American Muslim: A Dream of A Singular Ummah?

In the United States, religion is not a variable in population censuses. It is no wonder that there are no factual figures of religions’ adherents, including Islam’s. However, according to a research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017, the number of Muslims in the United States was around 3.45 million people, or 1.1 percent of the total population. It is estimated that in 2040, American Muslims will become the second largest religious group—replacing Jews—after Christian. Despite the increasingly harsh obstacles that Muslims face—especially the growing tendency of Islamophobia—the Pew Research shows that 89% correspondents declared that they are proud to be both American and Muslim. Eighty percent said they are satisfied with their living conditions, and 70% believed in an
“American dream” guided by the principle that any hard working person will achieve success.


Meanwhile, according to a research by Dalia Mogahed and Youssef Chouhoud (2017) from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, American Muslims comprise the most diverse ethnic groups among religious groups. American Muslims are the only religious community that has no majority race: 25% are black, 24% are white, 18% Asian, 18% Arabic, 5% Hispanic, and 7% are mixed race. Half of American Muslims are born in America, and the other half outside America.


With such diverse ethnicities that come from all over the world and then live in one country, American Muslims have the opportunity to exemplify the realization of ummatan wahidah, a singular community—a principle mentioned in the Quran. The consequence of a singular community is mentioned in a hadith that says that believers are comparable to a body: whenever a part hurts, so does the whole body.


To become a “singular ummah”, it is necessary to establish a more or less solid American Muslim social identity. But that’s exactly, in my opinion, where the biggest challenge of American Muslims lies—at least for now. Being immigrants and uprooted from original cultures, American Muslims feel the stronger pull to celebrate their original cultural identities and fulfil the desire to “return to origin”, rather than collectively creating a “new culture”. One interesting example is the establishment of mosques, especially in big cities like New York City. Many mosques are founded by certain ethnic communities, from certain countries of origin, even from certain provinces in a country of origin. In Queens, ​​New York City, for instance, several “ethnic mosques” can be found not so far from each other.


 As time goes by, it is not impossible that the coherence of American Muslim identity grows stronger. Challenges such as the strengthening of Islamophobia is in fact a blessing in disguise because it provides a way for a sense of solidarity which in turn strengthens a shared identity. Alienated to a certain extent by Islamophobic sentiments, which presuppose monolithic Muslims and Islam, it is not impossible that this “other” identity instead solidifies. Isn’t it true that, according to Stuart Hall (1992: 287), “identity arises not so much from the fullness of identity which is already inside us as individuals, but from lack of wholeness which is filled from outside us, by the ways we imagine ourselves to be seen by others.”


An attempt at realizing such ummah in fact has been done. Organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Council of North America (ICNA), and others carry out cross-ethnic Islamic programs and events. The same goes for Muslim community leaders in the United States. The appearance of Muslim individuals in public spaces in many occasions also contributes to the representation of American Muslim identity. In the American political realm, for example, there are figures like Keith Ellison and Ilhan Omar. In sports, the fencing athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad, who wears veil, is only one example. The popular culture, too, gives rise to Muslim figures, ranging from musicians (Mona Hayder, Native Deen, and others) to stand-up comedians (Hasan Minaj, Aasif Mandvi, etc.), film actors (Mahershala Ali, etc.), and filmmakers (Minhal Baiq, Lena Khan, etc.).


It must be emphasized that if there is any solid American Muslim social identity, it does not necessarily mean that it will be the only identity of every American Muslim. The anti-essentialism view of identity confirms that in reality a person cannot have one identity. On the contrary, someone carries multiple identities (based on gender, age, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc.) that will appear in response to external stimuli in this person’s interactions. In this sense, anyone can move between identities according to the discourses and conversations of a certain time. Thus, identity remains something loose and open.


Putut Widjanarko

Festival Board, Madani Film Festival

Completing his doctoral program at the Ohio University with a dissertation about the Indonesian Muslim community in New York City, US.