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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Emergent Islam? Surfing toward an Ultra-modern American Faith Life

Sometimes while doing research for a writing project, I will end up spending several hours or an entire afternoon or evening clicking from one website to the next, engrossed in the world of online content. My writing project these days is about how religious congregations use Web 2.0 technologies — research that will culminate this fall in a booklet for the Alban Institute’s Congregational Research Guide — and my day started off with a fascinating hour-long conversation with Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, a non-profit web-services and strategy company for Jewish organizations.

Lisa’s organization has grown and developed tremendously since 2000, when she founded it. Her primary motivation? She had spent a religiously transformative year-and-a-half in Israel (where I visited her and learned a lot about Judaism — Lisa is married to a friend of mine from high school) and when she returned to the States, she began to think about working professionally in the Jewish world. But as she looked online at various Jewish organizations, she found websites that were poorly designed, hard to navigate and simply alienating. An idea was born, and eight years later, Darim is positioned as the only organization of its kind serving the American Jewish community.

Lisa’s story about miserable congregational websites rang a bell in my head, and I googled a site I hadn’t visited in a while: Church Marketing Sucks. I was struck, as always, but how incredibly advanced the evangelical world is in thinking about religious marketing and communication, a topic I’ve written about before (though maybe the word “evangelical” is not specific enough here — these are dynamic, tech-focused and often non-denominational people who are also evangelical. Update: Lisa mentions this organization — STAR — that helps synagogues with marketing, etc.) I had to devote a little time feeling sorry for myself as a Muslim who belongs to congregation with an almost unusable website (Note to self and the rest of the American Muslim world: Which mosques have the best websites?) Through the “Church Marketing Sucks” blog, I came across a site called We the Church, where you can type in Twitter-length prayers and praise. (I gave it a spin — You don’t need to log in, but your prayers are moderated, a fact that is obviously necessary — you can’t have just anyone spamming away — but also theologically amusing: “Will my prayer be ‘approved?’”) I was also fascinated by the “Tweet the Gospel” challenge on another blog: “How would you describe the gospel in exactly 140 characters?”

Thinking about churches that are so digitally savvy made me think about the emerging church movement, since the values of those churches — authenticity, downplayed hierarchy, a focus on relationships — are very much the values of the Web 2.0 world. But since I can never quite nail down what the emerging church movement IS (not unlike the term “web 2.0″), I surfed over to Emergent Village to get a better idea. There I found some great discussion of the recent Evangelical Manifesto, which, among other things, declares evangelicals to be free of any allegiance to any particular political party or ideology. The Emergent Village blog discussion linked to the blog of Helen Mildenhall, one of the very interesting people who took part in the Congregational Resource Guide’s one-day seminar/focus group on congregations and Web 2.0 technologies that is the basis for the booklet I’m working on.

So all my searching and surfing seemed to come full circle, especially when I finally took the time to read one of Helen’s most popular posts ever (originally a column for a local newspaper), entitled, self-explanatorily enough, “Why I Don’t Go to Church Anymore.” It’s an amazing concise description of how she lost her faith while being very involved in her church. She describes herself initially as a believing and somewhat blinkered Christian who filtered her life experience through a “Biblical worldview.” She writes:

I thought I was open enough to give any evidence for or against God a fair hearing. Yet how could I have been open when I responded to everything by trying to make it fit what the Bible said? If I couldn’t make it fit, I’d shrug and assume it was because I couldn’t see things from God’s perspective. So much for me being open. In fact my belief system was an impenetrable fortress.

So what comes next, of course, is that some questions do penetrate that impenetrable fortress, and she begins to doubt her faith: “I was no longer sure I liked, trusted or believed in God enough to want a personal relationship with him. I decided that I needed to stop trying to have one, so I could find out if I missed it.” And it turns out she didn’t. Rather, she reveled in her new freedom, which was grounded in the life of Jesus and the wisdom of the Bible, but not bound to it. She slowly “came out” to her Christian friends and stopped going to church. She concludes:

“All I want to do is get on with my life and respect how other people get on with theirs—as long as they’re trying to make the world a better place. Church wasn’t helping me do that. That’s why I’m not going any more.”

What interested me about this essay in particular was the role of her church experience: Did it contribute to her loss of faith? I’m still not exactly clear what the emergent church is all about, but I do know it’s based on a deep dissatisfaction with “church as usual.” So I wondered if the experience of Helen was shared by others in the emergent church movement. Can congregational life kill your faith? For answers I watched a video clip about the new book, “Everything Must Change,” from Brian McLaren, the emergent church movement guru. McLaren speaks, while sitting beside a bed in a hotel room, about a radical faith in Jesus Christ that is not bound by the four walls of a church.

Brian McLaren on why everything must change

All this had me thinking about American Islam, and especially the enormous mismatch between many of the immigrant-run, old-school mosques and the tech-savvy, professional young Muslims who don’t feel very at home there. I wrote the other day about visiting evangelical churches — one in a local movie theatre, one on Second Life — and it’s true that in a cultural sense, I feel at home in those settings. So, drum roll, please, where is Emergent Islam? A tech-savvy community with a come-as-you-are ethic that emphasizes service and relationship-building? A place to be yourself and ask questions? It’s hard to listen to a Friday sermon without having the option to submit a comment at the end (or give the sermon yourself.) Of course, I have never really seen an emergent church congregation in action, so I don’t know if their reality matches up with their rhetoric — still, the ideas are very interesting, and the aesthetic is just right.

I googled Emergent Islam, but drew a blank, and as we know if it doesn’t come up on Google, then it doesn’t exist. So how about it? Anyone? And in the meantime, check out the new world of Emergent Judaism — thanks again here to Lisa — to see why the emerging church isn’t just for evangelicals.

There Are 10 Responses So Far. »

  1. I suppose the one good thing that can be said about mosque websites is that they couldn’t possibly get any worse! Even in southeast Michigan, which has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations and some of America’s largest mosques, the websites are littered with outdated schedules and broken links. I’ve used the “Contact Us” forms on many mosque websites and have yet to receive a single response. I’ve ordered books that never arrived even though my credit card was charged. I’ve even volunteered my services as a web developer to help upgrade the sites, but so far my offer hasn’t been accepted.

    I mean, I’m a Catholic, so I know a thing or two about bureaucracies and “old-school” thinking. But even my church has figured out how to install WordPress on their site. Something is definitely amiss when an octogenarian Pope is more tech-savvy than a thirtysomething Imam!

  2. Andrea, thanks for the mention!

    As I talk with Emergent/emerging Christians I find we have a lot in common. Many of them started out in churches like mine and became dissatisfied for reasons similar to mine.

    They have continued to believe in God while rejecting some of the specific beliefs held by the churches they’ve left as ‘cultural’ rather than necessary to true faith. My doubts and questions go further than theirs: I doubt the existence of God enough that I no longer make any attempt to communicate with God or orient my life according to what God may or may not want.

    God is no less important to Emergent/emerging Christians than he was when they held to a more conservative form of Christianity. In fact they may be giving more time, attention and money to following Jesus than before, because they are now following him in a way that resonates better with them.

    I discovered Emergent Jews when an Emergent Jew attended the local Emergent Village cohort meeting (which I sometimes attend because I like Emergent Christians). Until then I had no idea of the existence of Emergent Jews. I think they took on the descriptor ‘Emergent’ after becoming an entity and realizing their values overlap significantly with the values of Emergent Christians.

    I think rhetoric always runs ahead of action, but as I read Emergent/emerging Christian blogs I regularly read about what people are doing, not just what they are saying. (Blogs are all words but these describe involvement as well as ideas)

    Here’s one of the more helpful articles about Emergent/emerging Christianity I’ve read: Five Streams of the Emerging Church: Key elements of the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today by Scot Mcknight. Scot is a friend of the Emergent/emerging church, not an enemy, which makes it a pleasant read rather than a diatribe.

  3. Great food for thought, Andrea! Emergent Islam would be wonderful - I think there are so many disgruntled Muslims just waiting in the wings to join such a movement…one which stresses personal accountability, inspirational community projects/sermons/activities, etc. The immigrant mentality has to be superseded by a more interactive attitude where people leave their judgmentalism at the door - once Muslims feel welcome in a ‘come-as-you-are’ mosque - there’s no predicting the powerful impact group dynamics could potentially unleash within this dissatisfied majority - Muslims could ‘come out’ as a very engaged, civic-minded group.

    I think there’s a website called ‘Iman-net’ ( which hopes to open ‘come-as-you-are’ mosques - so there’s hope that the idea will gain traction, thanks to the Web.

    Why is it that individual Muslim websites (like yours) are attractive & user-friendly, but most mosque websites remain dull & uninspired? Marcello - your services are urgently needed!!

  4. Thanks again Andrea! May you and your progeny be amply rewarded for your frankness and honesty!

    Marcello, you can help me with my site!!! its not that i don’t want it be tech-savvy, its that i’m not! :)
    For Emergent Islam to take root, we first have to move away from the idea that the super-conservatives are the ones that really understand the religion, and the rest of us are apostates. This idea is rooted very deeply in most Muslims’ consciousness- like it or not.

    Growing up Southern Baptist, at 14 I took a look at all the hatred, judgment, arrogance, racism, and sexism that I saw in the church and said: “If this is God, I want nothing to do with it.”
    I called myself thinking independently. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had to accept their definition of the faith as true in order to reject it.

    As a Muslim, I am reminded of this lesson regularly. So tempted to say “If this is Islam…” But the Truth is, it is not. I came into Islam via a profoundly life-altering encounter with the Qur’an. So I KNOW that this nonsense I see around me in the community is not Islam. Its people being silly.

    It is a challenge to all Believers: to not allow the religious status-quo to dictate their relationship with God one way or another. This is the path of Abraham. He was a man alone in the desert- neither Christian nor Jew- standing outside the accepted structures and beliefs of the day, searching earnestly for Truth. Its a personal, individual endeavor. Every prophet fought the religious status quo.

    Human organizations always have people jostling for power and status over others. They always have rewards for conformity and punishments for rebellion. Religious organizations are no exception. The stakes are just higher…

    There are come-as-you-are mosques all over the country- I go to one every Wednesday. Its my friend’s living room. As Moses and Aaron were told when they cried out to God for protection from those who practice oppression: “Provide dwellings for your People in Egypt, make your dwellings into places of worship, and establish regular prayers: and give Glad Tidings to those who believe!” 10:87

    Funny, actually, Christians spend time pining for the purity and strength of faith of the first century followers- who stayed underground and met in each other’s homes. Muslims hold the companions of the prophet in such esteem- when they were a small beleaguered group that functioned like a large family. Yet in the midst of this longing for the strength of faith before the religions were organized, we simultaneously think that organizing will restore that purity… that marketing is the answer, and innovative meeting places. Yet I wonder…

    Not one prophet, that I know of, marketed. From what I understand, each and every one of them spread their message via relationships. Talking one-on-one. Helping people turn their lives around, then those would pay the favor forward… person-to-person, heart-to-heart.

    Can faith be manufactured? Is there a formula? An assembly-line? Need for a warehouse? Or is this vision of globe-encompassing expansion simply a delusion of the ego? An excuse to drop focus on the plains of our heart and distract ourselves by tinkering with organizational structure?

  5. If you hadn’t noticed there is an “Emergent Islam” in America. It’s called the Al-Maghrib institute. It is basically an Islamic seminary but with a unique approach. Instructors go to locations around the country and teach double weekend seminars. They have, I think between 4k to 8k students in the US and Canada and are expanding to the UK and Dubai.

    The real strength of the Al-Maghrib institute is that the 100% of those who organize the seminars and market the courses are in fact volunteers. The student body is made up of young Muslim professionals and college students. But one of the most amazing things is the instructors, who are highly educated and fluent in English, directly deal with the problems of American Muslim identity and this in turn has created a legion of dedicated students who have, because of the national character of this institute, been able to network with Muslims around the country for everything from collaborative missionary projects, to establishing successful conventions like the annual Texas Dawah Convention and even networking for marriages.

    One excellent resource that the Institute has going for it is the forums where instructors and students interact discussing the courses, marketing, and other projects.

    The site is and the forums are

    The founder’s name is Shaykh Muhammad al-Shareef. If you are interested in interviewing him I can put you in contact with people who can arrange it.

  6. Your post is exactly what I’ve been saying for ages! My company builds 2.0 websites for (mostly Jewish) nonprofits and synagogues, and I marvel at the poor condition of synagogue sites in particular. Especially when you contrast them with many of the evangelical Christian sites.

    Christian sites, especially evangelical sites, view the web as an extension of their ministry - a way to bring more people to the church and bring the gospel to their congregation beyond Sunday services. Web 2.0 technologies are perfect for this.

    I’d like to know more about LSD websites. Considering the explosive growth of the Mormon religion, I’d like to know how (or if) they’re using the web to spread the Good Word.

  7. Hi Monique,

    I’m assuming you meant “LDS” websites, yes? :-)
    I don’t have the inside scoop on what the Mormons are up to, but about a year ago they hired Cameron Moll to be their “Interaction Design Manager”. Cameron Moll is one of the best web designers in the biz, and he’s helped to produce some truly elegant websites for them. My favorite is this one:

    So the Mormons are taking the web very, very seriously!

  8. Assalamu-Alaikum Andrea!
    Another great, thoughtful and informative article- many thanks. I think there is a growing emergent movement in Islam. There are a number of Muslims I know in Calgary who pray at the Mosque but then choose to have most of their religious interactions outside of it, and they’re all very committed Muslims! Most will tell you they don’t feel like they fit in or that they have had their perspectives and contributions or even just their questions attacked or condemned. The movement is learning to be internet Savvy as well: our Faith of Life network is an example. All of us are there because we’re looking for a place to serve and a community to interact that’s bigger and more welcoming than what we have at home- and less about being just like everyone else. Even for me: although I’ve got a role working with the Muslim Council, that’s obviously not enough. The great thing about the internet is that it lets us make more connections with like-minded Muslims and InshaAllah make a difference too.

  9. Dear Andrea,

    I’ve been thinking about your question for many days now because, in a way, it resurrected an older question I’ve been thinking about for many years. Not necessarily in the same way in which you’ve framed this question by providing its Jewish and Christian precedents, but in the sense of: where is the splitting, forking, and rejoining of different communities in the American/Canadian/European Muslim experience? Why do we not have more denominations? Where are the cultural creatives of Islam? And, as you have asked, where is Emergent Islam?

    The pivotal question that comes up for me is this: what are the social conditions under which Jewish people found it psychologically “safe” to create an Emergent Judaism? What mental and emotional spaces needed to be created as a prerequisite for such movements to emerge and flourish? Similarly, what conditions allowed Emergent Christianity to make itself known?

    There are numerous denominations in Jewish and Christian communities. And though these communities have their fair share of resistance to change, controversy, struggle for legitimacy, these factors are not enough to stop that cultural creativity from happening, not enough to interrupt the birth of new movements before they’ve had a chance to form.

    Among the reasons for why there is no Emergent Islam as of yet, I can think of 2 that keep coming to mind:

    1. For the most part, Muslims in America/Canada/Europe are still immigrants or not too far from being immigrants. I speak of this from my own family experience. There seems to be a conservative strain in immigrant communities as they try to negotiate their identities with their new homeland.

    The instinct is to circle the wagons. Everything inside the circle is traditional, familiar, and therefore good and lawful. Everything outside the circle is not traditional, unfamiliar, and therefore questionable at best and forbidden at worst.

    The other pattern is that when the immigrant parents are flexible or lax in their adherence to their religious traditions, sometimes their children become more strict adherents to balance it out. So these attitudes are not likely to meet the necessary social conditions to give birth to Emergent Islam.

    In comparison, modern Jews and Christians are not undergoing the immigrant experience. They’ve acculturated to their environment for centuries. So embedded and entrenched are they in their cultural environment that they become a part of that culture and, more importantly for their Emergent constituency, they become active shapers of that culture, rather than recently-arrived visitors still standing apart from it for they are not quite sure they can trust it-like a drop of oil in water.

    2. The other factor that comes to mind is that, even if you get various groups of Muslims to shed the “culture shock” of their immigrant mentality, there is still the perception that they must adhere artistically, devotionally, and intellectually to a mold of religiosity that has been set down by their forefathers. What the true character of that mold is has been a matter of intense debate and controversy, but as long as there is mold-mindedness, it does not allow the mind to transcend and learn to relate to the world, to God, to other human beings in ways unforeseen by the mold. That movement to transcend the mold is seen as abandoning the religion itself.

    Of course, Muslims over the centuries have engaged and recast their self-understanding through their interactions with other cultures, other philosophies, other ways of living — but for the most part, this mold-mindedness has been the prevalent attitude.

    In comparison, I would argue that Jews and Christians have had a long, difficult yet uninterrupted, history of engaging science, art, philosophy, etc and they have transmitted the importance of doing this to vast numbers in their own communities. In other words, they have communicated, endorsed, and celebrated the value of doing this as a social practice for each generation. Perhaps there is a marked difference in the perception of time among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities, a line of inquiry that requires much more investigation.

    In all that I have said above, I understand these are just my opinions, impressions, generalizations, mistakes, misperceptions. There are degrees here and nothing is black and white. Am I generalizing? Of course. Could I introduce you to Muslims who think in exactly these terms? You bet. Could you introduce me to Muslims who don’t fall into any of my categories? Without a doubt.

    Bottom line:
    What we’re really talking about is cultural and religious creativity. Why does anyone create as opposed to not create? One word: fear. Fear of being cast out of the fold and being alone. Fear of God himself casting you out, losing your meal ticket to Heaven, and being permanently cast out.

    So the question is: how do we regularly invoke the strength of our more subtle convictions that there is more to faith and life than what my mother and father taught me? How do we face the fear of being cast out and push through it?

    If we do not have psychological safety, can we claim it? If we do not have the emotional and mental spaces, can we create them, instead of waiting for them to appear? Can we take the first step and hold these spaces open and thereby midwife the creation of not just Emergent Islam (singular), but Emergent Islams (plural)?

    How do we do it as individuals? How do we do it as a group of concerned Muslim friends who want to start a little Emergent movement?

    And for those who have the audacity to make this attempt, what will they find? Do they not already have precedents among their Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters who often speak of finally finding an authenticity that is true to their faith and true to the times in which they live and true to their own individuality? In other words, the radical, the intimate, the social-what more could an Emergent individual want?


  10. Marcello - How funny! Yes, obviously LDS. Does make you think if there is some kind of dropping-acid church. I guess that’s what Timothy Leary founded.

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