“We open our doors in September of 2019,” says Dr. Ihsan Bagby, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky. He was speaking of the first Muslim Seminary in the United States.
The comments came in a wide-ranging conversation with me in his office on the campus of the university. It was recorded for broadcast as a podcast through The Meetinghouse. (Listen to it here.)
“We need homegrown imams who are trained here,” he explained. “This is important in the development of the Muslim community.”
Imams are the pastors for the Islamic faithful, he explained, and almost all of the imams in the United States were trained overseas. Muslims want to be integrated into American society, and they need American-trained clergy to guide them in this process. But there is no such school anywhere in these United States.
There is a “race” to correct that deficiency, with separate groups of planners focused on Boston, Knoxville, Oakland, and Dallas. Bagby is with the Dallas team, and they are working with officials at Southern Methodist University to reach their goals.
“Assimilation is not good,” he clarified, when I used the word. Muslims want to be integrated but not assimilated. Assimilated means to surrender unique values and practices and adopt the values and practices of the dominate culture. Muslims don’t want to do that. “We want to be good Americans and good Muslims,” he explained. By which he means: Muslims was to eat pizza, attend university ball games (the Kentucky Wildcats, he was careful to say!), and give to local charities; but they also want to continue their practices of prayer, fasting, and worship.
It isn’t easy, especially when there is a resurgence of resistance to immigrants in the United States. “This is the dark side of what it means to be American,” Bagby explained. From time to time anti-immigrant sentiment emerges, viewing immigrants as strangers and insisting that what it means to be American is “white and Christian. That’s the way it is in part of Europe.”
“Ignorance is the issue,” he contended, “and when they get to know Muslims, they discover Muslims are not dangerous and will not pervert America.”
World Islam experienced a renaissance, Bagby said, after the Middle Eastern countries secured independence and began educating their people. “We are living in a time of revival when we are asking the question, ‘What does it mean to be religious, to be Muslim in the modern era.”
It began in the 1960’s, when young people in Arabic countries began to explore their religious and cultural roots. “By the time I got to Cairo in 1977, the mosques were jammed with people, mostly young people, where once they had been largely empty.”
Conversion to Islam here in America is a result of two things, he asserted. First, Islam is a deeply spiritual way of life. “You begin in the morning before dawn with prayer and absolution…. And there are four other prayers every day: after noon, late afternoon, at dark, and finally at bedtime.” This system of praying plus the fasting during Ramadan and reading the Koran is very attractive to people who are looking for a God-centered way to live.
Islam also has a very long tradition, he explained, and people like the notion of hooking up with something that has been around a long time. Islam traces its origin to the seventh century of this common era (circa 650 AD).
Plus, this, Bagby said with considerable delight: Muslim converts don’t have to give up Jesus!
“I’m a much better Christian, a much better follower of Jesus,” is what many Muslim converts testify, according to Bagby. “Most Christian never really understood what it means to say ‘Jesus was God.’ And it never was central to their Christian faith.”
Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet sent by God but do not believe Jesus was God. The idea that Jesus was God was highly contested in early Christianity and was not widely considered orthodox until the Roman emperor (the newly-converted-but-not-yet-baptized Constantine) demanded that the bishops take a stand on the matter. All who dissented were banned from the Christian communities. That was the year of our Lord 325.
And this is now. “Kentucky is a fairly open society,” Bagby said, when asked how it was to be Muslim in the Commonwealth, then added with a smile: “Treating people fairly is something most people learn in church!” Most people: he is right about that, but not all.