“Mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes, so that you might come to know each other. The noblest of you in God’s sight is the one who fears God most. God is all knowing and all-aware” (49:13). If you survey nearly all Muslim communities across the U.S., you’ll discover almost as many languages as there are countries in the world. A convert who is new to the American Muslim community will be both astonished and excited by the variety in garb, customs, cuisines and ethnicities that American Muslims have to offer.
While this diversity brings a sense of pride – one realizes how Islam sweeps across such a broad spectrum of people to touch their hearts and unify them under its umbrella – a new member of the community will also be exposed to disputes and cross cultural misunderstandings that inevitably accompany such diversity. The mix of one faith and multiple cultures confined within one community gives rise to a plethora of problems and concerns. This, of course, is not unique to the American Muslim community, as examples can be found wherever immigrants who share one religion but carry different cultural traditions intermingle and form a community.
Growing up almost everyone daydreams of his or her future spouse, envisioning an intelligent, charming, and attractive person who shares one’s values and interests. We almost always assign our dream spouse, consciously or accidentally, a particular race and/or nationality, and it is usually our own. I ask is there anything really wrong with this practice?
I myself remember fantasizing as an adolescent about my future spouse. As a white man, whenever I visualized my future wife, I thought of her as someone with whom I could be completely candid, someone whose spiritual and intellectual ambitions would align perfectly with mine, and someone with a beautiful smile and dark hair.
She would also be white.
White, not because I have or have had some sort of racial superiority complex or distaste for inter-racial relationships, both of which couldn’t be farther from the truth, but because my mind designed what was most familiar to me. Now if I had been asked would I marry an Indian, African American or Asian woman, I would replied without hesitation, “Sure, why not?”
The American Muslim community, while incredibly diverse, has firmly planted one foot in the United States and maintained one overseas. Muslim immigrants and their children, to a lesser degree, retain their ties to the cultural traditions in their native land, and, as a result, tend to seek out fellow American Muslims whose ethnic or cultural identity matches their own. In suburban Detroit for example, there is a Mosque for almost every community–Bosnian, Egyptian, Iraqi and Pakistani houses of worship dot the neighborhoods. Even in my Flint, MI community, which boasts a well integrated Muslim population, intra-racial marriages are the overwhelming norm, not because racism lurks beneath the surface, but because people instinctively gravitate towards likeminded people.
As Sura 49:13 in the Quran suggests, God has created us such that we organize ourselves into “peoples and tribes.” This is not to say that we must isolate ourselves within our racial or ethnic groups, but rather implies that the desire to pair ourselves with spouses of the same ethnic background should not automatically be stamped as motivated by prejudice. While statements such as, “I would never marry a non-Desi” or “I would never marry an Arab” permeate the Muslim community, are they truly evidence of poorly concealed racism, or are they simply a reflection of our tendency to prefer the similar over the dissimilar? Statements which express a person’s desire that his or her future spouse should be intelligent, pious, beautiful, or of a particular racial background are all current perceptions of and preferences for one’s life partner, not value judgments that dismiss all others as unworthy.
As Muslims cultivate deeper roots in American society and as their foothold overseas slips a little, blurring the ethnic and cultural lines of demarcation, the American Muslim identity will slowly shift away from the cultures of our ancestors, and morph into a fully developed, mature “American” identity. We are already witnessing this transition; young American Muslims are marrying across racial lines in much larger numbers than their parents’ generation. Among my friends alone, I can count almost every combination, White-Black, Malaysian-Arab, and Egyptian-Pakistani to name a few. As for me, while I visualized my wife in a certain way, the image was never out of prejudice or exclusivity. I am white and my fiancé is Egyptian, but having been raised in the United States, we both identify ourselves as belonging to the same nation and tribe—American.
(Photo: Giorgio Montersino)
Ryan Strom is an alumnus of Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN), a summer fellowship program bringing together exceptional young Muslim men and women to participate in civic engagement and public service, and a member of DC Green Muslims, a community environmental group working to better understand the relationship between Islam and protecting the Earth.