What Is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship

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  • Format: Book
  • Published: 2014, Oxford University Press
  • 224 pages
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As the Muslim population of the United States grows, debates over how Muslims should engage the civil and political life of the U.S. are increasingly common. Too often, however, this conversation focuses on a narrow concept of shari‘a that is perceived to be incompatible with, or a threat to, the U.S. constitutional system, or it focuses on assimilation of Muslims to an “American” way of life. By juxtaposing “Americanness” and Islam, these conversations assume that American Muslims cannot be faithful to both their religion and their citizenship.

Fortunately, in his new book, What is an American Muslim?: Embracing Faith and Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2014), Abdullahi An-Na‘im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law and Senior Fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, offers a different model in which American Muslims can be fully Muslim and fully American. For An-Na‘im, the key is to move beyond minority politics or “political strategies and practices that are premised on or motivated by one specific identity, religious in this case, to the exclusion of other identities and the dynamic of multiple, overlapping identities.”

An-Na‘im explores the concept of identity and unpacks the ways in which any individual identity is an amalgam of various relationships to others based on many possible affiliations, including politics, race, culture, or religion. Each of these relationships is a part of a person’s identity, and they put each of us in the minority at times and in the majority at times. As An-Na‘im says, “Every citizen of the United States is part of a minority in some respects and of a majority in others. Yet those citizens who think of themselves as members of a minority are keenly aware of it, while those who feel confident in their ‘Americanness’ do not give it much thought.”

Moving beyond minority politics means moving beyond notions of majority and minority that create hierarchies of “Americanness.” Instead, An-Na‘im argues that American Muslims should engage in the civil and political life of the country as citizens informed by their faith, rather than as a community separated by religion. He does not, however, argue that such engagement necessitates a loss of religious identity. Rather, while American Muslims should engage civically and politically as citizens informed by faith, such engagement also affirms religious self-determination, or “the individual experience and the collective expression of a foundational freedom: the freedom of religious belief and practice, subject to the equal rights of other citizens, [including] the right of each Muslim to experience her religious beliefs according to her own convictions and choice.”

An-Na‘im concludes by engaging the work of political theorist Benedict Andersson and arguing that moving beyond minority politic requires “reimagining community.” Reimagining community means both reimagining what Muslim community is “in relation to the Quranic principle of enjoining what is right and combating what is wrong within the America context,” as well as reimaging the national community in light of its many forms of diversity, i.e., reimagining “Americanness.”

An-Na‘im’s primary objective is to “[urge] American Muslims to take a proactive, affirmative view of citizenship and to seek religious self-determination, including the critical self-understanding of their identity and of conditions under which self-determination can be exercised.” While making a compelling case for this objective, An-Na‘im’s most recent book is also valuable reading for anyone interested in how the United States, or other countries, responds to diversifying demographic trends. It is also a useful contribution to other communities considering their own civil and political relationship to the state. For these reasons, An-Na‘im’s most recent work will likely have an impact far beyond its primary audience. 

About the Author: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (from Sudan) is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law, associated professor in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion of Emory University. An internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights and human rights in cross-cultural perspectives, Professor An-Na'im teaches courses in international law, comparative law, human rights, and Islamic law. His research interests include constitutionalism in Islamic and African countries, secularism, and Islam and politics. Professor An-Na'im directed the following research projects which focus on advocacy strategies for reform through internal cultural transformation:

Women and Land in Africa
Islamic Family Law
Fellowship Program in Islam and Human Rights
The Future of Sharia: Islam and the Secular State
The websites for these projects can be accessed through Professor An-Na'im's personal homepage at »

Professor An-Na'im's current research projects include a study of Muslims and the secular state, and of human rightsfrom state-centric to people-centered. He continues to further develop his theory of Islam and the Secular State (Harvard University Press, 2008), also published in Arabic and Indonesian. Translations of this manuscript in Bengali, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Turkish and Russian, are available for download free of charge at »

Education: PhD (Law), University of Edinburgh (Scotland), 1976; LLB (Honours) and Diploma in Criminology, University of Cambridge (England), 1973; LLB (Honours), University of Khartoum (Sudan), 1970


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