Edward E. Curtis IV: Teaching about Islam and the African Diaspora

The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora, by Edward E. Curtis IVWe welcome a guest post today from Edward E. Curtis IV, author of The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora. How do people in the African diaspora practice Islam? While the term “Black Muslim” may conjure images of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, millions of African-descended Muslims around the globe have no connection to the American-based Nation of Islam. The Call of Bilal is a penetrating account of the rich diversity of Islamic religious practice among Africana Muslims worldwide. Covering North Africa and the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Europe, and the Americas, Curtis reveals a fascinating range of religious activities—from the observance of the five pillars of Islam and the creation of transnational Sufi networks to the veneration of African saints and political struggles for racial justice.

In the following post, Curtis explains how researching his latest book has changed how he handles the introduction of Islam in the classroom.

Modern English-language writing about the history and cultures of African-descended people in the diaspora has often been international, transnational, and diaporic in its vision. Looking beyond the boundaries of any one country, African-descended thinkers, poets, historians, religious leaders, and others have framed the history of Black diasporic populations in narratives that include Africans, Asians, Americans, Europeans, Pacific Islanders, and others. This international vision of Black history and identity is a tradition that has inspired the formal study of Africana peoples and their cultures, one that predates contemporary studies of globalization and transnationalism.

And yet with some noteworthy exceptions, the study of Black Muslims in the diaspora remains locked for the most part within the borders of various nations, especially the United States. For many years, I wondered how my own understanding of African-descended Muslims might change if I adopted a truly global perspective on the subject. Having devoted much of my research to the history and life of Islam in the United States, I wrote The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora so that I could find out how the range, the forms, and the interpretations of Islam among Black Muslims were similar or different among African diasporic populations in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and the Americas.

I was not surprised to learn that most Muslims in the African diaspora are Sunni Muslims, meaning that to a greater or lesser degree, they identity with the majority tradition in Islam that makes incumbent certain basic interpretations of Islam (sometimes called the pillars of faith) and the “five pillars of practice” (the declaration of faith, daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and alms for the poor).

But what it means to be a religious Muslim beyond these shared traditions shatters any facile, American-based assumptions about the practices of Black Muslims. For example, I studied the prayers, healing rituals, instrumental music, singing, spirit possession ceremonies, and dancing performed by some Siddi and Habshi Muslims in Pakistan and India at shrines devoted to their African ancestor saints, Bava Gor (or Gori Pir) and his sister, Mai Mishra. These saints are not household names among African American Muslims. (Generally speaking, the veneration of Muslim saints is not as popular in the Americas as it is in Africa and Asia).

I also hoped to learn how anti-Black racism shaped the practice of Islam among Black Muslims in the diaspora. I discovered that it negatively impacts the life opportunities of Black Muslims across the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, and South Asia, but that Black Muslims utilize Islam as a resource to confront or live with that racism in radically different ways. Nearly everyone agrees that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God. But some reform-minded Muslims, including but not limited to those Muslims who might be called Islamists, go further. They argue that racism will disappear if Islamic religion becomes a true way of life at the communal as well as individual levels. In a very different, sometimes conflicting way, many other Black Muslims locate spiritual authority, ethical inspiration, and political power in a form of Islamic identity and practice tied specifically to Africa or their African heritage. This is the case with some practitioners of Gnawa and Stambeli communities in North Africa, and in a different way, members of the transnational Murid (Mouride) Sufi order in Senegal.

These discoveries have changed the way I teach about Islam even at the introductory level. I now try to put Black people at the center of my course rather than on the margins of it (and by extension, on the margins of Islam). Despite my general sympathy toward an anthropological approach to studying Islam, I have often emphasized disembodied religious traditions and texts in my introduction to Islam—with the exception of the Prophet Muhammad himself. My intro often covers the Prophet and the Qur’an, the pillars of faith and practice, and Sufism (or Islamic spirituality, sometimes called Islamic mysticism). In my new introduction, I still do much of that, but I often illustrate my points about Islamic traditions with real life examples from the global Africana diaspora. This also has the effect of countering the idea held by many students that Islam is mainly a Middle Eastern religion, as we learn about Black Muslim practices across Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Finally, my research has also altered the way that I teach about the idea of diaspora. Encountering so many different and even contentious definitions of this important analytical term, I noticed how Muslims of African descent sometimes completely dismiss the idea that they are part of an African diaspora. Others cherish the connections that they have to African-descended people around the globe, though their political and cultural ideas about what binds them together differ. But even more, what I understood much better after researching Black Muslim identity in comparative fashion was that the idea of diaspora was also sometimes interpreted in a religious fashion to emphasize the theological, ethical, aesthetic, and ritualized elements of the African diaspora, orientations that linked the destiny of the Black diaspora as much to the heavens as to the Earth.

Edward E. Curtis IV is Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is author of The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora (2014) and Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975 (2006).