Review: Salaam America

Aminah-Mohammad-Arif, Salaam America: South Asian Muslims in New York. London: Anthem Press, 2002. 355 pages.

Review by Pierre Gottschlich

In: Internationales Asienforum. 35 (2004), 3-4, pp. 373-375.

The South Asian Diaspora and especially the Indian-American community in the United States of America have received more academic attention during the last decade. The remarkably good education of this group, its quick economic success, and its perceived interior unity have made it not only a “model minority” as far as its adaptation into the socioeconomic environment of the U.S. is concerned, but also a more and more active and visible player in cultural and political affairs of the host country. Consequently, the last years have seen a couple of in-depth studies of certain parts of the community. Most if not all of these works, however, have focused on Hindu and, in part, Sikh immigrants to the United States. The large number of Indian Muslims that have come to America has widely been ignored. Aminah Mohammad-Arif’s study attempts to fill this gap of in-depth knowledge and is, therefore, from its mere intention alone of great value.

Although the author has conducted interviews with members of the Indian Muslim community all over the U.S., the main focus of her work is the New York metropolitan area. This region has been the setting of different other studies of the Indian-American community such as, for example, the books by Johanna Lessinger (1995) and Madhulika S. Khandelwal (2002) and provides, hence, a well-tested ground for academic research. In contrast to other works Mohammad-Arif concentrates on a special group within the community, a minority’s minority, and, thereby, obviously breaks with the myth of a uniform Indian-American origin, culture, or identity.

The book is divided into four parts. The first main section, “From the Indian Subcontinent to America”, starts with a chapter on the historical development of Islam in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Here, Mohammad-Arif describes the different Muslim traditions of Sunni, Shi’a, and Ahmadiyya in South Asia, thereby laying the foundation necessary for an understanding of intra-community dynamics in the United States. Since the South Asian Muslims in the U.S. represent a “microcosm of the Muslim population of the subcontinent” (p. 19), a short introduction to their original internal divisions is not only helpful, but essential. The second chapter focuses on the economic and demographic profile of the South Asian immigrant community in the United States. Besides a brief historical description, this section offers insights into issues like “Marriage and divorce” (p. 39ff) or “Ethnic business” (p. 42ff). Unfortunately, the statistics presented do rely heavily on the 1990 U.S. Census of Population, which renders several numbers obsolete. Nevertheless, this chapter proves to be very informative, especially because of the personal views presented in numerous interviews.

The second main part of Mohammad-Arif’s work deals with the process of adaptation to the new environment. The first chapter of this section concentrates on the role and importance of religion and religious practices for the South Asian Muslim community. Here, Mohammad-Arif successfully links theoretical aspects of religiosity to the specific framework of Islam and to the day-to-day performance of religious duties by the members of the community. She also includes many controversial issues such as the Muslim diet (p. 63ff) or the oftentimes questioned obligation of Muslim women to wear the veil (p. 66ff). These critical points of South Asian Muslim religiosity are described in context of their relation not only to the host society but also to Islam in general, since many features of Islam on the Indian subcontinent show remarkable differences to their Arab or African counterparts. In the following chapter, Mohammad-Arif explores the problems and challenges for the second generation members of the community. Their “’masala’ identity” (p. 84) between the religious, cultural, and social traditions of their parents and the everyday struggle for acceptance in school and work life is of prime importance to the community as a whole and certainly deserves the attention the author has devoted to it.

The third part of the book, “Redefining Islam”, investigates Islamic institutions and movements in the United States and their relations and adaptations to the host society. On the institutional side, Mohammad-Arif works with many well-researched and very informative, although possibly not necessarily representative, case studies of different mosques, Islamic centers, and Islamic schools. As for Islamic movements, she thoroughly describes two of the most important groups, namely the “Muslim Student Association (MSA)” and the “Islamic Circle of North America (INCA)”. These and other transnational operating movements and associations, as Mohammad-Arif clearly shows, do reflect the high degree of organization a well-educated immigrant group like the South Asian population can achieve (p. 189ff). The concluding part exclusively deals with the relationships of the South Asian Muslim community with others. In the first chapter of this section, the author returns to the idea of an immigrant community being a microcosm, but applies this concept to the whole Muslim world. According to Mohammad-Arif, the United States might see the “emergence of a ‘utopian umma’” (p. 193) reflecting an aspired unified Islam despite the internal diversity of the Muslim population in the U.S. Recent trends suggest the possible forming of a “pan-Islamic melting pot” (p. 206), a development that is fostered by the growing use of modern communication technology. The following chapter explores the oftentimes difficult relations between South Asian Muslims and Hindus in the light of events like the Ayodhya crisis (p. 214ff) and assesses the possibilities of a common South Asian identity. In the last chapter of this section, Mohammad-Arif turns to questions of integration into the host society, dealing with matters of mutual perception as well as with stereotypes and mechanism of discrimination. Hereby, she also touches on lobbying efforts by the community in order to raise awareness and acceptance, a point that seems to be becoming more and more important and may encourage further research. The book closes with a summarizing conclusion that reconstructs the main lines of argumentation in a straight manner.

Since the original, French version of this book was published in 2000, the consequences of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have not been included in the main body of the work. Because of the prime importance of the challenges posed by this tragic event to the South Asian Muslim community, the author has added an afterword, written in February 2002. Here, Mohammad-Arif reflects on the immediate impact the terrorist strikes had on the community and discusses some of the first implications. The book also contains a glossary of the most important terms and an extensive bibliography. The statistical appendix is, at least in part, outdated, which is largely due to the fact that the South Asian Diaspora in the United States is one of the fastest growing and dynamically changing ethnic groups in the U.S.

Overall, Salaam America provides a valuable and readable source of information on a subject that has not received much attention yet. Aminah Mohammad-Arif has very successfully combined a thorough analysis of the South Asian Muslim population with indepth interviews of individual members of this community that convincingly support the author’s arguments. The relatively narrow regional scope proves to be advantageous to the focus of the assessment. Nevertheless, future research may also include more information on the large Indian-American Muslim communities in California, Texas, and Illinois.

Review: Ashgar Ali Engineer’s Autobiography

An Engineer and a Reformist: The Autobiography of Asghar Ali Engineer

Review by Zarin Ahmad

A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace Harmony and Social Change, New Delhi, Orient BlackSwan, 2011

Most people in India are familiar with the name Asghar Ali Engineer – a reformist, writer and activist based in Mumbai. He is well known in South Asia and beyond for his work on or rather against communal violence in India and his revolutionary activism against the Dawoodi Bohra (a Shia sect) clergy. Engineer has authored more than fifty books and written innumerable articles in books, journals and newspapers and been at the forefront of civil society movements.

However not many of us are aware of the fact that Asghar Ali is an engineer by training. He graduated in civil engineering from Vikram University, Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh and has worked with the Bombay Municipal Corporation for nearly twenty years. Asghar Ali remained active and interested in various social issues while working as an engineer. In 1981 he took leave for two years to work on an ICSSR project on Indian Muslims in the post-independence period and finally took voluntary retirement in 1983.

During his engagement with writing and activism, Asghar Ali Sheikh Kurban or Asghar Ali SK as he was then called, changed his name to Asghar Ali Engineer. He was writing an article for the Times of India on the evolution of Shariah law in 1965. He felt that the name Asghar Ali SK, did not sound good. His friend Zoeb Ansari suggested that he could take his professional name. It is common in India especially among Parsis (Zoroastrians) and Bohra Muslims to have a family name based on one’s occupation (Bandukwala or one who deals in guns, Mithaiwala or one who deals in sweets, Vakil or lawyer, Contractor,) or on the village name (Sidpurwala, Partapurwala). Going by this trend, Asghar Ali SK chose his professional name and not his village name which would have been Mandsaurwala. He penned his article in the Times of India under the name Asghar Ali Engineer –the name stayed.

The present book surveys his journey as the son of a teacher from a small town – Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh in the 1940s to a reformer and activist in Bombay (Mumbai) from the 1970s to the present. In doing so, Engineer addresses key issues in understanding Indian politics and society specifically the contours of communal politics in India and Maharashtra; Islamic Shariat and women’s rights and the politics and workings of the Bohra Muslim clergy. The latter is extremely valuable for those working on the Sociology of Muslims in India for two reasons. One, there is not enough literature on Muslim communities particularly so for Shia Muslims. Two, being a part of the Bohra community, Engineer has a deeper insight and access to the subject. The book also provides interesting vignettes on the experience of a civil engineer in Bombay from 1963 to 1981. This aspect however could have been discussed in a little more detail.