The Bloomsbury Reader on Islam in the West

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Edward E. Curtis IV
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Islam in the West. A simple enough statement, but one with multiple derivative implications. For this volume’s purposes, editor Edward E. Curtis IV makes it clear from the start that Islam is to be imagined “as part of, rather than as foreign to” to that which is referred to as “the West” (1).

This point may seem subtle, but it is vitally important in a climate—both popular and academic—that imagines Muslims as outsiders to “Western culture,” and as unassimilated foreigners in matters of national Western polity.

The Bloomsbury Reader on Islam in the West stakes an important position by not only including readings that exhibit this current bias against Muslims as part of a vision of some trumped-up “clash of civilizations,” but also by showcasing work that highlights the specific and textured ways in which Muslims have long been part of the West and been intimately involved in its political, economic, social, cultural, and religious make-up.

Exploring the presence, and effect, of Muslims in the lands now collectively called “the West” from 711 (when Muslim polity ruled the Iberian Peninsula) to 2015 (amidst the “Global War on Terror”), the book is ambitious in scope and diverse in its contents. It is divided into two parts: “Islam in Western history,” and “Islam in the contemporary West.”

The first part includes contributions on how Muslims helped to shape the character of Western politics, medicine, and architecture; transnational connections across continents and oceans; and Western Muslim history in the twentieth century. The second part focuses on particular topics of concern for Muslims in the West: the practice of their religion in non-Muslim majority nations; issues surrounding gender; Muslim citizenship and dissonance in Western politics; and Islam and the media. The selections are fairly well split between focusing on European contexts and the so-called “New World.”

Especially appreciated are the chapters and essays that look at colonial-era Latin America (R. Brooks Jeffery, “The Islamic Legacy in the Built Environment of Hispano-America”), interwar Albania (Nathaniel Clayer, “Transnational Connections and the Building of an Albanian and European Islam in Interwar Albania”), late twentieth-century Germany (Riem Spielhaus, “Religion and Identity: How Germany’s Foreigners Have Become Muslims”), the new African diaspora (Michelle C. Johnson, “‘The Proof is on my Palm’: Debating Ethnicity, Islam, and Ritual in a New African Diaspora”), anti-Muslim prejudice (Zareena Grewal, “Lights, Camera, Suspension: Freezing the Frame on the Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Anthem Controversy”), contemporary Bosnia (Mieke van Dijk and Edien Bartels, “European Islam in Practice—in the Bosnian City of Sarajevo”), Muslims and the media (Hisham Aidi, “‘Let Us Be Moors’: Islam, Race, and Connected Histories,” and Amir Hussain, “(Re)presenting: Muslims on North American Television”).

As can be deduced from the above list, Curtis does well to include a breadth of perspectives from across the Muslim world and from various methodological points of view. Indeed, the volume’s greatest contribution might be in its subtle suggestion that to understand the so-called “Muslim World” scholars must widen their lens to incorporate broader geographies, histories, and frames of reference. It is sometimes bewildering, trying to make sense of the various experiential narratives, texts, interpretations, and contexts in which Muslims have practiced, defined, defended, and made Islam manifest. However, efforts at expanding our view of what can be considered as part of the global Muslim complex are worthwhile.

This text is one such attempt to widen our hermeneutical panorama. It does so by not only offering examples from various local contexts and with transnational angles, but also by providing a mixed bag of methodologies that focus on the beliefs, practices, and material dimensions of Muslim life across—and between—these locales. Likewise, it illustrates the interpenetrative nature of “Islam” and the “West” and continues to challenge the stubborn standpoint that posits the two as inherently dichotomous. Even so, Curtis recognizes that this text will not alone “solve the problems posed by these sometimes contradictory appropriations” (7). As he so poignantly states, “the meaning of Islam or Muslim only becomes clear from the context in which it is being used, but no one definition emerges from the multiple voices included in this book” (7).

As such, for those invested in making the case that Muslims have helped shape the imagined West and that they are critical interlocutors in its construction—both historically and contemporaneously—this text is useful for both the classroom, and as a reference off the shelf. In class, the chapters offer enough variety to be adapted to fit multiple classroom experiences and numerous syllabi examining the presence of Muslims in the West (e.g., “Islam in Europe,” “Islam in the West,” “Islam in the Americas,” “Muslims in the Western Imagination” etc.). This diversity, while a strength, can also prove a weakness. This text cannot stand alone, and it would be good to pair it with more general overviews for a survey course, or particular monographs when researching more specific topics and subfields.

Via histories and contemporary case studies, Curtis weaves together a cohesive narrative that shows the ways in which the categories of “Islam” and “the West” are entwined together into a complex tapestry over time. In the end, this is a valuable collection that brings into dialogue a stunning set of scholars and yet exhibits the touch of a talented editor who makes a singular story emerge from the sundry texts included.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ken Chitwood is a Ph.D. student in Religion in the Americas and Global Islam at the University of Florida.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward E. Curtis IV is Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts & Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis, Indiana.



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