Embodying Ethics, Performing Pluralism: Volunteerism Among Ismailis in Houston, TX (2003)


Muslims in America reflect the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, traditions, and practices that constitutes the global Muslim community. They engage with the American context in which they are situated in a multiplicity of ways. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the summer of 2003, I explore how voluntarism among Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili and Sunni Muslims in Houston, Texas provides a lens to examine how they negotiate pluralism within their communities and in American society, and how they manage the intersection of religion, politics, and service in America. For many Muslims, voluntarism or community service is a means of putting Islamic ethics into practice in daily life. Voluntarism is also a key concept of American civic and multi-religious culture, referring to active citizenship and denominationalism, respectively. Indeed the Muslims I interviewed see no conflict between faith and citizenship. Many of them strive to build bridges with other communities, Muslim and non-Muslim, to put into practice their philosophy of respecting and engaging in pluralism. Yet most of the Muslims I spoke with do not see voluntarism as necessarily linked to citizenship and political participation. In this study, I consider the following questions: How does the Muslim notion of voluntarism encounter the American context where voluntarism is linked to citizenship and participation in civil society? Do Muslims see American values as the same as or competing with their own Islamic value systems? What do Islamic ethics mean to them? What critical understandings of Islam have emerged from Muslims’ engagement with non-Muslims through acts of voluntarism? In interrogating these issues, I pay particular attention to the Nizari Ismaili community, whose emic use of “voluntarism,” organizational structure of volunteers, transnational character, and mediating authority of the Imam distinguish its tradition of voluntarism from that of Sunni Muslim communities in America.

Voluntarism is a part of Islam. It has brought me closer to my faith; it is a part of me. Without it, my life (as a Muslim) is pointless.

—Khadija, American-born Ismaili university student

Doing voluntary work is part of an Islamic framework. It is natural to human life to offer service.

—Karim, Indian immigrant Sunni professional

I. The Social Phenomenon

Muslims in America reflect the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, traditions, and practices that constitutes the global Muslim community. They engage with the American context in which they are situated in a variety of ways, including through voluntarism. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the summer of 2003, I explore how voluntarism[1] among Nizari Ismailis and Sunni Muslims in Houston, Texas provides a lens to examine how they define and manage pluralism, and how they negotiate the intersection of religion, politics, and service in America.[2] Sunnis comprise some 90 percent of the world’s one billion Muslims, while Shia Ismailis comprise roughly 1.5 percent. Of the six to eight million Muslims in America, approximately 80,000 Sunnis and 13,000 Ismailis reside in Houston. Houston has the largest Ismaili community in the United States. It therefore offers a wide variety of Ismaili and Sunni Muslim volunteers to engage with.[3]

I carried out participant observation among some 100 Muslims volunteers. I conducted structured and unstructured interviews with 25 of these Muslim volunteers, including Sunnis and Ismailis; Muslim-born and converts; American-born and immigrants from South America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia ranging in age from 24-70 years. These informants volunteer everywhere from soup kitchens to hospitals, from prayer halls to prisons. Many also volunteer in the realms of secular and religious education, international relief, economic and financial planning, and political advocacy that benefits Muslims and non-Muslims both in the U.S. and abroad.

Some scholars have argued that the lack of a state religion and the right to free exercise of religion (First Amendment, U.S. Constitution) has created an environment of religious pluralism that is distinctly American (see e.g. Eck 2001).[4] Religion has become part of American public discourse both socially, as a means of categorizing personal identities as linked to particular religions (Greeley 2000: 235-7), and politically, in the constant recreation of civil religion (Bellah 1967, 1980; Cesari 2002). According to Robert Bellah (1967), American civil religion refers to the notion that the symbols, beliefs, and rituals that are key to the American sociopolitical sphere constitute a sacred structure.[5]

How does Islam fit into the context of American civil religion in general, and how do Muslim faith-based voluntary organizations exemplify this fit, or lack thereof, into the American landscape in particular? Virtually all of my informants claimed that within the American Muslim community, voluntarism entails engaging with and helping Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While the voluntary work that many perform resonates with the Tocquevillian narrative of voluntarism as active citizenship and service for the common good (Eliasoph 1998), many Muslims do not see their voluntary commitments in terms of political participation as many Judeo-Christian communities in the United States seem to (Jamal 2003). Rather, both Sunnis and Ismailis I interviewed cited voluntarism as “fundamental” to Islam, as an expression of “Islamic ethics and values.” What does it mean to talk about voluntarism in these ways? Do these discursive practices form a “local knowledge” of what it means to be a “Muslim”? How do such articulations of the meanings of voluntarism articulate with those of a Tocquevillian-bent that color American civil society today?

I argue that American Muslim volunteers and their practices are discursive productions that make meaning in and reproduce local, self-consciously Muslim worlds in different and complex ways, as individuals’ local worlds intersect with the American national and political culture. These discursive productions embody intersections of politics, religion, ethics, and service alternative to the intersections often promoted in American national culture. I proceed by first situating the study in the context of relevant literatures. Second, I outline my ethnographic observations, distinguishing between Sunni and Shia Ismaili articulations and practices of voluntarism where relevant. Lastly, I discuss critical understandings of “pluralism” that are emerging from American Muslims’ voluntary practices.

II. Situating the Study

A number of social scientific studies of American Muslim communities provide primarily holistic, descriptive accounts of Arab-American, South Asian, and African American communities. They do not account for socio-religious practices with cross-national and cross-racial participation and salience (see Abraham and Shryok 2000, Dannin 2002, Elkholy 1966, Haddad and Idleman 1999, Suleiman 1999, Turner 1997). Few studies examine specific issues, such as political participation in the public sphere, family and gender issues, and adaptation of religious practices (see e.g. Aswad 1996, Esposito and Haddad 2000, Haddad 1997, McIrvin et al 1991). Similarly, while some studies examine Ismailis historically as a community in North America (Nanji 1983) or sociologically, in terms of family or youth-related issues (see e.g. Ross-Sheriff and Nanji 1992), they do not examine American Ismailis from an anthropological perspective, nor do they focus on voluntarism. An ethnographic study of voluntarism—both as an epistemological category and an object/practice of analysis-- thus offers a grounded perspective on daily practices of Sunnis and Ismailis that speaks to larger issues of Muslims as moral and political subjects, the nation-state, and relationships between religion, politics, and service. Within this analysis, special attention to Ismailis highlights the particulars of voluntarism specific to a group that has largely been left out of social scientific literature on Muslims in America.

Voluntarism is a key concept of American civic culture, often referring to active citizenship. Studies on voluntarism in the U.S. have largely focused on suburban, largely Caucasian, Judeo-Christian communities (see Eliasoph 1998, Fine 1983, Kraft 1996, Myerhoff 1979, Odendahl 1990, Shokeid 1988). They have examined voluntarism in the Tocquevillian sense: that is, as a means for passive subjects to become active citizens participating in civil society. Similar views of voluntarism continue to be supported today, for instance, through the inclusion of only Judeo-Christian faith-based volunteer organizations both at key governmental and non-governmental meetings forging partnerships between the state, policy-makers, faith-based organizations, and others.

Other scholars define voluntarism in multireligious America as an expression of denominationalism, that is, as an expression of an individual’s voluntary membership to and connection with a particular church, temple, mosque, etc. (Yang and Ebaugh 2001, see also Putnam 2000). Several social scientists have argued that American Muslim groups have reconfigured the structure of religious practices according to the Christian congregational model, so that Muslims “belong” to particular mosques just as Christians “belong” to particular churches or denominations (Yang and Ebaugh 2001). Yet for the Muslims with whom I engaged in Houston, voluntarism does not refer to denominationalism as it does for many Christian communities. Rather, it has religious and ethical implications hitherto unstudied.

III. The American Muslim Mosaic

Today, the relationships between politics, religion, and power are being renegotiated in the U.S., particularly in light of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative creating church-state partnerships, and also in current debates among scholars, religious leaders, and others regarding the role of public values in the private sphere (Dionne and Chen 2001) and the role of religious values in the public sphere (Casanova 1992). With the passage of the USA Patriots I and II Acts and the targeting of Muslim charities that allegedly have ties to terrorist groups, especially after September 11th, the processes by which American Muslims are engaging with the American civil landscape and the meanings (of Muslim, American, citizen, etc) emerging in those engagements are also in flux. In turn, the matrix of relationships between service, policy and politics, and advocacy that has historically characterized conceptions of voluntarism and citizenship in the United States is also being challenged.

Over the last century, immigration regulations, restrictions on naturalization and citizenship, and laws revoking civil liberties have racialized and gendered (Asian) Muslims in America, situating even those Muslims who are American citizens in a differential relationship to the political and cultural institutions of the nation-state, including the national citizenry. Yet my data indicates that the United States’ production of political subjects through naturalization and citizenship is neither the exclusive nor the primary narrative that entails subject-formation for Muslims in America. Rather, the making present of Islamic history in the American context is the primary narrative: the Muslims I interviewed claimed that their selfhoods are emerging through the practice of Quranic injunctions and embodiment of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings regarding ethical social conduct.

In following religious principles to serve humanity, Muslim volunteers not only embody history in the present, but also enact a particular understanding of social relations between self and community. One Ismaili informant claimed, “I don’t know what it means to be an American, but I think the feeling/definition of the individual in America is different—it exists in a spiritual vacuum” (Jamal 2003). Many informants echoed this comment, intimating that the Western concept of the individual has cut ties to the community, whereas the Islamic conception celebrates the individual, but as a functioning member and extension of the community for whom one sacrifices (ibid). To do so is to please God (ibid). In this way, these Muslims in America see the social and secular ties that they form with the community and state as being horizontal, while the spiritual ties they form with God as vertical.

To be sure, while the voluntary practices undertaken by these Muslims in America are the same as or similar to those undertaken by their co-religionists and secular counterparts, the meanings that they attribute to these practices are for many, distinctly Islamic. For my informants, voluntarism is an integral, fundamental part of an Islamic way of life, of what it means to be a Muslim, Sunni or Ismaili, especially in America. For instance, one young Ismaili woman said: “Voluntarism is a foundational ethic of the faith, of living under God’s mandate where there is a responsibility and prescription to serve others. We are accountable to God for our actions, including our interactions with others. The ethic of social action and social conscience, in addition to prayer, are steeped in Islam” (Jamal 2003). Similarly, a Sunni imam claimed, “Ethics, prayer, and service to humanity are integral to Islam” (ibid.).

Yet while one can discern among Muslims in America a general pattern of a scriptural and ethical basis of voluntarism, one can also find some interesting convergences and divergences between American Sunni and American Ismaili notions and practices of voluntarism. In everyday discourse, many Sunni volunteers I spoke with do not necessarily and always conceive of such services in terms of voluntarism as Ismailis do. Rather, the Sunni Muslims I interviewed spoke of such services as the means by which they fulfill their obligations to offer alms (zakat) and charity (sadaqah) (Jamal 2003, Nimer 2002). Few of these Muslims see a conflict between voluntary service as being obligatory. For them, one volunteers to fulfill one’s duties and obligations (to God) as a Muslim (Jamal 2003). Some take the obligatory nature of their social action further, arguing that they would not categorize their so-called voluntary activities as voluntarism, but rather as the proper way of being Muslim. However, these same individuals use the term “voluntarism” to describe their activities in interfaith and other contexts because that is the category used in the American context to describe the types of things they do, such as candy-striping, working in homeless shelters, or teaching prisoners how to read (ibid.).

In contrast, “voluntarism” is an emic term among Ismailis that often glosses voluntary activities neither as obligations, nor as elective activities, but rather as something that one “just does”—volunteering becomes a natural thing, a matter of common sense action (ibid.). Unlike their Sunni counterparts, most of my Ismaili informants spoke of voluntarism not in terms of alms (zakat) or charity (sadaqah), but rather in terms of balancing the spiritual (din) and material (duniya) worlds. For these Ismailis, voluntarism is a “means of keeping ethics in dynamic motion” in the secular, material world (Jamal 2003). Through voluntarism, these informants claim, one hopes to receive blessings from God and thus develop one’s spiritual life (ibid).

Among the Sunnis and Ismailis I interviewed, each group drew on distinct sources of authority and knowledge to shape their articulations of voluntarism. In the American Sunni context, authority is vested in the Quran and Sunna (the tradition of Prophet Muhammad). This authority is localized through the Sunni imam, or prayer leader, who delivers weekly sermons on Quranic passages and teachings. He is often chosen by his mosque community based on the level of his religious knowledge, moral action, and authority in his mosque. His role has expanded in the American context: he is no longer simply a religious leader, but also a provider of social services and a liaison to American society. In contrast, in the Ismaili context, authority is vested in the Ismaili Imam, presently the Aga Khan IV, whom Ismailis believe is a divinely inspired direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad and his cousin, Imam Ali. Always a male legatee designated by his predecessor, the Ismaili Imam interprets the Quran and offers spiritual and material guidance to the global Ismaili community. Hence, unlike other Muslims in America, Sunnis and non-Ismaili Shia alike, who have no single spiritual leader or centralized system of administration, Ismailis have a centralized hierarchy of authority, led by the Ismaili Imam.

While Sunnis and Ismailis both draw on a notion of Islamic ethics to frame their understandings and practices of voluntary work, Ismailis often also draw on the guidance of the present Imam in articulating voluntary practices. Each hereditary Ismaili Imam, as the legatee of the Prophet's authority, actualizes the Prophetic paradigm of suffusing spirituality in the quotidian. By guiding Ismailis how to balance the spiritual and the material in an Islamic ethical context, the Imam thus mediates for Ismailis not only the intersection of the pragmatic and the spiritual, but also local moral worlds and universal Islamic ethics. Hence, one young Ismaili woman told me, “Ethics are essential to Ismailis—it fosters creativity. The Imam does not let us forget what those [ethics] are... Through action, we can pass [voluntarism and ethics] on to our kids—the ethic of helping others, of pursuing knowledge despite our circumstances” (Jamal 2003). Another Ismaili professional mentioned, “[The Imam] shows how ethics are paramount and keep the [global Muslim] ummah together in a broader framework” (ibid). Similarly, his brother commented, “when I have time, I am self-motivated to volunteer because I can see the impact, see the performance benchmarks. When I don’t have time, the Imam’s guidance motivates me...[to remember that] it’s my responsibility to volunteer” (ibid).[6] Thus Sunnis and Ismailis I interviewed differed in the ways in which they defined, spoke about, and conducted voluntary service, with each group drawing on distinct sources of authority and knowledge to shape their articulations of voluntarism.

Within the Ismaili community, voluntarism centers on realizing the social conscience of Islam through institutional action. In the first half of the 20th century, the previous Imam, Aga Khan III, established a centralized system of institutions with transnational reach in the Indian sub-continent and East Africa to address issues including health, education, rural development, cultural understanding, international relief, and so on.[7] Under the leadership of the Aga Khan IV, these institutions have also been established in Europe, North America, Central Asia, and elsewhere. Volunteer professionals, in consultation with the present Ismaili Imam, work in these institutions to enable primarily disadvantaged communities and individuals, especially in Africa and Asia, in a manner sensitive to the sociocultural contexts in which the institutions and those whom they serve are situated. Ismaili volunteers, therefore, often travel within and outside of the U.S. for the express purpose of volunteering. Additionally, several of my informants who have moved between South Asia, East Africa, Central Asia, Europe, and North America have been able to carry on the same voluntary services in the same institutional structures all over the world precisely because of the centralized, transnational organizational structure of volunteer institutions in the Ismaili community (Jamal 2003). For instance, one Ismaili professional asserted, “Few organizations are international: you can’t pick up where you left off across national boundaries like you can in Ismaili institutions” (ibid.). Many Ismaili volunteers also speak of teaching voluntarism, professionalizing volunteers and "voluntarizing" professionals, whereas Sunni volunteers in America do not use specific terms to talk about the development of their voluntary schemes and endeavors.

Certainly, like Ismailis, Sunni Muslim communities in America have developed charities and social service agencies, which offer international relief, domestic social services, health services, services to women, and refugee assistance (Nimer 2002: 5, 95-106). Like Ismaili institutions, these charities and agencies have been developed to enhance dialogue and social action among Muslims in America. Unlike Ismaili institutions, several organizations founded by Sunni communities have been established specifically to enable Muslims to represent themselves in the American sociopolitical sphere. In general, most of the voluntary and socio-religious associations founded by Sunni communities are not branches of institutions present in Muslim societies, but are newly established in America.[8] The decentralization of these associations has presented some challenges in terms of scope and outreach, and management and cooperation among different Muslim associations with common visions but with different means of achieving those visions (Jamal 2003).

What do these similarities and differences of interpretation of and approach to voluntarism mean for expressions of pluralism within the American Muslim community and between American Muslims and other faith groups? Indeed while my informants feel that there is an “Islamic” conception of individual and community that is different from a so-called “Western” conception, they do not see these different conceptions as being contradictory or conflicting. Especially after September 11th, increasing numbers of Muslims have asserted in interfaith dialogues and in dialogues in secular American political spheres that Islamic ethics and values are consonant with both the ethics and values of other faith groups and of American public values (Mattison 2002).[9] These individuals believe that Muslims should identify themselves more along ethical rather than ethnic or religious lines, and that Muslims should form alliances with non-Muslim communities as a means to enact Islamic ethics (ibid.). Such alliances have been formed, as a means for Muslims in the U.S. to broaden their legitimacy as American citizens, to accommodate cultural differences for the greater good of society, and to recognize the legitimate religious and ethical persuasions of non-Muslims (ibid.).

A recent set of celebrations in honor of the birth of Prophet Muhammad held by various regional Ismaili councils exemplifies this trend.[10] These Ismaili councils invited members of various Muslim communities and other faith groups in Houston, Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta to engage in a mutual understanding of the plurality within Islam, and the relationships between Muslims and other faith traditions, particularly in America. Most of the speeches and comments arising from these interfaith dialogues suggest that the groups involved are committed to pluralism as a process of engagement, regardless of their different conceptions of voluntary service. For instance, an Ismaili woman, who is also the President of one of the regional Ismaili councils, commented on the need for Muslims to recognize and accept diversity within Islam, and to focus on the common objective of living up to the Islamic vision. A Shia Ithna ‘Ashari scholar similarly remarked that it is imperative for Muslims in America to spearhead such an intra-faith dialogue since much of the Muslim world is wary of the concept of pluralism, which relativizes one’s claim to “the truth.” Several Ismailis and Sunnis maintained that just as the Founding Fathers stressed putting into practice the principles of tolerance, pluralism, and religious freedom, so too did Prophet Muhammad. In this way, they asserted, the great American ideals are also Islamic ideals. Indeed, the female Ismaili council president mentioned above affirmed that a better society requires Muslims and non-Muslims not to eliminate their differences, but rather to understand and respect them. She concluded: “Perhaps that is the real meaning of ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ which is both, literally and figuratively, the coin of the realm” (Karim 2003).

IV. Conclusion

The history of Muslims in America and its relation to U.S. citizenship is unique; its critique of citizenship cuts across individualized experiences and widens the possibility of thinking and practice across racial, religious, ethnic, and national differences. Muslim volunteers in America embody and produce what Chakrabarty calls “other narratives of self and community that do not look to the (vertical) state/citizen bind as the ultimate construction of sociality” (Lowe 36).

The alternative understandings of voluntary practice decenter the singular national/American cultural notion of “volunteer.” Indeed as on young Ismaili woman remarked, “voluntarism is an American value, but it is also an Islamic one...America needs to move beyond the secular Protestant ethic of voluntarism” (Jamal 2003). To be sure, the practice of voluntarism is polysemous among Ismaili and Sunni Muslims; its meanings are socially constituted, shaped by sectarian persuasion, context of action, and on agents’ positionality. However, voluntarism simultaneously appears to hold a particular set of emerging meanings predicated on a notion of Islamic values and ethics for Muslims in America. As one Ismaili informant commented, “voluntarism...can be done in different ways which, taken together, form one big faith. There is a plurality of voluntarism” (ibid.).

This alternative understanding of voluntarism is a liberating force not only practically by opening up different possibilities for social practice and ethical engagement within and across national borders for Muslims and others, but also theoretically by offering emerging understandings of “America(n)”, “Islam,” and “Muslim.” Yet this alternative site is simultaneously restricting for Muslims, for it is precisely this site that lays the grounds upon which Muslims continue to be distanced from national culture. Despite the repeal of exclusion laws and bars from citizenship, Muslims face persistent exclusionary measures of both USA Patriots’ Acts, the closing of Muslim charities suspected of unlawful ties, an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in which they are seen as “the other within.” This straddling of American culture, this simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the nation, constitutes the experiences of Sunni and Ismaili volunteers in America as a realm of struggle and possibility, of challenge and hope.


[1] Voluntarism and voluntary service are emic terms, used by Shia Ismaili Muslims to signify community service.↩︎

[2] For the sake of clarity, in the remainder of this paper, I use “Ismailis” to refer to Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili Muslims. I use “American Muslims” to refer to the diverse communities of Muslims residing in the U.S. though individuals in these communities may or may not self-ascribe primarily as Muslims and secondarily as Americans, as the term implies. Although “(American) Ismailis” and “(American) Sunnis” are by definition also “American Muslims,” I separate these two categories for heuristic purposes. I use “U.S.” and “America” interchangeably to refer to the United States of America.↩︎

[3] While there is some debate over the earliest points of arrival and over the circumstances surrounding their arrival, Muslims have been in North America for over two hundred years (Smith 1999: 50). With 6-8 million Muslims in America, Islam is currently the third largest religion in the U.S., and is expected to become the second largest by 2010 (Esposito 2000). One-third of American Muslims are African and Caucasian American converts; approximately two-thirds of American Muslims are immigrant descendants of Muslims who came from the Levant, North Africa, and South Asia (ibid.). Although no study on the demographic composition of American Muslims in Houston has been done, representatives of the Islamic Circle of North America estimate that the numbers in Houston reflect the aforementioned statistics (ICNA-HPD class, IDC Houston, 7/23/03). A recent survey of converts and reverts to Islam in the Houston area printed by the Houston Chronicle indicates that 64% are African American, 27% are Caucasian, 6% are Hispanic, and 3% are Other. Of the more than 40,000 Ismailis in the US, approximately 13,000 live in greater Houston.↩︎

[4] Significantly, many of my informants as well as historical circumstance reference the fact that religious pluralism existed and exists in Islamic societies.↩︎

[5] While the meanings and salience of “American civil religion” are contested, it is clear from the pending Chesterfield County vs. Simpson case in Virginia for instance, that the category continues to hold sway among many.↩︎

[6] A colleague recently pointed out the contradictory nature of this statement: if voluntarism is an activity that an Ismaili “just does,” then how can it also be a “responsibility”? I do not know whether or not my informant saw his statement as contradictory. However, it may well be that the resolution of voluntarism as being simultaneously voluntary and obligatory among Sunni informants is resolved in a similar way among Ismaili informants who see voluntarism as being simultaneously a naturalized activity and a responsibility. I hope to examine this issue as I continue my research on voluntarism among Muslims in America.↩︎

[7] For more details, please see “History of the Ismaili Community in the 20th Century” at http://www.akdn.org/imamat/community_20th.html. [Editor's note 2016: This information is currently available at http://www.akdn.org/about-us/his-highness-aga-khan-3.]↩︎

[8] This trend of immigrants creating new institutions in the American context to continue to forge religious identity while simultaneously fitting into and participating in American national culture is not new. Indeed, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish immigrants followed this pattern (see esp. Herberg 1955, see also Eck 2001, Putnam 2000).↩︎

[9] The process of interfaith dialogue on the basis of common ethical grounds has historical roots. Al Faruqi (1967) attempted to devise a meta-level of values to build a common ground for discussion among the Abrahamic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam, by separating the ethical from the theological.↩︎

[10] For details, please see Nazim Karim, “Milad an Nabi,” The Ismaili United States of America: Pluralism and the Islamic Mosaic, July 11, 2003, 8-11.↩︎


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