US Shiites Tentatively Make a Home In America

January 18, 2010

Author: Rachel Zoll

Source: The News-Times

Wire Service: AP

Sayyid Haider Bahar al-Uloom paces before his students seated in two neat rows — men in one, women in the other. They meet each week in a small but growing office in an old storefront downtown, its shelves lined with Arabic texts on Islamic jurisprudence.

Tonight's lesson is on justice, but Bahar al-Uloom's lecture ranges wide of Muslim teaching. He cites The Federalist Papers, slavery in U.S. history and spirituality in "The Audacity of Hope." A 37-year-old Iraqi Shiite, he consumes books on American culture and religion, analyzing the work of mega-pastors Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and others, to learn their appeal.

"We should not fear introducing people to other ideas," says Bahar al-Uloom, whose title sayyid is for those who trace their lineage to the Prophet Muhammad.

On this night in Michigan, he ends his lecture with the same message he brings to Shiite groups around the country: Your ideals, rooted in Islam, are not alien here.

"We call them Islamic values, but they are universal values," he says in near accentless English. "If it's a principle or act that would help all Americans, all I need to do is speak it in a language that is universal."

Shiites comprise less than 15 percent of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and an even smaller percentage of the Muslims in the U.S. Within the wider Muslim world, they are often persecuted for their beliefs and way of worship.

Islamic law governs even the smallest issues for devout Shiites. Can they wear cologne? Listen to popular music? Sit at a table where alcohol is served? New interpretations are needed for life in non-Muslim countries.

Pious Shiites have seen threats to their faith from the permissive American way of life and what for many is their first experience of a non-Muslim government. Worried that voting or other civic involvement would violate Islamic law, many have opted instead to turn inward, focusing on preserving their traditions.

But the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror strikes, the war in Iraq and other world events have prompted some significant changes in the U.S. Shiite community in recent years. Shiite clerics and activists are pushing community members beyond the protective walls they built, encouraging them to fully embrace their American citizenship.