Being Muslim

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Sylvia Chan-Malik
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , June
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479823420.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam demonstrates that the lives of Black Muslim women and women of color are essential to understanding past and contemporary US Muslim life. Through detailed analysis of 20th and 21st century archival images, popular culture, and interviews, Sylvia Chan-Malik illustrates that being Muslim for US women is defined by daily and embodied acts of resistance (or againstness) that were first—and continue to be—articulated by Black Muslim women’s subjectivities, feminisms, and desires for safety against the backdrop of white supremacy, anti-blackness, and US Nationalism. 

Being Muslim centers around two foundational arguments. First, “being Muslim and practicing Islam have consistently been forged against commonsense notions of racial, gendered, and religious belonging and citizenship and require constant attention to, and cultivation of, embodied practices that are articulated against accepted social and cultural norms” (5). Second, Islam functions as a “safe harbor” for US Muslim women, a term drawn from Toni Morrison to describe the spaces in which Muslim women do not have to explain their engagement with Islam or their bodies, but “focus on and proceed with relationships premised upon their worldviews as shaped by their understandings and lived practices of Islam” (34). In exposing the affective insurgency and safe harbors that characterize Muslim women’s lives, Chan-Malik approaches Islam as a lived religion, and racial-religious form and Muslim-ness as “refracted through the lived experiences of race and gender” (38).  

With these arguments in mind, Chan-Malik introduces new frameworks and vocabulary for recovering and exposing the affective insurgency at “the scale of the body, one’s community, the nation, and ummah” that is a “hallmark of U.S. Muslim women’s lives” (5). To briefly summarize, the book’s trajectory is as follows: based on impressive archival work, chapter 1 introduces what is known to be the first image of American Muslim women to illustrate the innovative ways Black working class Muslim women fashioned an Islam informed by “the politics of the body,” and “oftentimes insurgently against” the racialized discourses and violence ascribed to them (43). In chapter 2, Chan-Malik analyzes the “insurgent domesticity” that characterized popular images of Nation of Islam (NOI) women’s domestic lives. In doing so, Being Muslim proposes that this performance of Muslim-ness for the public eye accomplished the important ideological work of triggering “deep cultural anxieties around race, religion, and gender” by asserting the supremacy of the black patriarchal family in light of the crisis of masculinity that marked the Cold War era (80).

Echoing the lived religious practices that intertwined NOI women’s domestic lives and religious rituals, chapter 3 examines how Betty Shabazz and Dakota Staton “employed their marriages as platforms for the construction of their public images as U.S. Muslim women and as conduits for religious practice” (150). Next, in chapter 4, Chan-Malik analyzes second wave feminism, media coverage on the Iranian Women’s Revolution, and Lil’ Kim’s 2002 OneWorld magazine cover to argue that discourses on the veil are predicated upon the erasure of black Muslim women’s subjectivities and the affective insurgency that defines their lived religious practices. Chapter 5’s examination of the affective insurgency that defines US Muslim women’s lives comes full circle with the inclusion of interviews with contemporary Muslim women activists. By identifying links between the affective insurgency that characterized 20th century Black Muslim women’s expressions of Islam and the interviewee’s contemporary work, Chan-Malik offers an important definition of US Muslim feminism as “a critical strand of gender justice discourses of U.S. women of color, alongside Black feminism, women of color feminism, and womanism in the United States, which encompasses the ways U.S. Muslim women have engaged Islam in various forms in order to secure gendered agency and freedom” (185). 

Chan-Malik’s work is an important contribution to the study of Islam as it introduces new vocabulary and approaches (e.g., affective insurgency, insurgent domesticity, US Muslim feminism and Islam as a lived religion and religious-racial form) and identifies and critically engages with discourses that have marginalized Black Muslim women and women of color in representations of US Islam. For example, theological and sectarian politics that depict Ahmadis as “non-Muslims” resulting in masculine depictions of 20th century Islam, popular discourses that depict NOI as not religiously legitimate or authentic expressions of Islam, and the white-washing of the Iranian women’s revolution that enabled second wave feminists to ignore the domestic concerns of Black feminists. In challenging these discourses by recovering the affective insurgency of Black Muslim women, Chan-Malik blends both theory and history to demonstrate that ensuring the inclusion of Black Muslim women in renderings of US Islam calls for new frameworks to conceptualize their influence, which in turn, will unsettle representations of US Muslim-ness created by their exclusion. 

In a project so rigorous with an engaging and clear writing style, it is hard to find any critique in Being Muslim. Instead, one is left excited for the fruitful lines of inquiry that will continue to recover the affective insurgency and centrality of blackness and gender in US Muslim life based on the lexicon introduced by Chan-Malik. One such line of inquiry will be the ways in which Chan-Malik’s conclusion—which demonstrates that affective insurgency evolves to meet the needs of US Muslim women—coupled with her definition of US Muslim feminism, which aligns itself with black feminist thought, unsettles or expands current and future frameworks used to articulate and critically engage with the transnational project of Islamic Feminism when black Muslim women are placed at the center. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Iman AbdoulKarim is a US-UK Fulbright Scholar and recent masters graduate in Islam in Contemporary Britain from Cardiff University.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sylvia Chan-Malik is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.

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