Race and Islam: Doctrine and the Vernacular

Islam, like all religious identities, is both a way of knowing and a mode of practice.  Racial identity is also a way of knowing and a mode of practice. In other words, like all identities, they are systems of meaning that socially locate our own, and others’ place in the world, and they are forms of agency that, through certain relations of power, attempt to reproduce or dismantle those social locations. Moreover, also like all identities, race and religion work in conjunction with each other—“intersectionally” (in the terminology of critical race theory, e.g., Crenshaw 1989), through “lived experience” or “lived religion” (in the terminology of anthropology and religious studies).

This article explores the relationship between race and religion, and the diverse systems of meaning and forms of agency associated with Islam in different historical and social contexts. My examples are Muslims of African and Indian descent. I begin with Haiti and then move on to India and the West Indies. My aim is to contribute to conversations about how our scholarly priorities might best be focused — on “Islams” (vernacular expressions of meaning and agency), or “Islam” (canonical doctrine). The stakes ultimately involve the way we understand how relations of power shape the meaning and agency of identities, and the implications for social policy as well as scholarship.

Reclamation Narratives and the Nation: Haitian Islam

On an August night in 1791, at an alleged, perhaps apocryphal, secret meeting of fellow slaves in Saint Domingue’s Bois-Caiman forest, the religious and political leader, Boukman, purportedly held a Vodou ceremony which, as the narrative goes, launched the Haitian Revolution. The representation of Boukman as a Haitian Vodou priest is pervasive. There is another contention: that Boukman was also an imam. The name “Boukman” is thought to be the French pronunciation of his sobriquet in English, “Book Man.” He was called this because he was literate, and purportedly owned a copy of a particular book: the Quran. Emblematic of the Bois Caiman ceremony was an “oath of secrecy and revenge” (Du Bois 2004) that was taken, allegedly sealed by the sacrifice of a pig, typically portrayed in later paintings as black. Other kinds of associations overlap in the Revolution narrative: Cecile Fatiman, Boukman’s contemporary, is thought to have been Muslim. And the famous slave revolt leader, Makandal (who preceded Boukman) is portrayed as an African Muslim, adept in the use of Islam-derived magical amulets: Makandal’s name eventually became identified in Saint Domingue/Haiti with various kinds of power objects, poisoning, sorcery, and slave dances; Vodou priests (houngan) and Vodou talisman came to be known as “makandals”; and to possess certain powers and to practice Vodou was to be “a makandal” (Fick 1990; Diouf 1998).

A few years ago I made a preliminary research trip to Haiti to inquire about Islam there.  There is as yet no exact, agreed upon numbers for Haiti’s Muslim population. But by 2013 (Jan 18), the Arab Newsestimated there were 4,000 to 5,000 Muslims in Haiti. Many are self-taught converts, who, as part of the Haitian diaspora, embraced Islam while abroad in North America. Islam became more widespread after the January 2010 earthquake, when some Islamic relief groups, religious missions, and UN Peacekeepers from Muslim countries were there offering aid, proselytizing, and seeking places for their own worship. During conversations we had, my interlocutors often turned to the relationship between Islam and Vodou, and what they mean for Haitian identity.

Among the issues that came to the fore were the ways that Muslim Haitians’ profound sense of self as Haitian shapes their understandings of the meeting ground of Islam and Vodou. One domain in which this particularly came through was in their historiography of the Haitian Revolution. The revolution represents a moment of unproblematically multilayered spiritual and divine inspiration, where Haiti is the unique result, the repository that equally encapsulates Islam, Africa, and Vodou. That said, a number of the Haitian Muslims with whom I spoke offered some interesting revisions of key aspects of the Revolution narrative which suggested a felt need to emphasize Islam’s role in it, particularly given Vodou’s preeminence as a defining feature of what it means to be Haitian. One variation I was told was that the forest was not called “Bois Caiman,” but rather, “Bois Kay Imam” (meaning “the forest by the imam’s house”); that it was not a “ceremony” held in Bois Caiman but a khutba(public sermon); that the suggested date of the Bois Caiman ceremony in 1791 (August 14thor August 24th ) was Eid-ul-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice); that it was a lamb and not a pig that was sacrificed at Bois Caiman, because a pig would make too much noise in that clandestine moment; that the pig, which the Boukman story specifies as being black in color, was really white—a metaphor symbolizing the French colonial oppressors—and, finally, that the word “Vodou” comes from the word wudu(Arabic for the ablutions in preparation for prayer).

“Haiti was presented to me as particularly ideal for Islam, a place where Islam could flourish, a place to which Islam is logically suited.One might perhaps call this a Haitian nationalist Islam, where local cultural history is not eclipsed by or in competition with religion but instead is central to it.”

One Haitian imam explained that, “we don’t have too many scholars in Haiti to travel for [Islamic] knowledge. We are a bunch of brothers and sisters who have accepted Islam without all the skills and knowledge. But we have faith, and we have our African traditions. [So] we feel more attracted to Islam.” The African traditions to which he was referring live in Vodou rather than being either specifically racialized or inimical to Islam. In many Haitian Muslims’ point of view, Vodou is the fertile ground in which Islam takes root. Rather than perceiving Haiti as a place that needs Islam to improve it (a viewpoint Muslims in other parts of the Caribbean take about their own countries), Haiti was presented to me as particularly ideal for Islam, a place where Islam could flourish, a place to which Islam is logically suited.One might perhaps call this a Haitian nationalist Islam, where local cultural history is not eclipsed by or in competition with religion but instead is central to it. This perspective is shaped by the monumental importance of the Haitian Revolution in the Haitian popular imagination, and by the impetus on the part of Haitians to reclaimtheir history from the colonizers’ versions that silence alternative pasts. These “reclamation narratives,” as I call them, are infused with Haitian nationalism and a commitment to counter colonial historiography with pre-colonial and other-worldly origins. They seek to recapture the histories of pep la—the people, the masses—rather than purify them into a single, cohesive canon. In other words, there’s a Haitianreason to reclaim themselves, in a sense, rather than motivation from orthodox canons, and this Haitianness is not fundamentally defined through race, although it highlights Haitians’ African heritage.

Colonial Narratives: Islam and Rebellion

My other example of the relationship between race and Islam considers a different system of meaning and form of agency: that of British colonialism. In 1838, after slave emancipation, until 1917, Britain continued sugar production on its West Indian plantations using indentured, “coolie” labor from India.  In 1857, sepoysin India (soldiers in the British East India Company’s army) engaged in a major uprising—the “Sepoy Mutiny” or “1857 Rebellion.” The army’s introduction of a new firearm used bullets which had to be bitten by soldiers before loading. It was rumored that the bullets were greased with pig and cow fat. Sepoys refused to use these bullets, interpreting them as an attack on Islam and Hinduism. The British reductively explained the cause of the uprising simply as a reaction to this rumor, but a major outcome of the rebellion was an official proclamation by Queen Victoria asserting the imperial commitment to religious freedom and the rights that were to be enjoyed by Britain’s colonized.

Indian Sepoys. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, the issue remained as to what kind of religion should be freely practiced. The bullet grease-religion rumor was identified by British officials as a situation where canonical doctrine—which defined legitimate“religion”—had devolved into irrational superstitions; they claimed that the revolt was nothing more than irrational thinking run amok. Referring to Indian “coolies” in the West Indies, one British observer remarked in 1861 that they were poor pagans who soon forgot and abandoned their “gross superstitions” after contact with civilization on sugar plantations, having left the “squalid filth and misery in which they have been accustomed to live” (Sewell 1861: 128). Using the language of Euro-colonial racist discourse, he described them as “a set of naked, half-starved, gibbering savages…” In 1872, the Report on the Coolie Riotsin British Guiana stated that in their gatherings, coolies “yelled, screamed, danced, cursed, blasphemed, and conducted themselves like ‘regular demons’.” Indentured laborers included Muslims, who the colonizers distinguished from Hindus, but these distinctions were based on certain, canon-based ideas about what constituted legitimate Islam and Hinduism. Indentured “coolies” were lesser evolved human beings, allegedly not valid representatives of genuine Indian religions.

To British colonizers, apparently, Indian “coolies” seemed racially too primitive to be deemed proper, authentic Muslims (and Hindus), and hence merited few of the protections of liberty and justice that Victoria’s proclamation  pledged.

Becoming in Vernacular, Being in Canon  

These two examples, Haiti and British colonial India and West Indies, show the complex ways that race and Islam/religion are intersectional, and underscore the value of Talal Asad’s call not to approach Islam in terms of “a fixed cast of Islamic dramatis personae, enacting a predetermined story” (Asad 1986: 10—11). In the case of Haitian Muslims, we see the capacious, inclusive intersectionality of religious and national-historical, as opposed to specifically racialized, identities.  In the case of British colonial thought, we see the unjust exclusivity of a different expression of this intersectionality.

“Another useful framework in looking at the relationship between race and Islam/religion and its vernaculars is the concept of ‘diaspora.’ Most scholars of the Caribbean today critique the idea that identity is essential and static, and, instead, view identities in the plural.”

Another useful framework in looking at the relationship between race and Islam/religion and its vernaculars is the concept of “diaspora.” Most scholars of the Caribbean today critique the idea that identity is essential and static, and, instead, view identities in the plural. Consequently, they approach diaspora as capturing the multilayered and contingent identities among Caribbean peoples. Diaspora as a conceptual tool is resonant with Asad’s argument; both are good reminders not to think in terms of binary contrasts like flux and heterogeneity versusstability and homogeneity, but instead to think in terms of religious and racial identities and traditions always becomingrather than simply being, among Muslims, however they may be defined, and those who are not Muslims, however they may be defined.  Part of Islam’s “becoming” is that its presence is felt in both direct and oblique ways; its definition and significance are matters of interpretation that vary with the historical moment, particular relations of power, social formation, and Zeitgeist. These global dialogues produce profound—if at times unintended, unanticipated, or unappreciated—consequences for Muslims’ belief and practice that are not merely migrated transplants from an origin land, but are embedded into the generative currents that make, and diversify Muslim histories.

There are a number of considerations in unpacking what “becoming” and “being” entail. The first is the category of religion itself and how it is being defined. As Asad, among others, has pointed out, definitions determine “the kinds of questions one thinks are askable and worth asking” (Asad 1986:12). Second is the “historicality,” as Ranajit Guha (2002)puts it, of religious traditions, taking account of which helps to dislodge the common denominators of authorizing discourses.  Finally, what must be investigated are the ways in which “particular people, in particular places and times, live in, with, through, and against the religious idioms available to them in culture—allthe idioms, including (often enough) those not explicitly their ‘own’” (Orsi 1997: 7). It is precisely because Muslims come in many forms—recognizable, contested, and unrecognized—that we must approach as multilayered the practices that make up this discursive tradition. These considerations challenge set-piece images of canonical Islam in the popular western imagination. Yet the reiteration of certain themes of mutual exclusivity persists. Perhaps the most influential is colonial Christianity’s connection between race and religion: “west” and “east” are inherently different significantly because “west,” “white,” and “Christian” typically are synonymous and “east” typically is anything but “white” and everything but “Christian.”  In real life rather than simply in principle, however, identities are a process. For example, in the U.S., immigrant Arab, Iranian, Central European, and Asian Muslims are subject to forms of racialization that change over time, making them racially “white,” “black,” or ambiguous, depending on historical context. African American and African Muslims typically are racialized as “black.” But these are on-going processes, reflecting the ways that race and religion are linked in the power relations of lived experience, not identity’s essence.

Rather than taking Islam as a given object of analysis that belongs to a site or location that is precisely defined by self-evident, fixed historical or cultural boundaries, we can approach the study of Islam as a subject of analysis that takes its shape and substance from the vicissitudes of history and the unpredictability of cultural formations. We can give greater priority to vernacular forms of Islam as more or less provocative variations of a doctrinal touchstone, rather than measuring Islamic belief and practice in a particular place and time against a litmus test of canonical authenticity.
Islam is not a frozen “thing”; it is conditional to the shifting authorization of certain beliefs and practices, which can either celebrate or denigrate particular practitioners. And we can do this outside of the western optic, which tends to see power relations among Muslims, towards themselves and others, as contentious and violence-driven.  One alternative approach isto locally interpret what “doctrine” and “vernacular” mean in relations of power experienced on the ground. Another is to envision generous, inclusive ways to associate religion and race, such as among Haitian Muslims. And remain critically attentive to equations of religion and race that sustain injustice, such as those that serve colonialism’s (and neo-colonialism’s) agendas.


References Cited

Asad, Talal, 1986. The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University.

Crenshaw, Kimberle, 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1(8): 139-167.

Diouf, Sylviane A., 1998. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: NYU Press.

Dubois, Laurent, 2004. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fick, Carolyn, 1990. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution From Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Guha, Ranajit, 2002. History at the Limit of World History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Orsi, Robert, 1997. “Everyday Miracles: The Study of Lived Religion,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, edited by David D. Hall. pp. 3-21. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sewell, William Grant, 1861. The Ordeal of Free Labor in the British West Indies. New York: Harper & Bros.