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Pioneers of Islam in North America  

Earle Waugh

Pioneers bring new, distinctive, and transformative elements to the cultural matrix, building upon trends, perceptions, and situations. The concept of a pioneer as it has developed is itself problematic, since it presupposes a fixed cultural phenomenon applicable in a variety of instances and without attention to pre-existing groups, institutions, or cultural expressions that may have played a role in the “new” formation. Unfortunately, much of the treatment usually found under the term “pioneer” assumes a tabula rasa environment, but this is not the case in North America, as Dunbar-Ortiz eloquently indicates. Those pertinent to being designated “pioneers” focus attention on individuals and movements that established identifiable Islamic organized entities in North America. They built upon Islamic linguistic, cultural, and social orientations they either brought with them as immigrants or were present on the North American continent. “Pioneer,” thus, is understood to be flexible with regard to time frames, as well as the designation of “new.” Furthermore, since the geographic region of North America is itself diverse, separate analyses of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean are made here. This, despite arguments by some scholars on the vagaries of such hermetically defined entities, appears to be the most adequate format for this summary review. Indeed, there is ample evidence of crossovers between these countries. Because of Islam’s long interaction with Christianity, and European countries that crossed the Atlantic, it follows, then, that perspectives and biases from European Christianity would affect the religion’s growth in North America. In fact, Islamic influences, and Christian antagonism to them, were known in North America’s early European expansion on the continent; indeed, some played a role in North American cultural development. All the so-called world religions have adopted incorporative and encompassing strategies vis-à-vis older, traditional religious patterns; some have been aggressively missionary-oriented, while others have generally expanded by a process of osmosis. Apart from its early years, Islam has tended toward the latter pattern. It should not surprise us, then, that conflicts between Christianity and Islam should have been a subtext of Islamic growth throughout the world. With the widespread influence of Christianity in the conquests of the Americas and their subsequent occupation, it is reasonable to look for competitive factors of cultural influence as they interacted. Interreligious conflict played a role in the migrations of groups such as the pilgrims to the United States. Undoubtedly, the mixed relationship between European Christendom and the Muslim world played a role in early attitudes within the North American context, with Europe welcoming and expanding on Islamic scholarship in many areas of knowledge, while the Church was vigorously opposing Islam as a religion. Among other features of this history, there were, then, pre-existing conceptual understandings and trends open to pioneers for their usage and reaction. A cultural attitude of positive reinforcement of Muslim presence has been operational within Muslims themselves toward settling in new environments. It derives from Muslim cultural contexts and predisposes them to work positively within any new situation. Consider the concept of rihla, an old Arab literary trope often associated with Ibn Battuta (d. 1369) and religious journeys such as the hajj, a motif fully embraced by Islam from its early days. Believers espoused it as a way of relating to new realities—viewing their role as one of appropriating God’s world regardless of where they traveled. In effect, the whole world was God’s, and Muslims were welcome in it. Hence Islam also had the potential to be in North American because they to feel at home wherever God would lead. In contrast, Western scholarship has tended to emphasize the philosophical, legal and theological constructions of Islam in comparing it with Christian or secular realities; this may have skewed studies away from other realities in the development of this religion outside its original home. In this regard, most Muslim believers find solace in sociocultural dimensions, such as eid celebrations, Islamic rituals, food protocols, Qur’anic recitations, and popular religious symbols. The interaction of Islam in North America requires examining wider focus in determining its successes. From that perspective, the examination of Islam on the continent is in its beginnings. It should also be noted that those foundational to building new American institutions utilized various models of Islam available in different countries of the Islamic world. This has resulted in a multidimensional religious reality on the continent. Finally, various changing social attitudes are evident in North America’s history in relation to Islam and these have played a role in the religion’s ongoing development, such as the attractiveness of Sufism’s apparent passivism and, perhaps more, the role of conversion and antipathies like Islamophobia. These elements are all ongoing in the understanding of the way in which pioneer activities have taken place on the continent.

Article

Race, the Law, and Religion in America  

Michael Graziano

The history of race, religion, and law in the United States is a story about who gets to be human and the relevance of human difference to political and material power. Each side in this argument marshaled a variety of scientific, theological, and intellectual arguments supporting its position. Consequently, we should not accept a simple binary in which religion either supports or obstructs processes of racialization in American history. Race and religion, rather, are co-constitutive. They have been defined and measured together since Europeans’ arrival in the western hemisphere. A focus on legal history is one way to track these developments. One of the primary contradictions in the relationship between religion and race in the U.S. legal system has been that, despite the promise of individual religious free exercise enshrined in the Constitution, dominant strands of American culture have long identified certain racial and religious groups as a threat to the security of the nation. The expansion of rights to minority groups has been, and remains, contested in American culture. “Race,” as Americans came to think about it, was encoded in laws, adjudicated in courts, enforced through government action, and conditioned everyday life. Ideas of race were closely related to religious and cultural assumptions about human nature and human origins. Much of the history of the United States, and the western hemisphere of which it is part, is linked to changing ideas about—even the emergence of—a terminology of “race,” “religion,” and related concepts.

Article

The Expansion of African American Muslim Movements beyond the United States  

Philipp Bruckmayr

Following the emergence of a variety of African American Muslim movements in the United States since the 1920s, Islam began to spread among African American and African Caribbean communities in a number of states in the Americas and the Caribbean as well as in Great Britain. There is little evidence for the expansion of early African American Muslim movements, such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam (NOI), beyond the United States in the first decades of their existence, but the process gained traction in the second half of the 20th century. By the 1970s, different originally US-based African American Muslim movements had acquired followings in Canada, England, and various Caribbean and South American states. These included not only the NOI, and its successor organization, the World Community of al-Islam in the West (later known as the American Society of Muslims), but also the Islamic Mission to America, the Dar-ul-Islam movement, the Ansaaru Allah Community, and the Islamic Party in North America. In addition, African Americans and African Caribbeans in different countries embraced Islam on a more individual basis, inspired by famous African American Muslims, such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. This transnational expansion of African American Islam represents a conversion process among African-descended populations, which has radiated not from the Muslim world but the United States across the western hemisphere and into Europe. Despite the international connections of some of the concerned movements, African American and African Caribbean Muslim communities outside the United States initially exhibited only limited discursive and personal links to either the Muslim world or established local Muslim communities of South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern descent. By the 1980s, however, many of the US-based movements were in a state of disarray and disintegration. As a result, the ties of African American and African Caribbean Muslims to the United States were weakened and local tendencies toward emancipation from US organizations and models intensified. Concomitantly, at least in some locations, interactions with larger and longer-established local Muslim communities of South Asian, Southeast Asian, and/or Middle Eastern descent increased. Another major development during the period was the general growing exposure to transnational impulses from the Muslim world, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Iran, and South Asia. Against this background, African American and African Caribbean Muslim communities outside the United States have embarked on various paths of transformation, including toward more widely recognized Sunni (including Salafi) and Shiite expressions of Islam. Many communities have nevertheless retained a distinctly Afro-centric character, either in orientation or just in membership, without subscribing to a racialist theology. Notable cases in point are Trinidad’s Jamaat al-Muslimeen, the Afro-Colombian Shiite community of Buenaventura, and Suriname’s Sadaqatul Islam, as well as London’s Salafi Brixton Mosque. Individual African American and African Caribbean Muslim scholars and leaders, such as the Trinidadian Shiite Shaykh Ahmed Haneef or the Jamaican Jihadist preacher Abdullah el-Faisal, have, however, acquired followings and influence extending way beyond African-descended constituencies. Arguably, the most well-known African Caribbean scholar to date is the Jamaica-born Bilal Philips, one of the key figures of Salafi preaching in English.

Article

Race and Religion in the United States  

Ryan P. Jordan

For centuries before the European colonization of North America, sectarian, ethnic, and racial discrimination were interrelated. The proscription of certain groups based on their biological or other apparently ingrained characteristics, which is one definition of racism, in fact describes much religious prejudice in Western history—even as the modern term “racism” was not used until the 20th century. An early example of the similarities between religious and racial prejudice can be seen in the case of anti-Semitism, where merely possessing “Jewish blood” made one inherently unassimilable in many parts of Europe for nearly a thousand years before the initial European conquest of the New World. Throughout Western history, religious values have been mobilized to dehumanize other non-Christian groups such as Muslims, and starting in the 16th century, religious justifications of conquest played an indispensable role in the European takeover of the Americas. In the culture of the 17th- and 18th-century British colonies, still another example of religious and racial hatred existed in the anti-Catholicism of the original Protestant settlers, and this prejudice was particularly evident with the arrival of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. In contemporary language, the Irish belonged to the Celtic “race” and one of the many markers of this race’s inherent inferiority was Catholicism—a religious system that was alternatively defined as non-Western, pagan, or irrational by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who similarly saw themselves as a different, superior race. In addition to the Irish, many other racial groups—most notably Native Americans—were defined as inferior based on their religious beliefs. Throughout much of early American history, the normative religious culture of Anglo-Protestantism treated groups ranging from African slaves to Asian or Middle Eastern immigrants as alternatively unequal, corrupt, subversive, or civically immature by virtue of their religious identity. Historians can see many examples of the supposedly dangerous religious attributes of foreigners—such as those of the Chinese in the late 19th century—as a basis for restricting immigration. Evangelical Protestant ideas of divine chosen-ness also influenced imperial projects launched on behalf of the United States. The ideology of Manifest Destiny demonstrates how religious differences could be mobilized to excuse the conquest and monitoring of foreign subjects in places such as Mexico or the Philippines. Anglo-Protestant cultural chauvinism held sway for much of American history, though since the mid-1900s, it can be said to have lost some of its power. Throughout its history, many racial or ethnic groups—such as Hispanic Americans, African-Americans, or Asian Americans in the United States have struggled to counter the dominant ethnic or racial prejudice of the Anglo-Protestant majority by recovering alternative religious visions of nationhood or cultural solidarity. For groups such as the 20th-century Native American Church, or the African American Nation of Islam, religious expression formed an important vehicle to contest white supremacy.

Article

Film and Religion in America  

Eric Michael Mazur

Religion intersects with film not only in film content, but also in the production and experience of film. From the earliest period, religious attitudes have shaped how religious individuals and communities have approached filmmaking as way to present temptation or salvation to the masses. Individual religious communities have produced their own films or have sought to monitor those that have been mass produced. To avoid conflict, filmmakers voluntarily agreed to self-monitoring, which had the effect of strongly shaping how religious figures and issues were presented. The demise of this system of self-regulation reintroduced conflict over film content as it expanded the ways in which religious figures and issues were presented, but it also shifted attention away from the religious identity of the filmmakers. Built on a foundation of “reading” symbolism in “art” films, and drawing from various forms of myth—the savior, the end of the world, and others—audiences became more comfortable finding in films religious symbolism that was not specifically associated with a specific religious community. Shifts in American religious demographics due to immigration, combined with the advent of the videocassette and the expansion of global capitalism, broadened (and improved) the representation of non-Christian religious themes and issues, and has resulted in the narrative use of non-Christian myths. Experimentation with sound and image has broadened the religious aspect of the film experience and made it possible for the viewing of film to replicate for some a religious experience. Others have broadened the film-viewing experience into a religious system. While traditional film continues to present traditional religions in traditional ways, technology has radically individualized audio-visual production, delivery, and experience, making film, like religion, and increasingly individualized phenomenon.

Article

African Americans and Religion  

Sylvester A. Johnson

Beginning with trans-Atlantic slavery, which forced hundreds of thousands of people into what is presently the United States, religion among African Americans consistently featured a complex of efforts toward innovation, preservation, and agential intervention rooted in efforts toward survival against structures of racial domination. Social factors including slavery, black responses to a range of political conflicts, influences of immigration, and the varieties of genealogies that have constituted religious formations among African Americans contributed to the creation of formal Christian denominations, intentional communities of Orisha, and transnational movements of Islam. Also important are the insurgent challenges that African Americans have proffered as a rejoinder to social oppression. But this progressive tendency has been paralleled by sharply conservative religious formations that check any easy generalization of African American religions as being predisposed toward social justice movements. Also important are social sources of autonomous church formation, the role of Black Nationalism, anticolonial forms of religion, and Yoruba revivalism of the mid-20th century.