Ihsan Bagby

Ihsan Bagby


  • American-born convert to Islam
  • Associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky
  • Has served as an official/board member of numerous Islamist organizations
  • Claims to be a moderate Muslim
  • Portrays American Mulims as a politically moderate demographic
  • Opposes Muslim assimilation into U.S. society
  • Laments the climate of “post-9/11 Islamophobia” in the U.S. today

Background: ISNA Director & Associate Professor of Islamic Studies

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1949, Ihsan Bagby is an African American who, after studying the tenets of a number of different religions, “came to Islam” in 1969—attracted by the Muslim faith’s emphasis on meditation and its spiritual tradition. He earned an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Oberlin College in 1970, and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan in 1986.

From 1985-91, Bagby served as director of the Islamic Society of North America‘s (ISNA) Islamic Teaching Center.

He has been an associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky since 2002.

Opposes Muslim Assimilation into U.S. Society

In the late 1980s, Bagby said: that “Ultimately we [Muslims] can never be full citizens of this country, because there is no way we can be fully committed to the institutions and ideologies of this country.”

Depicting American Muslims as Moderates

Notwithstanding his belief that authentic Islam is incompatible with assimilation into American society, Bagby’s custom is to portray Muslim Americans generally as moderates who harbor no desire to alter any U.S. traditions or institutions.

In 2001, Bagby co-authored The Mosque in America: A National Portrait—a study summarizing the results of Bagby’s “Mosque Study Project,” by far the most extensive survey ever conducted of U.S. mosques and their congregations. Published in April 2001, this study was sponsored jointly by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and the Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed. Based on interviews with the leaders of 416 U.S.-based mosques, it depicted Muslims in America largely as an unthreatening, politically moderate demographic. A New York Times piece reported, for instance, that Bagby and his fellow researchers had found, as the Times put it, that “moderation in religious practice is acceptable in Islam”; that “living in the United States has permitted many Muslims to become more secular”; and that Muslims are often lax about attending worship services, fasting, praying, and obeying restrictions against alcohol consumption. Buried deep in the middle of Bagby’s report, however, was the fact that: (a) between 65% and 70% of practicing Muslims said they agreed — either “strongly” or “somewhat” — with the statement that “America is immoral”; and (b) 56% of Muslims agreed to some extent with the statement that “American society is hostile to Islam.”

In 2001 as well, Bagby helped Muslims in American Public Square (MAPS) develop a survey questionnaire that covered the following four areas:

  • demographic information regarding the respondents’ age, gender, ethnicity, place of birth, income, education level, and occupation
  • religious practices regarding the respondents’ relationship with a mosque, the importance of religion in their lives, and their views about the proper degree of interaction between the mosque and politics
  • information regarding the respondents’ party affiliation, voting patterns, and views on social and political issues
  • information regarding the respondents’ views about 9/11 and its aftermath, President Bush’s handling of the crisis, and America’s war against terrorism

Much like The Mosque in America, the MAPS survey portrayed American Muslims, on balance, as moderates who did not identify too strongly with the perspectives of extremists on either the right or left end of the political pectrum. Some noteworthy excerpts:

  • “This survey demonstrates an eagerness of American Muslims to fully participate in American public life.”
  • “Two fifths of American Muslims (40%) are Democrats, 23% are Republican and 28% are independent.”
  • “Over a third (36%) of American Muslims describe themselves as moderate in terms of their political ideology; over one-quarter (27%) say they are liberal to very liberal; one-fifth (21%) say they are conservative to very conservative.”
  • “American Muslims favor big government solutions to issues like health care (93% favor universal health care) and poverty (93% support more generous government assistance to the poor).”
  • “American Muslims are conservative on many social issues. They support the death penalty (68%); oppose gay marriages (71%); support making abortions more difficult to obtain (57%); oppose physician-assisted suicide (61%), and support banning the sale and display of pornography (65%).”
  • “American Muslims almost unanimously support donations to non-Muslim social service programs, like aid to the homeless (96%), efforts to become more involved in civic organizations (96%) and participation in the American political process (93%).”
  • “Seventy percent of immigrant Muslims [do] not agree that America is an immoral society, though U.S. born Muslims (49%) and African American Muslims (57%) are at odds with the morality of American society.”
  • “Half of the American Muslims (51%) support the [post-9/11] military action against Afghanistan, while 43% oppose it.”

In April 2004, Bagby published A Portrait of Detroit Mosques: Muslim Views on Policy, Politics and Religion—a study that interpreted the findings of a survey conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a Detroit-area Islamic organization. By ISPU’s telling, Bagby’s data proved that “the vast majority of Muslim Americans hold ‘moderate’ views on issues of policy, politics and religion.”

Bagby, for his part, drove home this same theme of Muslim moderation in a 2004 interview with the Detroit Free Press, saying that “the mosque community is not a place of radicalism.” But while the Muslim community may not have held “radical” views as defined by Bagby, it was clearly, according to Bagby’s own research, a community that embraced leftwing values and social policies. For example:

  • nearly 75% of the respondents claimed to “[s]trongly favor” the provision of government-run, universal health care, while another 16% said they “[s]omewhat favor” it.
  • 88% claimed to favor “tougher environmental laws” (60% strongly, and 28% somewhat)
  • 79% claimed to favor “affirmative action for minorities” (about 57% strongly, and 22% somewhat)

In 2010, Bagby characterized public opposition to the proposed construction of two large mosques—one in New York City and another in Florence, Kentucky—as “totally unreasonable.” Attributing that opposition to the “ignorance” and “bigotry” of “those who are less educated about Muslims,” he said: “I grew up in the ’60s and am well aware of racist attitudes, and I really feel this is a replay of a deep-seated racism against anybody who doesn’t exactly look like us, and now it’s pointed at Muslims.” Bagby also suggested that part of the public’s animus toward the proposed mosques was “tied to the discomfort of segments of our country with [the fact] that at least 50 percent of the country voted for this black man [President Barack Obama].” By Bagby’s reckoning, anti-Obama racists understood that “they can’t [publicly] whip on African-Americans” because “that is no longer tolerated,” but “you can get away with bashing Muslims and you can get away with bigotry towards Muslims.” Added Bagby: “Mosques in America, my research shows this, are actually a positive vehicle for integration of the Muslim community. They are a bulwark against radicalism and extremism.”

Claiming That Islam Is Very Similar to Christianity & Islam

In a 2010 interview, Bagby stated that “the similarities” between Islam and the world’s other major monotheistic faiths “are so much more than the differences.” “The basic world view of Christianity is exactly the same as Islam, the same as the Jewish faith,” he assured. “All of the values that Christians hold dear have strong echoes, parallels in the Muslim faith. Those values include values of compassion for others, love for others, respect for people. They include values of morality, leading a moral life.”

Lamenting Prejudice & “Islamophobia” Against Muslims

In 2011, Bagby affirmed his belief that Muslim Americans needed to “fight” to “be accepted” in the climate of “post-9/11 Islamophobia” allegedly pervading the United States. He maintained that contemporary Muslims, like other “ostracized groups before them,” also “work hard, pursue education, seek economic advancement and believe in the values associated with America.” “Those other targeted groups—such as Jews and Irish Catholics—have overcome the kind of prejudice in America that Islamophobia represents,” added Bagby.

Rejecting ISIS’s Barbaric Tactics While Embracing Some of Its Goals

In 2014, Bagby was one of 126 Muslim leaders and scholars from around the world who signed a letter to the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization. While rebuking ISIS for its undeniably barbaric tactics, the letter nonetheless endorsed the group’s goal of rebuilding an Islamic caliphate governed by strict Sharia Law — including the latter’s brutal Hudud punishments. “For example,” explains The Clarion Project, “the punishment [under Sharia] for apostasy, adultery and homosexuality is execution; thievery is punishable by having a hand severed, and premarital sex is punishable by 100 lashings.”

Hudud punishments are fixed in the Qu’ran and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law,” said the 2014 letter, complaining only that ISIS was not “following the correct procedures that ensure justice and mercy” in meting out those punishments. For instance:

  • The letter claimed that ISIS’s definition of apostasy was too broad and should have been reserved only to describe individuals who “openly declar[e] disbelief.”
  • At another point, the letter stated that Islam forbids the killing of journalists because “if they are honest and of course are not spies—[they] are emissaries of truth, because their job is to expose the truth to people in general.” But ISIS members and other Islamists have routinely justified the killing of journalists on allegations that the latter were propagandists and/or spies.
  • Embracing ISIS’s call for the re-establishment of a caliphate, the letter asserted that “[t]here is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah, [which] has lacked a caliphate since 1924 CE.” The letter objected only to the fact that ISIS was seeking to recreate a new caliphate unilaterally, rather than seeking “consensus from Muslims [everywhere] and not just from those in a small corner of the world.”
  • Moreover, the letter advocated for the implementation of Sharia Law — but only by means of a process known as “practical jurisprudence,” which “considers the texts that are applicable to people’s realities at a particular time, and the obligations that can be postponed until they are able to be met or delayed based on their capabilities.” As Ryan Mauro, national security expert with The Clarion Project, noted: “This is an endorsement of the Islamist doctrine of ‘gradualism,’  … [which] is an incremental strategy for establishing sharia governance, supporting jihad and advancing the Islamist cause.”

Mauro also pointed out that “a weakness in the [2014] letter is the vague terminology that gives room for terrorist groups like Hamas to justify their violence.” He then elaborated:

“For example, point 8 [of the letter] states that ‘Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct.’  The letter goes into detail about these qualifications in order to condemn the tactics of the Islamic State, but the terms of a ‘defensive war’ are not spelled out. All Islamist terrorists consider their attacks ‘defensive.’ […]  Islamists regularly redefine words like ‘clear disbelief,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘justice,’ ‘peace’ and ‘terrorism’ on their own terms. The use of subjective language like ‘innocents,’ ‘mistreat,’ ‘defensive’ and ‘rights’ leave much room for interpretation. This is what enabled a terrorism-supporting cleric named Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah to sign the letter. He is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has called for attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, supports Hamas, and seeks the destruction of Israel.”

Additional notable signatories of the 2014 letter included:

The American Mosque 2020: Depicting Muslims as Moderates

In 2020, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) published a report titled The American Mosque 2020, which presented the results of an extensive survey regarding the teachings and activities of Islamic houses of worship nationwide. ISPU initially mailed its survey to 2,948 mosques and other Muslim institutions across the United States, but only 164 of them responded. During the ensuing 11 months, the researchers, seeking to increase the sample size for their study, called many of the mosques that originally had failed to respond, and conducted extensive telephone interviews with 470 of them — thereby raising the total number of repondents to 634.

The committee that devised and administered the ISPU survey was led by Bagby. Other committee members included: (a) Dalia Mogahed, ISPU’s director of research; and (b) Zahid Bukhari, an activist with Jamaat-e-Islami and the director of the Islamic Circle of North America‘s Council for Social Justice, which helped sponsor the survey. Other partners and sponsors of the survey were such organizations as the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The survey was conducted in collaboration with the Hartford Seminary, a theological institution with a history of ties to radical Islamists like Ingrid Mattson and a Muslim school known as the “Al-Fatih Institute,” which was closely aligned with the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

For the role they played in “identifying mosque leaders” and “supplying several excellent interviewers,” ISPU offered “special thanks” to: (a) Intuitive Solutions and its founder, Tayyab Yunus — a former ISNA official, former ICNA activist, and an open supporter of violent jihad; and (b) the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, which, according to Middle East Forum (MEF), “comes from similar Islamist circles and has a history of giving platforms to hate preachers, promoting conspiracy theories, and even employing extremists who advocate ethnic cleansing.”

“Thus,” said MEF, “the ISPU, an Islamist-managed research institution, established a survey, in partnership with Islamist partners and sponsors, to report the behaviors, beliefs and trends of American mosques, relying on interviews arranged by leading Islamist operatives.”

Some of the ISPU survey’s major findings included the following:

  • “The literal, extremely conservative Salafi approach (akin to Wahhabi thought) has largely disappeared among American mosques: Less than 1% of mosques follow this approach.”
  • “The American mosque is virtually unanimous in approval of involvement in American civic and political life…. Isolationism and extreme alienation from America are extremely rare among American mosques.”
  • “The vast majority of mosque leaders do not feel that American society is hostile to Islam or that American society is immoral.”
  • “Most American mosques are involved in their neighborhoods and cities: 66% have a food pantry or food distribution program; 50% are involved in social justice activities; 76% participate in interfaith educational programs; and 59% have been involved in an interfaith community service project.”
  • “The progress in women’s issues is that 67% of mosques have women serving on their mosque boards—an increase from 59% in 2010.  Those mosques that do not allow women on their boards have dropped to 7% as compared to 31% in 2000 and 13% in 2010.”

In sum, the ISPU report portrayed Muslim Americans largely as a politically moderate, pro-American demographic.

Additional Information on Bagby

At various times during the course of his career, Bagby has been a board member of such entities as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Fiqh Council of North America, the Muslim Alliance in North America, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the ISNA Leadership Development Center, and the Hartford Institute for the Study of Religion.

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