- THE CALL OF BILAL: Islam in the African Diaspora by Edward E. Curtis IV
In a relatively short space, Edward E. Curtis IV skillfully and significantly complicates issues of religion, identity, and ethnicity. This is a book of multiple intersections: beliefs, customs, minority/majority relationships, presented across borders and oceans. Some of those discussed identify primarily as members of the African Diaspora, while others identify as members of a Muslim Diaspora, discounting land(s) of origin altogether. His approach does not start from any judgments as to whether particular belief systems represent more or less authentic versions of “real” Islam.
The title refers to the Muslim call to prayer first done at Muhammad’s request by a former slave of Ethiopian ancestry, Bilal ibn Rabah. That Muhammad chose a man of color and a former slave became cornerstones of ethnicity, identity, and belonging to many. Curtis uses the figure of Bilal—revered by some but not all—as a way of referring to Muslims in the African Diaspora. Geographically, the book begins in North Africa, moves to Europe, on to the Indian Ocean, South America, the Caribbean, and finally to the United States, with stops along the way. Curtis compares and contrasts those who identify according to ethnic origin, however ethnicity might be defined, and those identifying according to religious belief, customs, and practices.
Curtis does not shrink from hard truths, noting the role of fellow Muslims in slavery. Paying close attention to issues of gender, he discusses female genital mutilation among Muslims from Sierra Leone in the Washington, D. C. metropolitan area. Some males oppose the practice, while some women promote and practice the ritual (161).
One of the most interesting chapters concerned the United States. Curtis begins by looking at early Muslim slaves, including Job ben Solomon and Abd al-Rahman. In the late 1820s, Abd al-Rahman’s efforts to free his family garnered the support of Thomas Gallaudet, Francis Scott Key, the Tappan brothers and David Walker, who opposed al-Rahman’s support for the American Colonization Society (139–141). [End Page 170] While the offspring of most Islamic African slaves did not perpetuate their religious beliefs in America, Curtis discusses remnants of those who did practice customs as late as the 1920s in Georgia’s Sapelo Island (141 et. Seq.).
Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple, W. D. Fard’s Temple of Islam, and the Moslem missionary work of Satti Majid and Muhammad Sadiq laid the groundwork for the Nation of Islam (NOI). The connecting point between Ali and the NOI consisted of recasting ethnicity from “African,” “Negro,” “black,” or “colored,” to “Asian,” “Asiatic,” or “Moorish” (147–148). The NOI started out with a myth which “posited that sixty-six trillion years ago an explosion separated the moon from the Earth, leaving only the tribe of Shabazz alive.” A mad black scientist, Yacub, ended the reign of this Arabic-speaking people with his creation of an evil white race, who caused the tribe to lose its language, religion and civilization (149). God, in the form of W. D. Fard, appointed Elijah Muhammad to be his messenger, and prepare the righteous for salvation. After the death of Elijah Muhammad, his son, W. D. Muhammad, rejected Yacub’s history and recast the NOI into a version of Sunni Islam. Significantly, he changed the religioethnic identity of NOI followers to Bilalians; the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, became the Bilalian News.
A virtue of Curtis’s multilayered approach concerns how he discusses the relationships between other practitioners of Islam within the same geographic space. Thus, in the United States, as elsewhere, the influx of Islamic immigrants has resulted in new practices and customs. Even within the same Islamic communities, the kinds of practices and their intensity varies. Curtis’s presentation of the multitude of Islams demonstrates the futility and danger of lumping all Muslims together, melting them into a force dedicated to violent jihad. Just as de does not demonize, he refuses to romanticize. The Call of Bilal is not an...