Women of the Nation
Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam
By Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim
Published by New York University Press, 2014
Reviewed by Nisar Ali Shah
Rarely do we find women writing books about religion, but this year we have not one but two women scholars who co-wrote a comprehensive book relating to the gradual development of Islam in the United States with reference to the Nation of Islam.
The authors discuss in detail the pivotal role women have played in enhancing the image of Muslims in America by their distinct Islamic code of conduct, suitable dress sense, and behaviour in public.
The book mentions Amatullah Umrani, among other women for instance, first sister minister, highly educated, “reluctant leader”, according to herself, joined the Nation of Islam in 1972. Told to work for Nation and not for the devil, she left her lucrative teaching post in Southern University to teach at the University of Islam in Chicago.
Her regular columns for the newspaper Muhammed Speaks (later renamed Bilalian News when more knowledge about Islam became available) made enormous impact and inspired thousands of women.
Racist climate in the United States made Nation of Islam appealing to African-American women who belatedly discovered the teachings of Quranic values of respect for the dignity of women and their superior role in the development of civilisations.
The book explores how women understood, experienced and contributed to the Nation of Islam.
Initially, a political rather than religious thought behind the Nation of Islam, a consequence of black protests against racial harassment and segregation of blacks in America.
The book gives us an insight into how this variant has evolved since its early days and now has mainly aligned with the traditional Sunni Islam, mainly, and not exclusively, after Malcolm X who had a power struggle with Elijah Muhammad the leader of the organisation, for reforming the “cult”, made the transition to Sunni Islam after his performing the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia).
Many converts, including the two sons of Elijah Muhammad, studied Arabic and Islamic sciences at al-Azhar University in Cairo.
The book reveals that spread of Islam gathered pace with the arrival of Muslims in numbers from Asia and Africa, armed with a copy of the Quran. More importantly, they started to translate Quran into English which gave rise to the debate and the teachings of Quran.
The founder of the Nation of Islam remains an enigma. Elijah Muhammad is regarded as the original leader of this highly organised group of people, but intriguingly, the researchers of the book find that the founder of Nation of Islam was D. Fard Muhammed of Pakistani origin whose light-skinned complexion, authors suggest, set him apart from the ordinary residents and who started preaching in Detroit.
He taught the residents that they were a nation of Islam and Islam was their “true” and “natural” religion and not Christianity. According to FBI, Fard entered the United States illegally more than 65 years ago. Amid enthusiasm and euphoria someone put the “n” in nation as a capital letter, thus it became “Nation of Islam”, sounding like an organisation. Half a century later it is now akin to Sunni practices of Islam.
On a slightly different note, America is known as a nation of immigrants. People came from all over the world, seeking economic opportunities. So, in theory, everybody should have had a share of equal rights regardless of colour or creed.
The Africans, who were forcibly transported from their beloved Africa by the European Christians, were horribly badly treated as slaves and cruelly discriminated against throughout the US history, even after the abolition of slavery. The book, therefore, points out that the Nation of Islam was born out of this cruel, chaotic and violent backdrop.
In 265 pages there are only two pages of old black and white photos of women and they are not evan public figures. There are several repetitions of the same arguments and events in the book, but in spite of that it is a serious book of scholarship and meticulous research, which enhances our knowledge about Islam in the United States. African-American Muslim women are the main topics under discussion and their striking impact on the contemporary American society as a whole.
So, this book, written by two women scholars, proves once again that Islam did not spread through sword.
Jamillah Karim, a scholar specialising in Islam in America and co-author Dawn-Marie Gibson, a lecturer in Twentieth-Century US History, at Royal Holloway, University of London, wrote a truly remarkable book.