of the modern Muslim world are far removed from that “period of sacred history,” it is the lack of conversation with that sacred history that so complicates the present.

The Middle Eastern Muslim world, also referred to as the Arab Muslim world, is the only segment of Islamic society that can authenticate modern adaptations of the religion, Jackson said.

"It’s only with a contemplation of scripture in light of that Muslim world that modern interpretations of Muslim culture can emerge,” he said, adding that “if the Arab Muslim world is the real game, America is just a scrimmage.”

Jackson said that there is always a human preference to be represented by one’s ideals as opposed to realities.  In the case of Islam in America, both have been misrepresented by the media.

"The ideals of Islam are distorted because they are routinely, if not exclusively, put in context not by comparison to other religions, but in a secular discourse.  For that reason, Muslims always end up apologizing rather than explaining,” Jackson said.

While Muslims feel pressure to volunteer that they are not terrorists, followers of other religions are not held to the same standards.  During the Q&A session, the example came up that Catholics do not feel pressure to disassociate themselves from the child molestations scandals that have recently plagued Catholic priests.

Another problem is that some unfortunate realities of Islam, “like planes hitting buildings,” are taken to be reflective of ideals.  Because America is not familiar with Muslim history and diversity, people are too willing to believe that Islamic terrorists represent greater Islam. 

Resources

VideoWatch video of the keynote (152.6 MB)

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