[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]
Political scientist Anne Norton’s argues in On the Muslim Question that the “Muslim question” has eclipsed the “Jewish question.” Norton’s comparative claim may be too bold for some, but scholars do agree that racism is a central constitutive force (not merely an unfortunate outcome) of everyday life for Muslim minorities in the West. The stakes are high to understand what kinds of meanings and attachments connect American Muslims to one another, to their co-religionists worldwide and to the United States as a colonial-settler nation and empire. Although Muslims have been part of the United States’ story from its founding, Muslims have alternated from an invisible minority to the spectacular, hyper-visible object of (inter)national moral panics, deemed a cultural threat to “the American way of life” or a potential fifth column. The racialization of Islam profoundly shapes identity politics such that even among Middle Eastern diasporas, for example, those who self-identify primarily in ethnic, national, and regional terms find themselves increasingly identified and apprehended as Muslims (or Christians) in the United States regardless of their individual religious commitments. Scholars understand the racialization of Islam not as something “done to” Muslims but as a process that weaves through all of our political, social and economic lives. Often, the threat of a particular Muslim group is constructed in relation to a more benign Muslim group in ways that are not always fully captured by Mahmood Mamdani’s titular analytical frame Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. Consider, for example, the reversal of Bad Muslims in the American national imagination during the late Cold War from demonizing domestic Black Islam as dangerous and pathological (contrasted against a benign, global “Orthodox Islam”) to the erasure of Black Muslims once the “Muslim world” (imagined to be a real place populated with brown bodies) became the quintessential source of danger, violence, and anti-modernism after the Iranian revolution.
A generation ago, scholars writing about American Muslims were locked in cyclical debates about so-called “Americanization” (built on presumed links between whiteness and Americanness) and periodization in which 1965 figured as a fault line because of the passing of the Immigration Act, a direct outcome of the Civil Rights Act. Fortunately, the interdisciplinary subfield of Islam/Muslims in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds in the last ten years, driven by new archival material (for example, Garrett Felber reflects on a missing chapter of the Autobiography of Malcolm X in the Boston Review) and more robust and compelling lines of inquiry moving far beyond periodization and “Americanization.” A few online syllabi projects such as the #BlackIslamSyllabus and the #IslamophobiaisRacismSyllabus provide comprehensive lists of up-to-date scholarly work that I do not have the space to provide here. Such curated pedagogical resources reveal two main trends in the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary subfields of Islam/Muslims in the United States: (1) scholarship concerned with US discourses about Islam and Muslims (official, political, cultural, legal, religious, aesthetic etc.) and (2) scholarship documenting the realities of Muslim life in the United States, what is sometimes termed “critical Muslim studies,” which grows out of overlapping sub-fields in American studies, ethnic studies, religious studies, anthropology, history, women, gender and sexuality studies, and literature. Some of the most ambitious and compelling interdisciplinary scholarship operates across these registers such as Ronak Kapadia’s Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War and Moustafa Bayoumi’s collection of essays This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. Typically, scholars emphasize one analytical register over the other and even Bayoumi, at the scale of his individual essays, alternates between the two. In my view, the scholarship focused primarily on (trans)American discourses about Islam/Muslims (not only limited to American orientalism and anti-Muslim racism but also including radical internationalist traditions such as the Afro-Arab political imaginaries described in Alex Lubin’s Geographies of Liberation) deserves its own list of essential texts. In this article, I restrict myself (as a historical anthropologist) to a partial, short list of essential historical and ethnographic texts that provide a picture of the diversity of American Muslim life in the United States in terms of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, sect, and citizenship status. These essential readings, all published since 2010, are a wonderful introduction to the subfields and are featured in my own syllabi. I include documentary films I pair with these excellent texts in the classroom.
Kambiz GhaneaBassiri. A History of Islam in America, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
GhaneaBassiri’s 2010 textbook is an instant classic. It takes enormous skill to be able to analytically frame huge swaths of time and diverse populations in a clear, compelling and comprehensive narrative but GhaneaBassiri makes it look easy. GhaneaBassiri’s argument is about the relational nature of American religious history (and the development of an American civil religion, itself a racial project) from the colonial times to the first decade of the twenty-first century; American Muslims provide the case studies to illustrate his argument, with a fascinating set of primary documents sprinkled throughout the text. I pair the early chapters on enslaved Muslims with the film Prince Among Slaves which, like GhaneaBassiri’s textbook, narrates the incredible story of Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori. GhaneaBassiri makes the case that Muslims matter to American religious history and his argument operates at two scales, with a macro-periodization of the history of Islam and Muslims in the United States and close micro-readings of particular key events. The history of American Muslim institution building is particularly rich in his account and calls to mind Mohja Kahf’s fictional history of the same mid-western institutions in her novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. The last few chapters of GhaneaBassiri’s book do not hold up as well as the bulk of the book because the overarching narrative is a bit too clean for the messier, contemporary material. A quick fix is supplementing the textbook with a few of the excellent essays in the Cambridge Companion to American Islam such as Rosemary Hicks’ essay “Religious Pluralism, Secularism, and Interfaith Endeavors.”
Vivek Bald. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
Bald’s stunning book forces historians to revise some of the prevailing assumptions in immigration history, religious history and Asian American history by decentering 1965, too often treated as a conceptual as well as a historical break. By focusing on undocumented migrants, Bald upends the notion that the story of South Asians in the United States drops off in the early twentieth century and picks up again in 1965; in fact, the evidence suggests that migration from the subcontinent to the United States was steady and unbroken, started well before the Asiatic Barred Zone Act and continued through the exclusion era and that most of these Indian migrants were working class and Muslim, from rural villages in East Bengal (what would later become Bangladesh) and regions that are part of present-day Pakistan: Punjab, Kashmir, and the Northwest Frontier. Furthermore, this earlier historical record challenges the assumption that early South Asian migrants uniformly aspired to whiteness and destabilizes the loaded questions of Americanization that have dominated the sub-field of Islam in the United States. South Asian migrants were too few in number and too transient to build ethnic enclaves and established themselves in working class neighborhoods of color from New York to Baltimore to Detroit. Many married local women of color, developed Puerto Rican, African American and West Indian extended families and friends. Some opened small businesses and restaurants that were integral to the neighborhood as well as to transnational political and religious networks they sustained. Bald’s soon to be released documentary In Search of Bengali Harlem will enliven the material visually as well.
Ula Yvette Taylor The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Few academic titles are written so clearly and elegantly that they can be read cover to cover in one sitting but Ula Yvette Taylor’s The Promise of Patriarchy is such a book. Drawing on an eclectic archive and an imaginative reading of primary documents from NOI publications to racist social science reports which misrepresented the NOI as a pathological cult, Taylor offers a contrapuntal account of the Nation of Islam’s history from 1931 to 1975 by centering her analysis on the lives of women. Her deeply sensitive focus on the gendered dimensions of religious life in the Nation of Islam upends so many of the taken-for-granted elements of this history; she narrates how these Black women swelled with racial pride, cultivated ethical styles of comportment, dress and diet, devoted themselves to family, community and to God, debated religious and political issues, and survived state violence. As a reader familiar with some of the challenges of this archive, I was humbled by the mastery and ingenuity of Taylor’s speculative readings and analysis as she reconstructs the lives and ethical grappling of the women of the Nation of Islam in this period, including those elements of their lives that run counter to Taylor’s own feminist commitments. Taylor’s touching account of Khalilah Ali’s marriage to (and intellectual collaboration with) Muhammad Ali made me see the documentary film The Trials of Muhammad Ali with new eyes.
Sylvia Chan-Malik Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam, New York: New York University Press, 2018.
Reading poetry, photographs, documentary film, magazines, private letters and essays, Chan-Malik’s elegant cultural history tracks the profound and far-reaching significance of Muslim women of color, particularly Black Muslim women, on American Islam. Centering the lives of black Muslim women across different sects of Islam as the quintessential cases, Chan-Malik demonstrates how Islam emerges as a safe haven, as a form of security and solace in the context of a profoundly racist, sexist society. Chan-Malik reminds her readers that Muslim women are never truly safe in the United States, because safe harbors themselves are contingent upon the continual presence of racist, patriarchal, and imperial violence that necessitate their formation in the first place. The book is a natural pairing with the new provocative documentary film told from the point of view of Muslim women living under surveillance, The Feeling of Being Watched. In her culture studies analysis, Chan-Malik also explores how Muslim women have shaped national conversations around race, religion, and gender by analyzing media representations over the course of the twentieth century. Her sustained focus on the lives, labor, and perspectives of US American Muslim women, and black Muslim women in particular, reveals the complexity of gendered spaces of kinship and spiritual desires for respite from racism and sexism. She writes against what she characterizes as the balkanizing logics in the literature on Muslims in the United States which fail to capture the significance and impact of black Muslims on American Islam and which gives too much primacy to the narratives of South Asian and Arab immigrants and focuses on their becoming rather than being American Muslims. Similar to Taylor’s account but with a wider social and temporal scope, we learn why Islam appealed (and appeals) to women of color as they navigate patriarchy and she also explores the (relative) appeal of different strains of Black feminism, womanism, and women of color feminism for her subjects.
Zareena Grewal. Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority, New York: New York University Press, 2014.
At the risk of being gauche, I am following the editors’ suggestion to include my own book here because it earned me the invitation to compile and share this list in the first place. My book offers a transnational, intellectual history of Islam in the United States in the twentieth history in order to capture the multi-racial and multi-sect genealogies of Sunni American Muslim seekers (student-travelers) who began going overseas to study Islam “traditionally” in large numbers in the nineties. Based on multi-sited fieldwork in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the United States, my ethnography tracks the global flows of Muslim intellectuals and ideas that connect US mosque and “third space” communities to the intellectual centers in the Middle East and beyond. As the American Muslim “student-travelers” (seekers) I interviewed (primarily Arab Americans, South Asian Americans and Black Americans) studied Arabic and Islamic law and theology abroad, they grappled with intra-communal racial, class, and gender conflicts, global debates about religious authority and reform, their own internalized American orientalism, and their religio-racial identities and political vulnerabilities in the context of the “war on terror.” The book challenges the persistent territorial bias that maps “true” Islam to foreign, eastern lands and brown bodies not by turning the focus away from the Middle East but by mapping the changing religious and political significance of the Middle East, the “Muslim world” and the global community of believers (umma) among American Muslim youth. The forthcoming second edition will include a new preface which considers the effects of the Trump presidency and the #MeToo movement on American Muslim debates about authority and religious reform. A documentary film about American Muslim punk seekers who travel to Pakistan, Taqwacores, deals with similar themes.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer. Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States New York: New York University Press, 2016.
Abdul Khabeer’s brilliant ethnography describes and theorizes the foundational blackness of Islam in the United States by tracking what she names “Muslim Cool.” Abdul Khabeer argues Muslim Cool is constructed through the performance and consumption of hip-hop music and fashion, religious debates, and social activism and political organizing in Chicago’s Southside, all of which pivot on an intimacy (whether real or invented) with the Black American experience. She demonstrates how Blackness shapes the individual and collective experiences of American Muslims whether or not Black people are physically present in a particular space and details the myriad ways Blackness is marshaled by American Muslims assuming an anti-racist posture. Ultimately, these American Muslims both challenge and reproduce the logics of white supremacy in their leisure and their labor. Abdul Khabeer’s attention to Black and non-Black Muslims’ desires, repulsions, contradictions and investments in Blackness are revealing and profound, and the innovative form of her ethnography mirrors her content with its (analytical) loops and samples. Her nuanced analysis of the gendered nature of Muslim Cool self-making practices ranges from hijab-styles to the religio-racial masculinity of Muslim dandies. The documentary film New Muslim Cool follows a Puerto Rican American rapper’s life and career and explores similar questions.
Ahmed Afzal. Lone Star Muslims: Transnational Lives and the South Asian Experience in Texas. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Initially, I was taken in by Afzal’s book because there are so few studies of Muslims in the South. However, I feared his ethnographic study of Pakistani Muslims in Houston would reproduce a territorial bias I have critiqued elsewhere as “the village effect.” Too many historical and ethnographic works on Muslim Americans treat them as discrete national, ethnic, or racial communities. In general, scholars who work in American Muslim communities rely too heavily on institutions such as mosques and demographic variables in selecting subject samples. This artificial isolation of Muslim Americans creates the illusion of discrete, ethnic “villages” (Arabs in Detroit, Iranians in Los Angeles, Sierra Leonians in DC) that are often more representative of the methodological habits of academics than of the lived experience of the often diverse and overlapping Muslim communities in the United States. Afzal’s multi-sited fieldwork gets beyond the mosque-based model which reproduces a sectarian as well as territorial bias. The ethnography crosses important and revealing sectarian and class lines and also challenges the heteronormative bias of the subfield. In a chapter titled “I Have a Very Good Relationship with Allah” Afzal explores gay Pakistani men’s religiosity, politics, and sexuality. Elsewhere Afzal juxtaposes the narratives of unemployed and underemployed Pakistani-Americans in revealing ways, from upwardly-mobile Ismaili Pakistani Americans whose “model minority” ambitions are dashed to working class Pakistani migrants on the edges of the neoliberal economy, his account upends the false problem of “Americanization” that preoccupied an earlier generation of scholars. (T)error is a documentary-thriller which explores how the state’s counterterrorism net exploits the economic vulnerability of Muslim minorities.
Catherine Besteman. Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
Besteman’s transnational historical ethnography is a devastating critique of US empire, its proxy wars, and the neoliberal production of the “refugee crisis.” Based on long-term and recent fieldwork in Somalia and in Lewiston, Maine, Besteman narrates her “reencounter” with the Somali villagers she knew two decades ago who became her neighbors and whom she gets to know (again) as they grapple with the challenges of being recently-resettled refugees in Maine. In addition to ethnographic interviews, Besteman incorporates policy reports, war testimonials, and advocacy work into her analysis. Besteman details how humanitarian aid constrains Somali refugees who are weighed down by the burdens and expectations of the “gift” from the state and how Somalis resist, challenge, and reinvent the state projects of integration. Besteman devotes a few chapters to the broader social and political climate of Lewiston, a town that had both positive and negative reactions to the unexpected arrival of thousands of Black and Muslim refugees. Novelist Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys takes up the same topic and although she and Besteman often interviewed the same subjects, their narratives (and political stakes) are strikingly different. (Somali characters are secondary and one-dimensional relative to the white family at the center of Strout’s novel though both books have been well-received by Somalis in Lewiston.) In addition to teaching Besteman’s ethnography alongside and against Strout’s novel, I also pair it with Musa Syeed’s docu-fictional The Stray, a coming-of-age in the “war on terror” film about a Somali boy in Minneapolis.
As I hope is clear, I am tremendously energized and inspired by the many fascinating directions and new lines of inquiry expanding research about Islam/Muslims in the United States in the last decade. There are a growing number of excellent digital archives which are perfect for classroom use such as the Indianopolis Imam Warith Deen Muhammad Community archive and the Muslims in Brooklyn archive. I could not include edited volumes in this short list but there are several must-read recently-published collections such as Sylvester Johnson and Steven Weitzman’s The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 and Sohail Dalautzai and Junaid Rana’s With Stones in Our Hands: Writings on Muslims, Racism, and Empire, and Edward Curtis’ latest volume The Practice of Islam in America. Each of these edited collections are essential reads in their own right, featuring junior and senior leading scholars in our fields who are collectively clearing the path for new and urgent scholarship to come.