- Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam
Tafsir, religious interpretation, the organizing principle utilized by African American Sunni Muslim converts to reconcile and negotiate social conditions supported by class, gender, and race hierarchies, constitutes the focal point of Carolyn Moxley Rouse's important text, Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam. In this book, Rouse aims to "try to understand how African American female converts make sense of the theology and how their tafsir [interpretations] informs their religious practice" (xiv). As African American Sunni Muslim women attempt to reconcile the macrostructure of the US capitalism, historic patterns of race relations, and marginality, Rouse contends that "the act of interpreting Islam is one of the most significant aspects of the praxis of faith" (57). Focusing on two masjids/mosques in southern California, Engaged Surrender provides a detailed ethnography on the performance/practice of Islamic faith among African American Sunni Muslim women. How these particular women perform their faith in the context of daily life serves to illuminate that, indeed, the praxis of Islamic faith comprises a fluid, ongoing interrogation of ayats (verses) and suras (chapters) of the Qur'an to open a space for informed debate, dialogue, and a dialectic of engagement among members of the African American Sunni community.
Three foci in Engaged Surrender enhance discourse on African American, particularly women's, participation in Islam. First, Rouse appropriately contextualizes conversion as an epiphany or awakening in response to social conditions and reveals that, for her informants, "conversion was almost always tied to political [End Page 528] consciousness, the desire for social change through resistance, and individual empowerment" (17). This contextualization provides a backdrop for the unique historical experiences of African Americans who shaped worship communities to address collective and individual autonomy as much as political movements to remedy disenfranchisement. As such, the performance of religious ideologies among African Americans comprises sites of personal and communal politicization and transformation.
In explicating that African American women are not merely sacrificial pawns in an alleged religious patriarchy that effectively subjugates women in Islam and, thereby, relegates them to powerlessness, Rouse interrogates the complexities and necessity of performing Islamic faith in daily life. She notes that "The theology that gives rise to these performances, however, is extremely complex, at times contradictory, and always subject to interpretation" (16). Hence, tafsir plays an integral part in providing insights as to whether African American Sunni Muslim women have willingly chosen, as many outsiders claim, to subject themselves to patriarchal control.
Rouse highlights and challenges this mainstream assumption in the following assertion: "The problem is that scholars take these statements at face value and argue that the increasing number of converts to Islam reflects a resurgence of male patriarchy and homophobia, which threatens the potential of black women to liberate themselves and their communities" (16). However, it is in the fluid, ongoing performance of Islam, practicing in the spirit of the faith, often determined individually, that patriarchal practices are confronted and challenged so that gendered space is negotiated: "The problem with accepting the rhetoric of Muslim leaders (generally men, my emphasis) as fact, is that discourse is not always congruous with deeply held social dispositions and practices. The rhetoric of patriarchy, for example, may be deployed not to make women submissive, but to instill in men a sense of responsibility" (16). Yet, because popular attitudes and assumptions attest that patriarchy is alive and well in the performance of Islam, then academics would do well to heed Rouse's insight that "as scholars we need to ask (my emphasis) Muslim women if patriarchy is relevant in their daily lives" (16).
Rouse continues to note that "While popular ideas, such as patriarchy, have material force, ideas by themselves have much less power than cultural practice" (16). Sunni Muslim African American women demonstrate that African American cultural history reveals a legacy of vocality among its women. In the text Rouse references Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1977) and notes that "official" gender ideology is often separate from "practical...