The Practice of Islam in America

An Introduction

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Editor(s): 
Edward E. Curtis
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , December
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479804887.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

When I taught world history in high schools, we joked about never making it past World War II due to time constraints. As far as our students were concerned, history ended with the Allied victory. Perhaps every course of study has a portion of material like this, something vitally important yet seldom introduced in the classroom. In my experience, survey courses on Islam can become arrested on events in seventh-century Arabia or theoretical debates over Islamic practice rather than introducing the lived experience of actual Muslims. What happens at a Muslim wedding? Is it difficult to pray five times a day? How do Muslims honor the dead? These are important questions for appreciating Islam as both a worldview and way of life, but introductory textbooks are often focused on other issues. Conceptualized for classroom use, The Practice of Islam in America is a powerful remedy to this problem.

Collecting essays from twelve talented authors, the book is divided into four parts: prayer and pilgrimage, holidays, life cycle rituals, and Islamic ethics and religious culture. The last category contains chapters on charitable giving, food practices, and the Qur’an. Possessing a shared sense of purpose, the essays are clear, accessible, and work well together as one volume. This is likely a positive result from a planning meeting including most of the authors and feedback from members of the Muslim community in Indianapolis. Credit should also be given to Edward E. Curtis IV, the volume’s editor, who guided the creation of a multi-author book capturing the same balance of precision and intimacy found in his Muslims in America: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 2009).

With each chapter providing an ethnographic window into Muslim-American life and practice, the text is filled with quotes and “thick description.” Readers are walked through wudu and provided accounts of what it means and how it feels. We are not just told that Muslims pray five times a day, but also that one woman uses dressing rooms to perform salah away from prying eyes when shopping. In the chapter on dhikr, three different rituals are recounted with such rich detail that the reader can imagine herself in the room amidst ecstatic chanting or the relaxed companionship of the communal meal. The essays also manage to provide significant depth of analysis in a small space. In some passages this is accomplished through juxtaposition, as with families exploring the Islamic meaning of holidays and weddings against the backdrop of American consumer culture. In the chapter on “Birth Rituals,” Maria F. Curtis concludes with a fascinating parallel between “Islamic women-centered knowledge” and “feminist critiques” of the loss of women’s rights to their bodies during childbirth (163). In the chapter on “Funeral and Death Rites,” Amir Hussain compares the funerals of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. “If Malcolm was our manhood, then Ali was our humanity,” he writes (204). Writing on charitable giving in Muslim communities, Danielle Widmann Abraham offers a central insight in her title, “You Can’t be Human Alone.” Intent on providing a survey of relevant knowledge, this is a book willing to think deeply as well.

The central theme of this volume is its commitment to revealing the history and diversity of Islam in the United States. Curtis opens his introduction with reference to Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a highly educated religious leader from the ruling family of the Futa Toro who was sold into slavery and brought to Maryland. Diallo was among “tens of thousands” of Muslims living out their faith on American soil before the Declaration of Independence (2). Acknowledging the complex intersectionality of race, ethnicity, gender, and sect, Curtis writes, “Muslim Americans themselves often point out that diversity is built into the religious DNA of Islam” (3). This is certainly clear throughout the book with each chapter showcasing the variety of Muslim perspectives on a particular practice or idea. Writing on Ashura, Michael Muhammad Knight gives us a representative example: “American Shiʿism reflects a series of encounters and exchanges: points of intersection between Shiʿas and Sunnis; between American Shiʿa Muslims and a broader “Muslim Word,” specifically transnational Shiʿa networks; and also between American Muslims and a broader American cultural landscape in which public expressions of Muslim identity are inevitably scrutinized by hostile media for evidence of Islam as essentially violent and incompatible with American life” (119).

Knight’s last point brings us to a final, underlying theme in the book. The practice of Islam in America is often conscious of and sometimes shaped by Islamophobia—a suspicious and hostile cultural narrative intent on excluding and oppressing our Muslim neighbors because of their religion. For this reason, we are in need of counter-narratives, and the publication of this detailed and diverse description of Muslim life in the United States is especially timely.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Canzona is a doctoral candidate in Religious Pluralism at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward E. Curtis IV is Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the IU School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis. A recipient of Mellon, NEH, Fulbright, and Carnegie fellowships, Curtis is author of Muslims in America: A Short History and editor of the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History

Keywords: 

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