Black Mecca: African Muslims in Harlem

Paul Harvey

This book has been on my shelf for a little while, and I was hoping to get to it/blog about it early this summer. But in the meantime, Choice has a nice review of Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem (Oxford 2010). Since we're just today on the subject of mapping religious life in New York boroughs and neighborhoods, now's a good time to repost this review, for those interested.

Abdullah, Zain. Black Mecca: the African Muslims of Harlem. Oxford, 2010. 294p bibl index afp ISBN 0-19-531425-5, $35.00; ISBN 9780195314250, $35.00. Review

How do West African Muslim immigrants fit into the fabric of Harlem, and how have they challenged established notions of Islam, race, and cultural difference in one of the centers of black culture, thought, and politics? Abdullah (Temple Univ.) offers theoretically sophisticated and evocative answers to these questions in his ethnographic study of West African Muslims in Harlem. Combining descriptions of ethnographic encounters and personal narratives with insight from existing literature, chapters address West African immigrants' expectations of America before their migration, encounters between black and African identities, the challenges of mastering language(s), negotiating religious and cultural practices, and the changing notions of family and sexuality. Abdullah weaves these topics into a dense, vivid portrait of what he describes as new "Blues people" immersed in narratives of suffering, survival, and hope. He skillfully avoids one-sided representations and allows himself to consider different angles for each encounter he describes. Situated at the intersection of race studies, anthropology, and Islamic studies, this book is significant beyond its role as a study of American Muslims in advancing readers' understanding of migration, religious identities, and globalization through the lives of people in this particular community. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers. -- J. Hammer, George Mason Universityed in 2011apr CHOICE.

Also, there is a longer, more extensive review of the book here; it emphasizes the economic struggles of these black immigrants. A brief excerpt:

The mosques of Harlem are where immigrants go to maintain their bonds with each other and to find meaning in their struggles in America. What is significant in Professor Abdullah’s observations is the recasting of one’s economic plight as divine providence. Although many West African Muslims are not able to find the lucrative jobs they imagined, many set up their own shops or drive taxis in order to maintain the flexibility they need to adhere to their Islamic faith and values. In a sense, their work on the streets as an effort to inform people about and to maintain their deen is viewed as amal saalih or blessed work. The recasting of the Western immigrant plight in this manner connects immigrants back to their families and provides justification and hopefor an improved condition.

A bit more about the book, from the Oxford U. Press website:

The changes to U.S. immigration law that were instituted in 1965 have led to an influx of West African immigrants to New York, creating an enclave Harlem residents now call ''Little Africa.'' These immigrants are immediately recognizable as African in their wide-sleeved robes and tasseled hats, but most native-born members of the community are unaware of the crucial role Islam plays in immigrants' lives. Zain Abdullah takes us inside the lives of these

new immigrants and shows how they deal with being a double minority in a country where both blacks and Muslims are stigmatized. Dealing with this dual identity, Abdullah discovers, is extraordinarily complex. Some longtime residents embrace these immigrants and see their arrival as an opportunity to reclaim their African heritage, while others see the immigrants as scornful invaders. In turn, African immigrants often take a particularly harsh view of their new neighbors, buying into the worst stereotypes about American-born blacks being lazy and incorrigible.

And while there has long been a large Muslim presence in Harlem, and residents often see Islam as a force for social good, African-born Muslims see their Islamic identity disregarded by most of their neighbors. Abdullah weaves together the stories of these African Muslims to paint a fascinating portrait of a community's efforts to carve out space for itself in a new country.


esclark said…
Thanks for posting this. I didn't realize that Abdullah had a book out on this topic. His article in JAAR a few issues back on parading Sufis raised a lot of interesting questions about identity, space, and embodied practice.

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