Literature Review

By Kecia Ali

Asma Gull Hasan. American Muslims: The New Generation. New York and London: Continuum, 2000.

Shahnaz Khan. Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Aminah Beverly McCloud. African American Islam. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Just as Muslim women in the U.S. and Canada vary tremendously in their backgrounds—ethnic, racial, class, doctrinal, etc.—these works discuss Muslim women in quite different ways. Nevertheless, they each treat, though with varying degrees of thoroughness and from various perspectives, some critical issues that are reflected in the lives of Muslim women. These are very different types of studies, making direct comparison neither fair nor useful. McCloud’s book is an introductory text that surveys the history and contemporary practice of Islam among African-Americans. It contains two chapters devoted to family structures and domestic practices, but no comprehensive analysis of gender dynamics or discourses in the communities. Hasan’s book is similar in that it does not focus solely on gender, but it does continually integrate women’s issues and concerns into the narrative. It also includes sections on topics such as hijab and gender segregation in mosques. Khan’s book is the most directly relevant to sexual ethics; based on interviews with fourteen immigrant Muslims in the Toronto area, she focuses her narrative and analysis on their negotiation of gendered Muslim identities.

African American Islam is a good basic introduction to Islam in the African-American community, including an historical overview and discussion of the communities that consider themselves Muslim. McCloud is clearly conscious of gender issues. In her treatment of the “early communities” as well as the “contemporary communities” she touches on female participation in leadership and decision-making (e.g., pp. 25-26). In a chapter that addresses family structures and domestic space, she addresses topics such as modesty and sex segregation; in another, entitled “Women in Islam,” she cites passages from the Qur’an and Muslim feminist academics as well as quoting Muslim women about their experiences. She makes the potentially controversial assertion here that women’s roles in autonomous African-American communities were negatively affected by the sexism of immigrant Muslims:

During the first half of the twentieth century, for most African-American Muslim women, who generally had not encountered their Muslim sisters from the Muslim world, there is an ambiguous gender relationship. Women have a lot to say in nation building – they are present, sometimes in quasi-leadership capacities, keeping the mini-nations informed and intact. At the same time however, they are subject to the attitudes about women held by the men. (…)

The second half of the twentieth century brings a wave of Muslim immigrants into contact with already established African-American expressions. Along with these Muslim immigrants comes the notion of “Muslim woman,” which includes silence, submissiveness, and absence.” (pp. 146-147)

Indeed, a number of the excerpts McCloud provides from interviews with women who have converted to Islam touch on the expectations surrounding dress and comportment that seem, at least at first, to have overshadowed community concern with their faith and spiritual development. The scrutiny involved, however, seems to have taken place within African-American Muslim communities and there is no direct discussion of immigrant influence on issues of dress and behavior. Nevertheless, these issues are also significant in the immigrant Muslim communities in North America. The focus on women’s “place” and appearance is echoed in the interviews conducted by Khan with women who, except for one Maltese convert, were born into Muslim families.

Khan, who identifies herself as a “Muslim feminist academic,” has written a theoretically informed and carefully constructed monograph that directly addresses women’s views on issues of sexual ethics within Muslim families and communities on the one hand, and within “Islam” as a normative system on the other. Her intention is to problematize and create dialogue around the category “Muslim” (p. 11), and she is aware that even women who have ceased to consider themselves Muslim must contend with other’s identification of them as Muslim women. Touching on critical topics such as control of female mobility, gender mixing and mate selection, and “the veil,” Khan presents fascinating glimpses into women’s “personal confrontation and negotiation with Muslim female identity in Canada.” (p. 26)

She divides her interviews into three categories: “Resolving the Contradictions through Disavowal” (three women, who no longer consider themselves Muslim, including one convert to Judaism); “Negotiating the Ambivalence” (eight women; this chapter comprises almost half the entire text of the book, and might profitably have been further subdivided); and “Selecting What to Believe” (three women, including one convert, who actively grapple with normative texts and “religious” strictures). In this brief review, it is impossible to summarize the conversations of the women. Of course Khan’s participation in the interviews as well as her editing for publication has shaped the results; we see her interest in “the confluence of the personal and the structural in the conversations of diasporic Muslim women.” (p.25)

As far as “personal” conversations go, the engaging, often autobiographical American Muslims: The New Generation is targeted, like African American Islam, at a non-specialist audience. The author, the U.S.-born daughter of Pakistani immigrants, takes a conversational tone while proclaiming herself a “Muslim feminist cowgirl, a category I created.” (p. 3) Hasan gives both basic information about the beliefs and practices of Muslims (e.g., there is a section on the five pillars) and presents a portrait of the Muslim communities in America. This is not a serious sociological study with statistics and surveys; she includes frequent sidebars on rappers and Muslim basketball players – basically an attempt to make Islam familiar and approachable. Nonetheless, she is aware of gender issues and some of the sections – such as “Hijab and the Single Girl” – are straightforward, thoughtful, and occasionally hilarious. Especially useful in this regard is her uncompromising discussion of gender segregation in mosques and the inferiority of women’s prayer places. It is exactly what I would have written, given the opportunity and the audience.

One minor caveat, however, regarding this book: in at least two places -- on covering the head during prayer (p. 35) and also women’s exemption from communal prayers (pp. 166-167) -- Hasan attributes to the Qur’an dicta that I believe are not Qur’anic. Because she does not cite chapter and verse, it is impossible to know if she is simply interpreting passages in a way I would not, or, what I believe to be almost certainly the case, she is taking rules that originated in hadith or jurisprudence and attributing them to the Qur’an. This is, unfortunately, a common failing and exemplifies the need for more thorough education in traditional religious sciences for those who wish to transform understandings of gender in Muslim interpretive communities.

These three books taken together provide the beginnings of a portrait of Muslim women in North America. Numerous future studies will be needed to fill in the gaps, though. To give just one example of an area that deserves further studies and analysis, McCloud discusses polygyny, summarizing arguments justifying its practice among African Americans and presenting an anecdote or two about its effect – including the poignant story of a teenage convert who found herself ostracized as the second wife of a much older man who had presented polygyny as truly Islamic. Ultimately, one wishes for much more evidence and sustained analysis, especially since in the practice of polygyny the African-American community differs significantly from either immigrant Muslim communities or white American converts.