In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Amir Hussain, author of Muslims and the Making of America (Baylor University Press, 2016).
1) What sparked the idea for writing this book?
I am a Muslim and a scholar of Islam who has been teaching about Islam and Muslims since 1997. In the years prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 there was some interest in American Muslims. With the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a tremendous increase in interest about American Islam. I’ve done a lot of scholarly work and writing, but realized I needed to do something for a larger audience. I wouldn’t have gotten tenure or been promoted to full professor if I didn’t do the scholarly work that is valued by my peers, however that’s a very limited audience.
In the last few years, I’ve seen an increase in anti-Muslim polemic suggesting that American Muslims are something of a “fifth column,” who at best are anti-American and at worst are actively engaged in trying to destroy America. I wanted to do something for a more general audience, something that would still be erudite and scholarly but also written at the level of the ordinary, educated reader. I had known Dr. Carey Newman for years, the publisher of Baylor University Press since he had done the magisterial book with one of my teachers, Peter Richardson, Building Jewish in the Roman East. Carey came to me to do a book with them, and Muslims and the Making of America is the result.
2) How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?
I had the extraordinary privilege of being mentored at the University of Toronto (where I did my MA and PhD) by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, of blessed memory.
Professor Smith was the great Canadian scholar of religion, not just of Islam, in the 20th century. His thinking revolutionized the study of religion. He reminded us, as his obituary noted, that “religion is best understood as the living, vital faith of individual persons rather than as an abstract set of ideas and doctrines.”
My book looks at the “living, vital faith” of American Muslims. It shows how they have contributed to the building of America.
3) Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?
The first sentence of the book summarizes my argument: “There has never been an America without Muslims.” That’s the first takeaway, that Islam is not a new religion in America, but that Muslims have been here since before America became America.
The second key point comes from that first one, that American Muslims have for centuries been part of the fabric of American life. In more recent years, we have become an American success story, with educational achievement and incomes at the highest level of all Americans.
The third key point is that America would not be what it is without the contributions of American Muslims. This summer, we lost the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali. He was arguably the most famous man in the world, an American Muslim. He influenced this country in many ways, not the least of which was his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War. In 1967 that was a very unpopular stance and Ali paid the price not being able to earn a living as a boxer for three years. I see echoes of that in Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand for our national anthem. So few athletes today take a stand on things that they hold dear. In the 1960s, that was common, and Ali was a key figure. To take another example, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest NBA player ever (and I’ll stand on Michael Jordan’s coffee table in my Air Jordans and say that), representing yet another American Muslim who was the best in the world at what he did. The book looks at them as well as the musical contributions of Ahmet Ertegun and the architectural contributions of Fazlur Rahman Khan to argue that America would be a poorer place without the contributions of its Muslim citizens.
4) Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?
I am indebted to my colleagues in the Study of Islam section of the American Academy of Religion. There has been so much good work done in the past two decades about American Islam. In that sense my book isn’t groundbreaking, but what’s new is that it is a short (142 pages), readable summary of how the fabric of America has been woven with Muslim thread.
5) What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?
The hardest thing was to find the time to finish the book. The book was informed by my scholarly work over the past two decades, as well as by a first-year seminar I taught for the past three years, Islam and the Building of America. But for the past five years, I was the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. That took almost all of my energies, and I just didn’t have the time to write the book. But as an American Muslim, I had lived out the reality that I describe. With the upcoming election, and a candidate who wants to ban Muslims from our shores, I needed to write the book. So I’d say that finding the time to write it was my greatest challenge.
6) What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?
What’s been unexpected is the number of colleagues who want to use the book in their classrooms. The book wasn’t written as a textbook, but it tells stories of American Muslims and students love the power of stories.
7) With this book done, what’s up next for you?
This fall, I’m on a fellowship to USC. That allows me to think through the connections of race, religion, and violence. There’s more work that needs to be done on American Muslims, as well as on the differences between Muslim communities in Canada and those in the United States. But perhaps the unexpected turn for an American scholar of Islam is the next book I want to write and research. I’m interested in religion and music, and I’ve always been fascinated by the life and work of Hank Williams Sr. So that’s a project for my next sabbatical, looking at Old Hank as the most underrated American theologian of the 20th century.
Dr. Amir Hussain is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he teaches courses on Islam, American Muslims, and world religions. His most recent book, Muslims and the Making of America, was published by Baylor University Press in October 2016. For 2011 to 2015, Amir was the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the premier scholarly journal for the study of religion. In 2008, he was appointed a fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. He is the author or editor of five other books, as well as over 50 book chapters and scholarly articles about religion.