The Responsibility of the American Shia: Part I

This is a very timely and important article regarding the American Muslim Community and especially the American Shia Muslim Community specifically:  
This article will explore the responsibilities that come with the unique identity of being an American Shia Muslim. This means it will not include the many responsibilities that come with American citizenship alone or the countless more that come with the practice of the Twelver tradition. Surely, the scope of such an endeavor would require more effort than this writer can muster.
The idea for this article has been brewing for some time now but with the recent increase in discussions among American Shias regarding our community affairs, no time has seemed better than the present.

The Question of Culture

It is natural to retain an attachment to the culture of one's parents or even distant ancestors. Culture is a set of values and traditions created and practiced to allow emotional fulfillment or disapproval through appropriate behavior by members of its group. In this way, it establishes a complex symbol of community pride defined by a shared history and common experiences. If not obvious already, the question is whether the many Arab, South Asian, African, and other cultures that exist within our community have a place in the future of the American Shia experience. Indeed, they do in so much as they will define in our hearts and minds our individual sense of who we are, our connection to our individual past, and the experiences of our immigrant relatives – those courageous souls who found their way to a far away land with nothing but promise. The fear is that if we replace their traditions with our own, ones that may better represent our needs as a community here, that somehow we will betray their legacies.
This fear requires closer examination. First, let's try to imagine the fear of those that brought us here. Maybe 20, 50, 100 years ago, a young man sat at a dinner table talking to his parents about his dream to go to America. After much laughter and a subsequent scolding, he finished his dinner and went to bed. But for some reason, his dream lingered, floating around the voices of fear in his head, fears that said "How dare you leave your parents behind to live in a Kafir country", "what will your extended family think?","have you forgotten who you are?", "your country needs you". Was his journey to America a betrayal? Perhaps he felt that way – perhaps it is guilt that caused our parents to re-establish their cultural traditions here in the US. Or perhaps when traveling to a land of opportunity, they conquered their fears, followed their rebellious dreams, and brought their values and traditions with them and established religious and cultural institutions here to ensure their coming generations would not forget their most cherished beliefs. It is important to emphasize that this single courageous decision of every American Shia immigrant creates the unique set of responsibilities and opportunities that we have the privilege of discussing now.
So the question then is whether our fears of betraying the culture of our parents is reason enough to dismiss the opportunities that lie in front of us. Indeed, they are not. Rather, to honor their adventurous spirit, it is imperative that we embrace their courageous attitudes. Yes, that is right – we are the children of visionaries.
The fact is, as a community we have succeeded in establishing religious institutions where we can practice our Shia traditions in whichever language and tradition we choose. This is because our most cherished values are defined outside of any culture, through the verses of the Holy Qur'an and actions of our beloved Prophet's Holy Family (peace be upon them) which transcend language. And throughout the 1400 years of our history, Shias have practiced their faith in diverse societies, spreading the message of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) in every language and through the fibers of every culture.
It is appropriate to note here that the most famous poet and reciter of Noha in the South Asian subcontinent and Urdu-speaking world, Ali Mohammed Rizvi, known to his fans as Sachey, meaning 'truthful', was a controversial figure when he first emerged in Pakistan. Many elders of the community at that time were against some of his recitations because they felt they were too socio-political in nature. But the delivery and message was so compelling that Sachey single-handedly established a new dramatic culture within the Muharram commemorations of Pakistan and India, one that countered the anti-Shia political rhetoric of that time. And today, he is considered a traditionalist. So, the measure of what is appropriate for contemporary culture in this regard can and should only be judged by the new generation of American Shias who bear the responsibility of establishing a new artistic tradition. The road is open for new passionate poets inspired by Karbala to harness the growing atmosphere of human rights and social justice here in America and build it into a new social movement through new compelling, artistic mediums.
So, the need for an American Shia culture should now be a foregone conclusion. This entails establishing traditions in English with unique American cultural expressions, whether it is through original poetry, literature, dramatic performance, theatrical plays, or cinematic films. New American Shia traditions must also be established for our Eid celebrations and Muharram commemorations using these same mediums. And it is the collective responsibility of our entire community to create spaces where those American Shias with special creative talents are allowed to experiment with such Halal artistic expressions freely, without judgment.

The Shia-Sunni Question

American Muslim institutions that do not acknowledge our individual identities will not bring the community together. There are plenty of examples of substantial American Muslim organizations that have placated Shias, taken their donations, and invited them to join their boards during their formation, only to eject them politely or through social pressure when the organization started to flourish. It is the responsibility of the minority to demand its inclusion in larger American Muslim groups. This recognition must include a verbalization of different historical narratives and perspectives in the Islamic tradition, distinctions in belief, and a subsequent re-acknowledgement of brotherhood and sisterhood despite these differences.
Any majority community cannot be expected to take these actions on its own. We need only look at recent history to see the struggle of minorities to achieve something near racial equality and egalitarian reform here in the United States and across the world. Although it may seem unbelievable to many of us that such inequities could have ever existed, the sad reality is that they still exist. And in the case of the oppression of Shias, they have existed for over 1400 years.
Park51 Community Center in downtown Manhattan is one example of an attempt to build community with an intrafaith focus. Just last year, Park51 held Majalis on all 10 days of Muharram 2010 AD/1433 AH. These commemorations were in English and included amateur poetry. Although we have a long way to go in developing inspirational material and mediums in this regard, it was exactly the open and creative space we needed to experiment and invite those who had never attended a Majalis to participate.
Some say this is not the Prophetic way, not Islamic. This assertion highlights a major issue in our understanding of how to behave in our society today. There is a difference between merely copying actions and acting with the spirit of the Prophets and Imams (peace be upon them) in our particular situation and circumstances. If the former was the case, every Imam would have taken the same actions as Imam Hussain, but not every Imam was at Karbala. It is the latter that we are meant to pursue as Muslims to live as effective human beings in our respective communities. So imagining what a community center would look like in the time of the Prophet would only be relevant to his particular circumstance whereas the method he used would be relevant for all times and places. One thing is for sure: all the Prophets and Imams did not preach and practice solely inside the mosque.
What we are talking about are not interfaith activities, which are essentially politically-correct efforts to soften the idea that we actually think other religions are wrong. Rather, we are talking about building community and learning how to fully function with each other in society despite our honestly expressed differences. This means walking the same halls together, dining together, attending lectures together, debating, performing community service together, and really trying to understand how to live amongst each other. This has not been achieved anywhere in the world. New York City, the most intellectually diverse city in our nation and in particular Park51 is a first time for American Muslims to lead such an effort. We need to be the ones building such community centers all over the country, keeping in mind the specific needs of local communities.
This is a Part 1 of a 3 part series to be published in the coming issues of Islamic Insights.
Mohammad Ali Naquvi is a lawyer and community activist based in New York, NY.  He is Secretary to the Board of Trustees of Mohsena Memorial Foundation and Founder of Independent Viewpoints, an organization that endeavors to bring American Muslims and non-Muslims together on common civic concerns.  He can be reached at
Editor's Note: As with all opinion pieces, views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Islamic Insights or its staff and writers.


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