This is the Google Books entry. What do you think of it?
January 5, 2018
The precise value of religious conversion narratives has been an issue of minor debate in scholarly circles. Although it is agreed that such narratives provide the scholar with useful information, just what information they are providing is uncertain. Like all forms of narratives, conversion narratives are crafted by an author at a particular time and place, and, even when not consciously acknowledged, they are written for a particular audience. Conversion narratives can therefore be influenced by a myriad of factors: the amount of time that has passed since the conversion; the convert’s mood when writing his or her story; what he/she has read, watched, listened to, and discussed with others; how many times the narrative has been told; the religion and ethnic group the audience is expected to be; the writer’s skill as a storyteller; the amount of time the convert has spent writing the narrative; the culture in which the narrative is given—the list could go on. To make matters even more complicated, in cases where conversion narratives are compiled together, since A) the authors did not follow the exact same format and B) the reader is rarely given detailed biographical data about each author or any information about how the narratives were selected, despite one’s desire to compare the narratives, it is difficult to draw many strong conclusions, and scholars are right to avoid using them uncritically. For these reasons, although published collections of conversion narratives are generally fascinating and informative, scholars should use them with extreme caution.
All that being said…While I was working on my books on early white and African American Muslim converts, I had very few conversion narratives of my subjects and in my most frustrating periods I secretly hoped I would somehow stumble upon a previously unknown collection of first-person stories about the religious journeys of early American Muslim converts. Such a book would have made my research that much easier and would have provided that much more depth to my descriptions and analyses. In the end, I was able to find a small, little-known book of narratives written by several early members of the Nation of Islam—although it was only of limited value for my project, due to the book having been published nearly 60 years after the Muslims’ conversions and their narratives, as a result, lacking a great deal of information on their religious transformations. To this day, then, I still on occasion long for narrative collections by early Muslim converts so that I can fill the gaps I know exist in my histories. So, despite all the limitations of conversion narratives, especially collections, I admit that, given certain situations, they can be a goldmine.
But what about conversion narrative collections from the contemporary period—a time when hundreds of Muslim converts’ life stories have been collected and published, often by scholars and grad students in ethnography, psychology, and history departments? And what about cases where many of the narratives had already been placed online so that anyone could freely access them? When Juan Galvan, the editor ofLatino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, approached me to get my opinion on the potential scholarly interest in such a collection, I was up front with him concerning my doubts about it. I explained, in short, that in today’s scholarly world, scholars would appreciate it but we would rather have direct interviews and surveys. This, in my opinion, would be particularly true for scholars of Latino Muslims, since there are only a handful of them and I assume that most of them have already read and analyzed many of the Latino Muslim narratives that are online. (I know I had analyzed 28 such narratives for a speech at a regional American Academy of Religion meeting while I was in grad school.) Given all of this, I said, a book like the one he was proposing would be of most value to other converts and potential converts, not scholars. When Juan then informed me he had already completed the project and that he’d like me to review it, I feared that I would not find much new scholarly value in it.
It turns out, however, that I was wrong. Galvan’s collection of conversion narratives will make an important resource for scholars who examine Latino Muslims. As already mentioned, a number of these narratives are presently online, but they are scattered across multiple websites and numerous subsections within those websites—and sometimes buried as single articles in long, one-page publications. Galvan’s book has made it significantly easier to find these narratives. In some cases, though, the narratives were not previously available on Galvan’s various Latino Muslim webpages—or at least they were buried deep enough in a salad of hotlinks that I was unable to find them. The book’s most significant contribution, though, is the sheer number of narratives, 52, which, as far as I am aware, makes this the single largest book collection of narratives of American Muslim converts of any ethnicity ever to have been published, slightly edging out Steven Barboza’s important 1993 collection American Jihad: Islam after Malcolm X.
And, like Barboza’s collection, Galvan’s book features both community leaders and “regular” people, offering the reader access to a rich variety of stories coming from individuals whose Latino identities and experiences vary considerably. The diversity of the converts can be appreciated by just looking at the list of some of the countries they are from, in which they have lived, or to which they trace their ancestors: Canada, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Italy, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Mexico, England, El Salvador, Peru, Australia, and the United States. The life experiences of these individuals are diverse as well; the book tells the stories of immigrants and the US-born, those from broken homes and those from loving families, ghetto dwellers and farmers, soldiers and students, atheists and devout Catholics. For those who have studied new Muslims in America and are familiar with many of the common reasons that people in the United States have embraced Islam, it is striking that, although one could group similar narratives together, no two stores in the four dozen here are the same, which reflects the wide variety of cultural, psychological, spiritual, and even discursive currents that are at play as people across the country turn to Islam.
It is of course still true that a responsible scholar should not simply and uncritically take conversion stories at face value, and it is the things that this book lacks that will make a critical scholarly analysis of its contents all the more important. The reader, for instance, is not provided with any data about the converts beyond what they have chosen to include in their narratives—narratives that occasionally do not give any clue as to the convert’s location, mosque affiliation, age, or nation of (family’s) origin—basic pieces of data that would significantly aid analysis. The sources of the narratives or the dates they were written are also not included, nor is, in most cases, information given that might indicate whether or not the convert has written or told his or her story before—and how similar or dissimilar their narratives are compared with other converts they personally know. This type of information can be of immense help in determining larger issues concerning patterns of conversion, geographic dynamics, and discursive movements. More research will therefore be necessary to uncover such trends.
Still, Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam can be of real value to scholars of American Islam and Latino religions. It has ensured, first of all, that these narratives have been both preserved and made easily accessible; no longer will their fates be dependent solely on the upkeep and viewership of old websites and tortuous hyperlink chains. Scholars who read this book will be forced to acknowledge the diversity and breadth of the Latino Muslim experience—conclusions based on small samples of respondents will not suffice. Finally, for those who look hard enough, there are enough clues in this book that one can begin to connect dots to other known events in the histories of Islam in America and Latino religions. Latino Muslims, then, is essentially the type of book I was hoping to find when I was working on early white and African American Muslims—and I am sure the other scholars who find it will similarly recognize it as the gem that it is.
Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam will be available online at Amazon.com in paperback and digital versions and in hardcover at BarnesAndNoble.com. ISBN: 978-1530007349. Publisher: Self-published. Page Count: 243. See also: http://www.latinomuslims.net/
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I posted this yesterday.
Today I overheard a (loud) couple while having lunch with my wife. The woman said that you can drive for miles in West Texas without seeing a town and the towns don’t have hotels. She said, “I thought about asking a farmer for a place to stay.” She wasn’t exaggerating.”
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Have you read the blurb for “Our Journeys” by Michael Wolfe? You can read it at LatinoMuslims.net. Michael is one of the screenwriters of the animated film about Bilal. Bilal was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions. The movie is out now.
Bilal is considered as the first muezzin, chosen by the Prophet Muhammad himself. A muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. He was known for his beautiful voice when calling people to prayer.
There is the mother who converted when she saw her son transition from a life of drugs and crime to one of prayer and faithful religious practice. Then there’s the story of the guy who met the woman of his dreams, moved to Kenya to pursue her, and converted in order to become her husband. Or there is the Marine who took the shahadah while stationed in Japan. There are former Pentecostals and Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and agnostics, atheists and Mormons; they’ve all converted to Islam. They are from Puerto Rico and Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador, San Franciso and San Salvador, New York, Newark, Miami, and Houston.
They are Latinx Muslims, one of the fastest growing religious communities in the U.S.
When I started learning from Latinx Muslims back in 2012 I was able to cobble together a few articles from scholars such as SpearIt, Patrick Bowen, and Hisham Aidi, read a single monograph (Hjamil A. MartÃnez-VÃ¡squez’s Latina/o Y Musulmán: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States), peruse blogs, and talk to leading Latina/o Muslims like Juan Galvan, Daniel Abdullah Hernandez, Mujahid Fletcher, Isa Parada, and Juan Alvarado to complete my research. The result was my master’s thesis Islam en Español: The narratives, demographics, conversion causeways, & conditions for community cohesion among Latina/o Muslims in the U.S.
At the end of my thesis, I wrote there was still a pertinent need to expand research in this area and in the quest for quality, comprehensive, newswriting and coverage, that students and commentators should provide more nuanced information about this important religious community. Over the last several years I have seen an increasing amount of new research, publications, and writing on the subject. It’s an exciting time to be in the field.
Just this year, five major publications have come out — or are on their way — that will help scholars and a wider public better understand the why, what, when, where, and how of Latinx conversion to Islam and how Latinx Muslims are shaping the American religious scene and impacting the broader Muslim world. Below I provide a brief overview, review, and comment on each of them before concluding with some ideas for the future, and some suggestions for how these might spur further research and consideration of Latinx Muslims in the U.S. and beyond:
1. Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam by Juan Galvan
I start with this text because it is both highly valuable and for me, it is highly personal. Since I first met Isa Parada at a masjid in Houston, TX and began learning from my Latinx Muslim teachers and friends I have remained humbly fascinated with Latinx Muslim journeys through the uncertainties of being “quadruple minorities” — Latinx in the Muslim community, Muslim in the Latinx community, Latinx in the U.S., and Muslim in the U.S.
This text, which I turned to in its draft form as a website and blog during my master’s research, not only presents general comments on the place of Latinx Muslims in the American Muslim story, but it also does the simple, but significant, service of presenting scores of stories from Latinx Muslims themselves. Readers listen to men and women from across the Americas who identify as Latina, Latino, Latinx, Hispanic, or Spanish-speaking tell their stories of reversion (or ‘conversion,’ Latinx Muslims refer to their conversions as ‘reversions,’ both because they believe in fitra — that human beings are born with an innate inclination toward tawhid [the oneness of God] and draw on their Andalusian roots to speak to the very Arab and Muslim basis of much of Latinx culture, language, and history).
Readers will enjoy how Galvan frames these narratives with his own historical, theological, and cultural commentary, but will be most impressed by the sheer diversity of stories and experiences of those who converted in prison or on their front porch, to those who reverted in Australia and Bolivia, and those who found Islam on Facebook, through Latinx specific organizations, their future spouses, in dreams, or even while smoking weed and drinking a 22oz. of Heineken. Not only does this text do well to let the stories stand for themselves and permit Latinx Muslims’ voices to be heard above all else, but it also provides a wealth of primary data for researchers and interested students looking to learn more.
2. American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam by SpearIt
On this point of conversions of prison, SpearIt presents an overview of prison culture in the U.S. with a specific focus on the role of Islam and Muslims within the system. The main point of this anthology is that “problems in prison are not isolated from society, and [prisons] are not neatly cornered off from society, but rather, are partners in toxic relationships with the communities to which ex-prisoners return.”
Against, and alongside, what he posits as a poisonous prison system he showcases the spiritual journeys of many Muslims who convert while incarcerated. Significantly, he includes an exploration and analysis of Latinx Muslims — their conversions, their communities, and their central importance in telling the story of Islam in the U.S.
3. 40 Sayings of Prophet Muhammad by Daniel Abdullah Hernandez
One of the more significant voices in my research has been “Imam Danny.” He is a scholar, an inter-religious leader, and a friend. His tireless efforts at understanding, communicating, and sharing Islamic theology are well appreciated by many Muslims — Latinx and otherwise.
His most recent project is a labor of love that also opens up a window into the influence of Latinx Muslims in the process of Islamic theology in the U.S. and abroad. Not only have Latinx Muslims been producing works, and translating works into, Spanish over the last 40 years, they have also been creating new works in English. Imam Hernandez’s efforts at translating and collecting 42 hadith, reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and other early Muslims, on the five pillars of Islamic practice (confessing the faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and the hajj pilgrimage) are quick, practical, references for intentional Muslims. More than that, they are another prime example of indigenous knowledge production and leadership among Latinx Muslims who are making an impact on their religion in the U.S. and abroad. It is evidence that Latinx Muslims are not only being shaped by the global umma (Muslim community) but also shaping it with their words and deeds.
4. “Latino Muslims in the United States Reversion, Politics, and Islamidad,” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion by Gaston Espinosa, Juan Galvan, and Harold Morales
This journal article lauds itself as the first large-scale survey research on the demographics of the Latinx Muslim community and the question of why Latina/os converted to Islam. There has been important research conducted in this area, but as they note it has largely been limited to smaller numbers in particular cities and without any consistent methodology. As they wrote, “This study seeks to help fill this gap in the literature by analyzing the survey results of 560 Latino Muslims across the U.S.”
What they provide is the most comprehensive picture of the general make-up and sociological contours of the Latinx Muslim community in the U.S. They also make a critical interlude by discussing the idea of “Islamidad” — a distinct Latinx Muslim identity that resists complete assimilation to Arab cultural norms even as it reimagines and expands what it means to be Latinx and Muslim.
5. Latino and Muslim in America: Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority by Harold Morales
This book, which comes out in April, is a highly anticipated and pioneering monograph that, “examines how so-called ‘minority groups’ are made, fragmented, and struggle for recognition in the U.S.A.” To do so, it focuses on the story of, “Latino Muslims [who] celebrate their intersecting identities both in their daily lives and in their mediated representations online.”
While I have yet to get my hands on this book, the publisher’s description gives us an overview:
As is evident from the above, research from, and on, Latinx Muslims is on the rise. The above provides valuable fodder and necessary provocation for further research and understanding by broader Muslim, American, and Latinx populations. Reflection, writing, and research is getting deeper and wider and that’s a good thing.
Of course, to be more cognizant, and fine-tuned, in researching Latinx Muslims, researchers have to ask the right questions in a community that is still growing, emerging, and solidifying itself. Future research must be deeper and broader still, more thoroughly theoretical in its approach, and perhaps focused on some of the following suggested areas for further research:
- more understanding of, and from, Latinx Muslim women who provide a rich, unique, and gendered place and perspective within a community where they are the majority;
- investigations of specific Latinx influence on Islamic doctrine and Muslim practice in the U.S. and abroad;
- further exploration of the accents and considerable transnational lives of Latinx Muslims. I am aiming to provide more on this in my own dissertation research with Puerto Rican Muslims and in my forthcoming book from Hurst Publishers and Oxford University Press on Islam and Muslim communities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Certainly, there is more left to discover about the nuances of this community’s narrative and how they fit into the global Muslim picture. Yet, the above works help provide a firm, and comprehensive, foundation for this further research.
Just 100 years ago the Latinx Muslim community in the U.S. scantly existed, if it was present at all. Today, Latinx Muslims have the opportunity to shape Islam and Muslim communities in the U.S., in Latin America, and across the globe with their particular accent on its theology, practice, and expansion and via the various media of global communication and contact between multiple cultures and communities. The above works showcase how this is already happening and why it matters.
Did you know you can read the first part of “Our Journeys” for free at barnesandnoble.com? That’s right, you can read the short bios of Khadijah Rivera, Ibrahim Gonzalez, and Benjamin Perez for free on your web browser. Check it out!
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