AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSLIM WOMEN – Book Sample
Abstract – AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSLIM WOMEN
This thesis aims to consider one aspect of religiosity of African-American Muslim
women—who now constitute the majority of the converts of the fastest growing religion of America—and the praxis of their faith vis-à-vis their engagement within the mosque and its affiliated communities. The primary intent of this ethnography is to understand the “essence” or conscious effort from the perspective of African-American Muslim women of their experiences of engaging within the mosque and its affiliated communities.
Secondarily, this study attempts to tease out how and why the mosque, instead of another locus, become an important performative space for African-American women.
The distillation of the narratives of my informants, reveals to me, that Islam for the women is a liberatory “worldview” within which they find agency. Stepping into the new worldview of Islam compels them to negotiate an identity that validates their gender in the context of their religious framework. These permutations range from issues of gender segregation, to hijab, to polygyny—all gendered issues that must be negotiated by the indigenous Muslimas.
As I have found, for the women, their approach to their Islam and its praxis finds its genesis in notions of equity. Furthermore, the praxis of their faith seeks to validate the women with an identity that is “authentically” Islamic and American. This in turn affords the women agency to read their Islam in the manner they deemed most fit—an endeavor which they continuously strive to perfect.
The mosque for the women serves as a conduit through which the women not only empower themselves, via mastering their faith, but also forge bonds within the sisterhood of the ummah—a community of believers.
As the women tell me, the mosque and those who practice the faith play a profound role in facilitating their transformation. The mosque is not merely a venue for the praxis of their individualized Islam—rather it is a living model which contributes immensely to their Islamic worldview. The mosque serves as a point of convergence where a Muslima can convene a framework which merges her newfound deen and its actuation into a permutation that has a profound effect on how she encounters the worldview of Islam.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Today, the weekly praxis of jummah houses African-American, Anglo and Latino-American Muslim converts alongside immigrant Arab, South Asian, African and European Muslims— conjoining all to produce the very diverse and distinctive American ummah.
Islam is one of the fastest growing segments of the American religious landscape, the American Muslim population having doubled in size in just the last decade. The combination of geopolitics and changes in immigration laws instated in the 1960s and 1970s has resulted in the migration of Muslims from all over the world. Domestically, the second half of the twentieth century has witnessed an ascension of Islam in the American religious mosaic, compelling converts from all walks of American life to embrace Islam as an underpinning of their identity. Experts on Islam in America, such as Yvonne Haddad, Aminah McCloud, and Sherman Jackson, posit that this burgeoning cohort predominantly attracts African Americans, who easily make up 30% to 40% of the of all the Muslims in America.8 Haddad goes on to reveal that what is most astonishing and perhaps antithetical to prevailing Western notions on Islam is that female converts outnumber men on a scale of four to one—with a majority of converts identifying as African American.9
According to the Mosque Study of 2011, sponsored by a coalition of organizations,10 the highest average of female attendees at jummah occurs in African- American mosques,11 where 23% of attendees are women. This number is considerably higher when compared against predominantly immigrant mosques, where the female attendance rate for jummah is only 16%. This survey also identified African-American mosques as being more likely to have women serve on their mosque boards, at a rate of 75%, implying that African-American mosques have a higher female engagement rate than their immigrant counterparts.12 This thesis aims to analyze the religiosity of African-American Muslim women—who now constitute the majority of the converts of the fastest growing religion of America—and the praxis of their faith vis-à-vis their engagement within the mosque. The primary intent of this qualitative study is to
understand the “essence” of the perspective of African-American Muslim women on their experiences when engaging within the mosque. In other words, how and why did the mosque, instead of another locus, become an important performative space for African- American women?
“Research has shown that religion and spirituality are particularly salient among African-American women and are sources of strength, identity, and empowerment.”13 In Islam, as explicated by McCloud, no persons embody God’s Divine authority; each individual is expected to become knowledgeable and responsible for his/her actions to God. Islam does not have ordained clergy or a centralized church.14 In regards to the praxis of jummah, John L. Esposito explains, attending jummah or the mosque is not compulsory for women as it is for men; however, studies have shown a higher level of engagement by African-American women than their immigrant counterparts.15 It is possible that African-American Muslim women choose to make Islam a salient aspect of their overall identity as they feel “divorced” from mainstream American society.
Research has shown that the praxis related to religion and spirituality is central to African-American women’s ability to cope with adversities of their lives, and the mosque provides these women with a venue for this praxis.16
Rubina Ramji states, “How Muslims understand themselves to be American has become of central concern since the tragic events of 9/11, given the rising level of anti- Islamic sentiment in North America and in other parts of the Western World.”17 Despite scholarly attention to this concern, there is still a gap in knowledge on the topic of African-American Muslim women. In the post-9/11 context there has been much consideration placed on Islam and Muslims in America, with a focus on immigrant Muslims and their “encounter” with religio-political issues. However, African-American Muslims and, in particular, Black women are missing from these conversations.
Considering that African-American women make up at least 50% of the fastest growing religious cohort within America, research on this population is essential. The aim of this thesis is to shed light on African-American Muslim women’s religiosity and how it is formed, informed, and influenced through the mosque.
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