Author of American Muslim Women, Jamillah Karim, and co-author Dawn-Marie Gibson, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently published Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam.
In a field certainly undervalued and understudied, this research contributes to expanding the perception of Islam in America more broadly and uniquely opens a conversation between Muslim women, themselves, through ethnographic accounts of women’s experiences in the Nation of Islam and women of the Sunni Warith Deen Mohammed community from the 1930s-present. The book also seeks to respond to a feminist narrative that has characterized women’s experiences within the Nation of Islam as largely unfavorable due to the upholding of traditional gender norms.
Karim and Gibson argue that “While this expression of Islam [Nation of Islam], which includes an honoring of traditional gender roles and prescribed female dress and decorum, is not always in harmony with popular notions of women’s advancement in American society, it certainly speaks and appeals to the continuing concerns about race, family, and community among many African American women.”
The book unfolds in a traditional manner–outlining the history of the Nation of Islam, with particular attention to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. However, unlike other critical works, we are given access to women’s participation, thoughts, and opinions during key moments of community transition such as the death of Elijah Muhammad, the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, and the present state of the WD community and NOI within the larger ummah (Muslim community).
Needless to say, the book covers a breadth of information and host a collection of insightful vignettes; however sometimes it can feel like you’re just reading a collection–which isn’t a bad thing but it reads as less of a critical analysis. Now there are certain points where Karim and Gibson deliver this and it’s great.
Take the way women from the WD community identify “freedom” as demarcated from Nation women as told by Karim and Gibson.
It is not surprising that Sunni women measure contemporary Nation women’s freedom in terms of access to religious knowledge. As we saw earlier, the ultimate form of liberation that Sunni women experienced in the transition was not women’s rights but the Sunni understanding of God and the freedom to study their religion for themselves. Upon asking Lynice Muhammad to imagine a conversation with a Nation woman, she says, “The main thing I would encourage her to do is research for herself and not just listen to what your minister is saying. Imam Mohammed always taught us, ‘Don’t just take my word for it; you go back and study the Qur’an, and you go back and study what others have written about Islam.’”
Of course NOI women would take offense to Lynice’s presumption, and as Karim and Gibson cover in a chapter on NOI women, they have access to spaces where Sunni women may not. Because the NOI has maintained the title of “minister,” women and men can occupy this position. With that said, what I found most interesting on this theme is Imam Mohammed’s gender ideology which is explored through lectures, interviews, and personal commentary. One particular interview highlights the equation of women’s freedom to education. In 1979 he did an interview with Clifton Marsh where he spoke regarding Islam’s position on women:
He highlights in the interview: “The rights of women to equal education were protected by Islam during the days of prophet Muhammad.”
And poses the question thereafter,
If women are given freedom to excel in academic pursuits, how can we tell them to stay home? What is all this education for? You can’t keep [women] at home to nurse babies.
The ways in which women have articulated this freedom whether it be in pursuit of secular or religious education– and, in many cases, both–is fascinating. There are women who became nurses to better serve their community, directors of schools for Islamic education, and more recently women that are pushing the boundaries of religious leadership and officiating weddings.
While I always appreciate deeper work on women and African American Muslim communities, I’m always disappointed that it is more often than not exclusive of African American Muslim youth. What is the narrative of the youth that are products of this earlier generation? How are they connecting with this history (if they are) and how does it influence their thoughts on Islam, Muslim identity, and participation in the “ummah”, if at all? I say that knowing that this is not the aim of this particular book but something I would have liked to see.