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Muslim and American: Mutually Exclusive?

My father’s Separatist family fled England and religious persecution, boarding ships and making their way to a new world in the 17th. century.

My mother’s Catholic Acadian family sought refuge in New Orleans after British Protestants expelled them from their Canadian home in the 18th. century.

Beyond seeking religious freedom in the “new world”, my family’s American roots run deep. There is a town in Kentucky name after us – Corbin.

I can trace my ancestors back to both families in an infamous American brawl, between the Hatfields and the McCoys. We have a long history of military service.

My father received a purple heart after saving several of his fellow soldiers from a grenade explosion in Viet Nam. His bravery left him with scars over 80% of his body and much deeper unseen psychological scars.

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That is why it shocked me when I was recently asked if I had to give up my citizenship and American identity to become a Muslim.

I didn’t understand the question. I had always been an American and my faith was an extension of my belief in freedom and egalitarianism.

Since 9/11 and increasingly so since the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS, American Muslims are asked to prove that we are, in fact, American. Whether we are immigrants, second generation American Muslims, decedent of Muslim slaves or American Muslim converts; Muslims are feeling more and more pressure to somehow display their American-ness.

With anti-Muslim sentiment high and repeated charges that the president is secretly hiding his Muslim faith and identity, American Muslims are made to feel like it is somehow illegal or shameful to be a Muslim. We are made to feel like our faith cancels out our American identity. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The first amendment plainly states that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

However Christian Fundamentalists-like talk show host Bryan Fischer- say, “By the word religion in the First Amendment, the founders meant Christianity,” Fischer and fundamentalist like him believe that American founders extended religious freedoms only to people of differing Christian denominations so that there would be no Christian rivalry.

But there is little evidence to support this claim made by Christian Fundamentalists. Denise Spellberg, in her book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders explains how “Thomas Jefferson didn’t just own a Quran – he engaged with Islam and fought to ensure the rights of Muslims.”

Thomas Jefferson quotes John Locke as having said, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.”

Islam is not something new in America, “When Columbus made his journey to the United States, it is said he took with him a book written by Portuguese Muslims who had navigated their way to the New World in the 12th. century. Others claim there were Muslims, most notably a man named Istafan, who accompanied the Spanish as a guide to the New World in the early 16th. century in their conquest of what would become Arizona and New Mexico.” (Islam in America)

Historians also have evidence to believe that the first mosque in America was established in Kent Island, Maryland, between the years of 1731 and 1733. It is said that an African Muslim slave, Islamic Scholar and cattle driver named Jon Ben Solomon would sneak away to this specific location in Maryland where he would establish the pray. (Five myths about mosques in America)

So what does it mean to be a Muslim?

Being a Muslim means many things to many different people because the Muslims are not monolithic.

But at the core of being Muslim is the belief in the absolute oneness of God, in all his true Prophets, the last of whom was Muhammad (peace be upon him), and that we must submit our will to that of God’s will.

And what does it mean to be an American?

Being an American is a little harder to define. Sure, we can go by citizenship, but it goes a little deeper than that. If we look to the seal of the United States, we can see what it means to be an American, E pluribus unum – “From many, one”.

We are a country of many different peoples, transformed into one group united by common values of liberty, equality and the right of the people to hold the responsibility of sovereignty.

Can the two coexist?

In 7th. century Arabia, where Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), God did not erase the culture of the people, but corrected it where it was unjust or immoral. The same can be said for any culture and time where Islam is practiced.

The goal of Islam is not to make everyone the same, erasing all identities other than religious, it is to guide human kind to righteousness so that we can weed out cultural practices that are unjust or immoral.

If God had intended us to all be the same, He would not have revealed the following verse in the Quran:

{O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.} (49:13)

We are meant to celebrate our differences in Islam. This is also true in American culture. It is also in this same verse we see that God does not establish one group as superior over another except by righteousness. The idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God and can make of ourselves what we choose, is both an Islamic and American ideal.

The Quran established liberty for all in chapter 2: 256 when God says:

{There is no compulsion in belief}.

The right to be free to choose is both an Islamic and American belief.

But is Islam compatible with the popular sovereignty?

Recent history of the Middle East would say no, but Islam is not defined by recent history of Arab countries that hold only 20% of the world’s Muslim population.

In early Islamic history, the head of state were elected by the people—or their representatives—as was the case for the elections of the four Caliphs; Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.

All the truths Americans hold to be self evident can be found in Islam: Making an American Muslim identity a natural one.

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.