Zahra Jamal

Zahra Jamal was a student at Harvard University when she conducted research in the Ismaili community in Houston, Texas. Muslims in America comprise a microcosm of the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, traditions, and practices that constitutes the global Muslim community. They participate in a multiplicity of adaptive processes to engage with the American context in which they are situated. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in summer 2003, Jamal explored how volunteerism among Nizari Ismailis and other Muslims in Houston, TX provided 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.

At the time of this research, Jamal wrote:

For many Muslims, volunteerism or community service is a means of putting Islamic ethics into practice in daily life. Volunteerism is also a key concept of American civic and multi-religious culture, referring to active citizenship and denominationalism, respectively. Indeed Muslims in America see no conflict between faith and citizenship. They strive to build bridges with other communities, Muslim and non-Muslim, to put into practice their philosophy of respecting and engaging in pluralism. Yet many Muslims do not see volunteerism as necessarily linked to citizenship and political participation. In my study, I consider the following questions: How does the Muslim notion of volunteerism encounter the American context where volunteerism 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 volunteerism? In interrogating these issues, I pay particular attention to the Nizari Ismaili community, whose emic use of “volunteerism,” organizational structure of volunteers, transnational character, and mediating authority of the Imam distinguish its tradition of volunteerism from that of other Muslim communities in America.

Selected Links and Publications