Islam and the Americas, edited by Aisha Khan

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Aisha Khan (ed.), Islam and the Americas. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015. ix + 348 pp. (Cloth US$ 79.95)

In the past few years Muslim communities in the Americas have been the object of renewed scholarly interest, resulting in new analytical perspectives on constructions of Islam and the participation of Muslims in the historical and cultural shaping of the “New World.” Aisha Khan’s Islam and the Americas, composed of 13 chapters by scholars from various academic fields, including anthropology, history, and gender studies, is an important addition to this trend. Each chapter illuminates discrete aspects of the cultural appropriations and constructions of “Islam” by both Muslims and non-Muslims in places such as the Bahamas, Brazil, Guadeloupe, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Trinidad, and the United States.

In the first two chapters Khan outlines the book’s empirical scope and theoretical horizon. She states in the introduction that “this is a book about Muslims as they craft Islam in the ‘New World’ of the Americas” (p. 1), adding that it is also about Muslims as “creative actors participating in the making of the societies of which they are part” (p. 3). The next chapter is devoted to the volume’s analytical and theoretical goals. Khan argues that constructions of Islam are connected to the ideological opposition between “modernity” and “tradition,” which leads to the erasure of the long history of Islam in the Americas. She concludes with a plea for comparative analysis as a way of moving beyond binary oppositions and bounded national histories.

The four chapters of a section called “Histories: Presence, Absence, Remaking” deal with constructions and appropriations of Islam in various historical contexts. Jacob S. Dorman offers a fascinating account of nineteenth-century orientalist constructions of Islam and the Muslim world as an exotic and mysterious civilization by the white, and later on black, secret society, the “Shriners.” He skillfully shows how Black Shriners influenced the emergence of “alternative African American religions” (p. 63) such as Black Islam and Black Israelism. Rosemarijn Hoefte’s chapter presents an interesting analysis of the way the controversies and schisms in the Javanese community in Suriname about the “right” direction for facing Mecca during the first half of the twentieth century reflected divergent ideals of tradition, religious orthodoxy, and national belonging. Nathaniel Deutsch’s essay is an excellent account of the processes of cultural circulation and appropriation that enabled a prominent white racist thinker, Lothrop Stoddard, to influence Malcolm X’s vision of Islamic civilization. And Omar Ramadan-Santiago’s chapter explores the way Muslim Puerto Rican Hip Hop artists navigate and combine identities that are considered to be “incompatible” by blurring and transgressing cultural boundaries.

In the book’s second part, “Circulation of Identities, Politics of Belonging,” Yarimar Bonilla shows how globalized discourses on al-Qaida and the “war on terror” were mobilized by the French State to persecute the labor activist Michel Madassamy in Guadeloupe. Sandra Cañas Cuevas’s ethnographic account of the experience of Mayan converts to Islam in southern Mexico demonstrates how Islam offered a moral framework for social action outside the traditional power structures of the local society. Jerusa Ali’s chapter uses a comparative approach to explore the way female converts to Islam in Brazil and the Bahamas negotiate their local identities in dialogue with the gender ideals of the transnational ummah (global community).

The four chapters of the last section, “Spatial Practices and the Trinidadian Landscape,” are fully dedicated to Muslims in Trinidad. Rhoda Reddock analyzes the struggle of Trinidadian Muslim women to have a more assertive presence in community spaces, and the way their achievements were challenged by the arrival of neopatriarchal interpretations of Islam over the past several decades. In a similar spirit, Gabrielle Jamela Hosein’s analysis of the incorporation of the democracy paradigm by Muslim associations in Trinidad shows how it allows women to contest their political exclusion by navigating ideals of piety and modernity. Jeanne P. Baptiste’s chapter presents a portrait of the African Muslim group Jamaat al Muslimeen, going beyond the negative stereotyping that targeted them after they led an attempted coup d’ état in 1990. Closing the book, Patricia Mohammed presents an account of the iconic markers of the Muslim presence in Trinidad.

As it is usual with edited books, some chapters are more empirically solid and theoretically interesting than others. Nevertheless, the overall quality of the book is very good, as it shows the multiple cultural and historical pathways through which both Muslims and non-Muslims shaped constructions of Islam that, in turn, became constitutive parts of broader communities in the Americas. Islam in the Americas, which can be used for both undergraduate and graduate courses, will be of interest to scholars in Islam, Caribbean, Latin-American and American studies and is an important contribution to the emerging field of Islam in the Americas.


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