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Friday, July 30, 2010

Muslims in America: A Short History by Edward E. Curtis IV

   A Short, Solid History

Muslims in America is the "first single-author history of Muslims in America from colonial times to the present", which is what the back cover proclaims. I have no reason to doubt that this sad statement is true and for that reason this book is a welcome addition to the shelf of any serious student of American history.

That being said, this book is not perfect. Since it tries to cover the entire spread of American history the first pages are about isolated Muslim individuals that were brought over as slaves, continued to follow their faith and were noted for doing so. It turns out that only a few people fit all those criteria so we end up with extended biographies of these people. This is not bad, per se, but it does make the last half of the book seemed rushed in comparison. The slow, extended style is put aside for a quicker, less detailed style.

That less detailed style in the latter half of the book was frustrating for me. I am not a Muslim but I am fairly well read on the religion. I can speak intelligently on the main teachings of mainstream Islam, but I will not claim to be an expert on the topic. Groups like the Nation of Islam fascinate me precisely because some of their teachings have differed radically from any other teachings in the "mainstream" , especially with the Nation of Islam's heavy emphasis on race and different stories about how each racial group was formed. I would have appreciated more discussion of how Muslims outside of the Nation of Islam view the Nation of Islam and their teachings, and vice-versa. I would have also enjoyed a more robust discussion of the origins of these "non-traditional" Muslim groups - which Muslim traditions did they draw from, which did they modify, etc.?
Edward E. Curtis IV

What the book does well is detail how Muslim slaves came into America (although actual numbers will have to remain guesswork) and tell how some completely maintained their faith while others saved just parts of it. Curtis also examines the multiple waves of Muslim immigration that have come into the United States. It is tempting to think that this is a relatively new phenomenon, but it is not. I was especially fascintated by the Muslim settlers in rural North Dakota. Can you imagine a place you would be less likely to find a mosque than in rural North Dakota in the 1880s?

Of course 9/11 and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq need to be addressed and Curtis covers them well. He includes a fatwa against terrorism on pages 117-8. He also chronicles the challenges of being Muslim in America in a post-9/11 world and some data on Muslim Americans opinions.

I give this book a four star rating, ignoring the preface, which I will comment on below:

For me the entire book was marred by an unfortunate Preface that was intended to show the level of misunderstanding that the greater American public has about Islam. The controversy cited was the installation of footbaths at the new billion dollar Indianapolis International Airport. These baths cost about $2,000 and Curtis comments on those that protested against it. He notes one pastor was against it because it would forward "Islam's desired goal, which is to thrust the entire world under one single Islamic caliphate under sharia law." (p. x) I do not know about this pastor, but I did pay particular attention to these protests because I live near the airport and I live near the Halal markets and coffee houses these taxi drivers frequent on West Washington Street - their cabs are a constant part of the landscape of my neighborhood.

It seemed to me that most of the protesters were upset that the government was paying to install foot baths to facilitate one religion's practices (although it was noted that anyone can use them, will they? What other group engages in ritual footbathing?). Indiana has gone through a whole round of lawsuits to prevent prayers at graduations and to remove 10 Commandment displays on public grounds that were installed at no public expense. To many, it seemed mighty two-faced to have a government entity (the Airport Authority) play favorites by accomodating the wishes of one religion while other branches of government frustrate the wishes of others.

Curtis goes on to make comments about the pastor and how his deep prejudices would impair his ability to see his Muslim friends as people or even really knowing them - an ironic comment. Curtis shows his own prejudices in this snarky comment that is so unlike the rest of the book.

This whole preface left a bad taste in my mouth. It really is a pretty good book, but I had to force myself to look past this unfortunate part of the introduction.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Muslims in America: A Short History (Religion in American Life)

Reviewed on March 12, 2010.

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