An Illuminating Discussion with Patrick Bowen about his new Work, A history of Conversion to Islam in the United States
Why did you write this book? What was your original inspiration?
It’s somewhat of a winding story, but I think it may be instructive for current or prospective grad students. When I first went to graduate school in 2007, I wanted to research Islam in America and, following the advice of my advisors, I sought out a research topic that very few scholars had already looked at. After about six months pursuing a topic that didn’t appeal to me very much, I decided to switch to American conversion to Islam after 9/11, which at the time had received almost no academic attention. I did a small-scale, local study on the topic for my MA thesis, but when I attempted to do a large-scale, national study for my PhD dissertation, I was not able to cultivate a good network of potential respondents. As a result, after having contacted over 600 Muslim organizations, I was only able to obtain fifteen total interviews and/or surveys—just two more than I had obtained in the small-scale study. I felt this wasn’t enough data for a dissertation, so I decided to turn my attention to a related topic that had similarly received very little attention from scholars: the history of white and Latino converts to Islam in the US.
Since so little had been written about white and Latino Muslims, I had to begin my research by collecting any references I could find in the existing literature on Muslims in America. It turned out that the most enticing leads were in books written about African American Muslims. After collecting all the published material I could, I decided that the best way to find more information was to dig deeper into the history of African American Islam with the hope that I’d be able to trace the known leads further and possibly make some new discoveries. What I soon learned, though, was that much of what I was finding concerning African American Islamic history—most of which had nothing to do with white and Latino converts—had not been discussed in great detail in the literature, and that these findings were going to require their own analyses. Since at that time I was also reading several classic multivolume studies and series of thematically-similar books—most notably Hodgson’s Venture of Islam, Gay’s The Enlightenment, Foucault’s work, and Deleuze and Guattari’s books—I felt inspired to bring all my research together as its own multivolume study. After finding an enthusiastic publisher, I’ve been able to bring this vision to fruition, and the present book is the second out of three planned volumes in the series that I’ve named A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States.
What is the African American Islamic Renaissance (AAIR), and when during your research did this period become clear to you?
Having been inspired by the authors that I just listed, but especially Marshall Hodgson, I knew that if I was going to write a multivolume work I would need a way to break down the seeming chaos of history into somewhat cohesive periods, as this not only would help me in doing analysis, but it would also help the reader by providing a clearer view of the world he or she would be investigating. Originally, when I thought I might be writing four volumes, I was toying with two possible time periods for the AAIR: one was the period between the two world wars; the other was stretching that up until 1959, just before the Nation of Islam became far and away the most dominant African American Muslim organization. For my dissertation, I ended up choosing the second of these. I justified that by the fact that from 1920 to 1959 no single African American Muslim-majority group truly dominated for a long period of time; diversity and competition reigned. However, as I started working seriously on white and Latino Muslims, I began to see that several big events in their histories—and in fact in the histories of all American Muslim communities—occurred in or around 1975. This was notable to me because 1975 was also the year of the death of the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, which was a tremendous turning point in the history of African American Islam. So, I had to take this into account, and when I pulled my perspective back to encompass the overall history of conversion to Islam in the US from 1800 to the present, it seemed to me that the period in African American Muslim history of 1960 to 1975 actually shared more in common with the previous period (1920-1959) than it did with the following period, despite the fact that it was not characterized by the same dominance of Islamic diversity. As I investigated further, I saw that what united these two periods as a single era was their deep foundation in the same powerful historical phenomena: the Great Migration, old African American folk culture, black nationalism, and Islamic teachings and organizations that were conceived in the first dozen or so years after World War I. So, with that being said, the way I currently conceive of the African American Islamic Renaissance is that it is the fifty-five years after World War I during which time a large number of African Americans suddenly became aware of and interested in the possibility of embracing Islam; tens of thousands actually embraced it; and the Islamic currents they embraced were extremely numerous and diverse.
How does your work see those charismatic figures such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X in relation to “lesser-known roots, manifestations, and influences of African American Islam?” How does this challenge the dominant narratives around African American Islam?
What I hope above all is that this book brings to light the great diversity in Muslim identities and motivations during the AAIR, and in doing so adds a layer of complexity to the picture of African American Islam. Although charismatic figures were without doubt very important in the conversions of many AAIR Muslims, my research revealed there were several other critical factors playing a role in the success of different Islamic teachings and even of the different branches of particular Islamic groups. For instance, in numerous cases Muslims were brought into Islam by other family members or friends—affective bonds, as is well known to those who study new religious movements, are often crucial for assuaging the fears of someone interested in leaving the religion of his or her childhood. Membership in a similar organization—be it Muslim or black nationalist—was also important for several pre-1960 converts; and in the Nation of Islam’s revival after 1944, a significant number of Muslims shared the experience of having been incarcerated or at least having participated in petty crimes. It seems, furthermore, that a group’s ability to incorporate and emphasize certain African American folk concepts helped grow its ranks. Evidence suggests that the Nation of Islam, for instance, emphasized its teachings’ connections with the old African American stories of the ‘little man,’ the ‘Dry Bones,’ and even the later ‘badman’ tradition. Other lesser-known groups, such as Abdul Hamid Suleiman’s Canaanites Temple and Paul Nathaniel Johnson’s Fahamme Temples embraced connections with esotericism, black nationalism, Freemasonry, and biblical traditions.
As far as diversity in Islamic communities was concerned, African Americans had numerous options. In pre-1945 New York City, for instance, there were at least two different Moorish Science factions, a Qadiani community, a Nation group, and over a half dozen different Sunni Muslim organizations that African Americans had joined. Detroit and Chicago similarly had a large number of Muslim organizations—many of which were Moorish Science or Moorish Science-influenced factions, which numbered well over a dozen—and in the greater Pittsburgh region whole congregations switched from Moorish Science to Qadiani-Ahmadi to Lahori-Ahmadi to Sunni and sometimes back again, occasionally with schisms and often without, over the span of fifteen years. Much of this diversity in African American Islam has been forgotten, and I believe that presenting it will help put into sharper relief the specific factors that led to the rise of the Nation of Islam.
I appreciate your use of the religious market to understand the way in which religion developed in the Americas. You make a distinction between those folk religions which may purposely remain hidden and result in the simultaneous creation of many folk ‘dialectics.’ How does your work fit into the elite/popular or folk/mainstream dichotomies that are often inscribed in the study of religion?
Distinguishing between institutionalized and folk religious practices and ideas can be a very helpful practice—I do it myself on numerous occasions throughout the book. In fact, while I was writing the first few drafts I barely thought about the theory behind this distinction. Since it has long been assumed that early African American Islamic groups relied heavily on folk religion, and the evidence I had found by that time seemed to generally support this theory, there had been no need to reevaluate my views. However, one day while reading Olli Alho’s Religion of the Slaves, I noticed that there were at least two very specific slave-era folk teachings that were employed in African American Muslim groups, and that certain other folk teachings were not present at all. Upon further investigation, I found yet another specific folk religious borrowing (the use of the symbol of the cross within a circle, known as the “four corners of the world”), but in this case the borrowed religious element had roots previous scholars had already traced back to a particular ethnic group in Africa (the Bakongo), and whose use in America was restricted to a certain type of folk practitioner (hoodoo doctors). It suddenly became very clear to me—even though I already knew it in theory—that I had been conceiving of African American folk religion as a mostly unified conglomerate of ideas and practices, when in reality it was composed of many different elements that each had their own genealogies and histories of interactions with the various environments with which they had come into touch, and that it might be possible to track how religious elements could travel and multiply in a complex—not just in an institutional/folk dichotomous—religious landscape.
The concept of religious “dialects” sprung out of this realization. Religious concepts and rituals seem to behave in many ways like vocabularies and ways of speaking, which can circulate from place to place, each time avoiding, influencing, or becoming influenced by the local vocabularies and speaking habits, while at the same time taking on multiple meanings, each of which can have its own historical trajectory. It is also important to note that in different regions and at different times, different dialects or vocabularies have different amounts of cultural capital, and therefore will circulate differently in local cultural markets. The same can be said of religious elements, which can circulate and multiply in very similar ways, especially in a cultural landscape as large and diverse as the US’s. What was especially fascinating to me in researching African American Islam was to see this play out on a very micro level, particularly when some of these religious elements were completely hidden or camouflaged in some settings, and in other settings were either influencing other more overt elements or were themselves brought forth as important elements in an institutionalized religion that succeeded in grabbing a significant market share. In the case of African American Islam, this was most notable in the travels of the red flag tradition, which was a pre-Emancipation set of stories revolving around the capture and enslavement of Africans by Europeans. This tradition, which could be found throughout North America and the Caribbean, had been hidden from whites prior to the 1930s, and by that time it had already become incorporated into the narratives of the two most prominent African American Muslim communities. I certainly don’t think it’s always wrong to distinguish between institutionalized and folk religions, but because there are many religious elements like the red flag tradition, which travel in both realms, stepping away from the dichotomy can be very useful to see how exactly such transformations occur.
How do you see your interdisciplinary history of the de- and reterritorialization of African American Islam in relation to the larger history of Muslim-majority societies? What can your book offer for understanding the continual de- and reterritorialization of Islam in the global world?
The main thing that I think can have relatively wide application is the analysis of how Islamic movements developed and spread in the twentieth century. Although many of the specific features of the AAIR were unique to North America, some of the broader forces at play, especially those related to migration, folk religion, and market-based dynamics, were fundamentally grounded in the global movements of de- and reterritorialization. However I think the concepts of de- and reterritorialization and some of their theoretical implications have the potential to explain many different aspects of Islamic history that I have not looked at.
My use of these concepts—which I’m employing as the fundamental analytical frames for all three volumes of A History—was in fact done with the specific intention of linking the history of conversion to Islam in the US to the larger history of Islam in the global world in order to help facilitate a more integrative approach to studies of Muslims in the modern era. This all goes back to my reading the multivolume and thematically-similar books that I mentioned in response to question one. I read Hodgson, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari all within a span of about a year, sometimes reading some of their books at the same time—and doing this allowed me to see a striking connection between all three sets of authors. Deleuze and Guattari proposed the concepts of de- and reterritorialization after being inspired by Foucault’s unique chronology and understanding of the rise of the modern era, and—fascinatingly—Foucault’s chronology matches up fairly well with the chronology that Hodgson proposes in Venture, a book whose view of Islam has been influential due to its ability to put Islamic history into a truly world-historical perspective. While comparing these authors’ ideas, I also noticed that Hodgson’s views on the historical changes in the circulation of people, goods, and ideas were fairly consistent with Deleuze and Guattari’s views on the emergence and manifestations of de- and reterritorialization.
Despite the fact that Foucault and to a lesser extent Deleuze and Guattari ostensibly reject traditional sociological and economic functionalist views of history (although in my reading of them they all share subtle grounding in such views), Hodgson is more overtly sociologically and economically grounded—having been inspired by people like Weber and Ibn Khaldun, among others—which means that his ideas can be more fully linked with modern sociological theories of religious behavior, including ideas about religious markets. So, by using Foucault as the link between, on the one hand, poststructuralist theories of power—including de- and reterritorialization—and, on the other, Hodgson-influenced sociologically- and economically-grounded theories of global and Islamic history, we have a means for more thoroughly integrating studies of relatively small Muslim communities in Muslim-minority regions with those of larger Muslim communities.