May 12, 2017
Parallel Development of American Muslim Architecture and Identity
It would be naïve to attempt to understand a religious tradition as a static entity that commands individuals to practice their beliefs and rituals in a timeless way. Rather, like any social phenomena, religious traditions are molded by their immediate cultural context. These various cultural frameworks have undoubtedly altered the ways in which traditional religious ideas are understood and led to the diversity of belief and practice within what might be considered a single faith. American Islam is incredibly diverse, and “taqwacore,” or the American Muslim Punk scene, exists as a manifestation of second-generation Muslim identity in the United States. Much like American Muslim architecture, Muslim identity in the United States has been undeniably molded by its relationship with American identity and ideology.
Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores illustrates the happenings and discussions within a “taqwacore” house in Buffalo, New York. As a subgenre of the punk scene that seeks to interrogate American Muslim identity, members of the taqwacore scene are able to carve out their own space using punk music. The music and behaviors within taqwacore are deliberately controversial and unapologetically offensive. In her paper, “Warriors and Terrorists: Antagonism as Strategy in Christian Hardcore and Muslim ‘Taqwacore’ Punk Rock,” Amy McDowell asserts that these individuals feel simultaneously rejected from traditional Muslim institutions for identifying with punk culture as well as from mainstream American society (as well as white-dominated punk) for identifying as Muslim. Members of taqwacore culture assert that “orthodox interpretations of the Quran are not a matter of Allah but a matter of man-made law” (McDowell 265). This notion is established in Knight’s novel when Fasiq and Ayyub engage in a heated discussion over humans depicting other living things. Fasiq argues that nothing in the Qur’an prohibits it, but Ayyub insists that the hadiths forbid it. Fasiq angrily responds that “fuckin’ everything’s in the hadiths” (Knight 53). His retort implies that it is possible to find support for almost anything that traditional interpretation argues is “proper,” and he has chosen to disagree with this interpretation. Ultimately, he rejects mainstream Muslim interpretation of this particular hadith and seeks to establish his own Muslim identity outside of these rigid lines.
American Muslim architecture is incredibly syncretic and characteristic of the American Muslim identity. In his book, Deconstructing the American Mosque: Space, Gender, and Aesthetics, Akel Ismail Kahera argues that American mosques are unique in that they construct an appropriate space for American Muslims to worship and feel welcome given the heterogeneous nature of the American ummah given its incredible ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. He notes that the “created object is not necessarily an absolute innovation since it exists in relation to preceding products of the agent” (Kahera 11). Kahera understands that the architecture of American mosques doesn’t exist in a vacuum – styles and motifs from traditional Islamic architecture are borrowed and employed to serve the new community. Similarly, members of the taqwacore community retain many of the most basic tenants of Islamic practice – most notably: prayer. Whether it be after an all-night party, smoking weed, or fornicating, the taqwacore members of the Buffalo house are dedicated to maintaining their regular prayer times. For example, at the concert event held on December 21 in The Taqwacores, Bilal’s Boulder begins their set with a massive call to prayer; the drummer makes an adhan, the lines are made straight, and the singer claims to be “spread[ing] the deen of Islam” (Knight 238). In this way, traditional aspects of Islamic practice are transported into a shockingly new (and unimaginable even) context. While the final product (either a constructed American mosque and taqwacore prayer) might look radically different from their respective Islamic predecessors, they both choose to adhere to particular characteristics of the tradition.
Kahera’s main assertion in his book focuses on American Muslim architecture as a distinct combination of traditional Islamic and canonically American styles. He asserts that the net results “imply a relationship between tradition and modernity” (Kahera 8). This relationship between the two is collaborative and incredibly important to the development of Islam in the United States. The two depend on each other for continuity of the tradition, and considering both in tandem with one another is incredibly important. Similarly, the construction of American Muslim selves is an amalgam of two previously understood distinct identities. In one of his many trains of thought, the narrator of Knight’s The Taqwacores, Yusef, comes to the understanding that just like previous incorporations, “the U.S. would only end up with its own distinct flavor of Islam… [it is] full of promise and vitality, still young enough to be malleable” (Knight 74). By acknowledging that Saudi, Turkey, and Pakistan each respectively ended up with their different “strains” of Islam, he concludes that the United States will (given time) be no different; but for now, popular discourse sees them in direct contention with one another. The synthesis of these two styles of architecture as well as identities has allowed for a never-before-seen “form” of Muslim practice and identity to take rise in the United States
The ways in which Muslim and American identities manifest themselves in both architecture and in characters of The Taqwacores is interesting to navigate. Ultimately, the type of Islam or Islamic representation strongly resembles the context in which it was erected and is established. Kahera understands that American mosques are distinctly Islamic yet are subject to a “process of redefinition and re-appropriation in new contexts” (Kahera 4). Examples that he includes range from the Islamic Institute of Boston, which evokes the sense of a traditional New England building with its classic reddish brown brick front, to the Dar Al-Islam Village in New Mexico, which is undeniably infused with Southwestern Pueblo Revival architectural style. Similarly, the way in which practitioners in the United States practice and understand their Muslim identity becomes molded by the cultural context. Over the course of The Taqwacores, Rabeya persists as an incredibly intriguing character. While wearing a full niqab, she consistently questions sexist rhetoric, and Yusef continues to contemplate her Muslim presentation as a juxtaposition. In a particular discussion with Yusef, she explains why she crossed out a particular verse describing a husband beating his wife from the Qur’an: “fuck that verse. I don’t need to stretch…it for a weak alternative reading” (Knight 133). In this way, Rabeya (who embodies what it means to be taqwacore) rejects the mainstream Islamic interpretation of this passage and what it permits men to do. She claims that she is allowed to refuse this verse and still identify as Muslim; contrary to popular belief, for her, the two are not mutually exclusive. In this way, she reshapes what it means to be a Muslim in America; influenced by the ubiquity of feminist ideologies in the United States, she thereby creates a version of Islam that is characterized by its specific American context.
Questioning who is and what it means to be a Muslim American persists as an underlying theme of Knight’s The Taqwacores. Similarly, we can question what it means for an architectural style to be considered Muslim American. Ultimately, both are the product of a unique syncretic relationship that has fused elements of what is considered traditionally Muslim with what is unique to the American experience. At one point, Yusef thinks to himself, “before I moved into that house, my concept of Islam was quite simply defined” (Knight 189). And now, it is anything but simply defined because of the new and interesting ways in which American Islam continues to develop.
Throughout the course of the semester, I believe that my writing has changed slightly for the better. I notice that I have become more confident with my assertions and tone as well as asking questions that don’t necessarily have a straightforward answer. In my discussion of women’s ability to transcend ethnic and other boundaries to refute or accept the gendering of space within their traditional place of worship, I asked “While this claim is exciting in prospect, does the Muslim leadership really notice these changes (and potential fluctuations) in attendance?” I have noticed that throughout my reading responses, I have been more and more inquisitive and engaged with the texts than I have been in the past where I often resorted to commenting on and summarizing a key point from the reading.
I like the structure, organization, and flow of my writing. I am particularly proud this passage from Essay 1: “Ultimately, Blackamericans appropriate black identity from white America, which has historically owned their black bodies over the course of history from the dehumanizing slave trade to Jim Crow laws to the disenfranchisement that led to the civil rights movement. Jackson asserts that he uses the word “appropriation” because the Blackamerican Muslim movements that emerged during the 20th century didn’t “recognize any ‘property rights’ of the original owners” of Islam (Jackson 28). Instead, these groups took advantage of a religious tradition that while prevalent on a worldwide scale, lacked a prominent following in the United States.” Although it takes some time for my word choice to be exactly the way I want it, I enjoy it as a whole when I’ve completed my work (i.e. post, draft, review, edit).
I think that the structure and organization of my writing is its most well-developed aspect. I think that I am able to effectively provide a quote/piece of evidence and then analyze it and transition into my next idea. I think that some students get caught in the trap of only providing the evidence and not commenting on it or just restating what was said in the quote. For example, in one my responses to Ernst’s work, I said: ““Islamophobia has succeeded anti-Semitism as a form of acceptable racial and religious prejudice” (Ernst 29). Ernst argues that at one time, to be anti-Semitic was fashionable, but now, it is rare and deemed unacceptable for someone to be opening anti-Semitic. In some circles of people in today’s United States, it isn’t frowned upon to be Islamophobic – it might even be celebrated.” While I was tempted to leave the quote as it was and not explain it farther, the additional depth provided allows the reader to understand the extent to which Ernst’s statement applies.
I would like to improve my ideas and content and their integration into my writing. I feel as though I fail to completely state my ideas and my logic behind them in a coherent manner, making the idea seem underdeveloped. As Professor Albert and I have discussed, I tend to throw out a lot of ideas in my writing and only follow-up on a few of them. During the drafting process, I fail to recognize which of the ideas if central to my argument and which are conjectures that could be the basis of an entirely independent paper. These tangential claims deviate from my main argument and thus detract from the focus of my writing. In the future, I will be more cognizant of this and try to stick to my main points that I wish to support over the course of a short analytical writing assignment.
Over the course of these chapters, there have been a few mentions of Sufism in the conversaion between the characters. Though we didn’t discuss Sufi traditions extensively in class, my understanding of the movement is that is emphasizes mystical elements and seeks to establish itself has lacking oppressive religious authority. Time and time again, the characters have insisted upon distinguishing themselves from Qur’anic human interpretation in an attempt to become closer to what they believe is more important: their relationship to God. Thus, their commentary on Sufism is particularly interesting and not as negative as traditional discourse might often paint it.
During the car ride home from compus, Fasiq notes that a particular Rolling Scabs song sounds like Sufism. He describes it as “fucked up, take-it-as-it-comes Islam” which seeks to become the “bare core” of Islam (Knight 148). Later on, the group begins to discuss Buzz Sawyer as an Americna Sufi saint. Jehangir describes it as “no school” with an image of the practitioner “on the road by [themself]” (Knight 188). I think these discussions of Sufi beliefs are particularly interesting given the particular opinions of the taqwacore group (who are anti-mainstream society as well as anti-traditional Islamic authorities).
All in all, these chapters have further complicated the underlying theme that questions who identifies as a Muslim in America and what that even means. After dicussing Buzz Sawyer and observing Ramadan in an unconventional manner (and where Umar is much stricter than the others), Yusef even thinks to himself: “before I moved into that house, my concept of Islam was quite simply defined” (Knight 189). And now, it’s anything but simple.
In her paper, McDowell asserts that the Taqwacore community has been constructed for those rejected from both mainstream American society as well as the traditional areas of Muslim worship. In Knight’s The Taqwacores, the characters living in the house in Buffalo joke about their interactions and perceptions of traditional Muslim establishment in the United States (ISNA, CAIR, ICNA, etc.), thus making it clear that they feel unwelcome in these communities. McDowell states that they feel rejected from mainstream religious institutions for being punk and simultaneously rejected from mainstream American society (as well as white-dominated punk) for being Muslim. Thus, the Taqwacore scene in both its virtual and physical presence for these rejected American Muslim youth.
Specifically, McDowell notes that some of Taqwacore internal discourse seeks to combat traditional religious authority by asserting that “orthodox interpretations of the Quran are not a matter of Allah but a matter of man-made law” (McDowell 265). This is seen in Fasiq and Ayyub’s argument over the hadiths (mentioned in my previous post). Yusef Ali seems to comment on this when he notes that traditional Islamic teachings insist that there aren’t “things coming between [practitioners] and Allah like in Christianity”; however, Yusef feels as though there are particular authorities telling him and other Taqwacores what it means to and how to be a Muslim (Knight 84). Through this rejection of traditional religious interpretation, Taqwacore youth attempt to reclaim authority to their faith. They attempt to remove the human constructions that have been put in place between the divine and the genuine practitioner.
The Taqwacores has raised some very interesting questions and pointed to several concerns that the American ummah has concerning their place in America. In a Muslim punk setting, the characters seem to be pressing up against internal issues within the ummah as well as depicting one example of what a Muslim in America might look like.
The narrator repeatedly comments on the differences within what is perceived to be a “unified, cohesive” ummah (Knight 7). He also alludes to the rocky relationship that punk Muslims have with larger, more organized networks of Muslims such as ISNA, ICNA, and CAIR. The characters joke, knowing how they “felt about ISNA scenes, or how such scenes felt about them” (Knight 28).
The narrator also allocates a decent amount of time to discussing how he cannot define Islam or Punk as well as how he fits (or doesn’t) into both of these larger groups. There are many discussions between characters of various nationalities (e.g. Saudi, Kashmir, Sudan) over Islamic practice and interpretation. Multiple times over the course of chapters 1-3, various characters have attempted to assert that one country practices the “true” Islam as it is “supposed to be” (Knight 31). This inter-ethnic discourse is interesting to navigate, and I think that it is the first time that we have had a concrete example of how this might manifest itself within discussions. Fasiq and Ayyub get into a heated discussion over humans depicting other living things. Fasiq argues that nothing in the Qur’an prohibits it, but Ayyub insists that the hadiths forbid it. Fasiq angrily responds that “everything’s in the hadiths” and that it is possible to find a hadith to support almost anything (Knight 53). While the diversity within the house often leads to arguments, Muslim identity still brings this group together as they worship.
Grewal’s chapter touched on a variety of topics relating to media coverage surrounding Islam and Muslims in America. Some of what she touches on we have been alluding to all semester, and some of what she touches on was quite novel.
I was particularly intrigued by her discussion of the American public discourse surrounding the ability to distinguish “good” religion from “bad” religion. Ultimately, many Americans feel confident in this ability to somehow innately distinguish one from the other. This is the subject of a repeated discussion in my New Religious Movements class this semester given that the public often seeks to label groups as either “religious” or as a “cult” when in reality, that distinction is not as black-and-white as people would like to believe. Asserting subjective authority with regards to what is “good” and what is “bad” is problematic, and our job as scholars and students isn’t to make value judgements. Rather, it is to study how rituals, practices, and theologies create a larger and more meaningful worldview for the practitioner, and how these activities are constructed within their respective settings.
Because of the public discourse and assumptions made and propagated through the media, after 9/11, Muslim Americans were forced to take on the defensive to “publicly prove…their loyalty as patriotic citizens” and that they “believe in a ‘good’ Islam” by disentangling themselves from terrorism and the suspected cause: religious fundamentalism (Grewal 301). Ultimately, this defensive stance is a product of the American context and interaction with the Middle East (composed of many Muslim-majority countries) that has become central to the experience of Muslims in America.
Another way in which Muslims in America seek to actively distance themselves from the activities of terrorism that are too often conflated with themselves is by “emphasiz[ing] appeasing qualities of Islam” (Grewal 302). Through emphasis on Muslim recognition of Jesus as a prophet and Quranic verses that highlight peace and tolerance, Muslims in America attempt to associate with what is deemed “good” (and acceptable) Islam in the eyes of many Americans. We saw this first-hand during our trip to the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley (MALV) Open House where we observed many of the booths and information to be focused on emphasizing the similarities between Islamic and Christian theology, scripture, and even practice.
April 9, 2017
What Women Want? (eh?)
The beginning of the Islamic calendar marks the emergence of Islam in 622 C.E.; this is not defined by the birth or death of Muhammad but rather by the emergence of the ummah, or the Muslim community. Once geographically confined, global movement of both people and ideas has facilitated the emergence of the ummah in the United States. However, the ummah in the United States remains incredibly fractured along lines concerning race/ethnicity as well as gender, and these divisions shape the American Muslim experience. Due to American policies and culture, immigrant Muslims from South Asia and the Middle East are able to more easily assimilate and inhabit wealthy white suburbs than Black American Muslims who are often unable to leave inner cities because they lack access to the opportunities and upward mobility that the American Dream promised them. Over the course of the 20th century, these two groups have come into contact with one another in the United States, which has unsurprisingly been challenging given the variety of interpretations and practices surrounding nearly every aspect of the religious tradition. In her book “American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender Within the Ummah” (2009), Jamillah Karim discusses the ways in which gendered space is enacted in various American Muslim communities as well as the ways in which they provide touchpoints for Muslim women to utilize their agency; the film The Mosque in Morgantown (2009) highlights Asra Nomani’s protest against the leadership structure and practices upheld within her local mosque in a way that highlights Karim’s argument.
Qur’anic interpretation has influenced the establishment of gendered spaces within traditional Islamic worship for centuries. Karim notes that the reasoning for gendered practices and spaces is “to avoid physical contact between male and female bodies” that would otherwise be uncomfortable and awkward for both parties (Karim 171). Because of the extremely close and prostrate position that Muslims assume while praying, it is understandable that it might be uncomfortable for a woman’s thighs to touch those of a strange man’s. Over the course of the past century in the United States, Islam has developed within both Black American communities as well as immigrant communities with ethnic ties to South Asia and the Middle East. The development in both of these distinct groups has differed from the other, and the relationship between the two is interesting to navigate.
Within American mosques, there exists a variety of ways in which the gendered space is delineated. In some, women pray behind men with no partition; in others, women pray alongside men opposite a partition; in rare cases, mixed-gender prayer lines are the norm. Karim notes that immigrant mosques tend to be more conservative in practice: there is a “sense of cultural continuity with their native traditions…of Islam” (Karim 170). Because so many immigrant practitioners are accustomed to the gendered separation, it seems natural that it be enforced in an American setting as well. Thus, the gender separation isn’t questioned; rather, it is accepted as the norm. However, Black American mosques are less likely to partake is this explicit gendering of space, and this religious landscape similarly reflects a sense of cultural continuity because Black American women are “culturally accustomed to participating alongside men” (Karim 179). Because most Black American Muslims are converts (or children of converts) and their previous religious experience has almost always been one form of Christianity or another in an American context, the cultural expectation is that women and men pray alongside one another; thus, it is accepted as the norm and gendered spaces aren’t discussed.
When a partition is involved in a space of worship, many of the women that Karim talks to voice that the spaces are “separate and unequal” (Karim 173). The women’s spaces seem marginalized – they are less decorated, smaller, and feel as though they were an afterthought (i.e. the basement at Al-Farooq in Atlanta). The common argument against the gendering of spaces asserts that it conforms to the patriarchy, and effectively tells women that they are inferior. Ultimately, even though they might prefer to worship in the public sphere, some women find the shoddy setup of the women’s prayer room to be an excuse not to go to a mosque; thus, they pray privately in their own home instead. Imam Plemon at the Atlanta Masjid, which does not have a partition, asks, “why should women’s comfort be compromised because men fear forming inappropriate thoughts about women?” (Karim 175). He then indicates that both men and women are instructed to be modest and proper in their thoughts, so his question points towards the seemingly hypocritical way in which women are expected to hide from men to accommodate for their potential for illicit thoughts. In The Mosque in Morgantown (2009), Asra Nomani is asked to use the back door at her local mosque; ultimately, this leads to a several year-long dispute between Nomani and the mosque’s leadership over the traditional gendered practices held in most immigrant mosques. The argument from the executive committee of the mosque in Morgantown is that the gender separation prevents temptation. The common rebuttal from some communities and the mosque leadership around the United States claim that because most women worship at home, the space must be created to accommodate more men than women. The discussion of the gendering of space and how to negotiate, abolish, or accept it uniquely manifests itself within the American ummah because feminism and groups fighting for gender equality within the United States have undoubtedly affected the discourse surrounding the gendering of mosque space.
Public discourse is quick to frame Muslim women as “oppressed” because of perceptions of how they might dress and practice. However, it is important to note that the views of some (such as Nomani) must not be conflated with the views of an entire group; some women prefer the partition as a way of enacting piety and don’t see it as reinforcing the patriarchy. While she claims to be fighting for women and men who aren’t speaking out, Nomani’s approach is extremely publicized and dramatic such that few practitioners want to associate with her. While Muslim women might not have access to the same kinds of opportunities in leadership that are afforded to men within communities, they are still able to enact their own agency. When Muslim women make a “choice to worship at a mosque” based on how comfortable they feel in the community, they are able to negotiate their situation (Karim 174). In order to feel welcome in their place of worship, Muslim women might cross ethnic lines between immigrant and Black American communities. Differences in interpretation of gendered practices allow women an opportunity “to transcend ethnic boundaries” (Karim 187). By negotiating, challenging, or accepting the manifestation of gender norms within the site of religious worship, women are able to voice their otherwise-unheard interpretation and opinions on the worship structure utilized by a particular mosque. While it is nearly impossible to generalize Muslim women’s opinions and interpretations on gendered practices, we can recognize the ways in which a woman is able to enact her own agency.
***add more to end?
The Mosque in Morgantown (2009) was especially interesting given our previous discussions of several of Karim’s chapters in which she discusses gendered spaces (and their interaction with ethnic spaces). While the film didn’t place an emphasis on the construction of ethnic spaces, it focused on a specific series of events in Morgantown, Virginia, surrounding the gendering within a space of Islamic worship.
Watching Asra Nomani’s activist fight as well as the responses from the leadership of the mosque was interesting and seemingly absent from Karim’s discussion. While Karim was able to interview many people and include their words in her book, this film was able to show people on both sides of this ongoing debate both speaking and acting on their beliefs (i.e. Nomani’s protest organization and even book tour). Also, Nomani’s fight against this particular mosque was interesting as a “case study” of sorts that became nationally recognized.
The common rebuttal from the executive committee (which Nomani describes as composed of “extremists”) of the mosque in Morgantown is that the gender separation within the mosque prevents temptation. Nomani’s argument is that she wishes that she and other women are perceived as devotees that are spiritually equal, and she interprets the worship practices that she took part in during her hajj to Mecca to be indicative of this.
The film did a great job at illustrating that Nomani doesn’t speak for all Muslim women as this generalization can be easy to ascribe to. Some women at the LA mosque (described as “the most progressive mosque in the U.S.”) agreed with her agenda, but they felt that her way of confronting mosques was only to push for her own book sales. They also perceived the limited opportunities for women within Islamic scholarship and leadership as a large(r) problem and thought that she didn’t show respect for the communities she interacted with. Unlike the women in LA, there are also many Muslim women who don’t agree with Nomani’s stance at all and don’t believe her argument to be a central issue within Islamic practice.
Religion provides a framework for the practitioner to construct a larger worldview and find a deeper meaning from the theology, soteriology, and eschatology. Ultimately, it seems as though the questions surrounding the issue of the gendering of spaces within places of Islamic worship and practice trace their roots to scriptural (and authoritative) interpretation and a larger ideological understanding of tradition and practice.