Islam in the African-American Experience By Richard Brent Turner (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003, 2d ed. 312 pages.)

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Aneesah Nadir

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Abstract

Islam in the African-American Experience is a historical account of Islam
in the African-American community. Written by a scholar of African-
American world studies and religious studies, this book focuses on the
interconnection between African Americans’ experiences with Islam as it
developed in the United States. While this scholarly work is invaluable for
students and professors in academia, it is also a very important contribution
for anyone seriously interested in Islam’s development in this country.
Moreover, it serves as a central piece in the puzzle for Muslims anxious to
understand Islam’s history in the United States and the relationship between
African-American and immigrant Muslims. The use of narrative biographies
throughout the book adds to its personal relevance, for they relate the
personal history of ancestors, known and unknown, to Islam’s history in
this country. Turner’s work furthers African-American Muslims’ journey
toward unlocking their history.
The main concept expressed in Turner’s book is that of signification, the
issue of naming and identity among African Americans. Turner argues that
signification runs throughout the history of Islam among African Americans,
dating back to the west coast of Africa, through the Nation of Islam, to many
of its members’ conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam, and through Islamic
messages disseminated via contemporary hip-hop culture. According to
Turner, Charles Long refers to signification as “a process by which names,
signs and stereotypes were given to non-European realities and peoples during
the western conquest and exploration of the world” (p. 2). The renaming
of Africans by their oppressors was a method of dehumanization and
subjugation.
The author argues that throughout the history of African-American
Muslims, Islam served to “undercut signification by offering African
Americans a chance to signify themselves” (p. 3). Self-signification is an
antithesis to the oppressive use of signification, for it facilitates empowerment
and growing independence from the dominant group. In addition,
“signification involved double meanings. It was both a potent form of
oppression and a potent form of resistance to oppression” (p. 3). By choosing
Muslim names, whether they were Muslim or not, Turner claims that ...

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