07 Apr

Edward Curtis, Islam in Black America (2002)

This book examines the tension that exists between the idea that Islam is “universally applicable to the experience of all human beings” and the idea that Islam is applicable to “the experience of a particular group of human beings” (1). Curtis traces this tension in African-American Islam by analyzing the thought of five prominent black figures who wrote about the relationship between Islam, black identity, and black liberation: Edward W. Blyden, Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Wallace D. Muhammad. By examining the thoughts of these figures in their respective contexts, Curtis explains when and how these men understood Islam “as a tradition for all human begins, a tradition for only black human beings, and sometimes, a combination of both” (1). Islam in Black America is divided into seven chapters: one on method, one each for the five figures listed above, and one on closing remarks.


Chapter 1 calls for a re-assessment of scholarly approaches to the study of Islam. To rescue the study of African-American Islam from functionalist approaches, Curtis argues that scholars should study Islam according to Talal Asad’s definition of “tradition.” Moreover, this study of “tradition” should emphasize Alasdair McIntyre’s definition of “living” tradition. Islam as a living tradition is “an historical process in which human beings, interacting with each other in discrete social contexts, invent, embrace, and inherit something [questions, ideas, rituals, symbols] that they care about and argue over, whether explicitly or not” (4). Moreover, in what may be the most important suggestion for the study of Islam, Curtis advises: “the student of Islam should not even insist on using a person’s identification with the Qur’an as a kind of minimal definition of what it means to be a Muslim….The mere fact that one has labeled oneself a Muslim indicates some sort of participation, however slight, in the process of Islamic history” (6).

Chapter 2 begins the academic recovery of African-American Islam by examining the paradoxical thought of Edward W. Blyden. Blyden appropriated Islam in particular ways to encourage racial equality and black greatness while simultaneously stressing universal Islam. Chapter 3 examines how Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple (MST), launched a particular form of Islam. This Moorish, or Asiatic, separatist tradition defined membership according to biological descent, nation, and creed. Chapter 4 traces the “absolute particularism” of Islam promoted by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Muhammad endorsed Islam as the “natural” religion of African-Americans, which “fostered a positive sense of black pride and advanced the fight for black liberation” (63). Chapter 5 argues that at the end of his life, Malcolm X faced a “double burden” as he struggled to understand the separate natures of universal Islam and black identity. Chapter 6 suggests that Wallace D. Muhammad “offered two competing visions of social change that seemed to pit a universalistic Islam against a particularistic black struggle” (108). Muhammad blended particular Islam with the universal as he traced black Muslims’ identity to Bilal, and interpreted the Qur’an and sunna in light of African-American historical experiences. Chapter 7 briefly examines the thought of Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of the NOI. Farrakhan combined particular Islam with the universal in his espousal of black messianism in the role of universal human redemption.


Although Curtis supports the study of Islam in terms of universalism and particularism, he waivers in his support of this method in the conclusion. Curtis lauds Wallace D. Muhammad for moving away from the creation of essentialist Islam towards a “historicist” approach. Yet, in a strange twist Curtis suggests that this relativism could lead to the radical deconstruction of Islam where “one might end up with competing forms of particularism” (139). This is peculiar because Curtis went to great lengths to argue that Islam has always been interpreted in particular ways given historical circumstances. Curtis goes on to suggest that radical particularism could be “avoided, however, if participants in the discourse decided that something is universal to them all—like a commitment to social justice or the centrality of the Qur’an and the hadith” (139). This suggestion also seems out of places since in Chapter 1 Curtis suggests that scholars not use the Qur’an as a litmus test for deciding who is a Muslim.

While Curtis’s closing remarks do not square with his introductory remarks, the larger methodological points of Islam in Black America are steps in the right direction for the study of African-American Islam. Scholars need to understand Islam as a living dynamic tradition, and accept as Muslims those who self-identify as Muslims. However, scholars need to push Curtis’s categories of universalism and particularism. Curtis criticized this framework himself in “African American Islamization Reconsidered” (2005). Curtis advised that “Rather than evaluating African Americans’ ‘Muslim-ness’ by juxtaposing their religious practices with some ahistorical mode of the ‘real’ Islam (usually seen to be embedded in authoritative readings of Islamic sacred texts), I seek to chart how African-American Muslims have constructed what is ultimately an imagined communal identity.” In the end, Curtis argues that universalism and particularism are not helpful categories for studying Islam, particular African American Islam.

Future studies of Islam in American need to go beyond textual analysis and tracing thoughts of prominent figures. Scholars need to understand how Islam in America and “Old World” Islam are actually lived traditions. That is, how individual people practice Islam in their everyday lives by using texts, things, images, bodies, and spaces.

28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (2005)

In Between Heaven and Earth, Robert A. Orsi argues that religious worlds are made by men, women, and children in relationships with each other and special beings. Religious idioms are intersubjective in that they are real, personal experiences shared among any number of networks of people. Intersubjectivity is understood as: 1) the nature of particular social, cultural and religious identities and realities (bonds of love/hate); and 2) the balance of familiarity/difference in the relationship between the researcher and his/her subject(s).

Orsi suggests that religion is not a “web of meanings but of relationships” and cannot be labeled with dichotomies. Scholars must move beyond the secularization thesis and the “from-to” paradigm of modernity. Belief is the wrong question to ask and the “realness” of religious idioms should be understood as real in experience, practice, and relationships. Orsi explains these ideas in the stories about Sal. These illustrate the relationships between handicapped people, other Catholics, and the saints who embody suffering. While handicapped people were made models of suffering and purity like certain Saints, this fantasy marginalized the lives and actual suffering of the “cripples.” This fantasy obscured their unequal relationships.

In chapter two Orsi examines the presence of Mary among the devout in pre- and post-Vatican II. Orsi explains the presence of Mary after Vatican II as: 1) psychological in that people placed Mary as a mediator in their lived relationships and experiences; 2) social in that Mary is a cultural figure who makes and is made by culture; 3) a symbol of American and other cultural/ethnic identities; and 4) emotional in that Mary’s emotions reflected those of the devout. The presence of Mary is not something that is either true or false, but her presence and people’s engagement with her reflect “the daily circumstances of their lives.” Her presence alters lived experiences and relationships through art, prayer, and history.

Chapter three considers how adults made the presence of God material in children’s bodies and imaginations. Like the holiness associated with “cripples,” the holiness imbued in children made them vulnerable, objects of desire, and idealized childhood. These experiences shaped relationships among children and adults to create American Catholicism.

Chapter four relates the hagiographical accounts of Saint Gemma Galgani and stories about Orsi’s grandmother. In these stories, heaven and earth not only reflect one another, but are made in relation to one another (diptych). “Meaning making” is a linear process and does not take into account that the lives of people can be made by meaning in stories. Orsi suggests that the “meaning making subject” be replaced with “a more tragic figure whose engagements in the world…proceed through media that may embody meaning against him or her.”

In chapter five Orsi examines the relationship between the researcher and subject. The study of religion is the study of relationships that use, make, or re-make religious idioms in particular cultural, historical and political contexts. To study or interpret a culture means to be engaged with the people in the culture and their conversations; to understand religion as dialectics. Orsi understands that while he cannot pray to Saint Jude like Clara, he can experience the feelings of loss and hope that she does. In this case, scholars should rethink the boundaries of “us/them” in research and realize that while there are differences there are also similarities among the researcher and his/her subject. Difference does not mean otherness. This intersubjectivity will help scholars understand religious ways of living and the researcher’s relationship to them.

In chapter six, Orsi traces the history of religion in the West and in the American academy. Scholars must understand how this history impacts their research. The evangelical and postcolonial critiques present compelling challenges, but ultimately re-establish boundaries in their work (like Covington with the snake-handlers). Orsi proposes a third position where the goal of research is to get beyond “otherizing” by disciplining one’s mind and heart to stay in the “in-between place.” This position is transformative in that the scholar must go beyond understanding religion as ethical, and not affirm or deny the studied religion. Scholars should proceed in their research with risk, suspension, and engagement. Haberman’s fieldwork maintains this third position. Religious witnessing is not for the university classroom since the expectation is for discussion, analysis and open exchange. Religious worlds and their morals must be studied through the lived experiences and stories between people and their gods.