The Islamic Center of America is the largest mosque in the United States. Located in Dearborn, Michigan, it is ironically placed on a road that was established by Henry Ford for the dual purpose of housing only Christian churches, and serving as a racial barrier.
Our host was Najah Bazzy, author of The Beauty of Ramadan: A Guide to the Muslim Month of Prayer and Fasting for Muslims and non-Muslims, and long-time attendee of the Islamic Center of America. Unfortunately the tour didn’t include a discussion with the head Imam as the visit’s agenda had indicated, especially after Ms. Bazzy spoke so highly of how progressive he is regarding reconciling Islam to twenty-first century America. In his absence, Ms. Bazzy gave a good introduction to Shi’a Islam and clarified some important misconceptions several guests had.
One of the most important misconceptions she addressed was the confusion of cultural practice with Islamic practice. Anyone who’s ever heard anything about Islam in the mainstream news has probably been disturbed and confused by the horror stories regarding the practice of “Shari’a Law,” which it became evident to us that few outsiders—especially Westerners—really understand.
As disturbing as that is, what’s perhaps more disturbing is the hypocrisy many people demonstrate when they slam Islam—past and present—for the same traits and tendencies they ignore in Christianity’s history. For example, Islam is often stereotyped as being very oppressive to women—and I can think of at least one denomination of Christianity that has at least as bad a historical reputation.
Incidentally, what I’ve observed firsthand about the experience of Muslim women is contrary to the stereotypes. Since long before I heard Ms. Bazzy talk about how women are treated in Islam when Islam is not contaminated by sexist cultural overlays, every Muslim woman I’ve met personally struck me as quite empowered.
Since our most powerful basis for forming our judgments about a group is our personal experiences, then my personal experience shows that Islam is a religion that is no more or less detrimental or empowering to the well-being and progress of the women and men within it than American Christianity, Judaism, or secularism are.
The same is true for the much-maligned Christian denomination that came to mind earlier—Catholicism. There are always some people within a group who fit whatever the negative stereotype is, but there are probably more who demonstrate the opposite: that their religion or culture really is and has been useful to society.
Whether they’re doing what they’re doing within the context of the Catholic faith or have since broken with it, it can’t be a coincidence that so many of these women were raised Catholic. This demonstrates to me that there has to be something very good in that religion and its teachings to have enabled it to turn out so many amazing and truly beneficial-to-society women (and men) throughout contemporary history.