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Islam and the Black Body: An Investigation of the Role and
Instrumentalization of Islam in Two African American Communities

Adviser: Wallace D. Best

Michelle M. Thompson

Near Eastern Studies

“Even though it can seem scary and intimidating, the thesis is really just an exercise in perseverance and faith in your academic passions.”

thompson-michelle-melissa

“This book should have been written three years ago. … But these truths were a fire in me then. Now I can tell them without being burned.” Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

As clichéd as it seems, the thesis is a three-and-a-half-year process—a process of building, disassembling, and reconfiguring ideas and approaches to your area of interest. My senior thesis was the culmination of my academic curiosities and a more personal reflection on the duality of my existence—being black and Muslim. Like Frantz Fanon, I promptly identified religious expression, agency through transformation, and cultural death and rebirth as fundamental subjects that would shape my Princeton career. However, my rigorous coursework and the guidance of my adviser, the Writing Center, and my second reader allowed me to speak, wield, mold, and craft my passions without getting burned by the complexities and unknowns of my thesis topic.

As a Near Eastern studies (NES) concentrator and African American studies (AAS) certificate student, I grew to recognize and find much interest in the intersection of the two areas of study. Rather than address NES and AAS in separate spaces, I chose to employ my thesis as a mechanism to express the colliding politics, history, and religious performances of the Near East and African American experience. And while the intersection of NES and AAS was quite clear to me, it was, and continues to be, rather ambiguous to others. And this ambiguity provided me the perfect opportunity to explore, discover, and teach.

I was drawn to NES and AAS because of their incorporation of so many disciplines, including anthropology, politics, sociology, language, history, and cultural study. The scope and research method of my thesis reflected and engaged with the breadth of disciplines within my major. Early in the summer before senior year, I knew that I wanted my thesis to investigate African American Muslims. On campus, when I began to seriously research my thesis, I found myself drifting away from the theoretical and wanting more and more to directly to talk to and interact with the people that I was so interested in. After brainstorming with Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies Carolyn Rouse, I decided to undertake an ethnography.

My senior thesis explores the intersection between race and the performance of religion. I began by asking, why are African Americans the largest-growing group of converts to Islam? Do African American Muslims fit into the Near Eastern studies discussion? Are they a significant force in the growing Islamic community? What specific work do African American women accomplish through conversion? Is the Muslim identity compromised or facilitated by blackness? Through interviews with and observations of members of two African American Muslim communities in Newark, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, New York, my paper investigates how these two communities work toward defining and establishing their Islamic identities. Delving into the history of African Americans and appropriations of Islam, my thesis distinguishes the subjects of the study from more visible groups, such as the Nation of Islam, and by doing so, sheds light on the everyday, complex negotiations the members of Masjid at-Taqwa and Masjid ar-Rahma make when balancing being American and Muslim in a black body. I uncovered that the African American Muslims of the study, through reversion to Islam, gain access to an Islamic identity and the larger Islamic tradition. And as these Muslims employ their Islamic identity as their primary identity, and submit to Islam’s claims of ritual and performance on their bodies and souls, they are able to renegotiate racial boundaries and Western notions of womanhood. Lastly, noting the subjects’ striving toward orthodoxy, the paper contends that through the performance and safeguarding of orthodoxy, the subjects bolster and legitimate their membership within the international ummah. And recognizing how the men and women of these communities craft a space for themselves in both the American narrative and the Islamic narrative, my thesis positions African American Muslims as active participants in a globalized encounter between East, Islam, and West.

Throughout the brainstorming and writing process, I was fortunate to have caring and involved advisers. I did not have the typical path to finding an adviser. Actually, it was nearing November and I still did not have an adviser. I found that the professors in my own department, while brilliant in their own right, were not experienced with my topic. And so I ventured out to the religion and anthropology departments. (Do not be afraid to work with your departmental representative to work with professors from other departments.) I had taken a class with Professor of Religion and African American Studies Wallace Best during my junior year and knew he was interested in my topic. Lucky for me, he accepted my proposal. I would never encourage finding an adviser so late in the year; however my anxiety forced me to over-prepare to work with him—making me more focused and more passionate about what I wanted to study. Professor Best, and my extremely helpful second reader, Professor Michael Reynolds in NES, were amazing guides. With each draft, they forced me to delve more deeply and analyze more thoroughly. I owe much of the growth in my writing and academic independence to them. Another resource that was invaluable to writing my thesis was the Writing Center. I met with Dael Norwood, a Writing Center fellow, about every two months and his encouragement, excitement, and critical eye were crucial to my writing process. The Writing Center may not be for everyone, but I would suggest checking in periodically as a way to avoid tunnel vision.

The thought of completing a thesis was, and continues to be, daunting. I am still amazed that I could write so much. After finding an adviser, I found writing my introduction to be the most challenging aspect of writing the thesis. Perhaps due to the personal narrative included in my introduction, I felt that I could not conceive of starting other chapters until I had perfected my introduction. My advisers and Dael definitely helped me to rise above the tunnel vision. My best advice concerning the length of the thesis is to think of the thesis as a collection of essays. Each chapter has its own area of interest and the precision of each chapter strengthens the overall project. So instead of being scared of writing hundreds of pages, focus on individual chapters and making those chapters as clear, crisp, and thorough as possible. And with time, you will see how the pages add up all on their own!

Even though it can seem scary and intimidating, the thesis is really just an exercise in perseverance and faith in your academic passions. The process was far from easy for me, but the goal of people seeing Islam in the African American community as a living, evolving organism was worth it. And your hard work will all be worth it once you have accomplished the goals you have set for yourself.

Islam and the Black Body: An Investigation of the Role and
Instrumentalization of Islam in Two African American Communities

Michelle M. Thompson

Wallace D. Best

Professor of Religion and
African American Studies

“The claims Michelle made, if taken seriously, could alter the discourse on what constitutes ‘black religion’ in America, as well as deepen our understanding of the diversity among American Muslims.”

Michelle Thompson came to my office in the fall of her senior year with a dilemma. A student in the Near Eastern studies department, she had decided upon a thesis topic but due to a variety of factors had no one in her department who could direct it. I had come to know Michelle as a very talented and thoughtful student, having had her in one of my classes the previous year. While I sympathized with her dilemma, however, I was reluctant. Was this yet another case of my taking on more than I could reasonably handle?

It only took our first meeting to convince me that not only would I agree to direct Michelle’s thesis, I would be most happy to do so. The presentation she gave of her proposed thesis on African American Muslims intrigued me. She clearly had given a great deal of thought to it, and as I found out that afternoon, she both wrote and spoke Arabic. Clearly she was prepared to do excellent work, and I was eager to witness the end result. It helped that I was currently teaching a course titled “The Nation of Islam in America.” Michelle’s intellectual interests resonated with my own in a synergistic way.

Michelle’s thesis is an important and sophisticated study. It is based on the questions, “What is Black Islam?” and “Can Islam be black?” She makes the bald claim that Islam as practiced in African American communities is often “typecast as one-dimensional or completely preoccupied with race and race relations.” Indeed, she claims that not all African American Muslims are exponents of “Black Islam,” which has historically used Islamic traditions, practices, and discourse as a means to “foster Black Nationalism.” There are disadvantages to considering all African American Muslims as “black Muslims,” and perhaps the most critical one is the way in which this tends to racialize the religious tradition. “Lumping the wide array of African American Islamic communities into the category of Black Islam,” Michelle argues, “imposes a racialization of the practice and interpretation of Islam.” The assumption here is that Islam is not a “raced” religion and that the emphasis on the racial category of African American practitioners of the faith places them outside “the realm of orthodox Islam.” They are “raced” precisely at a time when they are “striving toward a de-racialization in order to achieve a closer relationship with the international ummah,” the whole community of Islam.

Employing an ethnographic approach to her study, Michelle visited two African American Islamic communities, Masjid ar-Rahma in Newark, New Jersey, and Masjid at-Taqwa in Brooklyn, New York, sites that she describes as “hosts for religious innovation, dialogue, and expression.” She used these African American Islamic sites as spaces that complicate the very notion of Islam and race. It is in these spaces that African American Muslims negotiate on a daily basis, not with race per se, but with “the black body.” The two mosques were the spaces wherein she tested her four-pronged hypothesis: (1) “notions of black identity would complicate the portrayal and performance of Islam due to the historic link between Christianity, blackness and nationhood”; (2) “social entrepreneurship would play a significant role in the subject communities”; (3) “shifts toward conservative interpretations of Islam would not signify a stronger connection with fundamentalist Islam, but a stronger desire for authentication and legitimation”; and (4) “African American Muslims reclaim the body through ritualized acts of devotion.” 

Statements made by the individuals Michelle interviewed at the mosques supported her hypothesis about the place of race in the lives of African American Muslims. There was no “overt talk of race” in the narratives of those who had “reverted” to Islam. They seemingly “redefine what blackness itself is,” being transformed by their faith in Islam and freed from racial stereotypes. Spirituality (ritual) was more important than race while at the same time there was no conflict between being black and being Muslim.

The discussion of the role of ritual is one of the most compelling aspects of the thesis. African American Muslims in the communities Michelle studied expressed Islamic identity through ritual, dress, and signification, and this is the means of their legitimation. “Ritual and performance shape their Islamic experiences and position these communities as legitimate members of the larger ummah,” she wrote. The “inner change” signals their membership in the worldwide community of Islam in a way that their race cannot disrupt or challenge. Islam makes all equal despite race.

The end result is a very fine study, executed with great skill, care, and fortitude. The claims Michelle made, if taken seriously, could alter the discourse on what constitutes “black religion” in America, as well as deepen our understanding of the diversity among American Muslims. When the thesis was completed, I was quite happy I had overcome my reluctance to serve as adviser on the project.