Review: Latino and Muslim in America

Since 2016, the issues of immigration, religious freedom, and the question of the compatibility of Islam and the West have been hotter-than-usual issues in the United States. In the narrative of Latino Muslims (a term I will later problematize) in the US, these various strands intersect and overlap. 

According to Harold Morales’s own previous research, there “are likely between 50,000 to 70,000” Latino Muslims in the US. Regardless of numbers, there is a pertinent need to study religious minorities such as Latino Muslims for their ability to “de-naturalize and de-essentialize, to broaden and to push our varied and unfixed understandings of and relations” (211) to various categories of religion, identity, ethnicity, and issues such as immigration, religious freedom, and Islam in and of the West. This need is what Morales seeks to address in his latest book, Latino and Muslim in America: Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority.

Islam as part of, rather than as foreign to, the West

Islam in the West. A simple enough statement, but one with multiple derivative implications. For this volume’s purposes, editor Edward E. Curtis IV makes it clear from the start that Islam is to be imagined “as part of, rather than as foreign to” to that which is referred to as “the West” (1).

This point may seem subtle, but it is vitally important in a climate—both popular and academic—that imagines Muslims as outsiders to “Western culture,” and as unassimilated foreigners in matters of national Western polity.

The Bloomsbury Reader on Islam in the West stakes an important position by not only including readings that exhibit this current bias against Muslims as part of a vision of some trumped-up “clash of civilizations,” but also by showcasing work that highlights the specific and textured ways in which Muslims have long been part of the West and been intimately involved in its political, economic, social, cultural, and religious make-up.

Exploring the presence, and effect, of Muslims in the lands now collectively called “the West” from 711 (when Muslim polity ruled the Iberian Peninsula) to 2015 (amidst the “Global War on Terror”), the book is ambitious in scope and diverse in its contents. It is divided into two parts: “Islam in Western history,” and “Islam in the contemporary West.”

Turning our eyes to Islam in Latin America & the Caribbean

A paradox lies at the heart of the contemporary study of global Islam.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent “war on terror,” which has recapitulated the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations thesis and its emphasis on the false dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West" there has concomitantly been an increase in the academic attention afforded to the study of Islam. 

Although the number of Islamic studies degrees conferred has more than doubled in the past decade, Islamic studies has also been remained largely confined to the regions of the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, leaving Muslim communities in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, and the Americas to the wayside. In a word, even with the rise of the study of global Islam, its scope has failed to fully incorporate other geographies and the study of Islam beyond the Middle East is still underrepresented. Thus, there is still a pertinent need to globalize the study of “global Islam.”

For over a thousand years, Islam has been integral to what is known as "Western civilization." Even so, it is too often assumed assumed that Islam is a foreign element and Muslims in the West are doomed to be out of place and in perpetual conflict. The need for accurate, reliable scholarship on this topic is terribly urgent.

Thus, this has become the focus of my academic research on Islam in the Americas. I am convinced that understanding currents in global Islam -- peaceful and violent, widespread and vernacular, popular and institutional -- must be understood from a truly global perspective, while at the same time being embedded in local histories, tensions, movement, and exchanges. Exploring American Islam -- from Canada to the Caribbean, from Phoenix, Arizona to Patagonia, Argentina -- is a prime manner in which to do so. 

Recently I published a book chapter and a peer-reviewed journal article to that effect. The first is titled, "Exploring Islam in the Americas from Demographic and Ethnographic Perspectives." This chapter in Brill's Yearbook of International Religious Demography: 2016 discusses some population data concerning Muslims in the Americas and offers pathways for further research based on these statistics. These demographics invite a more thorough study of under-appreciated religious populations that present ample opportunities for research in cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, and specifically apropos to the ethnographic study of religion.

The latter work was recently published in the Waikato Islamic Studies Review Vol. 2, No. 2 out of New Zealand. The aim of this paper is to intermesh prevalent theories about globalization with the study of Islam, both historically and contemporaneously. It is, effectively, an attempt to globalize the study of Islam in the Americas and offer several brief examples of avenues to approach this study in the hope to not only feature existent work in the field, but offer further areas for consideration and future research. It covers Islam in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Latina/o U.S.A., and in the "digital borderlands" of Latina/o Muslim specific Facebook pages. 

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about American Islam's history, contemporary manifestations, and linkages to global Islamic dynamics. Also, for those of you wondering...I am still in my "comp cave." My exams last from mid-October until mid-December. I look forward to returning to the world of writing, analysis, and news commentary in January 2017! 

The forbidden passages of Americas' first Muslims

Forbidden Passages: Muslims and Moriscos in Colonial Spanish America, written by Karoline P. Cook, reviewed by Ken Chitwood in Reading Religion from the American Academy of Religion (AAR). 

Emigrants from the Atlantic world came to the Americas for various reasons, with many motives, and precipitated by myriad circumstances. Some were forced, some came to escape an old society or to build a new one, others came to acquire riches or set-up shop. Yet, as J.H. Elliott wrote in his tome Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, “they all faced the same challenge of moving from the known to the unknown, and of coming to terms with an alien environment that would demand of them numerous adjustments and a range of new responses.” 

Furthermore, as Elliott continues, “to a greater or lesser degree, those responses would be shaped by a home culture whose formative influence could never be entirely escaped, even by those who who were most consciously rejecting it for a new life beyond the seas.” While the local context with its diverse ecological, material, political, socio-cultural, and religious environments shaped the contours of American colonization and conquest, the colonial world was simultaneously defined and influenced by its transatlantic nature. Significantly, the historical and legal dimensions of imperial statecraft conditioned the experience of various constituencies in even the most far-flung reaches of the American empires. 

It is within this transatlantic imperial nexus that Karoline P. Cook situates the narrative of “Muslims and Moriscos in colonial Spanish America.” Yes, that's correct; Muslims came to the Americas as early as the 16th-century...

The diversity and unity of Sufism: a conversation with Peter Samsel

SUFISM is sometimes called “the inner power” of Islam because of its focus on the Qur'an, the Prophet Mohammad, and tawḥīd— the ultimate divine oneness of God. Nevertheless, it is often misunderstood by both well-meaning newcomers and those seeking to strip Islam of its authenticity. While recognizing the complexity of all religions, independent scholar Peter Samsel wants to simplify Sufism in his book A Treasury of Sufi Wisdom, which includes a collection of and commentary on Sufi works. His aim is to provide a unifying concept to Sufi thought and practice, introducing the newcomer to its depths and diversity while also sharing its simplicity.

Samsel said that his background “is best summarized as a lifelong quest for the real” and that his journey with Sufism was, and is, driven by comparing religion and seeking wisdom in Sufi masters. Hence, his desire to share the wisdom of Sufi luminaries with a broader audience in this Treasury. At the core of Islam and its expression in Sufism, according to Samsel, is the concept of “divine unity” — tawḥīd.

*READ the unedited interview transcript HERE.

Often, Sufism is conceived as the mystical dimension of Islam. What does that tell us? Ready to admit that Sufism adapts and changes with time and according to its social, political, and cultural context Louis Brenner attempted a definition of Sufism as, “a spiritual discipline intended to liberate the human spirit from its corporeal shell and enable it to move closer to God” or as “spiritual work that…aims at the transformation of the hidden or inner aspect of the human being.” This inner work has to do with the divine breath, or spirit, that is imbued in each individual, which is both visible and hidden. The idea is to transfer what is hidden into what is manifest and thus transport the Muslim from one state of being to another, moving from hidden and removed from God to being in his presence. 

What is the spiritual work and/or discipline associated with Sufism? The three primary means are education, rituals, and initiatic relationships. Sufis are often believed to join the aforementioned tariqas and to begin an ascetic, discipled, relationship with an emir or wali or “saint” or “friend of God.” This relationship is perceived as central to the progression of a Sufi as the wali is seen to have a particular and blessed relationship with God, which in turn gives him a powerful baraka, or spiritual power and blessing. Certain spaces and places, either associated with that saint or deemed holy by Sufis, are also filled with baraka such as caves, shrines,  tombs, mountains, or other natural areas. In the context of such an order, and in contact with the baraka, the Sufi disciple will learn the “science of Sufism” through education practices centered first on the outward and sensual aspects of the Qur’an, Shari’a, and Islamic law before coming to consider the mystical, inner, and hidden aspects of the above that can only be appreciated through spiritual senses. Spiritual senses are honed through ritual prayer, dhikr — remembrance of the names and attributes of God, wird — secret litanies passed on through emirs and saints or revealed directly by God, ascetic practices, seclusion rituals, dance, movement, and the like. These are the oft presented “spiritual disciplines” associated with Sufism, both as a concept and as a phenomenon. 

Furthermore, Sufis are often conceived as mystical Muslims in pursuit of “the greater jihad” of inner spiritual struggle and more likely to merge Muslim concepts and practices with local, indigenous, beliefs and observances. This has led some researching Islam in Africa to speak of Sufism — with its seeming improvisation, contextualization, and leniency in pursuit of inner transformation — as representative of “African Islam” in contradistinction to “Islam in Africa,” typified by Salafis bent on reform and strict adherence to commanding right and forbidding wrong according to universal/global Muslim faith and piety. Beyond Africa Sufism is held up as a paragon in the “good Muslim”/“bad Muslim” dichotomy. Again, Sufis appear to outsiders as mystical monk-like Muslims pursuing peace and a piety of transformation in the face of violent and radical Muslims hell-bent on world domination and enforcing their brutal and unbending interpretation of Islam through “the lesser jihad” of physical war. 

However, these conceptions of Sufism are more indicative of an etic analytical concept than any type of self-identifying or emic understanding of what Sufism is or is not. Furthermore, using this term to refer to a broad and complex sodality such as “Sufism” obscures as much as, if not more than, it may reveal. Sufism is not a defined sect or denomination of Islam, as it is often represented to be. While it can be organized into formal networks and brotherhoods it is more often diffuse and integrated into other streams of Islam (Sunni, Shi’i, etc.). Furthermore, the phenomena associated with Sufism (e.g. wird, dhikr, asceticism etc.) are not universally observed among those seeking inner transformation through Islam. Moreover, Sufis are not always apolitical or necessarily peaceful. Tijaniyya and Muridiyya in Senegal have long been involved in politics (one Murid serving as president) and the Naqshbandi of the Levant being heavily involved in sectarian violence following the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Kane notes how the “Baro brothers” — the sons of a significant Tijaniyya family — use shrine pilgrimage to consolidate power and “prove their spiritual rank” more than as a ritual practice of devotion or transcendence. Sufis can also prove patriarchal, as Joseph Hill argued in the context of Sufi leadership in Senegal among Taalibe Baay, and be advocates of reform and the enforcement of standards of universal Islamic practice. Indeed, it is difficult to construct or conceive of Sufism as any sort of essentialized entity or sui generis sensation.

The autor, Peter Samsel (PHOTO: World Wisdom). 

And yet, Samsel said that the, “aim and fruition [of tawḥīd] is to clarify the overwhelming, singular Divine reality in all its ramifications.” In a world that threatens to inundate the spiritual seeker in complexity and chaos Samsel contends Sufism offers a path that unifies the self in the face of the manifestation of Divine unity in one’s life. 

To present this path and share it with an audience outside of traditional Sufi orders and brotherhoods involved a tremendous amount of reading in the primary literature of Sufism, said Samsel. He also had to ponder the question of what exactly Sufism is. Scholars, practitioners, and the public are often uncertain or inexact in their estimations of what Islamic mysticism is all about. Samuel believes this “Path of Unity” leads people into the core of Sufism and even of life itself. 

In addition, Samsel hopes the work will correct distortions of Sufism and Islam. Samsel said, “the most typical misrepresentation of Sufism is that it is not authentically Islamic, whether this is claimed by Muslim fundamentalists, Muslim modernists, or Western spiritual seekers. However, scholarly consensus has long recognized Sufism as intrinsic to Islam.” Samsel is convinced that, “Sufi writings are, in fact, profoundly grounded in Islam’s foundational sources, as the anthology readily serves to demonstrate.”

In final estimation, Samsel intends for the Treasury to provide “orientation and inspiration.” He said he hopes the book will appeal to both Western spiritual seekers and Muslims. For the former, that they may “be attracted to a spiritual way that nourishes the conjoined perspectives of both love and knowledge,” said Samsel. For the latter he said, “I hope it may also appeal to Muslims who may be caught in a dry, legalistic understanding of their faith with perhaps little notion of the spiritual depths it possesses.” While such an anthology, he said, “cannot capture every subtlety of a lived path such as Sufism,” Samsel believes this is a great place for anyone to start on the path to Sufi wisdom or to get a solid basis in Sufi thought and its inherently Islamic philosophical foundations. 

*To read the book for yourself, click HERE