Believing in South Central

Everyday Islam in the City of Angels

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Pamela J. Prickett
  • Chicago: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     2021.
     192 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780226747286.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Believing in South Central: Everyday Islam in the City of Angels is a detailed description of a community that, in many ways, does not fit the mold of what one might imagine an idealized Muslim organization might look like. It is based on at least five years of intense, close-knit fieldwork and sustained community relationships with a mosque community in South Central Los Angeles, the Masjid al-Qur'an (MAQ). Pamela Prickett spends time with the Masjid al-Qur'an community members as a participant-observer to "examine how MAQ members come together to live a contemporary Muslim way of life" (3). The author also sets out to examine how the members of the MAQ draw from their mosque community for support in the "changing urban landscape" of this particular pocket of Los Angeles. The book is primarily observational (and engagingly so) based on the author's extensive fieldwork. However, even though she looks for "what religion means" for people of faith, scholars of religion will likely be more interested in the rich ethnographic accounts of this community over theoretical contributions. 

The book contains five content chapters, plus an introduction, conclusion, and appendix on methodology. Each core chapter of the book focuses on a topic within the study of Islam or Muslim ritual practice, supplemented by Prickett's detailed anecdotes and illustrative examples of this particular African American Muslim community. For example, chapter 1 focuses on fasting and Ramadan, offering an uninitiated reader a descriptive grounding in the importance of Ramadan and its ritual breaking of fasts, as well as the specifics of how the MAQ community observed Ramadan through their generosity despite having few resources. Chapter 2 offers a history of the Nation of Islam and how MAQ grappled with its development into Sunni Islam and faced an immigrant-native Islam dichotomy. In chapter 3, the author works directly with economic issues, including construction logistics or disputes over donations and monetary status. Chapter 4 focuses on gender and practitioners' community involvement through life events such as motherhood and marriage. Finally, chapter 5 engages more directly with issues around “immigrant Islam,” the experience of hajj participants from a poor, African-American community, and other class and racial hierarchies.

The greatest strength of Believing in South Central is the depth of fieldwork that the author has undertaken and analyzed. Prickett became a trusted confidant in her chosen site from 2008 to 2013 when she lived close to or within this community. She had initially planned for a comparative project including a mosque community of Arab constituents in Los Angeles but found the MAQ worthy of her primary focus. Prickett offers a clear lens through which to view the often intimate details of this particular urban community of American Muslims; she has focused on how these believers "build their religious community as the focal point of their lives" (10).

The book offers a detailed appendix of methodological techniques in Prickett’s analysis of her collected data. As a sociologist, she explains using an abductive approach, a hybrid between inductive and deductive models of balancing theory and new observations. While this information is helpful in the appendix, the chapters appear descriptive, with occasional comparisons or highlighting of complementary studies (such as that of Sylvia Chan-Malik or Su'ad Abdul Khabeer). Prickett’s discussions of what religion is or what it means are limited in their use for scholars engaged in critical religious studies; she contends that religion is a way of life for the community she studies. She writes, "I purposely focused on observing what believers did together, why they chose these actions and not others, and with what consequences" (12). In her account, practicing Islam aids MAQ practitioners through the complexities of their lives, whether related to poverty, crime, addiction, or racial disparities. In chapter 1, she notes that "As a sociologist, I am trained to see the root causes of believers' problems as structurally produced" (28). She continues by offering the nuance of her approach, that such structural investigations belie the complexity of these Muslims' practice of “Islam as a way of life” in South Central Los Angeles. 

At times, lines between ethnographer, researcher, and community member become almost uncomfortable. For example, Prickett describes moments when men approached her for monetary help while she was alone (73); yet, the book includes a realness and humor in the perplexities of carrying out fieldwork that is often left out of academic works. Connected with this point, she does an excellent job examining her positionality regarding race, privilege, and gender. The author does not attempt to standardize or universalize the experiences of this community of Muslims in South Central Los Angeles; in her estimation, they have created a way of being Muslim that attends to the particular realities of life in this region. This book is accessible to non-specialists or undergraduates. It demonstrates the diversity of American Muslim communities and offers a quality introduction to ritual and communal practice in Islam. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Candace Mixon is a visiting assistant professor at Occidental College.

Date of Review: 
September 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pamela J. Prickett is an urban ethnographer and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam.

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