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Everyday Islam: Interview with Carolyn Rouse

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Everyday Islam," and reflects specifically on Rouse's coauthored 2004 article "Purity, Soul Food, and Sunni Islam: Explorations at the Intersection of Consumption and Resistance."

Kathryn Zyskowski: How does a focus on food offer different understandings of Islam and race, gender, and citizenship?

Carolyn Rouse: Scholarship on Islam often treats Muslims as mindless followers of a monolithic set of ethical and social practices. But even Muslims who claim to closely adhere to the fundamentals of Islam differ in how they practice and interpret their faith. Food choice offers concrete examples of just how faith, culture, and material constraints are negotiated such that the way Islam is practiced in one part of the world often looks different from they way it is practiced in another part of the world, or even next door. Everyday choices about what to consume and how to consume it reveal how Muslims balance their identity as believers with other cultural identities. In order to understand this point, it is necessary to go back to the basics regarding consumption.

Food and food preferences are material representations of cultural histories and beliefs as well as personal values and desires. Given that food affects us both at a physical and symbolic level, the saying “you are what you eat” also works in the reverse: you eat what you think you are. For example, in 2003 when Americans were angry that the French government refused to support the United States’s war with Iraq, some congressmen renamed French fries sold in the congressional dining hall “freedom fries.” While a seemingly silly act, the congressmen were asserting that to eat a food identified with France represented an act of treason. During this time of national crisis, food became associated with patriotism, and refusing Brie, another example, became a performative act expressing one’s national commitments.

The same logic works with respect to Islam, race, gender, and citizenship. Food is a powerful signifier that affects not only how people identify others, but affects how people feel about themselves. Different foods evoke deep-seated emotions tied to understandings of purity and health, and associations with comfort and pain. We are taught early in our childhood which foods are acceptable and which foods to avoid, and over our lifetime those boundaries change. How we organize what we can and cannot eat, should and should not eat, touches on one of the fundamental aspects of what makes us human; our ability to classify. Classification and boundary-making also happen to be fundamental aspects of religion.

As classificatory systems that help us organize our relationship to the world, religions conceptually delineate good from bad, pure from impure, lawful from unlawful. For Muslims, pure foods are designated “halal,” but in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, many African American Sunni Muslims wanted to go beyond eating halal foods. They also wanted to model their food choices after the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, it was not uncommon to find African American Muslims eating Middle Eastern type-foods in addition to traditional Southern and American fare. This syncretic cuisine reflected how African American Muslims identified as both Americans and Muslims. 

Instead of marking a tradition, this approach to eating was relatively new. In fact, in the 1950s, 60s, and much of the 70s, the Nation of Islam discouraged African Americans from eating Southern fare, or “soul food.” Elijah Muhammad, one of the founders of the Nation of Islam, called these foods “slave foods,” and he warned his followers that this food weakened blacks, thus making them vulnerable to exploitation. Foods such as pork, corn, and collard greens became taboo. Pork avoidance connected the Nation of Islam with “orthodox” Islam, but the other food taboos were entangled in race politics, black nationalism, and novel interpretations of the relationship between health and social empowerment. Similar logics underlie contemporary food movements like locavorianism and veganism.

Even though for most African American Muslims food taboos and rituals are no longer tied to the beliefs of Elijah Muhammad, intentional eating remains part of the African American Muslim experience. What one finds now are African American Muslims classifying their foods according to primary and secondary Islamic sources like the Quran and hadith. In addition, the blogs of Muslim woman have become novel site for sharing new understandings of and identifications with food. These websites sometimes include recipes, often embedded in stories of religious devotion and ex-pat journeys to Muslim countries. There are of course other interesting sites where Muslims develop new identifications with food like the Heal Thyself Garden Party, an annual ecumenical event in Philadelphia started by a number of African American Muslims. As anthropologists, what we know is that the types of foods associated with Muslim identity will continue to change even as the association of consumption with identity and belief persist.

KZ: There was a brief wave of scholarship done on the Nation of Islam in the United States, such as Felicia Miyakawa’s (2005) Five Percenter Rap. How does this project add to an understanding of the diversity of Islam in the United States?

CR: Most scholarship on Islam focuses on Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia. Disappointingly, much of this research is directed at the questions: “Why are they so different from us (meaning European and American non-Muslims), and why can’t they accept modernity?” But there really is no “clash of civilizations.” Instead, what one finds in the Muslim Ummah, or worldwide community of believers, is fascinating cultural and religious syncretism where local interpretations of faith and culture fuse in interesting and unexpected ways. Because African American Muslims are generally not associated with the recent war on terror, scholars like Miyakawa have been free to study the role of Islam in daily life without having to either defend Islam, apologize for the believers, or rant against “jihad” and women’s “submission.”

KZ: You seem to argue that food choices, for the American Sunni community in Los Angeles, is critical for understanding both how the community understands its past and future. Can you elaborate on this?

CR: History is not just about the past, it is also about the future. How we frame the moral choices of historical leaders is shaped by and shapes our sense of ethics and justice in the present. For example, the fact that in parts of the Southern United States the Civil War is still taught as the War of Northern Aggression impacts how Southerners vote in local and national elections today. Conservative political beliefs about small government and states’ rights are two discourses informed by a sense that the federal government overreached in the nineteenth century.

For African Americans, the belief that slavery and Jim Crow were systems where the line between victims and perpetrators was stark has been an important historical narrative. This narrative justifies a reparation-like affirmative action, a legislative action predicated on the idea that victims of past institutional racism need help in order to break cultural barriers to entry. Affirmative action helped speed the way toward gender, racial, and ethnic integration, but one could argue that the legislation was the product of social change rather than the other way around. I use food to demonstrate why this question about the role of individual agency in social change matters to African American Muslims.

The Nation of Islam’s discourse that Southern foods were “slave foods” cast African Americans as mere objects rather than subjects in early U.S. history. This telling of history fit into a redemptive narrative for converts like Malcolm X, who describes in his autobiography that his pre-conversion behaviors and attitudes were the product of brainwashing and racial oppression. Salvation fell on the heels of his renunciation of former dispositions, and the embrace of the Nation of Islam’s program of intentional self-cultivation. Once he recognized how white supremacy shaped his self-destructive desires, the Nation’s program of reeducation changed him from a non-agentive object of history into a subject with the power to write his own history.

This narrative of African American history worked very well for men and women who wanted to free themselves of abjection and self-loathing. But by treating soul food as something that was imposed on African Americans, the Nation erased a history of black creativity and agency during a time of undeniable suffering. African American contributions to American cuisine are significant. During slavery, some slaves were allowed to have their own gardens, and during Jim Crow good cooks could open up restaurants. Rather than see African Americans as victims of traditional Southern cuisine, one could read the history of soul food as the masterful co-creation of black people, both free and in bondage, who creatively blended West African, Indigenous American, and European fare.

The question of African American agency matters with respect to the law. Many legal scholars believe that successful federal legislation is the product of widespread grass-roots activism and demands for reform, rather than imposed through law. Except in extreme cases or authoritarian rule, law simply validates and normalizes cultural practices. This means that multiple facets of culture, rather than law alone, provide avenues for social change. Therefore, while the cultural and institutional tools available for African Americans have been highly constricted, they have found ways to survive and to eventually play a defining role in American law, culture, and politics. Unfortunately, by its very definition, survival requires some level of complicity with cultural systems that are largely beyond one person’s control, and interpreting the role African Americans have played in maintaining systems of inequality is what was at issue for the Nation of Islam.

If the way we interpret history provides moral clarity about the future, then the Nation’s black and white interpretation of American history left little room for the leaders to consider the organization’s own contributions to systems of oppression. A number of Muslims who transitioned from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam left because they felt disheartened by the hypocrisy in the organization. This transition came with a new awareness that black people have the same capacity for cruelty as white people. Therefore, on the one hand the Nation’s retelling of American history was a powerful intervention, particularly when it came from Malcolm X who was a brilliant orator. On the other hand, survival during slavery and institutionalized segregation required blacks to develop complicated relationships with whites. By ignoring the creative agency of those who found ways to cope with, and even comply with, institutionalized terror was, in the end, disempowering for many African American Muslims.

With the recognition that African Americans were capable of contributing to our own disempowerment came a willingness to confront how blacks unintentionally or intentionally perpetuated inequality and injustice. The world for African American Sunni Muslims in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was no longer divided into white and black, house negro and field negro. With the transition to Sunni Islam, African American Muslims were free to reconsider whether blacks needed their own nation or if it is possible to work within existing systems for social change. As African American Muslims began to get jobs in newly integrated institutions and businesses, and their children gained entry into formerly segregated schools, soul food no longer was thought of as a colonizing force. As new forms of agency opened up, converts began to once again celebrate soul food as a symbol of black invention rather than of white oppression.

KZ: How does an investigation of local iterations of religion help us to understand the form or meaning of a global religion?

CR: Religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are global in name only. Every religion is interpreted against a set of local social facts. It is true that all religions use primary and secondary sources that link believers in different parts of the world to a faith that at one level is global. But how these sources are used varies significantly from place to place and even person to person. Local issues shape which parts of these texts are emphasized, adopted, debated, or ignored. In light of African American social history, the way Islam addresses social inequality, marriage, race, and tribe is often foregrounded in African American mosques. If we could get a sense of how flexible the faith is by recording how differently the faith is taken up in different communities around the world, ironically, one would get a sense of Islam’s global appeal.

KZ: In what direction do you see anthropology of Islam moving, and what analytic tools do you think may be useful for this shift?

CR: Many anthropologists who started working on Islam before September 11, 2001, hope that one day we can return to discussing Islam without having to address issues like terrorism or cultural incommensurability. That said, there are three areas of research that I think remain vital. For people interested in the global diffusion of ideas and ethnic boundary making, Islam remains fascinating. Particularly with the explosion of new social-media platforms and the globalization of media in general, it will be interesting to see how religious identities geographically hop around the globe rather than diffuse outward. One way to study how religious beliefs migrate is to study the financing for religious projects from humanitarianism to real estate development. Currently, scholars are using qualitative and quantitative methods to trace these emergent international connections. In new religious media studies, the use of the term local, which indicates people living in close proximity, may be outdated.

Another interesting area for continued research is Islamic law. In Muslim countries, women win the majority of domestic cases, yet few Americans or Europeans would guess this given the rhetoric about Islam and sexism. The study of Islamic law is also interesting because it stands in contradistinction to the study of religious media by reasserting the relevance of the local in a time of intense fascination with the global. 

Finally, Muslim–Muslim relations are always interesting. How do Muslims from different parts of the world work and live together and understand their faith differently?

KZ: What direction is your own research moving toward?

CR: I wish that I could do more research on Islam, but because my work focuses on peaceful American Muslims living quiet lives it has been difficult to get funding. My work now is in medical anthropology and development in Ghana. I’ve been fortunate that in my new field site, Muslims have a significant presence. Ghana is a deeply ecumenical society where it is largely unquestioned that faith traditions are equal. I continue to research why.


Miyakawa, Felicia. 2005.  Five Percenter Rap: God Hop’s Music, Message, and Black Muslim Mission. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.