A new book by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Edward Curtis examines Islam in the global African diaspora, showing the many ways Islam is practiced by people of African descent while looking at the ways those practices have been influenced by their experience and interpretation of diaspora.
Bilal, whose mother was Ethiopian, is the historical figure whose rise from slavery inspired future Muslims of African descent to “claim his heritage as proof of their legitimate role as moral leaders for Muslims worldwide,” Curtis writes in “The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora,” published by the University of North Carolina Press. Bilal not only rose to become Muhammad’s companion but was asked by the Prophet to call Muslims to prayer. He issued the adhan — the call to prayer — for the remainder of his life.
Curtis is the Millennium Chair of Liberal Arts and professor of religious studies at IUPUI. The concept for “The Call of Bilal” began for Curtis while he was visiting villages along the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley.
“In Jordan on one of my study abroad trips there for IUPUI, I met and spoke with many Muslims of African descent,” he said. “These encounters made me want to learn some of their stories, and to learn those of other Africana Muslims in the diaspora.”
The professor said that as he looked to African diaspora in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, he came to understand better how Muslims of African descent sometimes dismiss the idea that they are part of an African diaspora. Others cherish the connections they have to African-descended people around the globe, though their political and cultural ideas about what binds them together differ.
He realized that the idea of diaspora was also sometimes interpreted in a religious fashion to emphasize the theological, ethical, aesthetic and ritualized elements of the African diaspora, orientations that linked the destiny of the black diaspora as much to the heavens as to the Earth.
Most Muslims in the African diaspora are Sunni Muslims, Curtis said, meaning that they identify with the majority tradition in Islam that makes incumbent certain basic interpretations of Islam (sometimes called the pillars of faith) and the “five pillars of practice” (the declaration of faith, daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca and alms for the poor).
“But what it means to be a religious Muslim beyond these shared traditions shatters any facile, American-based assumptions about the practices of black Muslims,” he said. “For example, I studied the prayers, healing rituals, instrumental music, singing, spirit possession ceremonies and dancing performed by some Siddi and Habshi Muslims in Pakistan and India at shrines devoted to their African ancestor saints, Bava Gor (or Gori Pir) and his sister, Mai Mishra. These saints are not household names among African American Muslims. (Generally speaking, the veneration of Muslim saints is not very popular in the Americas as opposed to in Africa and Asia.)”
Curtis encountered many surprises during his research, despite his long history of studying Islam.
“In the end, what seemed most important to me is that by studying Islam in the African diaspora, you can develop a very thorough understanding of Islamic tradition,” he said. “Since they have been part of so many Muslim countries and regions, their experience offers a wide view on what it means to be Muslim.”