Transnational Theological Encounters Constructing Islamic Authority in New York

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Meryem F Zaman


South Asia, Islamic Revivalism, Diaspora, Tablighi Jama'at, New York, Islam in America


Recent attempts at limiting the entry of Muslims into the United States, including the promulgation of the executive order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” and calls for a “Muslim registry” are based in ideas of Islam as a monolithic ahistorical and acultural entity which “hates us” and endorses barbaric action against non-Muslims. Fueling these images is the belief that authority to speak on behalf of Islam is vested in specific individuals, and that actions “Islam” calls for are self-evident from examinations of the Qur’an and Hadith, and from the proclamations of religious leaders.

American media figures and politicians have supported their self-representation as top-down movements, in which a few leaders transmit their interpretations of sacred texts to unquestioningly obedient followers. This assumption shapes policy approaches to Islam and Muslims globally.

I draw on two years of multi-sited ethnographic research on transnational Islamic movements operating in Pakistan and the United States in order to demonstrate that, despite these movements seemingly leader-driven creation of knowledge, male and female members contribute significantly to the discourses around which they form themselves as subjects. These interjections are shaped by local ideas of good and bad as well as members’ own beliefs and practices. My work examines the ways in which Islamic practice in America absorbs multiple strands of theology developed in movement-bases, and combines them with local sources of authority to form a uniquely American Islam.

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