Review From User :
For reasons that do not tax one's imagination, the long-drawn crisis of power in the Muslim world has aroused considerable curiosity about the religious and cultural tendencies of Muslims in America. Enter Zareena Grewal's Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. Based on extensive ethnographic research on Muslim seekers of Islamic knowledge who travel from America to the Middle East, Grewal's book could not have been timelier.
The vignettes about her research subjects that preface each chapter index the conflicting aspirations of American Muslims. Her research subjects (all second-generation immigrants) are torn between the desire to make America their home and the callings of faith: sincerity of belief, consistency of practice and solidarity with co-religionists worldwide, even in the politically broken and religiously divided Muslim world. But Grewal deploys her dramatis personae as scaffolds for the larger story of religious transnationalism in American Islam. The author is no less invested in narrating the historical unfolding of the Muslim faith in the US than in drawing the contours of the Muslim community in the US.
The book is divided into two parts. The three chapters that comprise the first half of the book weave the tale of Islam in America within the larger tapestry of the dreams and fortunes of the global Muslim community. European colonialism and the ensuing turmoil in the Muslim-dominated regions of the world did not put the mandate of living and spreading Islam into abeyance (which is hardly exceptional to the last Abrahamic faith). Even in the thicket of European domination, "Islam" was able to make its way from Asia and Africa all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to North America. The Muslim faith broke on the US public scene significantly for the first time over the first quarter of the 20th century, though records would later reveal that a good third of African American slaves had ostensibly been Muslim when they arrived.
The peculiarities of the Islam that germinated on the American soil in this phase could not have been more questionable from the dogmatic perspective. In the first place, "Islam" is appropriated by cults fascinated by its egalitarianism. In their overarching ideology, they hover between being quasi-Islamic and pseudo-Islamic. Each of them was spearheaded by a charismatic non-white individual whose vision and inspiration were deeply political and broadly spiritual but not particularly in conformity with orthodox mainstream Islam. This was the case with the origins of the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) founded by Timothy Drew (1886-1929) alias (Prophet Noble Drew Ali). Son of a Moroccan immigrant (father), Drew travelled to Egypt and likely got initiated into a Sufi order. He claimed that Afro-Americans were Moroccan by descent (they called themselves 'Asiatics') and that "Islam" was their original and natural religion. "Moorish Science" was the esoteric archive of knowledge preserved in Islamic lands though curiously the 'Moorish Quran' is made up of Christian-based apocrypha and many of MSTA's religious practices have no basis in Islam.
The Nation of Islam (NOI), another black American movement, was one of the many offshoots of the Moorish Science Temple and much like it, NOI was aimed at emancipating the poor and marginalized "negroes" in America by ensconcing them into a glorious but largely mythical narrative in which "Islam" was but one of several pieces of the NOI ideology . Elijah Poole Muhammad (1897-1975) "saw" himself (in a dream) to be the prophet of one W.D.Fard (imagined to be Allah incarnate). Fard was an Arab immigrant who seems to have introduced the 'prophet' to Islam before disappearing mysteriously. Elijah Muhammad professed the supremacy of the black race over the white, which had wrought havoc
on humankind. NOI's Islam was inspirational rather than doctrinal and Prophet Elijah Muhammad's politico-religious teachings were quite eclectic and deeply rooted in the history of black racial persecution.
Another Islamic cult that appeared in America in the first half of the twentieth century was the Ahmadi sect. The movement had originated in the late nineteenth century in British India after its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed claimed prophethood for himself in succession to the Prophet of Islam while also declaring himself the awaited Messiah. After Ahmed's heterodoxy stoked religious persecution from mainstream Muslims in India, Ahmadis sought to spread their religion abroad and sent missions all over the world. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, an Ahmadi missionary made home in Chicago. His propagation of Islam's egalitarian vision and condemnation of racial jingoism had especial resonance for the black community, hundreds of whom embraced Ahmadi Islam during Sadiq's stay in America.
Besides the cultish character of these "Islamic" movements born during the first few decades of the last century, another salient feature of these missionary organizations-one that is central to the argument of the book and that prefigures subsequent developments in American Islam- was what Grewal calls their transnational "moral geography". All three of them instantiate an organic cross-pollination of Islamic seeds in the American soil. But this is a poor metaphor that captures only one facet of a complex phenomenon. What Drew, Poole and Sadiq were driving for, each in his own way, was a project of political recognition for the blacks that was at once historically situated and ideologically transcendent. For all three of them, humans (read 'white Christians') had betrayed the divine mandate for establishing order in the world. For the most part, African Americans were at the butt end of the regime of political abuse and exploitation. However, reclaiming their human station demanded more than a politics of rights. It ultimately called for the restoration of their substantive identity, which could not be an act of will or discretion or an outcome of historical accident. Human identity was essentially a sacred endowment directly from providence. There was thus a metaphysics to blackness that could be called "Islam" akin to historical Islam but not identified with it. For all their religious symbolism and Muslim cultural accoutrements, these programs did not simply import Islam from abroad and did not seek to replicate it on the American soil. Rather they mobilized Islamic beliefs, precepts and practices as resources to construct their own moral arguments. They invoked "Islam" to give root to an uprooted people.
Parallel to these movements and partially in reaction to their heterodoxy, the second half of the twentieth century saw (especially after the gate-opening Immigration Act of 1965) the rise of mainstream Sunni influence. Grewal makes a good job of teasing out historical continuities while acknowledging the sharp incongruities between the two phases of organized religious efforts made on behalf of Islam. Malcolm X, who was the face of NOI in the late fifties and the early sixties converted to mainstream Islam after making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm's politico-religious rhetoric before and after his hajj illustrates how in spite of the very different takes on and uses of "Islam", the two early phases of American Islam drew a common chord in building narratives that overlaid politically volatile demarcations with transnational moral geographies. Before setting off for the holy journey, Malcolm's Islamic tendencies could at most be characterized as symbolic. His race-based politics was firmly entrenched in the history of black slavery and discrimination to which his faith added moral impetus. The experience of hajj proves to be a religiously transformative experience for Malcolm. Orthodox Islam re-calibrated his politics foundationally even though on the surface he was still just a champion of racial justice and restitution. In breaking away from NOI and joining Sunni Islam, Malcolm X, escalated his narrative from the particularities of race to the universality of the human condition. In his later speeches, he was seen to compare all forms of oppression and injustice around the world and advocate mainstream Islam as a panacea for all moral ills including the racial afflictions of the American society.
Ismail Al-Faruqi, the Palestinian immigrant who brought with him traditional Islamic knowledge from Egypt and then established himself as a scholar at the University of Chicago during the '60s pioneered another model of American Islam. He used the professorial mantle to make a case for what he called the Islamization of knowledge. This was the idea that the Enlightenment project was intellectually indebted to the Islamic intellectual tradition, which got muted, in the historical process. The goal of the Islamic scholar in the west was to recover the tradition.
Al-Faruqi's religious trans-nationalism like that of the later Malcolm X drew on the central current of Islamic history. He urged Muslim immigrants to see themselves treading the path of the Prophet and his companions in travelling from Mecca to Madinah: from an unemancipated world still under the shackles of European hegemony to the land conducive to fulfilling Islamic religious aspirations. It is around the same time that Islamic institutions-mosques, Muslim Student Associations, research and publishing houses- begin to take hold.
Grewal devotes the second half of her book to the post-1965 history of American Islam upto the present-day. In different ways, this turns out to be a story of the evolution, graduation and in certain
respects the transformation of a religious community. The central theme of the work viz. the emergence and growth of a Muslim counterpublic invested in synthesizing its political and religious aspirations gains further layers as the account continues. However, given the dense interplay of unprecedented political factors and cultural forces bearing on the maturing and increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan Muslim population in the country, Grewal structures this part of the narrative around the ramifications of her pivotal argument.
As in the previous section of the book, the discussion is mediated by the educational and religious profiles of certain prominent Islamic personalities. Many of these figures happen to be converts to Islam (mostly white but also black) and others are second-generation immigrants. Three common features cut across these accounts. One, all of them boast equally of a solid training in classical Islamic sciences received at one or more traditional centers in the Muslim world as well as sound college education. Several of them even have graduate degrees from major American universities. Two, congruent with this intellectual ambidexterity, they are culturally at home in two worlds as well. Their works (talks and writings) are peppered with allusions to western academic literature and pop culture delivered in a perfectly American native English idiom and accent. But when needed they are adept at switching codes and can pull references seamlessly from Islamic scripture and history presented bilingually in the Arabic original with English translation. Three, they are truly cosmopolitan- in the influences they bring from overseas, in the frequency of their globe-trotting, and in the appeal they enjoy across the Muslim world. Depending on the location of their own training in the Muslim world, their religious tendencies and spiritual predilections vary considerably; yet because they share a common public square, they participate in a Muslim cultural economy in which their mutual religious differences are spawning distinctively American configurations of Islamic beliefs, practices and priorities. These charismatic personalities run a variety of educational institutions and are engaged in a wide range of activities all of which channelize and transmute influences they have carried over from the Muslim world. The historically entrenched stereotype of religious authority in the Muslim world- a culturally isolated, sedentary figure whose scholarly training and practice is confined to a particular sectarian or juristic group- is completely upended in the American context.
The lens through which Zareena Grewal has recounted the story of transnationalism in American Islam as I mentioned at the outset is the experience of aspiring Muslim youth who travel to a traditional center of Islamic learning somewhere in the Middle East. Their life-stories echo the religious and spiritual journeys made by the major figures in American Islamic history. would be facile to characterize their struggles entirely in religious terms. They are doubtless looking to take their relationship with God to a religiously informed and spiritually illuminated level which evidently is the impetus for their arduous sojourns to the land of Islam; but it is also the case as Grewal brings out that their religious aspirations are inextricable from their cultural roots in the American soil. Taking the trail-blazing scholar-celebrities (as discussed in the book) as their role models suggests that these students have already absorbed the underlying narrative articulated by contemporary Muslim luminaries. In that narrative, the American Muslim embraces the paradoxical ambiguity of his otherness- both, the cultural outsidedness and political foreignization that the dominant society imposes upon him, as well as more positively the hitherto unrecognized power of his religious vision. The freedoms enshrined in the American constitution make the country the land of opportunity for Muslims who are denied these privileges in Muslim postcolonies and dictatorial regimes. Can Islamic scholars lift American Muslims out of the double bind of religious promise and cultural alienation Will their educational endeavors deeply implicated in vexed religious rivalries and overseen by vexed international politics eventually succeed in constructing a successful narrative of identity Only time will tell.
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