Young Muslim America

Faith, Community, and Belonging

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Muna Ali
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2018.
     336 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190664435.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her book Young Muslim America: Faith, Community, and Belonging, Muna Ali offers a wide-ranging, ethnographically based study of young adult Muslims in the United States. Rooting her analysis in her work interviewing and surveying roughly two hundred and fifty young Muslim Americans who were either children of Muslim immigrants to the United States, children of American converts to Islam, or who themselves immigrated or converted along with their family before they were teenagers, Ali presents a hopeful picture of the dynamic landscape of Muslim American identity and culture. Focusing on what she sees as four main themes impacting young Muslim America—a supposed “identity crisis,” a search for a “pure/true” Islam, responses to Islamophobia, and the drive to create an “American Muslim” identity—Ali pairs discussions of scholarly works on each theme with her own ethnographic findings. As may be expected in a work covering such a broad topic, Ali’s book ultimately paints an image of young Muslim America with broad strokes. Because she touches on such an extensive range of topics, Ali’s own scholarly analysis of each is somewhat limited. While the book succeeds in showing that Muslim and American are compatible terms, it is held together less by a strong argumentative thread than by Ali presenting her reader with numerous examples of Muslim Americans who are fostering strong Muslim American identities and cultures.

Ali intends her book to be for both general and academic audiences. While there is something in her book for both audiences, each may struggle to locate what they want in her book. The bulk of Ali’s analysis takes place in five chapters, each of which focuses on one of her four particular themes (she dedicates two chapters to the theme of creating an American Muslim identity.) Each of these chapters provides a theoretical, historical, and historiographical contextualization of the issue, and then turns to a discussion of the voices of her many ethnographic collaborators, with each chapter divided roughly equally between these two approaches. The two components of the chapters are not particularly strongly woven together, and Ali positions the voices of her ethnographic collaborators in such a way that they largely simply echo the claims of the scholars Ali engages with. Too often Ali lets her ethnographic collaborators speak for her, and she does not seek to significantly challenge or critique established scholarship. While Ali occasionally inserts her own scholarly voice into the conversation, such as in her well-articulated problematization of the category of “hijabi firsts,” the reader is often left wanting to hear more of Ali’s own analysis.

Readers who open Ali’s book unsure of the compatibility of the terms Muslim and American will encounter Ali’s abundant evidence that Muslim Americans are both fully Muslim and fully American, in all their raced, gendered, and classed diversity, but scholars looking for a groundbreaking analysis of young Muslim American identity will likely be disappointed with the relatively small portion of her book that Ali dedicates directly to theorizing this identity. Much of the book reads like an extended historiographic essay. Ali has clearly extensively read the literature on Islam in the United States, but readers who have already engaged in this historiography, especially with works by scholars such as Sherman Jackson, Zareena Grewal, and Jamillah Karim, will not find much new ground covered. However, readers who are looking to enrich their familiarity with scholarship on Islam in America will find Ali’s book to be a treasure trove of contextualized references for further reading.

Ali’s later chapters do not draw as significantly on her ethnographic work and instead become broad discussions of Muslim American culture, sometimes losing the focus on youth. Her scholarly analysis is strongest in her earlier chapters on the “identity crisis” of young Muslim Americans and their search for a “pure/true” Islam, where she raises interesting, if not satisfactorily explored, questions about the significance of forming a personally authentic understanding of Islam as a young adult in America. Ultimately Ali’s early chapters set the groundwork for her argument that young Muslim Americans are, and have been, successfully navigating multiple ethnic, racial, and religious worlds and are constructing positive identities as active members of Muslim and American society. Furthermore, she argues that the ways in which Muslim Americans create community, respond to critics, and search for an authentic religious practice are in line with both their Islamic and American heritages. This is, perhaps, her most significant scholarly contribution.

Ali dedicates her book in part to “the young Muslims of America who give me hope.” Early on it becomes clear that Ali’s book is in many ways a hopeful celebration of the vibrancy of young Muslims in America. Despite critiquing the good Muslim/bad Muslim paradigm, Ali, as she notes in her introductory chapter, ultimately relies on that paradigm to make her point, drawing a very broad circle around who is a “good Muslim.” In fact, it seems that nearly all Muslim Americans, especially young ones, fit into this category. Given the number of works on Islam in the United States, Ali’s book will not significantly alter this field of scholarly inquiry, but anyone looking for a broad introduction to contemporary Muslim American life, with an emphasis on young adults, will find Ali’s book a welcome resource.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael T. McLaughlin is a doctoral student in American Religious History in the Department of Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Muna Ali is an anthropologist and a visiting researcher at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

Keywords: 

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