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American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender Within the Ummah- A Review

Although class and gender are critiqued as factors influencing the movement and interaction of women, race and ethnicity appear to be the chief informant for negotiations within the ummah.

 

The concept of Muslim brotherhood and sisterhood is one that rests in the collective consciousness of Muslims the world over.  In theory, this unity is perceived as a natural and logical by-product of the fundamental Islamic concept of Tawhid (belief in the Oneness and indivisibility of Allah).  One God, one humanity standing before Allah (swt) is the imagery made tangible through the hajj gathering. However, the applicability of this imagery, which forms the conceptual framework of Muslim unity and equality, is complicated by a multitude of forces exerted from both within and outside Muslim communities.

In American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender Within the Ummah, Dr. Jamillah Karim analyzes the interaction of these three forces on the ability to build relations across Muslim communities. Through an ethnographic account of Muslim women in both Chicago and Atlanta Karim demonstrates the complexities in achieving what she refers to as "ummah ideas".  These ummah ideas, consisting of Quranic notions of brotherhood, sisterhood and justice, form the collective conscience of "how Muslims imagine themselves as a community". Dr. Karim integrates her own negotiations as an African-American Muslim woman into the personal accounts that she collected from woen through her research.  This provides the reader with a perspective that could not have been achieved by a non-Muslim.  However, this interjection of personal experience, corroborating many of the women's narratives, instills a sense of bias against the varied negotiations experienced by South-Asian women within the African-American Muslim communities.    

Although class and gender are critiqued as factors influencing the movement and interaction of women, race and ethnicity appear to be the chief informant for negotiations within the ummah.  Karim sets the stage for addressing the ways in which women navigate the ummah primarily from the perspective of race. 


Karim concludes that the locational patterns serve to reinforce a historical disconnection between the two areas of the city. Muslim immigrants who established a community in these areas became implicit in reinforcing the social constructs of the city.

 

In the two areas of study the author reveals the tremendous impact that race relations in the broader society bring to bear on Muslim communities.  In both cities, the locational patterns of predominately South-Asian immigrants and African-American Muslims are both separate and distinct.  While South-Asian Muslims are typically concentrated on the north side of Chicago, African-American Muslims are more heavily concentrated on the city's south side.  These two locations, North and South, represent not only geographical disparities that limit interaction, but also form historical barriers that have systematically separated the poverty-stricken predominantly African-American south from the upwardly mobile white north.   

Karim concludes that the locational patterns serve to reinforce a historical disconnection between the two areas of the city.  Muslim immigrants who established a community in these areas became implicit in reinforcing the social constructs of the city. Furthermore, immigrant communities, attempting to forge their own identities as Americans, both consciously and unconsciously distance themselves from African-Americans in an effort to achieve a minority status that is distinct from that of the African-Americans. South-Asian communities, due to their greater economic power, have a greater collective ability to locate outside the confines of the traditional minority enclaves. Karim states, "The pursuit for acceptance (in American society) causes immigrants to differentiate themselves from blacks and also drives them to perceive and treat blacks with a scorn taught by the dominant racial discourse." The result is the formation of ethnic communities which have developed actions and goals in different spaces, thus reinforcing historical animosities between native minorities -the African-Americans, and the immigrant minorities - the South Asians. Karim argues that this distance of association, which is largely determined by preexisting patterns of race relations and geography, is deeply reflected in Muslim community relations. 


One important critique that Karim makes is that the development of separate spheres of communities has the effect of limiting the sense of justice that is needed to fulfill ummah ideals.

 

One important critique that Karim makes is that the development of separate spheres of communities has the effect of limiting the sense of justice that is needed to fulfill ummah ideals.  While communities that grew from immigrant populations may sympathize with injustices against Muslims in their country of origin or in other parts of the world, Karim uncovers a sense of indifference that immigrants have towards issues of injustice against the African-American community.  African-American Muslims resent the ability of immigrant Muslims to recognize the plight of Muslims half way around the globe yet still remain indifferent to the struggles for justice in their own backyards. This indifference towards their plight and the immigrant perception of African-Americans as "America's despised" from whom they should disassociate is what reinforces anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiments between the two groups.

The anti-black sentiment held by some immigrants flies in the face of the traditional African-American notions of Islam as a means for overcoming racial strife in America.  African-Americans were drawn to Islam for its notions of justice and equality.  However, in some instances Muslims lack the ability to implement these principles. In theory, the ummah ideals that Dr. Karim defines suggest that Muslims should be equipped with knowledge of and direction from the Quran and Sunnah to prevent the issues in broader society from infiltrating the relations between Muslims. These race and class biases form inescapable realities that Muslim women must overcome when moving between and across Muslim communities in different locations.

Although the author does give accounts of African-American Muslim bias towards predominantly immigrant communities, the explanation for these biases is presented primarily as a reaction to discrimination against African-American.  The author does not sufficiently evaluate the development of the anti-immigrant bias.  This is one area where the author's own experience and perspective may have limited a more in-depth critique of the issue.


Muslims are moving toward blurring the gaps between immigrant and native communities. There is a conscious effort underway to do away with the dichotomous relationships that characterize Muslim communities and to a movement towards a more authentic brotherhood/sisterhood

 

According to Karim, gender negotiations in Islamic communities take on several forms.  The often distinct cultural norms between African-American and immigrant communities lead women both to and away from unfamiliar cultural spaces.  Karim provides the example of the degree of gender segregation that is practiced across the communities as a point of negotiation facilitating the movement of women between communities.  With some exceptions, in most African-American communities, gender segregation is not often marked by physical barriers between men and women in the mosque.  However, in most immigrant communities, these physical markers of gender segregation are more frequent. For women accustomed to particular types of gendered spaces, the absence or presence of physical barriers may influence how they negotiate their way in mosques or gatherings outside of that which they are familiar with.  The definition of space created for women in mosques provides a clue to the degree of movement and interaction of women within the Muslim community.  These physical cues that are often demarcated by the race/ethnicity of mosque patrons, creating additional negotiation modes through which they have to move.  While these distinctions may create a level of discomfort amongst each group, Karim demonstrates that the greater idea of Muslim unity is used as a means of overcoming this discomfort.  Though resistance to some gendered norms is made by staying away from unfamiliar gendered space, many women are finding their movements across communities as a means of forming appreciation for the many expressions of Islamic practice.

Despite these issues, Muslims are moving toward blurring the gaps between immigrant and native communities.  There is a conscious effort underway to do away with the dichotomous relationships that characterize Muslim communities and to create a movement towards a more authentic brotherhood/sisterhood. This is being lead in, as Karim terms it, the second-generation space.  Second and third generation Muslims have greater opportunities for interaction than their parent generations.  "Unlike immigrants who forged Muslim identity in a new cultural space, African-American Muslims, connected to or living in disadvantaged African-American communities, forged their Muslim identity in a familiar space."    This new second generation space in American Muslim communities sees the struggles of each community in the context of Islamic justice.  As Muslims are beginning to cross between cultural and geographical locations more frequently, solidarity between communities is building.   The challenges of immigrant Muslims to forge identities as Americans is shifting to the meaning of what it means to be Muslim in America. These interactions build not only a new generational pursuit of Islamic knowledge and principles, but also methods and means of applying these principles in the American context. 

Although the book addresses race, class and gender from a muslimah's perspective, it provides a commentary on the status of the solidarity efforts in the American-Muslim community in general.  As women move across communities to acquire Islamic knowledge, pursue Islamic ideas of sisterhood, search for comfortable gendered space, etc., the thoughts and experiences of individuals break down the notions of difference and lead to improved notions of Islamic pluralism.   American Muslim Women provides a useful context from which American Muslims can begin to evaluate the shortcomings and successes in applying Islam as a facilitator of race, gender, and class justice in America. 

 

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