The Challenges to Our Values PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr. Shahid Athar   
Effects of Migration on Muslim Families and Communities


The USA is a nation of immigrants. The difference is that, some came here 200 years ago or before and now cease to be called immigrants and others who came here in last 50 years, continue to be called immigrants . Muslims have tried to come here in waves for centuries but the most significant wave of immigrant Muslims have come in last 40 years. They constitute now 58% of 6-8 million American Muslims. . They have come from all parts of Muslim world. They have established themselves in academic, science, business, medicine and practically every walk of life. For example there are nearly 50,000 Muslim Physicians in the country, crucial to delivery of health care in under privileged areas of USA. They have over 1000 mosques and 500 full time Islamic schools. It is estimated that there are 1 million registered Muslim voters. However, with growth of Islam and Muslims in USA, there are “growing pains”.

The growing pains of migration:

When a person or a family migrates from one country to another or from one civilization to another, he not only takes all of his belongings as much as he can, but also takes his ethical and moral values with which he has been raised for a long time. Unfortunately, just like all belongings, especially furniture, we can not take everything to the new land. We can not take all of the cultural baggage to the new home. There are universal moral codes of human life, common to all religions, such as honesty, speaking the truth etc. These will remain with the person to the extent that he has been practicing in his country back home. This will migrate with him because it is the nature of his character.

However, there are some values which are distinct to his ethnic culture or religious upbringing which he would like to take with him. This includes the family values to keep the family intact and close together, practicing faith as a family unit, education of children according to the religious guidelines, separation of sexes for youth and adults, finding the right spouse, marriage for self or for future children and financial or moral support for each other. 

So, what are the challenges to the migration of these values from one place to another? Initially, the migration is in physical form only. Our bodies migrate while our hearts remain to the place from where we migrated. Once we do get settled, then our hearts and bodies do or should belong to the same place. 

The story of an immigrant Muslim family:

Let us discuss the story of a couple named Abdullah and his wife Ayesha, who are immigrants from Pakistan, now in their late 50s. They came here about 35 years ago. They left their country in the pursuit of the American dream, to establish themselves financially in a new frontier. Maybe they were also escaping from oppression and ignorance. When Abdullah came to this country at age 25, his immediate priority was completion of his studies, finding a job, starting a new career and life, finding a nice place to live etc. A few years down the road, when he was somewhat settled, he decided to go back and marry Ayesha from his home town and brought her here. Once both of them were settled in their new house, other priorities started to take place like finding a place to pray for congregational prayer, finding more Muslims and Pakistanis in the community so they can socialize and finding halal meat. Some of these concerns can be seen in reference #2.

(Agonies of a Muslim in a non-Muslim Society)

By the grace of God, they were blessed with 2 children. Initially those children were nothing but a source of joy and continue to be even later on, but as the children grew, religion became part of their family life. At this point, they were concerned more about conserving their faith and identity for their children than they were for themselves when they initially came. At that time, their values and religious practices were built in and they brought them in from back home. But now, the children are like new flowers, new plants, new seeds were in a new soil and environment. They must protect them to grow according to how they want them to grow. 

So, their subsequent priorities were preserving religion and ethnic identity, merging their identities not only with other Muslim immigrants in the country, but also with indigenous Muslim population and also to some degree socializing with non-Muslim Americans. All of this intermixing and socializing is a give and take situation. In order to adopt certain values, sometimes you have to give certain values. There may be a common ground. They were worried about their children, one of them a daughter. We are always more concerned about our daughters than our sons mixing with American teenagers and adopting the values of other cultures. So at this point they were not only concerned with the halal meat but were also concerned about halal entertainment. 

It should be noted that migration from Pakistan to a civilization like Timbuktu with undeveloped or naive culture is easier than migrating to a country with advanced culture and civilization. Immigrants living under awe of a superior industrialized nation may melt under dominant civilization culture. He may feel some kind of inferiority complex and do their best not to be melted down. 

Initially Islam was not their priority when they came in, but as attacks on Islam and their values increased in the media, thanks to the hostage crisis in 1979, subsequent political problems overseas and now after 9/11; they had no choice but to defend their faith. So, instantly they were pushed into becoming defenders and ambassadors of their faith. At this point, they had to learn their faith in order to be able to practice and explain their faith to non-Muslims. Another challenge that happened was marriage for their children. For Abdullah and Ayesha, it was easy at that time because at that time it was an arranged marriage and they had no choice. But for their children, Kareem and Amina, it was not an easy decision for an arranged marriage either in this country or to find a suitable match back home. 

Although they were Muslim children, they had developed a distant American identity by now. What was not acceptable for the immigrants became acceptable for the children of the immigrants. They raised both children differently. While son Kareem attended public school, daughter Amina went to Islamic school once it became available in their community. Similarly while Kareem married an American convert Muslim girl, Amina was married to a Muslim boy of Pakistani origin, of course with her approval. 

The other problem which has been and is still not solved is how to achieve financial independence without getting into traditional interest free society or economics with full interest. This includes not only investing money and buying properties like a house or a car but finding a job which does not derive income from interest based sources, such as working for a loan company. As far the food and cultural aspects of Islamic life are concerned, with the passing time and the growth of the community and mosque, it became easier. Instead of driving 200 miles to another town to buy halal food, there were now many stores in their town. Similarly, instead of praying at home, for congregational prayer, they could pray in the Mosque in their town. 

The challenges were there and challenges will be there, but with effort and thanks to the different support that they have received, they were able to meet those challenges. However, the fact remains that many immigrant families failed to achieve their American dream after 9/11. Many such dreams were shattered by unnecessary discrimination, stereotyping and profiling as a product of the backlash after 9/11. Many Muslim immigrants went back to their country of origin. This reverse brain drain benefited many Muslim countries especially Pakistan. 

How do the Muslim immigrants in USA network with agencies that provide education assistance and advocacy? Both Abdullah and his wife Ayesha received support from different sources at different levels. At the community level they have support from their mosque and from their neighborhood association. At the ethnic level, they belong to several Pakistani organizations which have support programs and on a religious level they have support from religious organizations like ISNA. Their children get support from Muslim youth organizations like MSA and MYNA. They also found a Muslim physician to take care of their health, not because non-Muslim physicians can not take care of them but because they thought that a Muslim physician would understand their certain privacy needs as well as fasting guidelines better than a non-Muslim physician. So they feel very comfortable going to a Muslim physician. In fact, Ayesha’s physician is a Muslim female doctor. She feels more comfortable with her annual examination by her. 

Part of living in a society that prides itself on freedom and human rights is being able to go to social agencies for any possible problems related to their children or their family life. It would be nice if they would have a full social service support in their mosque, but unfortunately their mosque is not staffed to this level. Over the years, with their neighbors and co-workers, they have developed quite a few friends of every religion who understand Abdullah and Ayesha’s ethnic background, cultural values and religious thoughts. This has helped them meet the challenge of surviving as new immigrants in this country.

In this regards, the majority i.e. the Christian Americans have a greater role to play in supporting and teaching their fellow American Muslims from the vast experience that they have gained over last 200 years. It is also the duty of American government to protects and up hold the rights of the minority as “the majority can protect itself.”

To summarize, American Muslim immigrants, while preserving their faith have gone through following adaptation to deal with the new challenges

To deal with secularization of education in public school and in order to protect Muslim children, they have developed Sunday schools and full time Islamic schools which thousands of Muslim children attend.

To deal with isolation and for social networking they have formed hundreds of organizations of religious and ethnic lines (ISNA, ICNA, MAS , APPNA etc

To cooperate with non Muslim Americans they have joined with other interfaith groups and dialogue such this one.

To propagate message of “American Islam” they are publishing many well circulated news papers and magazines (such as Horizon, Minaret, Message and other) and developed well visited websites (such as , , etc) and in last 10 years more Islamic books have been written by American Muslims than by any other faith except Christianity. 

To deal with discrimination and their civil rights issues, they have formed advocacy groups such as CAIR, MPAC, AMC, PAKPAC etc. 

Although they have discouraged intercultural marriages many Immigrant Muslim boys have married American girls and vice versa creating a new ethic culture in this country. This wave of Muslim immigrants are here to stay and make their mark in this beautiful landscape called United States of America- Inshallah (God Willing).

Presented at 9th Annual Midwest Regional Islamic – Catholic Dialogue on Oct.12, 2004 at ISNA headquarter, Plainfield, Indiana. USA. 

Selected References: 

  1. Shahid Athar “The Future of Islam in North America” in book “Reflections of An American Muslim” ( Kazi Publications 1994)
  2. Shahid Athar “The Agonies of a Muslim living in a Non- Muslim society” in above mentioned book.
  3. Shahid Athar “Influencing the Behavior of Muslim Youth and Their Parents” in above mentioned book
  4. Shahid Athar “Sex Education for Muslim Youth and their Parents” (Kazi Publications 1995).
  5. Shahid Athar “ Raising the Children with Strong Faith” in book “ Keeping the Faith- Best Indiana Sermons” – The Guild Press-2003
  6. Shahid Athar “ My Interfaith Life in Indianapolis” in book “ Healing the Wounds of Sept. 11, 2001” (Ist. books library)- 2004 , also included in “Urban Tapestry” edited by Rabbi Sandy Sasso (Indiana University Press 2002) 
  7. M.A. Muqtedar Khan: “American Muslims- Bridging the Faith and Freedom”. Amana Publications 2003 Asma Gull Hassan “American Muslims- The new generation”- Continuum 2001

  8. Sulayman S. Nyang : “Islam in the USA” Kazi Publications 1999
  9. Yvonne Y. Haddad: “The Muslims of America”- The Oxford University Press 1991
  10. Phyllis Lan Lin: “ Islam in America- Images and Challenges” – University of Indianapolis press 1998
  11. Amber Haque “Muslims and Islamization in North America” Amana Publication 1999
  12. Raymond Brady Williams “Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan”-Cambridge University Press 1988.