Islam should be understood as a religion of enslaved African Muslims and contemporary Black Muslims in the Americas—not simply as a religion of 20th and 21st century Arab, African, and Asian immigrants.
“’Muslim’ has never functioned solely as a religious category in the Americas.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Aliyah Khan. Khan is Assistant Professor of English and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her book is Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Aliyah Khan: Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean (Rutgers University Press, 2020) is the first academic monograph on the literature and music of Islam and Muslims in the Caribbean.
I argue that Islam, as Aisha Khan says, is a religion “of the West and not simply in the West,” in this case the Caribbean and the Americas. I focus on Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica, with some reference to the United States and other American hemispheric locations, but a major goal of my project is to study the religious histories of the transatlantic slave trade and indentureship in order to decenter the place of the United States in the study of Islam in the Americas. I point to the specific importance of understanding Islam as a religion of enslaved African Muslims and contemporary Black Muslims in the Americas—not simply as a religion of 20th and 21stcentury Arab, African, and Asian immigrants.
This is a work of historiography, ethnography, and, simultaneously, analysis of 19th-21st century literature and music. I use this combined methodology to show that contemporary, post-9/11 public discourses about Islam and Muslims in the Caribbean and in North America should be viewed through the lens of the long presence of Islam in the hemispheric Americas: dating from enslaved North African Moriscos on Spanish and Portuguese colonial expeditions, to the triangular trade that brought enslaved West African Sufi and other African Muslims to the New World, to indentured South Asian Indians in the 19th-early 20th century Caribbean, to 20th-century Black Muslim nationalist narratives and music centered around a 1990 Islamic government coup in Trinidad by the Jamaat al Muslimeen, to contemporary judicial and fictional accounts of the interaction between Caribbean Muslims and the figure of the global terrorist.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
First, this is a book that reads the history of Black and Indian Muslims in the Caribbean together. These groups of people are usually regarded separately in both politics and academia, though they share—and have violently fought over—the same postcolonial geographic spaces. For the purposes of Caribbean community organizing, I contribute to an understanding of our shared religious and colonial plantation labor histories. In the Caribbean, Islam is often perceived as a religion of the descendants of indentured South Asian Indian laborers; in the United States, it is perceived as a religion of the immigrant Other, with some acknowledgment of Malcolm X’s legacy and the Nation of Islam as separate political manifestations of Black nationalism in the U.S. In my book, I take the deliberate step of examining Muslim Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean religion and cultural production comparatively, showing that they are intertwined historically and now. This is particularly politically relevant in Guyana and Trinidad, countries that have almost equal numbers of people of African and Indian descent—a demographic situation that has resulted in a significant amount of political violence and race-based voting since the end of British colonialism in those two countries in the 1960s.
Second, in the present moment of #BLM and #MeToo organizing, I show that it is important to understand: (1) the stories of enslaved African Muslims and their literacy and literary production (a number of multilingual 19th century autobiographical and theological texts written by enslaved men that span Jamaica, Trinidad, the U.S., and other countries), as part of the Black history of the Americas; and (2) the way in which intra-community and outside perceptions of Muslims depend on the sartorial and moral performances of Muslim women.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
There are more than a few academic and popular ideologies that I wish to dismantle. In Caribbean Studies, I challenge the static tropes and most common analytic paradigms of creolization, hybridity, and syncretism. Far from Mecca argues above all that the Caribbean Muslim subject, whom I call by the Guyanese term for a Muslim of any race, the “fullaman” (after the West African Fula/Fulani tribal name), has never been fixed or static, and that subject neither resists nor fully enters the discourses of creolization and syncretism that are fundamental to postcolonial nationalisms in the Caribbean. For the fullaman, the inaccurately framed ideological question in the Caribbean is usually whether he or she will choose creolized Caribbean culture, or a religious Islamic “purity” that is associated either with the Arab Middle East or with African and Indian origins. I show that “fullaman” is a performative identity. The forms and boundaries of the Caribbean Muslim are not fixed, but shift and are made temporarily real by gendered and racialized moments of action and reaction: when the dress and “moral” behavior of Muslim women are policed by Muslims and non-Muslims, and when Islam functions as a racial category in the hemispheric Americas.
The latter point is another nexus of “un-learning”: Islam is a religion, but “Muslim” has never functioned solely as a religious category in the Americas and in many other places; it is also a racial category. Judicially and in popular imagination and media, the category of “Muslim” is usually racialized and ascribed to Black and brown people, and applied rhetorically to external threats to democracy and the “West” in political discourse in the Caribbean and North America.
In addition, I argue, the persistent secular subject of the European Enlightenment, humanism, and even postcolonialism, inadequately describes the lived lives and cultural modes of survival of indigenous, Black, and other people of color in the Americas.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I am Guyanese. Many poets and writers of the Caribbean inspire my work: from the “nation language” poetry and cultural theories of Barbadian Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who tells us that for we of the former British Caribbean colonies, “the hurricane does not roar in pentameter;” to Guyanese fiction writer Wilson Harris’s examination of the role of jungle, plantation, flora, and fauna in understanding Guyanese multicultural and multiracial identities; to the Sufi-inspired Guyanese poet Abdur-Rahman Slade Hopkinson, whom I consider to be the poet laureate of the Muslim Caribbean.
My cultural theorist inspirations include Jamaican Sylvia Wynter, who argues that the Caribbean postmodern, postslavery project of “the re-writing of knowledge . . . must necessarily entail the un/writing of our present normative defining of the secular mode of the Subject;” and Audre Lorde, of Carriacou Caribbean parentage, whose writing mode of biomythography, which uses the personal narratives of individuals to tell the stories of communities missing from the historical archive, inspired me to include the stories of my own Caribbean Muslim family in my academic work.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I ask readers to imagine a hemispheric American world (worlds) in which Islam is a deep part of the history of the Americas, and enters during the colonial period in a significant manner with enslaved Africans and indentured East Indians, rather than with recent immigrants. Though it left no direct lineal descendants in the Americas, African Islam, notably the religion of the highly literate and poetically oriented Sufi tariqa brotherhoods of West Africa, is part of the religious legacy of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the United States, alongside syncretic Yoruba, Kongo, and other religions like Santería/Lucumí, Vodou, Hoodoo, Candomblé, Obeah, Myal and many others.
My work also points to historical and ongoing cultural links and migrations between the Caribbean and North America (the U.S. and Canada), and shows the way in which politicized and racialized perceptions of Muslims are now linked to U.S. wars in the Middle East and the activities of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, in ways that traverse national boundaries in the Americas. I also illustrate that despite national citizenship discourses that paint them as perennial outsiders in societies in which they are a religious minority, Muslims in general perceive themselves simultaneously as both citizens of their respective countries and members of the global ummah, the religious Muslim community.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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