Islam+Modernity: A Class Blog

Hello, again, readers!

This is the class blog of Islam and Modernity. The course has now been offered twice, so here you’ll find posts from REL195A in Fall 2015 as well as REL196A in Spring 2018.  The posts represent the semester-long research projects of two excellent classes with fairly similar syllabi.

In both iterations, our course took as its premise that both “Islam” and “modernity” are not fixed categories with fixed definitions, but rather, terms in flux, defined operationally by a myriad actors (scholars, activists, imperial and colonial agents, journalists, practitioners, clergy, & etc.). Our goals included examining how “Islam” and “modernity” were defined in opposition to, alongside, and co-constitutively of each other in historically and geographically rooted cases.

As part of a scaffolded research project, students were asked to develop a question and topic, bibliography, and final project in the context of one of these historical and geographic locations, using sources we’d read in class as well as those they’d found through individual research. Additionally, each student was to find an image that either drove their blog post or complimented it. We were all served by the amazing Patricia Mardeusz (UVM Librarian/one of the best people on campus) who met with students and crafted a research guide for us.

I hope you’ll read through! Posts address theoretical concepts like power, privilege, race, secularism, and identity as well as studies of literature, veiling, post-colonial nation-state boundaries, law, and fashion, among other topics. I’m pleased with our conversations, the research results students achieved, and their willingness to distill that research into blog-sized morsels.

It is important to note (as I did here) that this blog is maintained by me; posts have been edited in conjunction with student peer revisions and professor revisions. Views are those of their authors, and not my own, the Department of Religion’s, or the University’s.

Contact me with questions:

Happy reading!
Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

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The Palestinian Struggle for Independence and the So-Called “Muslim World”

*Submitted anonymously with permission of instructor.

From the early days of political Zionist intentions to establish a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Palestine, there was widespread support from Muslim majority nation-states in regards to Palestinian independence and retention of their land. Nevertheless, as over 100 years has passed since the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, Muslim majority nation-states’ support of the Palestinians has largely waned due to a change in the balance of power and territory. This post will analyze this transition in terms of the initial framing of the Palestinian struggle for independence as a central cause of the imagined Muslim world, towards the current world order in which most of the Muslim-majority nation-states which previously backed the Palestinian cause (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), have moved away from active support of the Palestinians—and in contrast, have actually signed peace agreements with Israel. In understanding the discussion that follows, it is important to recognize the distinction between references to a so-called “Muslim world” which is intended to represent the interests of Muslims worldwide, and the decisions of specific Muslim-majority nation state’s governments.

To understand the current world order, one must first look back at the early days of the Palestinian struggle and where the major Muslim majority nation-states stood on the issue at the time. Following the Ottoman defeat in World War 1, and the subsequent allocation of Muslim-majority lands to Western allied nations under the mandate system, there was a significant rise in pan-Islamic mobilization (Aydin, 101). This reaction generated a widespread unity among Muslims of a variety of geopolitical regions as they could mobilize, “in the name of saving and empowering the Muslim world” (Aydin, 101). This perceived unity was crucial to fomenting the Palestinian struggle as a central cause of the imagined Muslim world because it not only contained the third holiest site for Muslims (Haram al-Sharif), but it also served as a global symbol of resistance to the imperialism and colonialism which Muslim communities worldwide were facing. With the release of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, there was an affirmation of Western imperialism directed towards Palestine, and a feeling among Muslim-majority communities that the Palestinian struggle was symbolic of the greater struggle of Muslim and non-aligned communities against colonialism and imperialism (Aydin, 137).

Following World War 1, the advancement of the Palestinian cause as a centerpiece of the imagined Muslim world was propelled by the actions of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Husseini saw the threat of Western imperialism and Zionism to the future of an Arab state in Palestine, and thus, he worked to make Jerusalem a pan-Islamic hub in order to highlight the importance of the Palestinian struggle for the imagined Muslim world (Aydin, 156-157). Al-Husseini worked to unite broad Muslim public opinion behind the plight of the Palestinians, which proved quite successful during the interwar period; however, the events of World War 2 and the following Arab-Israeli Wars dramatically shifted the focus and importance of the Palestinian cause to the imagined Muslim world.

The so-called Muslim world made significant efforts to defend the Palestinian people and the future of a Palestinian state in terms of the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1948 and 1967. However, following the immense humiliation for the Arab nation-states due to the significant loss of territory, including Jerusalem in the 1967 War, there was a significant transition in Muslim-majority nation-state political support for the Palestinians (Aydin, 173). Prior to 1967, Arab nation-state support for the Palestinians was not centered so much around the idea of a Palestinian state, but instead, was focused on Palestine as “the heart of a bigger Arab nation” (Telhami).

Following the 1967 War there were some attempts by Muslim majority nation-states to “take-back” the Palestinian cause, such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia positioning himself as the spokesperson of the imagined Muslim world, and in doing so placing a particular emphasis on the Palestinian struggle (Aydin, 177). Nevertheless, he was assassinated in 1975 and the reclamation of the Palestinian cause by Muslim majority nation-states seemed lost (Aydin, 177). Compounding this loss of Saudi support for the Palestinians, three years after King Faisal’s assassination, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel largely due to a perceived need to retrieve the Sinai Peninsula which had been lost during the 1967 war (Telhami). Thus, following the 1967 War the Palestinian cause had lost two of its significant allies in terms of Muslim-majority nation states—Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Meanwhile, several other Muslim-majority nation states, notably Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, were pursuing modernizing and westernizing reforms and were subsequently sympathetic to the US cause—which was closely tied to the Israeli cause (Aydin, 187).

Another significant factor which played into the isolation of the Palestinian cause from the framing of the Muslim world’s cause following the War of 1967, were the events of the Khartoum conference. At this conference, the “hardline” factions including several Palestinian groups, the Syrians, and the Algerians, were largely excluded from the discussion (Tessler, 409). Instead, the “mainstream” representatives, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan lead the events. In turn, the conference produced what appeared to many outsiders as a radical stance (I.e. the famous “three no’s”), but in reality, the “mainstream” leaders pushed for political rather than military action due to their difficult losses in the ‘67 War (Tessler 410-411).

Furthermore, a reflection of the geopolitical motivations which caused Egypt and Jordan to sign their peace agreements with Israel in 1978 and 1984 respectively, can be seen in the contemporary relationship and negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel (Wehrey, 85). Due to the perceived danger of Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a shared concern which has found them on a path toward rapprochement—particularly in regards to the Saudi Arabian 2002 peace initiative (Wehrey, 86-88). The role of Hamas in uniting Israeli and Saudi Arabian foreign policy is largely centered around a shared fear that Hamas will demonstrate support for, and be supported by countries such as Iran, and groups such as Hezbollah—which both remain enemies of the Saudi and Israeli governments. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been influenced in its increasingly open policies towards Israel due to the Saudi government’s strong ties to the United States and its need to come out strongly against any “terrorist” organizations targeted by the United States following the 9/11 attacks—demonstrated most prominently by their policies towards Hamas in recent years.

While much of the discourse surrounding Palestinian independence has centered around international influence and actions, this discourse misses the Palestinian mentality surrounding their struggle. As evidenced by the image above and based on my personal experience in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there is a recurring theme of isolation felt by many Palestinians not only in the sense that their freedom of movement and freedom of information is intensely restricted by the Israeli government, but also in that they feel little international support for their liberation from Occupation. This feeling of isolation and singularity which is depicted in the image of a single Palestinian reaching to mount the Palestinian flag, is a shared experience among Palestinians, particularly in reference to the support of Muslim majority nation-states. While Palestinians initially received widespread economic and military support from Muslim majority nation-states beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, this support has largely waned in subsequent decades. This isolation, and to a certain extent betrayal, runs deep in the Palestinian psyche as nowadays there is widespread acceptance of international support when and if it comes; but, there are no misguided beliefs that the Palestinians will be led to liberation. Now, there is an established rhetoric that the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, will be the ones to achieve liberation and recognition for their people. Thus, despite 70 years of political uncertainty for the Palestinian people, today, this statue stands as a symbol of the resilience and persistence of the Palestinian people in achieving their liberation.


Aydin, Cemil. “The Battle of Geopolitical Illusions (1814-1878).” Chap. 4 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Aydin, Cemil. “Muslim Politics of the Interwar Period (1924-1945).” Chap. 5 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Aydin, Cemil. “Resurrecting Muslim Internationalism (1945-1988).” Chap. 6 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Image: Photo by author. “Someday.” 7/20/17. Yasser Arafat Square, Ramallah, Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Telhami, Shibley. Brookings Institute. “The dual effects of the 1967 War on Palestinians reverberate 50 years later.” May 31, 2017. 

Tessler, Mark. “Postwar Diplomacy and the Palestine Resistance Movement.” Chap. 7 in A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Wehrey, Frederic et al. “Contention on the Periphery: Saudi-Iranian Relations and the Conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine.” In Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy, 77-92. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2009.


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Meaning-Making in the Mosh Pit: Claiming Muslim and Punk Identities in an Alt-Right Era

When the far right is trying to criminalize your very being,
it’s nice to 
have a scene that’s all about being yourself.
—Basim Usmani qtd. in Abber 2015

Taqwacore band The Kominas burst onto the American punk scene in 2004, their apparently novel mash-up of Islam and punk attracting mainstream attention as journalists balked at the supposedly irreconcilable identities they represented. Inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s fictionalized invention of “taqwacore”—a portmanteau of “taqwa” meaning “God-consciousness” and “hardcore”—the genre combined two seemingly oppositional forces: punk and Islam (Fiscella 2012). As one reviewer noted, “it’s never pretty when a major world religion tries to get into bed with a rebel culture, and even more so when they’re as polarized as Islam and punk” (Bhattacharya 2016). But, to imagine the Kominas as the origin point of Muslim punk is to erase the historic evolution of the genre. Further, it’s to imagine a Muslim World in which Islam is a cohesive, singular whole, or a world in which “punk” stands alone, shorn of its many-splendored prefixes, eliding the fantastic sonic and social dissonance contained therein.

While mainstream news outlets remark that for the Kominas and other self-identified Muslim punk bands, the amalgamation of these identities sure is a neat way “to push buttons,” the oppositional identity represented here is neither singular nor spiteful—the stakes are too high, the caricatures too grotesque. What is it about this punk—not crust-punk or Spanish Raw punk or timepunk or gypsy punk or death punk or anarcho-punk or even cowpunk in all its psychobilly, honkytonk glory—that attracts the attention of journalists, coyly alliterative headline at the ready (see above)? Further, what does this punk, beyond taqwacore and the novelty of life imitating art, offer? How can what it produces, both musically and beyond, problematize the ways in which Muslims are othered by a society that flouts nuance, opting instead to characterize Muslims as simply “good” or “bad” while conveniently allowing itself the authority to make that distinction?

At a time when the phrase “Muslim ban” holds actual political weight and, as a 2016 Pew Research poll shows, “almost half of the U.S. population believes that ‘some’ Muslims are actually ‘anti-American,’” the stakes for being (or being perceived as) Muslim in the U.S. are high (McDowell 2017, 63). Further, the “racialized lens” through which “Muslims and those… perceive[d] to be Muslim” are viewed has not just ideological, but violent consequences (2017, 63). This “collapsing of diverse populations into one recognizable whole,” combined with “empowered white supremacy,” in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election has enabled elevated levels of hate crimes against Muslims, including an instance in which a five-year-old child was allegedly physically assaulted by his teacher and taunted by his classmates as a “bad Muslim boy” (Morgenstein Fuerst 2016). The roots of the constructed “nature” of Muslims are evident in W.W. Hunter’s nineteenth-century racializing narrative which collapsed Indian Muslim identities into a singular, essentialist entity ([1871] 1876). The apparent persistence of Muslim essentialization today echoing Hunter’s question of whether Indian Muslim colonial subjects were inherently “anti-British.”

It’s important to recognize this racialization for what it is: an invention of history, empire, and white supremacy. Like the cartographic god trick of seeing everywhere from nowhere, British imperialism afforded itself the opportunity of evaluating every culture from an apparent non-culture. As Cemil Aydin’s (2017) examination of the Idea of the Muslim World shows, the conception of the thing itself is a historic, strategic, political invention—not a “natural” entity whose supremacy somehow unites all Muslims. Aydin lays bare the histories of racialization from which contemporary conceptions of Muslim homogeneity emerge as “colonial rulers’ views of Muslims subjects of a single civilization and race solidified,” an identity strategically “embraced” by “Muslim subjects… for political purposes of their own” (2017, 65).

While colonial racist projects seem outmoded, more contemporary rationalizations of Muslim unity play out like nightmarish pastiches of their nineteenth century predecessors. Political scientist Samuel Huntington’s (in)famous argument—from 1996—that Turkey, as a “Muslim” country, was fundamentally “incompatible with Westernization and modernization” demonstrates this presumed “unitary civilizational identity” (qtd. in Göl 2009, 798). However, such a portrayal is “historically and geopolitically misleading,” there is no “natural” tension or “clash” inherent in what is “Muslim” or what is “modern,” in the multiplicity of ways those constructions may be understood (Göl 2009, 798). This illusion of incompatibility requires a narrow lens—a presumed tension at the nexus of “Islamic and “secular”—or “Muslim” and “punk”—identities. What’s missing here is context. Its omission enables the “naturalness” of these sentiments, which—fomented by overtly anti-Muslim political rhetoric—have resulted in a “soaring” of “anti-Muslim assaults” and “bias incidents” (McDowell 2017, 63).

While the emergence of taqwacore and the Kominas drew attention to the apparent novelty of this unification of Muslim and punk, the combination isn’t new. As Texan punk outfit Fearless Iranians From Hell exclaim on their 1986 track “Blow Up the Embassy,” Muslim punk doesn’t owe an explanation or apology to befuddled outsiders, plainly exclaiming that “it’s none of your fucking business/what I live and die for!” Further, any meaningful examination of the genre must ask: which Islam; which punk? As Hisham D. Aidi recounts in his book, Rebel Music: Race Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (2014), Islamic attitudes toward music differ contextually depending on the “Islam” at hand—deployed alternatively as conservative political tool or brash, anti-establishment protest. Similarly, though “punk is… regarded primarily as a music-based culture… its spectrum is broader and includes style, printed word, cinema, and events” encompassing “significant variations between different regions and time periods” (Fiscella 2012, 569). The sheer breadth of available identities manifested in each respective construction of “Islam” and “punk” result in a bricolage of ideologies and behaviors whose “boundaries are continually contested” (Fiscella 2012, 569).

Photograph: Badawi 2007

Embodying this bricolage is the Kominas’ bass player, Basim Usmani, pictured above playing a show at a Chicago venue in 2007 during the filming of the documentary, Taqwacore. Though not fully visible in this image, Usmani’s t-shirt reads “Frisk Me, I’m Muslim”—a confrontational play on the tired “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” slogan. The juxtaposition of identities here is no accident. While the whitening of the Irish in America has resulted in their ethnic roots being deemed innocuous to the point of commercialization, American Muslims like Usmani are subject to the homogenizing narratives of racialization and profiling to which his t-shirt alludes. In a context where “terrorism” indexes a racialized religious identity, Usmani’s shirt, emblazoned with the star and crescent of the Turkish flag (formerly a symbol of the Ottoman Empire) is a self-aware statement about that problematic narrative. Usmani wants the viewer to know he’s Muslim before he can be profiled. Usmani is also punk. Seen here mid-lyric, bass in hand, hair spiked, shorn, and dyed, Usmani is leveraging the oppositional identity punk can offer via his own image. Both these identities bear their own historical weights—neither narrative is neat, and both have been subjected to the warp and wear of
becoming transnational.

Discussing sartorial politics, Aydin writes about the twin symbolic meanings of the fez in the nineteenth century—as a symbol of “enemy Islam” for Europeans and as marker of “cosmopolitan modernity” for Muslim reformers (2017, 39). Similarly, the tools Usmani and other Muslims involved in punk subcultures use to express oppositional identity read differently depending on their audience. This disunity is part of the point—there is no cohesive message in the scrappy riffs of every Muslim-identified punk band and there is no one reaction to Usmani’s presentation of self. What does a Muslim punk look like? Maybe like Usmani, but also, importantly, maybe not. While this image directly indexes characteristic elements of punk, it also subverts them and reimagines what a punk can look like or what a Muslim can look like. While both of these identities have been conditioned to manifest in certain ways and in certain kinds of people, this image challenges those notions about what “Muslims” are; what punk is; what resistance can look like.

By refusing easy categorization through defying and problematizing identities rendered simplistic in “secular” media, the Kominas and other self-identified Muslim punk projects challenge the supposedly “natural” opposition of their chosen identities. If it’s not “pretty” it’s because it’s not supposed to be. As the Kominas wryly assert on their 2017 single, it’s “no fun” being persecuted—“being hunted for sport.” As Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in America are targeted, Muslim punk responses to the physical and psychological violence of profiling “confront head-on the White (and Christian) gaze that criminalizes and dehumanizes Brown bodies through” various forms of media including, but not limited to, music which celebrates and mocks their enforced alterity (2017, 63). Far from a unified “resistance,” this disunity and its scope of representation is a poignant expression of the capacity to undermine, subvert, and appropriate oppressive forces in dynamic, nuanced, and inclusive ways which offer constructive, hopeful modes of undermining persistent homogenizing narratives and the racially-motivated violence
they enable.

If a child can be demonized as a “bad Muslim,” the perverse logic that “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about” is truly nullified—the game is rigged. In this context, where mass judgement is undergirded by powerful political rhetoric and historic racialization, Muslim punk bands like The Kominas offer—or demand—a problematizing of that singular narrative, interweaving complex, presumptively contradictory identities into a cohesive, flawed, human whole.


Abber, Caitlin. 2015. “This Band Explains Why Identifying Muslim Punks is a Reminder of Where They Stand in America.” MTV News, January 29, 2015.

Aidi, Hisham D. 2014. “9,000 Miles… of Sufi Rock.” In Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, 70-85. New York: Pantheon Books.

Aydin, Cemil. 2017. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Badawi, Kim. 2007. “The Taqwa Tour 2007 in Chicago.” Eye Steel Film.

Bhattacharya, Sanjiv. 2011. “How Islamic punk went from fiction to reality.” The Guardian, August 4, 2011.

Fiscella, Anthony T. 2012. “From Muslim Punks to Taqwacore: An Incomplete History of Punk Islam.” Contemporary Islam 6 (3): 255-81.

Göl, Ayla. 2009. “The Identity of Turkey: Muslim and Secular,” Third World Quarterly 30 (4): 795-810.

Hunter, W.W. 1876. Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? 3rd ed. London: Trübner and Company. First published 1871.

McDowell, Amy. 2017. “Muslim Punk in an Alt-Right Era.” Contexts 16 (3): 63-5.

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R. 2016. “Tracking Hate: Islam and Race After the Presidential Election.” Religion and Politics, December 6, 2016.

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The Creation of Minder as a Form of Social Bricolage

Because of the lack of inclusivity, I have decided to focus on Muslims in North America and how they are seeking potential marital partners through dating apps that have been created by Muslims specifically for the Muslim community.  One app that I will highlight in this blog post is an app called Minder.  Minder was co-founded by Haroon Moktarzhada as a response to the lack of inclusivity Muslims in North America felt about pre-existing dating apps.  It is inspired by the app Tinder, but caters specifically toward Muslims seeking other Muslims for marriage.  Throughout my research on Minder and the use of dating apps by Muslims in North America, I have made connections to our course discussions as well as a couple interesting discoveries.  For instance, I found that the use of Muslim-centered dating apps in the West is predominantly driven by Muslim women.  I would not have originally thought that Muslim women in the West utilized these apps more often than men to find a potential spouse.  In addition, I found that many Muslim institutions that exist in North America support the use of online dating and act as intermediaries in finding spouses for Muslims that are members of the community.  As I expand on both points addressed above, I hope to bring this blog post full circle and further understand how Muslims in North America have engaged with online dating and how they have incorporated it into their culture and religion in a way that prioritizes their values.  I view the creation of Minder and the use of online dating among Muslim communities in North America as a form social bricolage that allows Muslims to embrace their cultural and religious beliefs through a lens of modernity.

Increased number of Muslim women utilizing dating apps

Muslim women living in North America are engaging in online dating platforms more frequently than Muslim men.  For instance, “we included an interaction term between gender and living in the West. The results show that the odds of women living in the West using the Internet both for arranging dates and for online dating platforms increases by 360% and 560% relative to men” (Afary 2017: 437).  These numbers are extremely polarizing compared to the number of women in Muslim majority countries who use social media with the intention of dating living.  This is because of some of the cultural restrictions that are imposed upon women who are living in Muslim majority countries.  Moreover, “not only is there a double standard which makes women more vulnerable to sanctions for immodesty in their home countries and women are less likely to have private access to the Internet, making dating online much more dangerous for them” (Afary 2017: 437).  Muslim women who are living in a western country like North America are able to navigate new spaces (cyber and pubic) that are less restrictive than those very spaces in some Muslim majority countries.  This allows women to freely participate in online dating platforms like Minder, which can connect them with Muslim men who exist beyond the limits of their local social network.

Online dating via apps like Minder in North America has significantly aided in encouraging gender equality and has given Muslim women a sense of autonomy to meet Muslim men on their own terms.  Minder is “like Tinder, users can swipe right if they like the look of someone and can start talking if they’re a match. Unlike Tinder, both apps allow users to filter results according to race, ethnicity, and level of religiosity” (Hamid 2015).  Minder was developed by Muslims with specific emphasis on the importance of cultural and religious values.  The app has also taken the perspective of Muslim women and their experiences into consideration.  Furthermore, Haroon Moktarzhada states that, “In America, the expectation of what a marriage is, is very different than in more traditional, conservative societies.  One of the things we tried to do with the app is be unapologetically progressive” (Majumdar 2016).  This has attracted many Muslims users who tend to be more open-minded to non-conventional ways of meeting and dating a potential spouse.  Not only does online forums such as Minder enhance one’s chance at meeting like-minded individuals, Minder matches individuals who may be the most compatible for each other.  Online dating via Minder can “combine both Islamic marriage culture and modern aspirations of individual freedom and personal choices. It gives users, especially women, who make up the overwhelming percentage of participants, the ability and opportunity to express their personal issues, concerns, ambitions and feelings” (Lo and Aziz 2009: 17).  The focus of Muslim women’s needs and the number of Muslim women using online forums such has Minder are not mutually exclusive.  Since there was an initial emphasis placed on Muslim women’s experiences, there has been an increase in the use of dating apps by Muslim women.

Since I have unpacked this point, I can dispel my initial assumptions as to why I surprised that more Muslim women were using Minder to seek marriage partners.  I now realize why there are more Muslim women than men who are using these apps.  The combination of the mobility Muslim women experience in North America and the consideration of Muslim women’s perceptions in the creation of these apps, it is clear that the trend would reveal that more women are participating in online dating via Minder.

Muslims institutions engaging in online forums as intermediaries

Prior to online dating forums, many Muslims in North America found it challenging to find a spouse through traditional facilitation methods.  These traditional methods, however, were often inaccessible or ineffective for Muslims living in North America.  As a result, many “American Muslims found spouses through diverse methods, often developing new social networks” (Lo and Aziz 2009: 6).  One crucial method was the use of intermediaries to find spouses.  These intermediaries often were a local imam who was connected to other Muslim communities outside of their own.

Certain Muslim institutions such as community mosques, Islamic centers, schools and local imams act as intermediators when a Muslim man or woman undergoes the search for a marital partner.  For example, “there are many local Muslim communities in which members send emails to an email moderator, who confidentially matches the sender with another mate-seeker from an existing pool” (Lo and Aziz 2009: 9-10).  Muslims who are seeking a marriage partner often seek guidance from their local mosque or imam because they have found it difficult to meet potential partners through family and friends.  In addition, Muslim community mosques and imams are utilizing online forums to help connect Muslim men and women who are looking for a marriage partner.  This has further facilitated the shift from tradition methods of finding a spouse to a more moderate and progressive method of matchmaking.  Because these new methods are being implemented, it further encourages Muslim men and women to seek out other avenues like Minder.

Minder as a form of Social Bricolage

The idea for this topic has continuously progressed the further I read into the phenomenon of online dating in North American Muslim communities and how Minder has revolutionized the traditional ways in which Muslims meet, date and marry.  In another course, I stumbled upon the concept of ‘bricolage,’ which is the idea that “equally, all symbolic innovations are bricolages, concoctions of symbols already freighted with significance by a meaningful environment” (Comaroff 1999: 197).  The concept of bricolage just clicked and I realized that the creation of Minder within the Muslim community is, in fact, a form of social bricolage.

Muslims living in North America did not feel that mainstream forms of online dating encompassed their traditional values and as a result, many felt excluded from participating in online dating forums.  However, some Muslims began to realize that many traditional methods of finding a spouse were either absent in their community or ineffective.  It was extremely difficult for Muslims to meet other Muslims with marriage in mind.  Dating apps like Minder began to launch within Muslim communities.  The creation of Minder itself is a bricolage because it is inspired by pre-existing ideas (Tinder and Bumble) and has transformed from its original form and manipulated into something new to serve another purpose.  So, in short, the creators of Minder have taken their own spin on dating apps to serve their own cultural and religious communities.

I think Minder is unlike other online forums that are geared toward other communities (Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, etc.) because it has completely revolutionized how Muslim individuals meet, date, and marry in North America.  Not only are Muslims incorporating online dating praxis into their communities, but are normalizing it among both Muslim men and women alike.  Minder and the use of online dating among Muslim communities in North America is a form social bricolage that allows Muslims to embrace their cultural and religious beliefs through a lens of modernity.  This lens of modernity is understood through Muslim communities that value their cultural traditions and religious praxis, but also engage in contemporary forums that can enhance and further engage Muslim communities across North America.







Class sources:

Ernst, Carl W. “Approaching Islam in Terms of Religion.” Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam In the Contemporary World. The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Majeed, Javed. “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Ed. Richard C. Martin. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 456-458. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Wilson, John F. “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6108-6112. Gale Virtual Reference Library.


External sources:

“The place for awesome Muslims to meet. Swipe. Match. Marry.” Minder online. Last modified February 22, 2015.

Hamid, Triska. “Two ‘Islamic Tinder’ Apps Are Being Launched for Britain’s Independent Female Muslims.” Vice online. Last modified March 25, 2015.

Majumdar, Shahirah. “What It Means to Date Online When You’re Muslim.” The Cut. April 28, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2018.

“Bricolage.” Wikipedia. March 09, 2018. Accessed March 27, 2018.


External scholarly sources:

Comaroff, Jean. “Chapter 7: Ritual as Historical Practice Mediation in the Neocolonial Context.” In Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance The Culture and History of a South African People, 194-251. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Lo, Mbaye, and Taimoor Aziz. “Muslim Marriage Goes Online: The Use of Internet

Matchmaking by American Muslims.” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 21, no. 3 (2009): 1-21. doi:10.3138/jrpc.21.3.005.

Sotoudeh, Ramina, Roger Friedland, and Janet Afary. “Digital Romance: The Sources of Online Love in the Muslim World.” Media, Culture & Society 39, no. 3 (2017): 429-39. doi:10.1177/0163443717691226.



Haefeli, William. “I went on a date with him. He looks better on paper.” Digital image. Punch cartoons. 1991. Accessed February 15, 2018.–&GI_ID.

Screenshot of the dating app called Minder. Digital image. Global Dating Insights. 2016.Accessed March 05, 2018.



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Essentialization and Erasure in the Occupation of Palestine

Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, with the increasing spread of colonialism and the fall of the Ottoman empire, imperial world powers have essentialized the practitioners of the religion of Islam to be constitutive of a unified race. As with all processes of racialization, this involved not just a colonization of land with Muslims on it, but an accompanying erasure of the personhood of Muslims. I would like to make the overly-ambitious-for-a-short-blog-post argument that this process of racialization and essentialization has played a constitutive role in the occupation of Palestine.

Critical theorist Tomoko Masuzawa, historian Cemil Aydin, and postcolonial thinker Edward Said make clear that the presentation of Islam as a problem, an impediment to the expansion of British global empire, led to the racialization and essentialization of Muslims. The advent of European modernity can be said to have been brought on by the colonial encounter with the so-called “Mohammedan” (a colonial misnomer and pejorative term used to refer to Muslims) who had, up until the fifteenth century, held dominion over lands which the Europeans now wanted to claim for their own (Masuzawa, 180-182). In this project of Western expansion, the Near East was seen as simultaneously an Orientalized “land of desire” and also an impediment to attaining the objects of said desire (Masuzawa, 183). In other words, the Muslim rulers had spices and other resources that the Europeans wanted, temporarily giving these Muslim rulers political and economic sway, only to have this abruptly taken away by colonial expansion and domination granting Europeans control over said resources (Masuzawa, 183-184). The point I would like to draw out below is that in the contemporary postcolonial moment, the ramifications of the European domination and control over Middle Eastern resources still plays out in Palestine through the control of not just Palestine’s physical goods, but Palestinians’ identities.

Picking up this historical narrative in the nineteenth century, Aydin undoes our understanding of a given, unified, global ummah while simultaneously demonstrating how the idea of such a unity came to be. Aydin points out that the conflict between “Islam” and “the West” was not always clear cut. As the Imperial world order deteriorated, it led to the categorization of Muslims as a race. As Aydin makes clear, power functions through control of narrative. After the Ottomans lost in World War I, the British took over Muslim societies in Palestine and Iraq and thus had the power to decide that a person’s Muslimness was the most important thing about them (Aydin, 101). This essentialization allowed for the imaginary of the “Muslim world” to be seen as a unitary thing to be displaced by an equally imaginary “Jewish world” through the British Empire’s endorsement of Zionism with the Balfour Declaration (Aydin, 120). Since then, Muslims have occasionally turned around and made use of their perceived unity for pan-Islamic solidarity, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s support for the Palestinian revolt in 1936 (Aydin, 151). The very existence of Muslim holy sites in Jewish controlled Jerusalem made the question of Palestine an inherently religious issue. In the context of mid-twentieth century postcolonialism, questions of Palestinian liberation became key issues for the Muslim world (Aydin, 156).

The displacement of Palestinians through the aforementioned essentializations, racializations, and other various tools of colonialism creates a unique situation wherein what it means to be Palestinian must be reclaimed, or recreated anew. Read in tandem with Aydin and Said, religion scholar David Chidester’s discussion of the concept of indigeneity brings to light important nuances of the Palestinian situation,

“First, indigeneity represents a range of analytical strategies based on the recovery of place, the authenticity of tradition, and the assertion of self-determination in a project to forge postcolonial meaning and power on indigenous terms. Privileging the self-representation of indigenous people who have passed through the experience of colonization, indigeneity generates analytical terms for recovering the purity of local traditions from the defiling effects of global imperialism … ‘Colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content,’ Fanon observed. ‘By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it’ (Fanon, 1963, p. 170)” (Chidester, 1858).

Here the ideas of Chidester and the philosopher Frantz Fanon can help us to understand the Palestinian situation as far as Palestinian history has been distorted in such a way as to erase the presence of Palestinian people. Israeli colonizers displace local Palestinians and occupy the land of Palestine as if there were no people there before.

The concept of indigeneity outlined above can also be applied to Aydin’s historical analyses of uses of “the idea of the Muslim world” by Muslims themselves for unifying purposes, as well as his discussions of Pan-Islamism, regionalism, and nationalism used as realpolitik for asserting the inevitability of empires, and not necessarily having to do with religion. The Palestinian/Israeli problem is not simply one of religion, but of empire, colonialism, and race. Said’s chapter “Towards Palestinian Self-Determination” is also relevant here as far as he discusses Palestinians’ reclamation of what it means to be Palestinian and Muslim post-colonization. Said argues that this reclamation must happen in the present for the Palestinian as whatever “indigenous past” they had has been erased by the violence of colonization.

“The Palestinian must make the present since the present is not an imaginative luxury but a literal, existential necessity. A scene barely accommodates him and becomes a provocation: The paradox of contemporaneity for the Palestinian is very sharp indeed. If the present cannot be ‘given’ simply (that is, if time will not allow him either to differentiate clearly between his past and his present or to correct them because the 1948 disaster [the Balfour Declaration], unmentioned except as an episode hidden within episodes, prevents continuity), it is intelligible only as an achievement.” (Said, 153)

Through the historical processes drawn out by Masuzawa, Said, Chidester, and Aydin, it becomes clear how the Palestinian, and the colonized subject in general, is essentialized, placed in a box, and erased. Displaced not only from their land, but from their very identity as far it is defined and co-opted by the colonizer, the Palestinian is physically and psychologically displaced. Israel seeks to further expand and occupy Palestine through a simultaneous dehumanization of the Palestinian and therefore a disconnection between the Palestinian and the very land they stand on. In order for Israel to conceptualize Palestine as something which can be occupied, the Palestinians must be deemed inhuman and treated as such. It is not enough that their very existence is negated, but their connection to the space and time they inhabit must be dismantled. As queer theorist Jasbir Puar and philosopher Reza Negarestani make clear, it is through the drive towards supposedly beneficial aspects of capitalism (expansion of Israeli territory, exploitation of Palestinian workers under the guise of “economic rehabilitation”) as well as through constant digital occupation of air and land (texts sent to Palestinians’ phones — routed through Israeli telecommunications companies — alerting them of incoming airstrikes, drone surveillance used for three-dimensional mapping of Palestinian territory) that the dehumanization of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land is made possible (Puar, 15; Negarestani, 183-184).

The minority consciousness of the Zionists leads to a simultaneous generalization of what it means to be a part of the new Jewish nation in Palestine, and a harsh separation between who can and can’t be a part of this new nation (Said, 147). As far as generalization, the “Come to Palestine” poster above was strategically designed so as to appeal not only to Jews of the Diaspora, but to Christians as well through its depiction of the Sea of Galilee, a hotspot for Jesus and his apostles. This scene is a romanticized Orientalist depiction of what the Holy Land has to offer; lush fields with almond trees and date palms framed by arabesque arches emblazoned with a verse from the Song of Songs welcoming in the new spring that has come after “the winter is past.” The representation of as many idyllic landmarks as possible crammed into one frame is reminiscent of a postcard. This is meant to attract tourists and spread the message that this is a place which deserves to be visited, as if there were not currently people already settled there that may be detrimentally affected by this influx of new settlers.

Colonization was seen as valiant exploration, all to further advance human (read European) knowledge as the Europeans were the race which had achieved the maturity to do such exploration, backed up by their enlightenment philosophies and ideals (Said, 77). There was one proper way to use and think about land and if those currently on that land weren’t occupying it “correctly” or up to European standards, they might as well have not been there at all as far as the Europeans were concerned (Said, 74-75).

In her defense of the right to criticize Israel, philosopher Judith Butler argues that “No political ethics can start from the assumption that Jews monopolise the position of victim. ‘Victim’ is a quickly transposable term: it can shift from minute to minute, from the Jew killed by suicide bombers on a bus to the Palestinian child killed by Israeli gunfire.” Just as any essentialization of a race or religion has dangerous consequences, the essentialization of Jews as “victims” and Muslims as “terrorists” distorts the reality of the postcolonial situation of Palestine, and the larger structural systems of power at play which deny the Palestinian recognition at all, let alone as a victim.





Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Blumenthal, Max. “International community promises to rebuild Gaza … with sweat shops to exploit Palestinian workers” Alternet. 16 October 2014. viewed 1 March, 2015.

Butler, Judith. “The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and the Risks of Public Critique” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London, UK: Verso, 2004.

Chidester, David. “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. Gale Virtual Reference Library. 1853-1860.

Esmeir, Samera. “Colonial experiments in Gaza” Jadaliyya. 14 July, 2014. (originally published in 2012). viewed 1 February, 2015. <<>>

Google Arts & Culture. 1929. “Raban, Ze’ev. Come to Palestine Poster for the Society for the Promotion of Travel in the Holy Land” Lithograph Poster. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem © The Doron Family, Jerusalem. Accessed February 20, 2018. <<>>

Masuzawa, Tomoko. “Islam, a Semitic Religion.” in The Invention of World Religions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 179-206.

Puar, Jasbir. “The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine.” borderlands. 14, 1. (2015). 1-27.

Said, Edward. The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage Books, 1979 [1992].

Said, Hashem & Zahriyeh, Ehab. “Gaza’s kids affected psychologically, physically by lifetime of violence” Al Jazeera. 31 July 2014. viewed 1 February, 2015.

Tawil-Souri, Helga. “Digital occupation: Gaza’s high-tech enclosure” Journal of Palestine Studies. 2012. vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 27-43.

Taylor, Adam. “Israel hopes phone calls to Palestinians will save lives. It ends up looking Orwellian” Washington Post. 17 July 2014. viewed 29 March 2018.

Negarestani, Reza. “Drafting the Inhuman: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy.” in L. Bryant, N. Srnicek & G. Harman (eds). The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism., (Melbourne 2011). pp. 183-184.


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Long Read: Colonialism, Modernity, Racialization, and African American Muslims

When I first began my research for this blog, I wanted to investigate how it is that black Muslim identity has and continues to inform Islam in America today.  Drawing from David Chidster, D.V. Kumar, and Tomoko Masuzawa’s works on the effects of colonialism, the implications of modernity, and the racialization of Islam, as well as my own assumptions about how I thought I could thoroughly address and answer this question appeared, at an oblivious first glance, doable and linear.  I learned quickly, however, that this was not the case.  In the slightest.

I hadn’t gotten far in my research when I realized that I had entered into a literary world where little had been published and what had been posed more questions and avenues of thought rather than answers.  What became increasingly clear to me was that the scholarly framework in place to explore the relationship between being black and being Muslim in America today was basically absent. This lack of scholarly work also implied the erasure of black Muslim experiences from the broader conversation regarding Islam in America today. The lived experiences of those who are black and Muslim and adequate analysis and research pertaining to their narratives had fallen through the cracks of America’s social, political, and religious paradigms. Why was this?

Frustrated, I continued to read. African American and immigrant relations, conversion to Islam as a protest to white supremacy, and the racialization of Muslims at large were some topics that had briefly touched on this question, although not completely.  It was at this point in my research that I had unknowingly begun to uncover a larger and arguably more pertinent reality: namely, that the evaluation on what it means to be black and Muslim in America is largely incomplete.

I took this opportunity to think about the ways in which the narrative and discussion regarding Islam in American could be more inclusive of African American Muslims. My hope was to interrogate various resources, historical and contemporary, in order to formulate a way of thinking that would be inclusive of the black Muslim population in America today.  The research thus far has produced models of what it means to be black in America and what it means to be Muslim in America but there has been little to no recognition of their intersectional experience.  I had assumed that I would come upon a space made for discussions and analyses about the lived experiences of these people with concise data lying next to it, and I was embarrassed and angered at my blind assumption and the overall absence of conversation.  There is writing out there, however, that could be instrumental to push us in the right direction of developing our understanding of the complex narratives and experiences that function beneath being both black and Muslim.  With this in mind, there are various sources that may be helpful in merging common notions of what it means to be black and what it means to be Muslim to show that the two are not mutually exclusive.

In order to begin the conversation regarding what it means to be black and Muslim in America, it is important to first talk about colonialism and the heaviest shape it took in America: slavery. The mass enslavement of Africans in the early 1500s as a part of North American colonial expansion is imperative to understanding the construction of black identities. The capturing of Africans, some of whom were Muslim as Islam was (and continues to be) one of Africa’s most dominant religions, thus facilitated the introduction of Islam to “The New World”.   At the time, European colonizers were armed with a theological requirement of inviting those to convert freely to Christianity.  This, however, was not an option and was violently imposed on Native Americans as well as those who were enslaved.  It is important to note here that freedom to publicly practice non-Christian religions was nonexistent at this point. This, however, does not mean that African Muslims of the time ceased to practice.  What is known about black Muslims in regards to Islamic practice in America at this point is miniscule, however, the simultaneous construction of identity for what it means to be black in America was underway while Islam remained covert.

Intertwined with this conversation on the effects colonialism and slavery lies the subject of modernity. At this point in American history, development was accompanied by the praise of Christianity through which the vehicle of modernity made a relentless entry into every aspect off society.  As mentioned above, this meant rejecting other forms of religious practice and ways of life, specifically among Native Americans and enslaved Africans, which colonizers characterized as being “backwards.” The conceptualization of modernity as being born alongside colonialism as its descriptive counterpart is relevant to the implications of being Muslim in America. The word “modernity” signifies, most often, what we as Westerners would consider to be “good.”  “Modernity,” in turn, has many implications and can be employed in various ways.  What is not “modern” in character is simultaneously deemed as an “outdated” obstacle (Kumar, 241).  This characterization illustrates the historically negative view of Islam held by the West. Because of this, Islam in America has gone from being largely unseen, to tacitly approved, to being employed as a mechanism for social change for some, to demonized and threatening at large.  This has led (many white) Americans to abandon social paradigms for seeing the diversity of Islamic practice as many people do not envision it as being socially, politically, and religiously “progressive.” The relevancy of modernity here in furthering our understanding of what it means to be black and Muslim in America is that the “better-than-before” comparativeness implied by modernity simultaneously constructs opposing identities for people who are not deemed to be as such (Kumar, 242).  Since America is the emblem of “modernity” as a result of colonialism, how have these bedfellows effected the construction of identities of being both black and Muslim?

The enduring effects of colonialism and America’s obsession becoming all things “modern” has had an enduring effect on the formation of people’s identity, especially those who are both racially and religiously marginalized.  So too has the process of racialization, an extension of both colonialism and modernity, in the way that it ascribes ethnic or racial identities to groups and practices to which they don’t belong in order to make easier the categorization of peoples.  Colonialism, “modernity,” and racialization all illustrate how those in power have the ability to choose, rename, and reclaim unfamiliar ideas and people in terms of their familiar. In trying to explore what it means to be black and Muslim in America, one must take into account the intersectional identities that operate beneath these repressive processes (Khabeer, 79). Although America preaches diversity and inclusivity, there has yet to be a space for the legitimization of those who are black or African American and Muslim at the same time.

Taking into account these historically complex and lasting processes of power and imposition offers a helpful starting point from which a more in depth study of what it means to be black and Muslim and American can prosper.  With this in mind, we must also acknowledge instances throughout American time and space where we can and have seen black Muslim Identity operate. Although I am admittedly limited in my resources and knowledge, I hope I am able to convey a way of thought and space that allows the identities of black Muslims to be at the forefront. We can even start by engaging with and asking questions about a figure many of us may be familiar with: Malcolm X.

Malcolm X, distinguished leader of the Nation of Islam as well as one of the many faces of the Civil Right Movement, was a prominent black Muslim figure during one of the most pivotal periods in American history. X captures one way in which being African American and Muslim has been expressed and popularly seen within and throughout the American context, as an instrument of social justice and a protest to white supremacy. Although Malcolm X does not and should not represent the lived experiences of all African American Muslims, his mere appearance may challenge common notions about what being black and Muslim in America can look like.

Although there is still more to do be done in gathering and evaluating this group of people and their many narratives existing within the American landscape, there are various areas where black Muslim identity has and continues to challenge common (mostly white) notions of being both black and Muslim.  These places show that these two identities, contrary to popular belief, do not exist as separate from one another, however, they are confronted with a distinct experience. It is here that I hope to offer some ways of thinking about where we can see this intersectional identity operating, in hopes of broadening the analysis and resisting social constructs that have informed this country since its conception.

Looking at African American and immigration relations regarding Muslim identity politics is in and of itself a huge avenue in regards to thinking about black Muslim identity.  Asking questions about and evaluating the effects of race, class, and residence is applicable to understanding the lived experiences of any person and is therefore necessary to consider (Karim, 27).  The issue of assimilation and isolation are two components in this discourse due to the fact that African American Muslims struggle with not being authoritative enough to non-Muslims nor representative enough to be thought off as Muslim in American popular vision (Karim, 42). These tensions exist where South Asian and Arab Muslims obtain a certain privilege by being “authentic” Muslims where as black Muslims are ignored and delegitimized because of long lasting historical prejudice embedded in the American framework.  Here we can ask questions such as how do the competing notions of Islam influence what “American” Islam discourses look like and how have these tensions informed space and a sense of belonging?

Another and equally important avenue to which exploration of this topic is needed is at the junction of Islam and forms of performance and expression such as Hip Hop. A hugely important and contemporary way of expression that pervades all aspects of American society, specifically the African American community, Hip Hop is a crucial site where African Americans draw upon their blackness to construct their identity of being Muslim. Hip Hop, a historically important location for the illustration of the struggle of being black in America faces the “erasure of Africa from the archive [as a] critical deletion that enables the categorization of Black music as un-Islamic” (Khabeer, 97).  Hip Hop then has the ability to become another location where questions regarding protest, assimilation, and isolation in regards to black Muslim identity can be posed (Khabeer, 36). Similarly, faith as a form of rebellion could also contribute greatly in pushing forward yet another category of thought that confronts deeply engrained social paradigms within the American context.

Gender must also be included in the quest for a better understanding of what it means to be black and Muslim in America. The intersection of gender to race and class vary not only depending on location and context, but have informed popular understanding of what it means to be a “model citizen,” specifically throughout the United States.  African American females as well as non-binary Muslims are forced into the need to navigate race, class, and gender within a context that deems South Asian and Arab Muslims as the “model minority” (Khabeer, 92).  Here, America’s exclusive nature should once again be interrogated by asking questions about the specific discomfort and prejudice that manifests when considering the intersectional experiences specifically of those who are female and black.  What does this experience look like when Islam is added and is of equal importance? In a place like America where Islamophobia is at its highest levels, anti-blackness is pervasive, and sexism is the norm, a look into the various narratives of those who are female, black, and Muslim is necessary.

There is a lot to be said about what it means to be both black and Muslim in America. A multiplicity of narratives and experiences are alive and living every day. The absence of standard conversation as well as scholarly analysis is indicative of the problematic way in which many (mostly white) Americans tend to categorize people with unfamiliar identities in terms of what is familiar to them.  If you are not recognized, then you don’t have access nor space to esteem who you are, if you’re not legitimized because of who you are, you are not invited to the table of legitimate “diversity” that although has been preached by America since day one, has and continues to be perverted. I hope that by offering some historical analyses shedding light onto various ways in which we can see black Muslim identity functioning throughout America today that the conversation about how and why Islam is racialized can continue.  There are stories that need to be told, voices to be heard, and normative ways of thinking that need to be confronted.



Chidester, David, “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1853-1860. Gale Virtual Reference Library

 Curtis, Edward E. Muslims in America: a Short History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

 Feddes, David. “Islam Among African American Prisoners.” Sociology: SAGE Journals , vol. 36, 1 Oct. 2008, pp. 505–521.

 Karim, Jamillah Ashira. American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah. New York University Press, 2009.

 Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in America. New York University Press, 2016

 Kumar, D.V., “Engaging with Modernity: Need for a Critical Negotiation,” Sociological   Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 2 (May-August 2008), pp. 240-254

Masuzawa, Tomoko. “Islam, a Semitic religion,” ch. 6 in The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2005), 179-206

Wheeler, Kayla. “It’s ‘Been’ Cool to Cover: Why Ayana Ife Matters.” Sapelo Square, 21 Nov. 2017.

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Towards Light and Hands: Visual Grammars of Shirin Neshat and Saba Taj

In Memoir as Iranian Exile Cultural Production, cultural anthropologist Amy Malek writes that the cultural production of exile makes possible new codes, inscriptions, and identities that can uniquely exist outside of hegemonic powers (Malek 356). Uniquely too is the transformative space visual artists occupy, as producers and products of mediascapes. Malek writes that exiles are deterritorialized. This is to say that these inscriptions do not belong to them and yet these powers and structures that marginalize them can at the same time be the sites through which such ideas can be challenged. 

Two visual artists who are creating these new meanings through visual grammars are Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat and Muslim American Saba Taj. I define visual grammar most simply as the way artists are able to communicate without words. The discourse of political, social, and historical events act as texts that can be read upon image, and artists are able to dismantle and assemble new texts by questioning its relationship with image.

In the photo series Women of Allah Neshat writes literal text onto the bodies of her subjects. She simultaneously reconfigures the orientalist gaze through Persian writers while mediating upon the political constructions of Muslim women. In the mixed media series An-Noor Taj uses portraiture to place Muslim American women outside of the everyday contexts through which they are seen.

Neshat and Taj are located in different exiles, different mediums, and are invested in different projects. Despite this, both create visual grammars that not only help us evaluate and analyze media representations of Muslim women globally, but they also answer the age old question, who is the Muslim Woman?

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist. Born in 1957 in a small town near Tehran, Neshat was college educated in the United States and travels between New York and Iran. In the image entitled “Unveiling” from the larger 1993-4 black and white photograph series Women of Allah, a woman directly faces the viewer, wearing a veil that reveals her neck and chest. The skin visible is covered in calligraphy. In other photographs in this series, some women hold rifles and guns.

Much of Neshat’s work explores the orientalist lens through which the West renders Muslim women voiceless and vulnerable. In this series, Neshat’s visual grammar is communicated through the work of Tahereh Saffarzadeh and Forough Farokhzad, two Persian poets born in the 1930s. While Saffarzadeh is interested in martyrdom and femininity, Farokhzad speaks on sexual desire. However, both poets center women, desire, and love through social critiques and both of their works were banned during the Iranian Revolution.

Neshat’s use of these poets is complex given the relationship between power and discourse discussed in Representations of Post-Revolutionary Iran by Iranian-American Memoirists. Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian postcolonial academic, and Ghasemi Zeinab Tari, a professor of American Studies at the University of Tehran, write that public perception in Iran is shaped by text and narrative not wholly historical. Further that the same powers that make certain cultures for Malek is the same that limits access to discourse and thereby shapes the public mind (Marandi & Tari, 150).

While Neshat’s work documents, she is neither memoirist or ethnographer. However, her incorporation of two artists creates a sort of feminist genealogy and thereby provides an alternative grammar to make coherent Muslim women.

To better understand the implications of this reversal I turn to Chadors, Feminists, Terror by Professor of Gender Studies at Rutgers Sylvia Chan-Malik. Chan-Malik makes the connection between United States media representation of the 2009 Green Movement, protests against the corruption and reelection of President Ahmadinejad, and the protests by women following the Iranian Revolution. Chan-Malik illustrates how intersecting structures such as second wave feminism, secularism, and nationalism created the image of what she calls the figure “Poor Muslim Woman,” what I call more specter than figure given the simultaneous erasure and hollow visibility, that haunts and informs post-9/11 United States.

I lean on Chan-Malik’s idea of racial-orientalist discourse as one that I believe Neshat is speaking against, and yet I want to imagine Neshat’s visual grammar as one that seeks to do more than place a gun in the hands of the Poor Muslim Woman. In an interview Neshat says: “In Islam, a woman’s body has been historically a type of battleground for various kinds rhetoric and political ideology.”

This is certainly true when some might reduce the bodies of Muslim women into field guides. However, to loan Neshat’s own metaphor, the merging of body and poetry assembles a visual grammar as a guide as well, to take up arms against Chan-Malik’s racial orientalist discourse. Perhaps to do this messy work of deconstruction is indeed in the hands of Muslim women and the women that have come before them. Or more simply in Saffarzadeh’s own words, “O, you martyr/hold my hands/with your hands.”

Decades after Neshat’s series, in North Carolina Saba Taj, a Queer Muslim artist, is interviewed by the Huffington Post. She is asked whether the current political climate has changed the work that is expected from her by galleries and buyers. She writes:

“Some people want Islamic patterns and calligraphy from me. And others—hijabs and high heels, or women in burqas making out— the kind of shock value that capitalizes on stereotypical representation and seems “feminist” or “progressive” but is still rooted in racism.”

It is clear in the 2013 series An-Noor that Taj is concerned with this expectation and meets it with subversion. For this project, Taj accepted submissions of photographs by American Muslim women, and uses the background of the portraits as a space to locate them abstractly.

In the mixed media image on canvas “Rebel” shows a hijabi woman wearing a shirt with the title of the image. Against her is background of red, gold, and brown, made up of lines and swirls, creating stars and crescents.

In another portrait entitled “Maesta” a woman and her three children stand, gold halos around their heads. Against her is a background consisting of the American flag: blue beneath yellow stars, red and white stripes, and swirls everywhere.

In my favorite, “Lioness” a woman sits on a pillar made of bricks, and holds a book and sun flower while closing her eyes to the bright yellow sun above her.

Her mediation on light, and the use of sun and brightness in her work is a deliberate choice by Taj. The title An-Noor translates as the Light, coming from the 24th chapter of the Quran. This chapter most notably contains the verse of light, interpreted literally and mystically by Sufis, poets, and philosophers. Light upon light, Taj’s women are soaked and wondered by it, divine and loving.

What is so unique about the grammar Taj engages with is how she places women in a kind of religiosity without making them seem to be from the past or from a distant land. These women wear t-shirts and jeans. Some wear hijab and some do not. All vary in skin color.

Taj is not interested in direct or singular readings of her work just as she is not interested in a direct or singular geographic origin of Muslim women. Instead, her inspiration is multidirectional due to the diverse participation of Muslim American women. This inclusion is similar to the way Neshat uses poetry to create a feminist genealogy. It is also similar to the way there is not an attempt at memoir or ethnography.

Yet, it is important to consider the unique geographic location that Taj occupies that alters this genealogy. She ends the Huffington interview with this final thought:

“I hold a strong awareness of how and what I created could potentially be used against Muslims, to push Islamaphobic narratives (of homophobia, of patriarchy), but that if I try to make my art invincible to misinterpretation— it will lose its quality.”

Taj is specifically constructing a grammar of kinship and sisterhood that positions the identity of Muslim American women as one of hybridity. She does not attempt to reconcile religion and nation, or reiterate American-ness despite Muslim-ness. This is especially important given how the discourse of war on terror and more recently the Muslim Ban  seek to rigidly divide these two identities.

And so I end this by asking most simply what grammar can we use to read Muslim women out of the spaces in which they have been captured. Out of prisons and detention centers. Out of the arsenal of white women, politicians, and national rhetoric.

In her biography, Taj mentions that she is interested in diaspora, inherited trauma, and apocalypse. If Malek is correct, that exiles have become deterritorialized, stuck within in between spaces and untethered to land,  I wonder to what extent we can consider art as a means towards this apocalypse. Towards the mass destruction of nonconsensual and damage based representations. Towards desire instead. Towards Taj’s light and Neshat’s hands. 


CHAN-MALIK, SYLVIA. “Chadors, Feminists, Terror: The Racial Politics of U.S. Media Representations of the 1979 Iranian Women’s Movement.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 637 (2011): 112-40.

Marandi, Seyed Mohammd, and Tari, Ghasemi Zeinab. Representations of Post-Revolutionary Iran by Iranian-American Memoirists: Patterns of Access to the Media and Communicative Events. Reorient 2, 2017.

Malek, Amy. “Memoir as Iranian Exile Cultural Production: A Case Study of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” Series.” Iranian Studies39, no. 3 (2006): 353-80.



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Cultural Competence or Ignorance? Meeting the Needs of Female Muslim Patients

Discrimination in Healthcare

From “Melting Pot” to “Make America Great Again”, modernity in the U.S. has historically been marked by homogenization. Anything, or rather anyone outside of a paradigm of privilege has faced the utmost discrimination, as evidenced by rising counts of Islamophobia across the nation in recent years.

Alongside racism, Islamophobia has become institutionalized in every facet of our society. Our healthcare industry is not immune despite efforts to integrate cultural competence into each level of care. American Muslim female patients bear the brunt of this problem as anti-Muslim racism is gendered through the intersection of marginalized identities. In healthcare settings they are prone to everything from offensive verbal remarks, discrimination based on clothing to physical assault (Hassouneh 2017, 402).

Implicit bias cuts deeper, as even those advocating on behalf of marginalized populations perpetuate harmful stereotypes. In the photo below taken by AP photographer Carlos Osorio, the original caption reads “Although language often is a key barrier for Middle Eastern women, health care providers need to understand the dynamics of the Arab-American family, modesty issues and practices within the Islamic religion”. While the intent of this photo was to promote culturally sensitive practices by healthcare providers, the conflation of different identities “Middle Eastern”, “Arab-American”, and “The Islamic Religion” (an incorrect phrase within itself) is highly problematic.

When Islamophobic stereotypes like these are carried into the creation of broad cultural guides such as this one by the New York Times on hijab, so-called “competence” is lost entirely. Therefore, large-scale cultural competence programs aimed at female Muslim patients in the U.S. perpetuate Islamophobia/racism through the harmful homogenization of their diverse identities.

Complexities of Identity

Despite the multifaceted nature of identity, the racialization of religion is not a new phenomenon. Lumping each of these aspects under one marginalized category is reminiscent of policies in the U.S. such as the one-drop rule that still persist in societal stereotypes today. This is highlighted in an interview with Dr. Jamillah Karim who details the struggles of being Black, Muslim and female in the U.S. today. Not only are African American Muslim women subject to racism from affluent white-washed immigrant Muslims, but also sexism within African American mosque communities as well (Karim, 2016).

This highlights a crucial point in the problem of racializing Muslims, as there is prolific racism within the ummah itself. Coupled with discrimination faced by women especially, putting Muslim patients into a distinct cultural box is inconceivable. This isn’t unique to Muslims, rather it is felt by many minorities around the world. Culture associated with everything from one’s ethnicity to one’s religion is a fluid and evolving phenomenon. A static definition or attempt at generalization simply does not work.

Izumi Sakamoto speaks to this in a personal anecdote when she is shocked to see her Grandfather display emotion at a Buddhist funeral, despite her idea of solemnity within her culture. This demonstrates a transcendence of norms pertaining to religious and cultural identity, making light of individual humanity. She demonstrates the key point that an individual cannot be the public spokesperson for one’s culture, and therefore in order to practice cultural competence best cultural norms should not serve as definitions (Sakamoto, 2007, 105-108). This further stresses the care that must be taken in cultural translation for vulnerable populations.                  

The Use of Cultural Competence: Harmful or Helpful?

The phrase “Cultural Competence” has become a gold-standard of sorts in the U.S. healthcare  and medical education system. But as medical anthropologists such as Dr. Arthur Kleinman have argued, its popularization “suggests culture can be reduced to a technical skill for which clinicians can be trained to develop expertise…This problem stems from how culture is defined in medicine…culture is often made synonymous with ethnicity, nationality, and language” (Kleinman et al 2006, 1673).

This synonymy is what leads to problematic guides such as Maya Hammoud et al.’s “Opening Cultural Doors: Providing Culturally Sensitive Healthcare to Arab American and American Muslim Patients”. The title alone points to serious problems, as Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are being falsely presented as “similar” enough to warrant the same guidelines. Arab-Americans can be Christians, Jews, Atheists, etc. and American Muslims are largely African American and South Asian. Statements like “some Muslims do not make eye contact with the opposite sex” or “Arab and Muslim women tend to get offended when asked about sexually transmitted diseases because that would imply a deviation from monogamy”  being characterized as “cultural norms” only sustain negative stereotypes about female Muslim patients that contribute to health disparities they face (Hammoud et al., 2005, 1309-1310).

American Muslims hold a wide variety of beliefs that speak more to their own individual needs than broad “cultural norms” used for definitional purposes in a medical setting. Dr. Hammoud is pictured below holding a handbook for Middle Eastern female patients written in Arabic. While she clearly holds good intentions, this level of homogenization is still problematic. An Iranian women who speaks Persian and  a Turkish woman who speaks Turkish would not find an Arabic healthcare handbook a useful as a Saudi Arabian women perhaps, however they could all be lumped under the category of “Middle Eastern women”.

 Cultural competence in healthcare becomes beneficial once it steps away from broad definitional guides and narrows in on specific aspects of identity, making note of the ways in which identity does not fit the same mold nationwide. Aasim Padela et al. demonstrates this concept by conducting community based research rather than relying on provider experiences. By asking patients directly, cultural competence becomes more about meeting patient specific needs surrounding “gender-concordant care, halal food, and prayer space”. This way needs pertaining specifically to a patient’s religious identity are met without harmful racialisation of their religion in the process (Padela et al., 2011).

Looking Ahead

Recognition of the importance of cultural competence in healthcare is on the rise in the U.S., however improper application serves to perpetuate racism and Islamophobia towards female Muslim patients. Initiatives must be careful to avoid conflation of religion and ethnicity, focusing instead on strategies that meet individual needs of the diverse backgrounds of female Muslim patients.  

Significant gaps between patient and provider knowledge exist due to the perpetuation of this racism and Islamophobia. A study conducted by Memoona Hasnain revealed significant barriers to healthcare for female Muslim patients due to provider’s ignorance of patient’s cultural and religious needs and patients misconceptions about and distrust of the medical system (Hasnain et al., 2010). This highlights a clear link to further health disparities for this marginalized population. Further research along this line of comparison and elevation of patient perspectives is needed to develop better strategies of cultural competence.  

In the current political landscape, we see an uncovering of Islamophobia and racism against Muslims in the U.S. (as well as many other minorities) from the underground channels of the U.S. ‘s so-called “modernity”. Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst’s peice on Tracking Hate after Trump’s Election paints an appropriate picture or the national landscape for American Muslims currently, as “hate crimes reflect both intent and systemic structures of bias. They are not limited to a perpetrator against her victim, but rather extend out to systems of race and racialization, gendered biases, ethnic, and religious-based hatred” (Morgenstein-Fuerst, 2016). President Trump’s election did not merely spark a new wave of racism and Islamophobia, rather it normalised it to explicitly come back  into the public sphere from its implicit existence all along.

In a society rife with this level of hate, we must not only recognize the wrongs committed against marginalized groups but also how putting people into said homogenous “groups” has only perpetuated these problems. American Muslims hold diverse set of identities and backgrounds, just as every American does. Therefore when protecting the health of women in our healthcare system through cultural competence, listening to the voice of Muslim patients must be prioritized over reading a provider perspective “cultural guide”.



Hassouneh, Dena. “Anti-Muslim Racism and Women’s Health.” Journal of Women’s Health 26, no. 5 (May 1, 2017): 401-02.

Hammoud, Maya M., Casey B. White, and Michael D. Fetters. “Opening cultural doors: Providing culturally sensitive healthcare to Arab American and American Muslim patients.” American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 193, no. 4 (2005): 1307-1311.

Hasnain, Memoona, Karen J. Connell, Usha Menon, and Patrick A. Tranmer. “Patient-centered care for Muslim women: provider and patient perspectives.” Journal of Women’s Health20, no. 1 (2011): 73-83.

Kleinman, Arthur, and Peter Benson. “Anthropology in the clinic: the problem of cultural competency and how to fix it.” PLoS medicine 3, no. 10 (2006): 1673-1676.

“Mapping Islamophobia.” Visualizing Islamophobia and Its Effects. Accessed March 06, 2018.  

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R . “Tracking Hate: Islam and Race After the Presidential Election.” Religion & Politics. May 09, 2017. Accessed March 06, 2018.

Osorio, Carlos. “APN Muslim Women.” Photograph. 2002.  AP Images, ID02022603995.

Osorio, Carlos. “APN Muslim Women.” Photograph. 2002.  AP Images, ID02012503979.

Padela, Aasim, Katie Gunter, and Amal Killawi. “Meeting the healthcare needs of American Muslims: Challenges and strategies for healthcare settings.” Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. June (2011).

Sakamoto, Izumi. “An Anti-Oppressive Approach to Cultural Competence.” Canadian Social Work Review / Revue Canadienne De Service Social 24, no. 1 (2007): 105-14.

“Black, Muslim, American: Interview with Dr. Jamillah Karim.” The Islamic Monthly. November 16, 2016. Accessed March 06, 2018.

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The ways in which Islamic mysticism (Sufism) presents as part of the so called ‘Muslim world’, in India during the British Raj.

When the British came to India they made distinctions between the Hindus and Muslims living there based on experiences that the Western world had already had with Muslims, namely the idea of a simple and unified ‘Muslim world’ (Aydin, p.3). Muslims were seen as violent and threatening to the British goals, and so had to be effectively controlled, while Hindus were seen as docile and easy to rule over. This distinction, however, did not appear to include Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, which seemed to fall outside of the bounds of the problematic idea of the ‘Muslim world’.

Sufism has been seen as an offshoot, sect or even a way of practicing Islam, that primarily focuses on the idea of love and selflessness in order to lead the seeker to ultimate knowledge or haqiqa, with arguably less emphasis on the rules of sharia which have often been the identifier for Islam (Akman, p.2). This is with the intention of raising one’s self up to join with the Divine. The perceived peacefulness spiritual practices of Sufis have long resonated with western Christians who maintain interest in or even convert to Sufism. This has meant that Sufism has often not been considered to be a part of Islam but as something else entirely that is accessible to non-Muslims. Even amid all the western fears that Islam was a unitary force coming together to fight the west, same everywhere and equally frightening, Sufism has remained a domesticated and simplified separate thing with at best an unfortunate link to the dangerous world of Islam.

Lawaih-e-Jami by Hidayat Ullah Sherazi. 18th c. Lahore Museum, Lahore, Pakistan. Via Google Arts & Culture.

Persian script from the 18th century showing a Lawaih, which literally means ‘flash of light’. This is a treatise on Sufi theology, where this one is written by prominent mystic and poet Nurudin Abd Rehman Jami, who had lived in the 15th century. The Persian influence from Mughal leaders who had ruled in India before British colonisation continued to have a strong impact. How did the British make sense of Muslims in India when they saw beautiful religious artwork like this that didn’t necessarily fit with their conception of the ‘Muslim world’?

Sufism was seen as different, and often still is. It was special and welcoming and so very attractive for the Orientalising West who encountered it, nothing like the harsh and legalist Islam that they knew (Akman, p.6). Orientalists labelled their discovery of this peaceful mysticism as a form of spirituality rather than religion, accessible and encouraged for Christians and secular thinkers alike (Akman, p.6). For Western thinkers Sufism seemed to be a strange addition to Islam, it did not fit neatly into their conceptions of what Islam must look like. Yet for those practising Sufism, it made no sense to separate them from the rest of Islam because in that case, their faith would have no meaning. This kind of split in understanding may help us to better understand the problem of the ‘Muslim world’ as something so pervasive and powerful.

The most popular concept of Islam was this image of an all-encompassing, legalistic and violent religion. The unified so-called ‘Muslim world’ lumped together with groups from all over the world. This was one of the reasons that the British chose to pit Muslims and Hindus against each other so that they could not rise up against the (outnumbered) British in charge.

An interesting figure to look at was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who was a Muslim yet also a friend of the British and loyal to the throne. We can look at him to understand an example of who the British were actually communicating with when they were talking with Muslims. Khan (p.7) made a response to his contemporary, W.W. Hunter, in defence of his fellow Muslims, making the case that they are not so different from the British and trying to convince them that he could juggle both identities in an effective manner. His presentation of the problem of Indian Muslim ability to co-exist with the British in charge is complicated by the fact that as a wealthy and privileged individual, with access to British education and a pronounced loyalty to the crown, he can’t really represent the majority of the many Muslims existing in colonial India. By looking at Sir Khan we can understand the problematic assumed state of the United ‘Muslim world’ through his explanations of the communication happening between the elite Muslims and their British counterparts, he fails to complicate Muslim identities.

Of course, some Sufis also felt the tension between their faith and the British rule. Even though they may not have been associated with the legalistic side of Islam, Sufi scholars also produced fatwas, answers to specific questions based on their understanding of the religious texts and personal judgement as professionals. Ernst explains that one major effect of colonialism was that it “led to the breakup of scholarly networks previously supported by Muslim patronage… in favour of a focus on authoritative Islamic texts” (p. 250). One Sufi school that arose from this need to go back to the core Muslim texts, rather than focusing on non-religious matters was the Deobandi Reform group. This group during the British Raj strove to fight against British influence.

Rashid Ahmad Gangohi was a member of the Deobandi Movement, which aimed to save Islam from western influence through the use of formally trained scholars and advocated the Hanafi legal school of jurisprudence. Two of Gangohi’s fatwas show the practical ways in which Muslims living in India should live and offers a glimpse into the ways they were encouraged to resist the influence of British colonials (p.541). The fatwas do not seem to be overtly political, nor do they even mention the British rule in India during that period. They do however aim to solidify the goals of Muslims living in India, reiterating the proper reasons for making the journey to Hajj as well as speaking on the value of being a good example.  In contrast with the Khan’s attempt to bring Islam and the British together, Gangohi’s fatwa almost ignores the political climate and asks that the devout Muslim do their duty to remain in a less holy Land in order to be a good example. This is a kind of resistance, in so far as the individual that is praised, is one that does not abandon their peers for their own perceived religious well being. This comes back around to the idea of Sufism as being focused on selflessness, putting the religious wellbeing of others before ourselves, yet also shows the ways in which they may have been rebellious in their resistance.

This satirical cartoon illustration from the British Magazine Punch, shows Mahatma Gandhi playing a game of chess against Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was the leader of the Muslim league in India and who would go on to become the Father of Pakistan. Looming over them, watching the game with a look of worry on his face is the British Viceroy of India, Archibald Wavell.

Regardless of Muslim resistance or Muslim friendship, Western ideas of Islam couldn’t escape the alluring image of the unified ‘Muslim World’. The image above is based towards the end of British rule in India, during the fight for independence and calls for decolonisation. It is interesting to note the way the British artist has drawn the Muslim representative, who is dressed almost identically to his (British) superior. This could show us the way that the Western world regarded Islam, similar to themselves in terms of motivations yet racialised  The only things distinguishing Jinnah as different from Wavell are his facial features and darker skin colour, reminding the British audience that he is still an ‘other’ no matter how he is dressed. This is opposed to the orientalised image of Gandhi floating serenely in robes. Images like this show the power dynamics in play, with Jinnah and Gandhi on the same level under the British man, showing both figures as the domesticated versions of the experiments of their respective religions, totally under control and made to fight each other.

The myth of the unified ‘Muslim World’ has persisted long after India went through Partition and the British Raj ended but conceptions of Sufism have not changed much. British attitudes towards Muslims shaped the ways in which the Western World continues to see them today. We can see the ways in which the Muslim elite and Islamic scholars fought for their rights to be recognised as different from the harmful and pervasive stereotype being used to define them.


Aydin, Cemil. “The Idea of the Muslim World, a Global Intellectual History”, Harvard University Press, 2017.

Gangohi, Rashid Ahmad. “Two Fatwas on Hajj in British India,” pp. 539-542 in The Norton Anthology of World religions- Islam, edited by Jack Miles, W.W. Norton and Company.

Guenther,A Colonial Court Defines a Muslim”“A Colonial Court Defines a Muslim, in “Islam in South Asia in Practice” edited by Barbara D. Metcalf, Princeton University Press.

Khan, Syed Ahmed. “Review of Dr Hunter’s Indian Musalmans(London: 1872) Lahore Premier Book House.

Akman, Kubilay “Sufism, Spirituality and Sustainability / Rethinking Islamic Mysticism through Contemporary Sociology,Comparative Islamic Studies, 06/2010, Volume 4, Issue 4.1-4.2.

Ernst, Carl W.  “Reconfiguring South Asian Islam: From the 18th to the 19th Century”, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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Relationships Between Young Nation-States and Established Religious Institutions


During time from the end of WWI to the present day, many predominantly Muslim societies have had to face a similar set of challenges and questions surrounding their governing systems. Following the fall of the Ottoman empire after WWI, the communities previously under Ottoman jurisdiction had to assert their independence and build up institutions to replace those that had been lost. In almost all cases, this was done by writing a set of founding documents to become in independent state, to the extent that was possible. However, while most of their political systems had to be rebuilt from the ground up, some Islamic religious and legal institutions remained largely intact. The traditional religious systems then had to find their place within the new institutional frameworks of their fledgling nation states, which were often taking inspiration from European systems not constructed within the context of their cultures. Despite having similar challenges and starting points, the paths and conclusions for these nations varied greatly due to factors both internal and external. Each found a balance between old and new systems, one that seldom wholly reflected the explicit structures enshrined in legal and religious founding documents.

The initial results of the Ottoman’s fall were varied. Turkey fell on the more Western end of the spectrum, importing their new legal code from Germany. Many smaller Muslim countries used systems from the aggressively secular France. Egypt and Iraq formed new state court systems that superseded their religious processors, while Pakistan formed a hybrid between new English and their preexisting Islamic courts.[1] However, despite being curtailed on almost every front, even in countries aspiring toward a supposedly secular ideal of modernity we do not see Islamic law completely discarded.  To the contrary, in almost all cases this redefining of the jurisdiction of religious courts was accompanied by their codification into new power systems and in some cases an expansion of their influence within the boundaries they were given. As Cesari notes, “… Despite this secularization, or rather because of it … most states retained Islam in the constitution as a symbolic reference within the new legal and political order.”[2] The traditional roots of religious courts provided the fledgling nation states with much needed institutional legitimacy in the eyes of the public. And while Cesari characterizes their place in many constitutions as “symbolic,”[3] she is also careful to emphasize that in implementation the power of the religious courts was actually gaining depth. The most common domains that Islamic courts were restricted to were those of family law. But within that framework their influence spread. Family court oversaw many of the most common and essential government services, such as marriage and divorce. Despite initially appearing to have their power curtailed by new national oversight, in many places what religious courts lost in breadth they made up for in new depth.

During this period of political upheaval, large shifts were also simultaneously happening within the thinking of intellectuals and legal experts within Muslim communities. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a unique mix of political, military, and ideological rebalances resulted in a period of unparalleled potential for redefinition of Muslim thought and self-perception. The Ottomans caliphate was no more, and the desecration of Mecca at the hands of Saudi Arabia hammered that point home to Muslim communities. As Cemil Aydin puts it in The Idea of the Muslim World, “Saudi control of Mecca and Medina was traumatic for many South Asian and African Muslims, threatening the many Sufi orders charities, and madrasas in Mecca and Medina funded from afar … All shrines and tombs of early Muslims, except Muhammad’s, were torn down.”[4] The combined political and ideological instability created opportunities for new ideas to take center stage in Islamic political discourse.

Without the Ottoman caliphate to define what ‘proper’ Muslim political structure looked like, a great debate over the political meanings of the Quran divided intellectual circles. Many scholars found new support for democratic systems inside the language of the Quran, such as the Omani journalist and ambassador Sadek Sulaiman. He professed the belief that, “As concept and principle, shura in Islam does not differ from democracy … the more any system constitutionally, institutionally, and practically fulfills the principle of shura – or, for that matter, the democratic principle – the more Islamic that system becomes.”[5] He also pointed toward the United States as a valuable model on which to build a democratic society. While his opinions fall towards the pro-democracy and pro-western ends of the spectrum, few scholars disagreed completely with his overall sentiment. Some viewed it as simply a practical necessity to adapt to modern trends, such as Muslim scholar Shabbir Akhtar, who said “Muslims have clearly failed to interpret and appropriate Islam properly for the modern age. … Within the house of Islam, there is today a great need for self-criticism and introspection … Muslims need to develop, deepen the life of faith.”[6] Akhtar was Pakistani-born Englishman who worked in a variety of Muslim communities within Western nations in the post-Ottoman years, one of many points of contact between Western intellectual thought and the mainstream Muslim discourse. There is a tendency in the West to misinterpret statements like these, especially when made by people with multicultural backgrounds such as Akhtar. In Apologetic Modernity, Faisal Devji says, “Most [scholars of modern Islam] dismiss [statements advocating change] as being a sign merely of Islam’s incomplete modernity or of the West’s overwhelming might.”[7] But Akhtar and his contemporaries did not blindly seek whatever change might make Islam more amenable to Western sensibilities. Rather, they believed that, “To come to terms with modernity is one thing; changing a revealed Islam to suit human whim shaped by passing fashion is another.”[8] Instead of a choice between ‘Islam’ and ‘modernity’ as though they were two sides of a spectrum, most Muslim scholars sought to reconcile modern ideals with their existing Islamic practices.

In addition to questions about the proper form of Islamic political institutions, there were also efforts to change the definition of Muslim identity itself in the eyes of its practitioners. The late 1800s Turkish writer and modernist Abdullah Cevdet believed that “Every learned and virtuous person is a Muslim. An ignorant, immoral person is not a Muslim even if he stems from the lineage of the prophet.”[9] As always, there were efforts to pull in the other direction as well. Iran notably moved back toward traditional systems and values after the Iranian Revolution, with those in power explicitly disavowing liberalizing influences, which they associated with a politically and culturally encroaching West. But in general, the intellectual and social conversation moved toward adaptation to and adoption of new ideals and systems.

Islamic courts also found themselves being pulled in different directions by changing societal currents. Despite being enshrined in founding documents, expanded power within family courts, and movements to reconcile and integrate with the new institutionalized nation-states, Islamic courts have seen a decline in explicit power within the sphere of politics in the years since the founding of these new states. In Egypt, the constitution establishes Islam as the official state religion, and the government is instructed to abide by Islamic rulings. But the law distinguishes between definite religious rules and indefinite religious rules, the latter of which is open to interpretation by the state’s representatives. A substantial majority of religious guidelines have been ruled as indefinite by the courts, handing regulation in their area over to the political apparatus.[10]  Simultaneously, the Egyptian government began using heresy provisions to persecute political opposition leaders within the Shia community.[11] The Sunni majority could see this as using the government to dispatch their political and religious rivals, but it sets a dangerous precedent.[12] Egyptian politicians are bound not by the social clout of religious leaders, but by public opinion and their own hazy boundaries. Egypt’s legal tradition also contains contradictory rulings as to whether the government can or cannot break with Islamic law, allowing judges to do as they see fit in any given case. As always, what constitutes Islamic Law is a question with a diversity of answers. Which of those answers are legitimate in the eyes of the government is decided not by any religious authority but by the state judiciary itself.

A couple thousand kilometers to the East, Iraq went going through a similar political power shift away from religious institutions. Saddam Hussein came to power a couple decades after Egypt drafted their first constitution. During his regime in Iraq, provisions mandating state compliance with Islamic law were removed from the constitution, and religious leaders from both the Sunni and Shia schools were removed from positions of authority within the courts. Eventually, family courts were abolished altogether and folded into the normal legal system. [13] Although after his fall some of the power shifted back, for the most part his institutional changes have been maintained.

Not all political areas followed these broader trends. Even in countries such as Iraq and Egypt, where there was a clear transfer of power away from religious authorities, certain provisions went against the grain. Charges of blasphemy and apostasy, somewhat rare in the period preceding the fall of the Ottoman empire, experienced a resurgence within the realm of family courts across the entire Middle East.[14] Iran seemed to be following the same pattern as Egypt and Iraq until their their revolution, which instituted a much more conservative interpretation of Islamic law under their new regime. Turkey’s discourse has also shifted recently in a direction more tolerant of religious expression, veering away from the extreme secularism espoused by the Young Turks toward a more centrist route that acknowledges their Islamic heritage and seeks a unique identity rather than transplanting a political system from another country.

Possible outcomes for new courts systems are more diverse than a simple government versus church spectrum. In Pakistan, newly established government courts took some time to gain popularity with a public used to alternative institutions for conflict resolution. As the English professor Matthew J. Nelson discovered, even after the courts had been established for a while and statistics showed a substantial increase in use, locals were simply using them as ancillary systems while still relying on more established methods. “Litigants simply used the courts to [delay] their opponents … until, slowly but surely, a more acceptable razeenama or ‘compromise’ could be reached outside of the courts themselves.”[15] These kinds of discrepancies between how things appear to an outsider looking at numbers half a world away and the actual situation on the ground are very common, and make judging the end effects of a given piece of legislation or legal ruling much more difficult than simply recording the intent. Nelson notes that “By and large, the work of modern Muslim politicians (as ‘politicians’) has not been examined with reference to the practice of contemporary Islamic law.”[16]

As a whole, the countries finding their way after the Ottoman collapse resist easy categorization and broad statements. Today more than ever, situations remain in flux as political climates continue to change. Turkey seems to be putting religious questions on a back burner as they struggle with a growing authoritarian government. Conflict continues to threaten the entire Middle East, as countries collapse and remake themselves. Iran recently experienced open protests against their religious government.  In the end, the only broad, concrete takeaway is this: the balance of power in politics relies on more than what’s written down on paper. Growing political institutions finding their way with a living, active religion results in constantly shifting and changing circumstances. In the past, the nations in question have variably enshrined Islam in their constitutions and codified laws against its display, but in both cases those laws were enforced and interpreted according to the needs of the time. Nations and religions are not themselves personal actors. They are made up of people, who will find practices that work for them regardless of what holy books or legal codices say.


Works Cited

Akhtar, Shabbir. “Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World.” Compiled by Charles Kurzman. In Liberal Islam, 319-26. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “[The conference of Arab representatives convened in London under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Chamberlain. Arabs and Jews negotiate separately.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 20, 2018.

Aydin, Cemil. The idea of the Muslim world: a global intellectual history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Cesari, Jocelyne. “The Awakening of Muslim Democracy.” Religion, Modernity, and the State, November 30, 2013, 60-84. doi:10.1017/cbo9781107359871.019.

Cevdet, Abdullah. “Preface by the Translator.” Compiled by Charles Kurzman. In Modernist Islam 1840-1940, 172-74. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Devji, Faisal. “Apologetic Modernity.” An Intellectual History for India, January 4, 2007, 52-67. doi:10.1017/upo9788175968721.005.

Nelson, Matthew J. In the Shadow of Shariah: Islam, Islamic Law, and Democracy in Pakistan. London: C Hurst, 2011.

Sulaiman, Sadek J. “Democracy and Shura.” Compiled by Charles Kurzman. In Liberal Islam, 96-98. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

End Notes

[1] Cesari, 60-61

[2] Cesari, 60-61

[3] Cesari, 62

[4] Aydin, 139

[5] Sulaiman, 98

[6] Akhtar, 326

[7] Devji, 62

[8] Akhtar, 326

[9] Cevdet, 137

[10] Cesari, 63

[11] Cesari, 81

[12] Cesari, 62

[13] Cesari, 68

[14] Cesari, 73, 77, 80

[15] Nelson, 185

[16] Nelson, 265

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