A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2

The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975

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Patrick D. Bowen
Muslim Minorities

Review

With A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2: The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975, Patrick D. Bowen has authored a remarkable contribution to African American religious studies. This book intends to offer a corrective to the bulk of scholarship on African American Islam to date. In their attempts to explain “the attractiveness of Islam in the black community,” scholars have often concentrated on “the charisma of prominent Muslim figures or … the ‘political’ motivations of the converts,” (1). Bowen acknowledges the importance of these elements, but also takes a closer look at the ways in which black Muslim leaders drew from the rich symbolic and cultural reservoir of black folk religion to appeal to their audience.

Central to this narrative are the concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, which Bowen skillfully employs to illustrate the evolving appeal of Islam. At distinct moments in the history of the African American Islamic Renaissance (AAIR), Islam has been both deterritorialized (freed from certain boundaries of historical and orthodox Islam) and reterritorialized (imbued with black religious themes), rendering it legible and appealing to African Americans. Although there were some African-origin Muslims present in North America before the AAIR, their numbers were far fewer than is often imagined, and Islam was not gaining ground among African Americans until the onset of the AAIR. Bowen claims that the conditions necessary for widespread conversion simply did not occur until the years following World War I, when a number of innovative individuals began weaving elements of Islamic identity together with themes from “slave religion” such as the red flag.  As he observes, “The dramatic transformation that African American religious culture would have to go through for the AAIR to come about,” (19) was essentially a process of coming to believe that “many of the stories and practices [African Americans] already knew were actually Islamic,” (7).

This book primarily discusses the period from 1920-1975, during which the AAIR took place, yet part 1 jumps back , covering the years 1619-1919 and laying the groundwork for Bowen’s arguments. He uses this portion to explain the evolution of black folk religion and to highlight the development of certain symbols and practices that later appeared in the teachings of Noble Drew Ali and others similar to him. Part 2 (The Years 1920-1945) forms the bulk of the text, and throughout its eight chapters Bowen presents a  thorough account of the many individuals and groups who contributed to a reterritorialization of Islam as a locus for claims of African American identity, knowledge, and practice. In part 3 (The Years 1945-1975), Bowen guides the reader through the rebirth and rise of the Nation of Islam as well as the trajectory of many smaller Islamic groups. These final six chapters explain how Islam eventually reached its “fullest reterritorialization” after which Islam became deeply entwined in African American religious and cultural life such that its influence extended throughout black America far beyond those who self-identified as Muslims. Throughout the three parts, Bowen uses theories and methods from both history and sociology to draw important conclusions. For example, he convincingly argues that, in many cases, tapping into pre-existing networks of potential religious consumers was a crucial strategy for recruitment to AAIR groups.

At 645 pages of actual text, the book is nearly encyclopedic in its coverage, but fortunately it is far more readable and holds together as a cohesive narrative. The easily-navigable organization will serve well those who wish to reference it as needed instead of reading cover-to-cover, and Bowen offers enough signposts referring to his main argument that one can see how each piece fits back into the whole. Although he does synthesize a vast amount of secondary literature, the book also showcases Bowen’s original contributions. He has uncovered gems from manuscript collections, newspapers, court records, and even personal interviews.

Academics will appreciate the transparency with which he constructs his arguments. For instance, in chapter 6, he investigates the mysterious founding figure of the Nation of Islam, W.D. Fard. Bowen concludes that W.D. Fard was most likely of Pashtun heritage, but by offering up every shred of evidence pointing both for and against his claim, he invites the reader to come to their own conclusions and to examine the sources further. Bowen maintains this transparency throughout the book, which admittedly adds bulk to an already heavy text. However, these additions usually appear in the footnotes where those who do not need them can easily disregard them, and those who are interested can explore the fascinating details.

Bowen has accorded ample space to many of the smaller groups claiming Islamic identity, from the Ansaaru Allah Community to the Five Percent Nation, and notes the range of influences on the AAIR from white esotericism to Moroccan nationalism. Chapters 8 and 15 are especially rich in information about lesser-known sects and individuals. Unfortunately, the book does lack coverage of women in the AAIR which Bowen acknowledges and attributes to limitations in the source material and the lack of women in leadership in AAIR groups.

It is an advanced text, yet is accessible because  it presumes little background knowledge of Islam or African American religion. Scholars, specialists, and students will benefit from Bowen’s unprecedented collection of, and contribution to, the research on African American conversion to Islam.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Goshey is a doctoral candidate in Religion at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick D. Bowen is the author of over two dozen articles as well as the monograph A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 1: White American Muslims before 1975 (Brill, 2015).

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