- American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah
Jamillah Karim's new book, American Muslim Women, is an insightful, well-written examination of the space where religion and race intersect in America. Implementing adept ethnographic skills to conduct interviews in two cities across the tangible ethnic boundaries between South Asian and African American Muslims, Karim provides insight into the complexities and tensions within the Muslim ummah, or community. Through the diverse voices of the women she interviews, Karim constructs a compelling analysis of religion, class, racial identity, and gender in America.
Karim writes for a broad audience, stating her quest to provide non-Muslim readers with a complex investigation of American Muslim women's lives. At times the author speaks directly to the South Asian and African American Muslim communities, and offers recommendations to each group in an effort to achieve Muslim unity. The author's style is academic, lucid, eloquent, and accessible to non-academic readers. The chapters are well organized, with summaries of useful theoretical [End Page 137] frameworks followed by the stories derived from Karim's vividly described ethnographic interviews. Karim tells her own story to allow the reader to understand the lens through which she is analyzing her subject, and this serves to give the book a novel-like quality.
Karim conducted her research between 2001 and 2002 in Chicago and Atlanta, cities she selected because of their substantial African American and South Asian Muslim populations and her access to the broad ummah networks in each city. She categorizes her 90 interview subjects on the basis of their relationship to Islam and America. In lieu of quantitative research, she relies on earlier studies to contextualize her findings. She also participated in Muslim community activities and visited mosques and community centers in both cities.
Karim begins by focusing on the negative stereotypes facing African Americans, and the ways in which South Asians have adopted those stereotypes in the process of their Americanization. She summarizes and applies race theory and theories of identity construction to describe the ways in which factions of the Muslim community have absorbed and contended with American racial distinctions.
Karim goes on to investigate the Chicago ummah, focusing on the racial and ethnic divisions that are manifest in the segregation of mosques, community space, and the physical location of the African American and South Asian Muslim populations. She conveys her perception that the ideal ummah, in which Muslims live in harmony to promote goodwill and peace, is far from the reality. Despite organizations that seek to transcend race boundaries, Karim contends, the internalization of racial difference abounds and creates strong lines—both physical and metaphorical—in Chicago. Using selected narratives, the author further contends that travel and movement between the two communities serve to challenge and subvert conventional ethnic stereotypes, in that individuals are able to acquire education, form new relationships, and gain access to various notions of justice. The author also explores the question of how the "American" identity shapes the boundaries between the South Asian and the African American communities, particularly in a tension-filled post–9/11 context.
In Atlanta, the author examines the mosque as a "gendered space" and as a lens through which the ethnic divisions in the city can be understood. The diversity of the ways in which mosques are gendered [End Page 138] (including the debate over a partition and dress code) serves as a strong differential factor between South Asian and African American Muslims. The search for gender equality, or the re-imagining of traditional gendered thinking, has become a common ground for women across the community groups.
The objective of Karim's ethnographic inquiry is to locate the intersection between racial and religious identities. She poses such questions as, Can the ummah serve to overcome racial division? How does one conceptualize individual and communal identity in the context of an America wrought with racial, class, and gender tensions? Karim has tremendous success in her analysis of these questions. Her...