vol. 6, no. 2 (Spring 2003)
ISSN 1094-902X



Letters to the Editor

29 January 2003

I thank Lawrence H. Mamiya for his provocative and thoughtful review essay on my book, Islam in Black America, and I am grateful for the chance to continue the discussion here. In his review, Mamiya raises several important theoretical concerns regarding race and religion, and I would like to address them one at a time. Among his questions is the following: Do interpretations of African-American religion that argue for a socially and historically constructed view of blackness ignore the lived realities of racial discrimination and oppression? Mamiya argues that my own "social constructivist" approach to race fails to acknowledge the impact of racism on the thought of several black Muslim thinkers. And yet I agree completely with Professor Mamiya that the history of African-American Islamic thought must be understood in the context of anti-black racism and the struggle for black liberation (see Islam in Black America, 13, 15). In fact, I am surprised that he criticizes the book for failing to explore the impact of institutionalized racism on the thinkers covered, when I devote so many pages to this topic (see, for example, 23-25, 52-53, 64-68, and 87-88). Many of us who understand race as an historical and social construct, rather than a biological one, do not think it any less "real" or important in the lives of persons of African descent than if it were an a priori category.

Like others, I also see the category of race as unstable. One of my main points in the book is to show how African-American Muslims have disputed the meanings of their own racial identities. I claim that blackness has often been associated as much with religious, ethnic, and political meanings as it has been with "racial" ones. The scholarly challenge is to explain when, where, how, and why black persons and communities have chosen or accepted one particular view of blackness over another. I also attempt to problematize Muslim identity in a similar manner: rather than accepting the well-worn Orientalist notion that Islam is, by its essence, a universalistic creed, I show how Muslims have disputed the meaning of their Muslim-ness from the very beginning of their history. Given this, I respectfully disagree with Professor Mamiya's summary of my book: "Using the paradigm of 'universalism' and 'particularism,'" Mamiya writes, "he explores the various ways in which each of these leaders gave priority either to the particularism of black nationalism or the universalism of the Islamic tradition." In fact, while I do explore the tensions between particularism and universalism in African-American Islamic thought, I never assume that blackness need be "particularistic," nor that Islam is always "universalistic" (see page 12). For Elijah Muhammad, being black and being Muslim were the same thing -- just as some in the classical period of Islam thought that being Arab and being Muslim were one in the same.

Dr. Mamiya also reads my analysis as criticism of Malcolm X and praise for W. D. Mohammed: "According to Curtis," he writes, "only Wallace or Imam Warith Deen Muhammad has properly navigated the tensions between religion and race in his attempt to construct an African American Islam." I can certainly understand how one might get that impression, but this was not my intent. In fact, I am critical in looking at all of these figures, including W. D. Mohammed. What I argued is that Malcolm's essentialist notions of both black and Muslim identity, even after the hajj, constrained his ability to relate his "religion" [Islam] to his "politics" [pan-Africanism], and to develop an Islamic response to black oppression. W. D. Mohammed was able to escape some of the problems posed by essentialist constructions of identity (whether black or Muslim) by arguing that these categories have meaning in specific historical contexts, and further, that those meanings may change depending on the time and place.

Finally, Professor Mamiya poses an important question about the most effective religious and political strategies for social change and black liberation. According to his review, I argue that "the best or most optimal strategy is an Islamic universalism coupled with African American concerns that is found in the views of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad." But this is not exactly my claim. I assert, instead, that Imam Mohammed's intellectual move toward the historical contextualization of Muslim identity can provide an approach that promotes Muslim unity while still advancing a political agenda focused on the needs of African Americans (138-9). Mamiya also makes a larger point about universalistic approaches to social change more generally, noting that "Islamic universalism does not guarantee that all Muslims around the world will come to the aid and support of African American Muslims in their times of crises." In fact, he counters that black Americans have made more progress in American society during times of "black nationalism or heightened racial concerns," including "slave revolts; formation of black churches and denominations; Garvey's movement and the Harlem Renaissance; the civil rights movement and the period of black consciousness…"

This final claim is perhaps his most controversial. Mamiya lumps together "black nationalism" and "heightened racial concerns," although it is not at all clear that the two are coterminous. Moreover, one can easily argue that emancipation and the civil rights movement, surely two great moments of (partial) liberation, utilized the rhetoric of Christian universalism and the natural rights traditions of the Declaration of Independence as much, if not more, than the ideology of black nationalism. Whatever the case, my point in the book was not to argue whether universalism or particularism has been a better vehicle of social change-that depends on the context. Rather, I wanted to analyze when, how, and why African-American Muslim commitments to certain notions of blackness and Muslim-ness have influenced their strategies for social liberation.

Thanks again to Professor Mamiya for his review and to The North Star for the chance to respond.

Edward E. Curtis IV, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill