Social Challenges Facing Muslims in North America

Developing Just Leadership

Khadijah Ali

Rabi' al-Thani 26, 1443 2021-12-01

News & Analysis

by Khadijah Ali (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1443)

Migration is an important concept and practise in Islam. The first migration of Muslims occurred during the fifth year of the Prophet’s (pbuh) mission in Makkah when some 100 Muslim men and women sought refuge in Abyssinia. The second major migration was from Makkah to Madinah in what is referred to as the Hijrah.

These migrations occurred because the early Muslims faced an existential threat in Makkah. Since then, Muslims have continued to migrate to other lands throughout history. The presence of significant numbers of Muslims in East Africa or the now Muslim majority states of South East Asia (Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia) testify to this fact.

There is another phenomenon that has occurred over the last 60-70 years: migration of Muslims to Europe and North America in significant numbers. Migration to Europe was mostly to attract cheap labour. The Second World War had virtually destroyed Europe’s infrastructure as well as caused huge numbers of deaths running into the millions. Able-bodied men were needed to rebuild and work in factories. These were imported from former colonies. Britain got its labour force from India, Pakistan and the West Indies. France imported its labour from former colonies in North Africa and the Francophone parts of Africa while Germany imported workers from Turkey.

North America applied a different set of rules. While predominantly immigrant-based societies, initially Muslim students came to North America—the US and Canada. Both countries had stringent immigration rules. Canada in particular did not allow non-white people until the mid-1960s. Hitherto, it only allowed people from Europe but by then it realized that there were not enough people willing to relocate. Further, Canada had to compete with such other destinations as sunny Australia and New Zealand.

From then on, immigration to the US and Canada was opened up and today there are significant numbers of Muslims residing in both countries. In the US there also emerged an indigenous Muslim population among African Americans. They came to mainstream Islam by way of the Nation of Islam. Today, there are more than 10 million Muslims in the US. In Canada, the number is close to two million.

Like all immigrants, their first priority upon arrival was to seek a job and accommodation. Since most Muslims that migrated to North America were educated and skilled, they settled into professions where there were good prospects for upward mobility. Today, Muslims can be found in the medical profession, engineering, accounting, teaching and business.

Once settled, Muslims also established huge mosques and Islamic centers throughout North America where apart from the five daily prayers, Islamic education to children is also provided. Communities have grown around these mosques/Islamic centers in most urban centres.

For early Muslim migrants, the proper upbringing of children and imparting Islamic values to them to prevent them from falling prey to the prevailing hedonistic culture have also been important considerations. As these children grew up and completed university education, another more serious challenge arose: how to get them married to a suitable spouse. This has been especially acute in case of daughters.

The reason is that in the relatively new environment, Muslims have not yet established the kind of social networking that existed in their country of birth. Those social networks facilitated finding suitable spouses for children. Aunties, especially in the sub-continent, were remarkably good at such match-making. This also explains the growth in annual Islamic conferences in North America. The Muslim Students Association (MSA) started these in the early 1960s. Later, the MSA transformed itself into the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Others followed suit: the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and in the last 10-12 years, Revival of the Islamic Spirit conferences in Toronto.

While these conferences attract Muslims by advertising the names of prominent speakers, the unspoken purpose is to facilitate interaction between Muslim boys and girls in an Islamic environment. This is a service that is desperately needed. How successful these conferences have been in match-making (almost supplanting the subcontinental aunties) is open to debate.

Another challenge, especially for parents (or most of them) is that their thinking is set in old ways. Their children think differently. Some old habits, like finding a spouse for their children from the same linguistic or ethnic group, have been largely discarded, but new ones have crept in. These include seeking professionals for their sons or daughters, high income and so on. The emphasis on materialism has led to its own problems. It also goes against the Prophetic advice of seeking a spouse of good character. Materialistic considerations have caused breakdown in marriages. Divorce rates among Muslims in North America have risen sharply. This is alarming.

Equally troubling is the fact that many Muslim boys are delaying marriage. Again, this has to do with getting “settled”, making lots of money and buying a house. This approach disadvantages the girls. Their shelf-life is short. After a certain age, they are not considered suitable for marriage even though such thinking runs contrary to the Prophetic tradition. Muslims would eagerly quote the Prophet’s (pbuh) example of marrying Khadijah (ra) who was 15 years his senior but perish the thought if they would consider marrying a girl who is even one year older than the boy.

If Muslims want to address the serious issue of getting their children married, they must return to the Prophetic sunnah and stop chasing materialistic pursuits.

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