Gender, Authority, and Islam in Suburban Chicago


A review of The Construction of American Islam: Gender, Authority, and Tradition in Suburban Chicago, by Justine Howe.

Justine Howe’s dissertation details the rhetorical and identity acrobatics of the melding of categories “American” and “Muslim” in a foundation in suburban Chicago. Begun in 2004 by eight Muslims, mostly second-generation immigrants, the Alexander Russell Webb Foundation was created as an alternative to the Chicago area’s many mosques. The founders’ shared frustrations with the extant Muslim community revolved around one focus: that the mosques sought to preserve the cultural specificities of their congregants’ countries of origin, rather than focusing on Muslim faith and practice. Though the Webb Foundation advocates replacing this “cultural Islam” with “pure” or “real” Islam, Howe finds that its members actually seek to replace Arab and/or South Asian cultural primacy in mosques with what they perceive to be American culture, as defined by white, middle-class values.

Howe’s methodological approach lies somewhere between classic community ethnography and textual analysis. Her data come from a year and a half of participant observation at Webb classes and activities as well as 30 in-depth interviews with Webb members. Howe’s analysis focuses on her research subjects’ negotiations with texts—and their negotiations with each other over these texts. She follows the logic of their interpretations, pinpoints their ideologies, and maps their thoughts onto the broader spectrum of Muslim engagements with scripture and tradition. Her dual focus on ideological threads and lived experience lends salience to her work, making it an important contribution both theoretically and empirically. The first chapter of the dissertation outlines these contributions; Howe then presents her evidence in the following chapters. Her central thesis is that in pursuing a “seamless” American-Muslim identity, Webb participants actually recreate multiple hierarchies of class, race, and authenticity both through their interpretations of “Muslim” and of “American.”

In Chapter 2, Howe maps these hierarchies onto the geography of the Chicago suburbs, detailing the complicated symbology of race and class associated with different corners of the city and its outskirts. Webb’s conception of American culture is built squarely on the middle-class, heterosexual normativity of the suburban nuclear family, with all the inequalities that entails. Emphasizing the compatibility of middle class consumption with Islamic values is a central mission for the foundation, which hosts events like ski outings and father-daughter camping trips. In this suburban landscape, the ethnic enclaves of recent and working class immigrants are suspect and inauthentic, as are the mostly-black inner-city mosques. Both are symbols of questionable Muslimness and marginalized Americanness, against which Webb defines its mission and identity. Webb also enacts its economy of American-Muslim authenticity in its choice of religious leadership, especially through their reverence of Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah. Abd-Allah has degrees from elite American universities, but he also spent a large amount of time in the Middle East. Donning traditional “Eastern” garb and peppering his speech with Arabic phrases, his blended symbolism reflects the hyphen in “Muslim-American” that Webb wants to strengthen.

The process of hyphenation, as Chapter 3 reveals, requires intensive interpretive work of Muslim texts, particularly the Quran. Howe relates scenes from Webb’s Quran class, which places heavy emphasis on individual agency to interpret the Quran, relate the text to modern social issues, and seek corroboration from diverse sources, both classical or modernist. To define the modernist strand within Webb’s interpretations, Howe relies on Charlie Kurzman’s definition of liberal Islam (Charles Kurzman, Liberal Islam: A Source Book, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): “The term ‘liberal’ is useful for describing Webb exegesis of the Qur’an because participants directly engaged in the project of reconciling it with American liberalism, particularly religious pluralism” (p. 103). Interpretive practice revolves around finding creative solutions to this problem of reconciliation, thereby reinforcing the assumption that, properly interpreted, the Quran is perfectly compatible with secular, humanist values. As such, Webb members find the Quran clear and easy to interpret when its message conforms to this framework (e.g. in verses promoting interfaith interaction), but more difficult when it does not (e.g. in verses condoning wife beating). In the latter cases, Webb instructors and members rely on the asbab-ul-nuzul framework, which emphasizes the ethical principles of the Quran combined with the context of revelation. Interpretations can rely on individual logic or on the classical tradition, whichever lends itself to a more amicable explanation.

Interpretation at Webb is a defensive act against two constructed Others. The first consists of Muslims whose interpretations of Islam Webb sees as opposite of its own, Muslims were grouped under the terms “Wahhabi” and “Salafi.” Like any other constructed Other, Salafis—modernist Islamists—are not a well-defined group but a ghostly antithesis that structures Webb’s understandings and affirmations of its resistance project. Howe aptly identifies this as a case of Mahmood Mamdani’s “good Muslim” versus “bad Muslim” dichotomy (Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, New York: Pantheon Books, 2004). Despite its vague definitions, Howe delineates Webb’s litmus tests for identifying Salafi “bad Muslims”: they are against gender equality, created the halal/haram dichotomies dominating Chicago mosques, and sanctioned Sufi practices as harmful innovations. In turn, Webb emphasizes gender equality, grey areas in Islamic law, and re-appropriates Sufi-inspired practices like regular mawlid gatherings. Yet Webb members’ methods and overt motives for deriving these understandings are in fact strikingly similar to Salafi or, more generally, modernist fundamentalist projects. Webb sees itself as rescuing a pure Islam away from various pollutants, returning to a model closer to that held by the early community of believers surrounding the Prophet Muhammad.

Webb is also in conversation with the outside world’s Islamophobia, which only seems to have ears for the “bad Muslims.” The process of reacting to Islamophobia in Webb is reminiscent of Zareena Grewal’s description of the post 9/11 Muslim crisis of authority (Zareena Grewal, Imagined Cartographies: Crisis, Displacement and Islam in America, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor dissertation, 2006). As politicians and popular media attacked Islam, ordinary Muslims who might not have bothered much with the details of Quranic exegesis now had to launch themselves into complex interpretive practice in order to produce a counternarrative against Islamophobes and the dreaded Salafis, whose actions have been blamed for Islamophobia—a narrative that explained their religion both to themselves and the outside world.

This project of interpretation carries high stakes for Webb members’ day-to-day lives as they balance cultural and religious edicts. Chapter 4 demonstrates this balance through ethnographic data from Webb’s fiqh class. Fiqh is the wide range of interpretations of divine law (shari’a) based on the texts of the Quran and Hadith. At the beginning of the chapter, Howe describes how the class represented Webb’s attempt at wrestling shari’a back from prolific anti-shari’a discourse in popular media and politics. Rather than assume that shari’a is antithetical to American values, some Webb members go so far as to suggest that American patriotism is even a religious duty under the shari’a. Fiqh classes emerge as a way to understand the shari’a for Muslims who often confronted it on their television screen before delving into its meaning for their day-to-day practice of Islam.

In examining the content of the fiqh class, Howe follows Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s lead by using the framework of normativity, wherein the focus is on the “‘triangular relationship between the individual, community, and God’” (p. 134) (Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, “Religious Normativity and Praxis among American Muslims,” in Cambridge Companion to American Islam, edited by Omid Safi and Juliane Hammer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Howe especially emphasizes the “production of normativity” (p. 134) around worship and interpersonal relations, highlighting the spectrum upon which members’ interpretive strategies fall via the example of prayer. On one end is Talal Asad’s definition of “traditional,” wherein people triangulate tradition, orthodoxy and authority to determine “correct” stances (Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1986). On the other end of the spectrum, supporting evidence from the texts or the classical framework are chosen ad hoc to support lived experience. Here, a normative heterodoxy emerges where dissent is common and acceptable. In the realm of interpersonal relationships, Webb positions itself against the aforementioned halal/haram dichotomy espoused by Salafis running local mosques. Salafis see Islam as a clear guide for both a complete way of life on the individual level and a complete economic and political system on the social level. Webb rejects this, emphasizing that the classical framework generates laws by simultaneously respecting cultural specificity and identifying the original spirit behind a ruling. Howe astutely points out that Webb members’ individual interpretation of the Quran actually echoes Salafi practices: “Islamists tended to reject the edifice of classical Islamic scholarship, constructing their conception of shari’a based on a direct reading of the Qur’an and especially hadith … the Webb class’s insistence on the need for fiqh to accommodate culture is in many ways a refutation of Islamist goals to make shari’a the foundation of politics and society. At the same time, Webb students’ assertion of their own authority to engage in legal interpretation shows how their approach to fiqh was rooted in the very discourses they sought to critique” (p. 149).

As they struggle with the crisis of authority between individuals and classically trained scholars, Webb participants shape their daily lives around the development of good character and a close relationship with God. They emphasize flexibility, dissent, and pluralism while espousing a universal ethical system that overlaps with Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus, participants end up weaving individual experience, political discourse, and perceived Islamic tradition.

The last site of reflection and ideological formation that Howe explores is the women’s book club. In Chapter 5, she explains how the women who participate “read their everyday concerns and anxieties about the future of the American Muslim community into each book, regardless of its content” (p.156). The book club is a sacred ritual of middle class American womanhood, “intertwining Protestant theologies and consumerism” (p. 176). In this specific space, the women distinguish themselves from less cultured Muslims within Webb as well as the community overall. The club becomes a space to narrate their experiences as American Muslims against the texts they read. Common themes include theorizing 9/11 and its effect on the Muslim community, as well as reasserting their nationalism and American patriotism. Gender and sexuality again emerge as litmus tests for separating “good Muslims” from “bad Muslims.” Women in the club deride those with less enlightened views on gender, even as they debate their own relationship with feminism and the strategies of resistance—from reform to withdrawal—employed in mosques.

Howe’s dissertation could be read as a series of maps charting the social, ideological, and spiritual sites of the community under study. Taken in its totality, it also makes important points regarding the project of liberal Islam among American Muslims. Howe finds that Webb defines itself in opposition to Salafis, yet shares fundamental ideological and methodological tendencies with them. Both groups aspire to an ideal, pure Islam defined by moral and social proximity to the original community of believers. Both groups also rely on direct, individual interpretation of the Quran without the aid of classical frameworks. The difference is not in the modernist ideology or the interpretive methodology, the difference is in the conclusions. Webb ultimately pursues integration with American middle class whiteness. Even in its reactions to Islamophobia, Webb is inherently American. Webb members blame Muslims whose actions and ideologies supposedly feed into the Islamophobia, but little is said of the economic, political, or ideological motivations of the Islamophobes, which may have very little to do with Islam or Muslims.

Eman Abdelhadi
Department of Sociology
New York University

Primary Sources
1.5 years of participant observation at Webb Foundation classes, seminars and activities.
30 In-Depth Interviews with Webb members.
GhaneaBassiri, Kambiz. 2010. A History of Islam in America. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Publications by and about Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah

Dissertation Information
Northwestern University. 2013. 230pp. Primary Advisor: Sani Umar.

Image: Photograph of Alexander Russell Webb.

Leave a Reply