FEBRUARY 13, 2017
“THERE HAS NEVER BEEN an America without Muslims.” That is how Amir Hussain’s book starts. And in those first words, Hussain sets the terms of his account of the Islam–America relationship: Muslim Americans are not to be reduced to outsiders or defined as newcomers. While dominant US political and cultural discourse represents Muslims as immigrants who have just landed — nervously eyeing the host country, surreptitiously unpacking their stuff and their issues, concealing their primordial immigrant loyalties, generally looking shifty and suspect — Hussain emphasizes that Muslims are far more than the foreign cause of the latest security policy. A focus on the present and the recent past is shortsighted — not just because it fails to represent Muslim-American identity, but because it does not do justice to the cultural breadth and vibrancy of the United States. The implicit goal of this book is clearly to combat the otherization of Muslims, their exclusion from the American story and national self-conception. Much of this process of invisibilizing occurs in the cultural and intellectual sphere.
It is with Muhammad Ali, the most famous and the most beloved Muslim in the United States, that Hussain starts his extended contemplation of Muslim Americans. The Muslim-American boxer is both the launch pad and the pivot of Hussain’s argument. Ali destroyed the foundations of the imaginary Islam–America “problem”: that Muslim Americans are new, foreign, and hostile to the United States. An absolute focus on the political implications of Muslim Americans aids their marginalization, and a total reliance on the real or imagined security-related implications of Muslims facilitates the quest to externalize them. But to marginalize and externalize Muslim Americans entails actively erasing Muslims’ cultural, musical, and athletic contributions — aspects of US identity that are frequently privileged as quintessentially American. Hussain recenters America as a cultural reality, citing American cultural luminaries who happen to be Muslim, “to show that the fabric of America is woven, in part, with Muslim thread.”
Hussain disrupts the conversation on Muslim Americans in another way too — by widening the lens. A focus merely on the Muslim immigrant populations of the last 60 years or so erases the bulk of American Muslim history, including slavery and its aftermath. Therefore, instead of accepting the commonly used timelines of 20th-century immigration, Hussain explicitly interrogates the moment we start tracing the history of America and Muslim America. Along with slave narratives such as those of Yarrow Mamout, Job ben Solomon, and Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, Hussain juxtaposes past with present to underscore the Muslim threads in the American tapestry: Congressman Keith Ellison is sworn in on Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an, and an 18th-century slave ship, discovered during the construction of the Ground Zero memorial, bears witness to the violence that lies at the foundations of the nation. He also makes intriguing and unexpected connections such as the fact that the scholar, journalist, diplomat, and American convert to Islam Alexander Russell Webb was known to Mark Twain. Nor is any history of Islam in the United States complete without the Nation of Islam; to describe NOI teachings as “racist” does not do justice to its role within systemic white supremacy, nor does it address the issues of power and privilege that the NOI movement worked to address.
Hussain chronicles the growth of the Muslim community in North America in the context of immigration, higher education, and organization building. He is clearly passionate about American music and lovingly traces Muslim involvement in various musical genres, especially rap and hip-hop. He recounts the work of Ahmet Ertegun, president and co-founder of Atlantic Records and chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who was also great-grandson of a Sufi leader, and who recorded the greats of rhythm and blues and soul. Hussain highlights the heterogeneity of Muslim praxis, demolishing the religious essentialism that posits that only a scrupulously observant Muslim can be a Muslim, demanding that the same rule of “lapsed” or nominal religious identity be employed for Muslims as it is for Jews and Catholics. The lifestyles of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Ahmet Ertegun bear witness to the diversity within the Muslim-American community.
Hussain’s passionate reflection on sports spotlights Muslim Americans’ contributions to the critical politics of race and religion, examining the work and role of such luminaries as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson), Hakeem Olajuwon, and Ibtihaj Muhammad. The religious practice of the brothers Husain and Hamza Abdullah became a matter of public discussion when Husain Abdullah prostrated himself during a game. Moreover, Muhammad Ali’s famous words as conscientious objector to the Vietnam War — “no Viet Cong ever called me Ni**er” — became timeless historic commentary on the relationship between domestic structural racism and the global militaristic adventures of the United States.
Muslims and the Making of America is a highly accessible and readable book, more of a profound and well-crafted popular read than an academic one. This is a book that does not pull you into polemics or theoretical frameworks. It does not demand a serious commitment or a preexisting philosophical approach or attitude toward or about Islam. As he states in an interview at the New Books Network, Hussain crafted the book without the usual “scholarly apparatus” as a deliberate strategy to reach a wider readership than a traditional academic book could. A tenured professor who has published scholarly works, Hussain can afford to write such a book. It is a collection of profiles, portraits, events, and moments that are highlights of the Muslim-American journey. It would serve well for undergraduate college and advanced high school courses. Any person wishing to get a picture, not a comprehensive overview, of Islam’s cultural role in the United States can read this short book. It is not for the well-informed academic who wishes to catch up on the latest scholarship in Islamic Studies. It is not a description of Islam the religion, nor does it concern itself with the role of Islam internationally. Its focus is Muslim America. Yet I would happily recommend this book for most of my non-Muslim colleagues who do not specialize in Religion or American Studies.
It makes sense that a veteran academic in Islamic studies would engage in this genial and warm conversation. Hussain’s prose is personable, gentle, and melodious yet passionately dedicated to a dream of a complexly inclusive United States. The author’s American loyalties — patriotism, one might call it, except the word is tainted by jingoism and militarism — are characterized by affectionate criticality, but nothing that might upset sensitive “patriotic” readers. This is not far-Left discourse. While still offering flashes of necessary faultfinding, it is solidly middle of the road. It is a timely, contemporary exercise in bridge building.