Dr. Aliyah Khan is associate professor in the U-M Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Department of English Language and Literature at The University of Michigan. She is also Director of the Global Islamic Studies Center (GISC) at the International Institute. Dr. Khan specializes in postcolonial Caribbean literature and the contemporary literature of the Muslim and Islamic worlds, with a particular focus on the intersections of race, gender, and Islam in the hemispheric Americas, including in immigrant communities in North America.
Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean (Rutgers University Press 2020, University of the West Indies Press 2021), Dr. Khan’s recent book, is the first academic monograph on the literature, history, and music of Caribbean Islam, focusing on Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica, and on enslaved Muslim West Africans, indentured Indian colonial sugar plantation laborers, and their Muslim Caribbean descendants.
We talk to Dr. Khan about Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean (Rutgers University Press 2020, and how her background has influenced her research and career in academia.
Can you tell us about your background and journey into a career in academia, and as a writer?
I was born in Guyana, South America, which is culturally in the English-speaking Caribbean. My ancestry is primarily Indian Muslim. My great-grandparents were indentured laborers and migrants from India, who were brought to work on colonial sugar plantations by the British after the end of African chattel slavery in the Caribbean. As a result of this history, Muslims, mostly of Indian descent but including a growing number of reverts of African descent, constitute 6-10% of Guyana and Trinidad, and 14% of neighboring Suriname. That’s a little-known regional fact in the rest of the Muslim world. But Muslims live everywhere.
My maternal great-grandfather from Lucknow, India, was an imam at one of the oldest mosques in colonial British Guiana; his son, my grandfather in Guyana, is an imam; and his son, my uncle in Trinidad, is also an imam. I’m the fourth generation of my family who teaches about Islam; not as an imam, certainly, or even a theologian, but as a scholar of Muslim history.
My family immigrated to New York City when I was an adolescent. In my worldview and writing I’m a product of both semi-rural South America and urban New York, Amazon forest and city skyscraper, connected by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. I write both scholarly and creative nonfiction, the latter often in the rhythmic, dialectal creole Caribbean English I grew up speaking, peppered with some Hindi and African words. That creole is my mother tongue that I speak to my family, and it is the alter ego voice of all my writing.
Muslim Girls in Guyana, 1960's
I have both a literature and feminist studies Ph.D. and a fine arts, creative writing Master’s degree. I teach and do research in the fields of Caribbean literature and Muslim and Islamic literatures, and have an interest in graphic novels and their growing popularity amongst Muslim writers and artists to tell their identity and migration stories. I am now Director of the Global Islamic Studies Center at the University of Michigan, in addition to being an associate professor. My academic work and writing reflect my own intersectional ethnic, regional, and religious heritage. In a way, I’ve chosen to answer professionally the questions I asked about my own personal identity.
Your latest work Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean is a work of historiography, ethnography, and, simultaneously, analysis of 19th-21st century literature and music. What is your intention behind the book and research?
I wrote the book I wanted to read as a young person, on my own family and community history. Indo-Caribbean Muslims are not a well-known segment of the Muslim ummah, and there is not much formal study of or writing on our history. My book Far from Mecca is the first academic monograph on the history of both indentured Indians and enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and their descendants. There are other comparative religion studies, and other works in the field of security studies, but my book focuses on literary, musical, and artistic production about and by Muslims in the region. I establish what I call the canon of Muslim Caribbean literature, emphasizing its Sufi legacy and pursuit of batin, the hidden, from colonial African Sufi writings to poetry in the present. As I discuss later, decentering the place of the United States and 9/11 discourse in the history of Islam in the Americas, and addressing interethnic conflicts in the Caribbean, are also goals of the book.
It’s unusual for an academic literary analysis to also take recourse in music, but it’s an interest of mine and music is also the lifeblood of the Caribbean, heavily influencing politics—the music influences the politics, not the other way around. I maintain that you can’t talk about the Caribbean without talking about its music; and similarly, the Muslim majority-regions of the world are especially rich in old and diverse musical traditions, irrespective of widely varying Islam theological rulings on musical permissibility. It is a fact that the Muslim community in the Caribbean has its own musical history and takes recourse in music to alleviate some of the crushing conditions of coloniality and its aftermath. Regarding genre then, my book is not just literary analysis; it is also musical analysis, historiography, ethnography with interviews, and I am also clear that I am telling the story of my family while I do academic research. I don’t believe true academic “objectivity” exists. The normative and the objective are instead usually some dominant group’s norms.
A major goal of your project is to study the religious histories of the transatlantic slave trade and indentureship in order to decenter the place of the United States in the study of Islam in the Americas. How can your book help us to understand the current political and social climate?
My argument is that the history and impact of Muslims in Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America cannot be simply filtered through recent U.S. foreign policy, the events of 9/11, and narratives of contemporary terrorism. Islam has a much longer and more complex story in the Americas. It did not simply appear in the Western Hemisphere in the twentieth century. I decenter both the place of the United States and the importance of 9/11 narratives in discussions of Muslims in the Americas, particularly in the Caribbean, where U.S. national discourse has come to have an outsize extra-regional impact.
Muslims have been in the Americas since the earliest colonial times, with the North African and Iberian Moriscos who accompanied Spanish and Portuguese expeditions of conquest, and then with the transatlantic African slave trade. As many as 10% of enslaved West Africans in the Americas—many of whom were from Muslim regions of Mali, Guinea, Senegambia, and what is now Nigeria—may have been Muslim. Such enslaved Muslims were highly literate and were known for that distinction in the New World and on plantations. Several of them left behind in the Americas writings in Arabic and in their own ajami West African languages using Arabic script. My book examines such writings by two enslaved West African men in nineteenth-century colonial Jamaica. The U.S. has a number of these documents too, most famously the writings of Omar ibn Said, a Fula scholar from the Imamate of Futa Toro, who was enslaved in the Carolinas.
The same global forces and movements that affect the rest of the ummah do affect the Muslim Caribbean, but it is important to note that they are highly localized and operate in the regional context. For example, for demographic missionizing reasons, while Caribbean Muslims are majority Sunni, the visible minority is not Shi’a: they are Ahmadi, of Indo-Pakistani theological origin. Similarly, while “culture vs. religion” and neoconservative debates over bid’a (innovation) are as much a concern for Caribbean Muslims as they are for Muslims around the world, in the Indo-Caribbean, the debates revolve around retention of an Indian Muslim cultural heritage centered around Urdu, versus a more Arab Islam, including dress, language, and ritual performance styles, brought back by young Caribbean men who now study abroad in Islamic institutions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and formerly Libya.
You focus on Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica, with some reference to the United States and other American hemispheric locations. What has the reaction been from these communities to your book?
The responses from both the Caribbean community and the wider Muslim community in the U.S. and abroad have been warm, interested, and excited. Far from Mecca was published in early 2020 at the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that I lost some opportunities to speak about the book in-person but gained others virtually. My in-person book launch in Guyana that summer was canceled, but I have done numerous book talks and podcasts and interviews online, to much wider audiences than I would have been able to meet and speak to in person. These talks include, so far, to Caribbean community organizations in Trinidad and in the Caribbean diaspora in New York and Michigan, Black Muslim organizations, and university audiences across the U.S.
I don’t want to speak only to academic audiences, which is usually the case for academic books. Far from Mecca is for and about my Muslim Caribbean community, and community awareness and education are my concern. In the Caribbean, people appreciate the book because they want others to know about them and their stories, as many feel marginalized by the larger neighbor to the North. Muslims in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and North America are fascinated by minority Muslim communities and histories they don’t know much about, especially in places like the Caribbean, which is more known for beaches, tourism, and climate disasters like hurricanes than anything else. When we think about religion in the Caribbean, we usually think about Christianity and syncretic African diaspora religions like Haitian vodun and Cuban Santería. But Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism are there too.
Hajj passport photo of Imam Meer Abdur Rahm, 1958
This is a book that reads the history of Black and Indian Muslims in the Caribbean together, which are usually regarded separately in both politics and academia. Why was it important for you to tell this collective story?
Postcolonial Guyana and Trinidad are demographically evenly split between the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured Indians, with some indigenous and other smaller groups. Half a million indentured Indians arrived by ship to the Caribbean between 1838-1917, following the end of African chattel slavery in the British West Indies in the early 1830s. The majority of indentured Indians went to work on sugar plantations in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname, with substantial numbers going to Guadeloupe, Jamaica, and some even to Belize in Central America, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, and other smaller Caribbean islands. There has been much less community and marital intermixing between Indians and Africans than one might think, due to intersecting racial and religious reasons: the Indians were predominantly Hindu and Muslim, and the Africans were Christian.
After independence from the British, politics in Guyana and Trinidad operated on a racial and racist basis, with opposing ethnic political parties, flirtations with communism and socialism during the Cold War, economic stagnation, and racialized violence that continues to this day, especially during elections—the race-based system of voting in Guyana is known as apaan jaat, and has led to at least one genocidal attack on Indians, the 1964 Wismar massacre. In the tradition of the Afro-Guyanese scholar and martyr Walter Rodney, my book does reparative work: it shows Black and Indian Guyanese and Trinidadians our commonalities as two peoples whose ancestors were both forced laborers under colonialism, and who even shared a minority ancestral religion—Islam—in hopes of building a better, collaborative future.
I foreground the experiences and writings of enslaved West African scholars in Jamaica in the book’s first chapter, to trace and establish the long history of Black Muslims in the Caribbean and in the Americas. That is one way of doing the work implied by Black Lives Matter: bringing to light Black history and participation in literature and culture in the Americas, in a context where it was assumed that all enslaved Africans were illiterate and had no “culture” worth preserving—which is of course not true. I also establish the trajectory of Afro-Caribbean Muslim history and literature into the present, and overall challenge assumptions about cultural retention and racialized Muslim identities in the Americas.
Far from Mecca also highlights the experiences of Muslim women in the Americas, particularly Indo-Caribbean Muslim women. I interview Anesa Ahamad, the first woman known to have given a Friday Jummah khutbah in the Caribbean, in a Trinidadian mosque in 1995. The story was reported internationally by the BBC, and there was local furor over, interestingly, not that she had given the khutbah—many were proud of the “first”—but that some people thought she had not been covered enough (in a burqa) to speak in front of men, though she had covered her head. I analyze that and other feminist moments in Caribbean Muslim history. Some of my other research, on gender and domestic violence and suicide in the Caribbean, is more directly #MeToo work, in that it specifically identifies contemporary high rates of regional violence against women as a legacy of gender inequities dating back to colonial plantations.
Sadr Islamic Anjuman Masjid, Guyana, Aliyah's childhood Madrassa
In your book is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I want to dismantle binary oppositions between liberal and conservative Islam, between colonialism and postcolonialism, and between the local and the global. In all of these cases, people’s lives fall along a continuum, not at an extreme, and their participation and belief in systems are always in flux, depending on their context and life circumstances at given moments. One may have some beliefs that could be called religiously liberal, while holding socially conservative beliefs. One could consider oneself as deeply a local Guyanese Muslim, while understanding oneself as a member of the global ummah. This last, I argue in the book, is what governments of non-Muslim majority countries and some non-Muslims don’t understand, when it comes to thinking about the citizenship of Muslims: they think that Muslims will inevitably choose between the state and their religion, and they will always pick religion. That’s not true. Most Muslims pick both, their citizenship and religion. It’s Quranic, even: as frequently cited by Muslims, the Qur’an states, “O ye who believe, obey God and obey the Prophet and obey those in authority from among you” (4:60), implying that Muslims must be loyal to both Islam and to the country or community in which they reside.
What are your thoughts on the terms Islam as a religion and Muslim as a racialized category?
Islam has been historically racialized in the United States and in the Caribbean. We know that Islam is a religion and Muslims are adherents of that religion, regardless of race. But wherever Muslims have either been immigrants or subject to colonization or imperialism, they and Islam have been racialized, as different from whiteness and the Christianity aligned with whiteness.
In the U.S., Islam was originally associated in public discourse with nineteenth-century orientalist fantasies of One Thousand and One Nights (the Arabian Nights), a surprisingly popular text at the time. Muslims were “dusky” and exotic in looks and customs, as depicted by contemporaneous French odalisque painters obsessed with the idea of the harem in their colonial possessions in North Africa and the Middle East. But Muslims were perhaps not yet viewed as an existential threat in the U.S. and Western Europe, except in historical and religious understandings of them as the “Saracens” of the Crusades. Muslim Arabs are pejoratively racialized as brown-skinned beurs in France as a result of French colonial history, but of course the story of who is racialized and how is different in the U.S. and in the Caribbean. In the U.S, first the Iranian Revolution of 1979, then the two Gulf Wars in Iraq and Kuwait, then the events of September 11, 2001, led to the predictable racialization of many brown-skinned people, including Hindu and Sikh Indians and Latinx people, as potentially Muslim, which synonymously meant potentially terrorists. But that’s not the Muslim racialization that came first. Islam was first truly racialized in the twentieth-century U.S. with FBI and CIA surveillance of the Nation of Islam and other Black Muslims, during and after the Civil Rights era. It’s fair to say that in the U.S., being brown-skinned or Black is associated with being Muslim, and being Muslim is commensurate with being suspected of anti-state feeling or action.
In the Caribbean, enslaved African Muslims left no direct descendants. Therefore, until the end of the twentieth century, Islam was associated with the Indian descendants of indentured laborers—that is, until an armed 1990 attempted coup against the Trinidadian government, led by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr and his Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a predominantly Black Muslim organization. Suddenly, the Caribbean became aware than Muslims could be Black, too. But then, Muslims in the Caribbean also became associated with anti-government terrorism because of the Muslimeen’s actions—completely separately from U.S. Muslim terrorism discourse. All of that to say, yes, Muslims and Islam have always been racialized in non-Muslim countries and contexts.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
That’s an interesting and difficult question in the world we live in now. In order to face pandemic life and its maybe-aftermath, I hope we find strength and power in knowing ourselves and our world: our histories, literature, music, art, and community stories of ourselves are tools to combat ignorance and a drive toward death, to lessen fear and regain agency. That’s what my book does: I want to increase knowledge in the world, knowledge of Islam and Muslims, knowledge of the Caribbean and its historical interrelationship with the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. I write about different ethnic communities comparatively because I want to show that we can and have collaborated before, and we have more similarities than differences. I’m an educator; I believe education is the key to everything. It’s not that I want a new world. I want the best version of this world, this dunya. And I’m working on a new project on hurricanes, oil drilling, and other environmental issues in the Caribbean—cleaning up this world and mitigating climate change is part of my conception of a better world.
Which books have changed your life?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964) is one. As an immigrant youth in New York City, I was truly moved to read of his journey to Mecca and hajj that changed his view of racial separatism, and made him feel like a human being, not just a person ascribed a U.S. racial identity, for the first time in his life. He said, “Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures… America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases the race problem from its society.” Malcolm’s evolution from growing up in deprived circumstances under U.S. segregation to enlightenment through Islam and with an understanding of the oneness of humanity is a model for anyone, not just Muslims. His description of becoming emotionally overwhelmed upon the approach to hajj, and as a pilgrim reciting aloud the Talbiyah, “Labbayk Allahumma labbayk”, “Here I am, O Allah, here I am,” also taught me something about submission and humility before the divine.
Another important book to me is the Indo-Trinidadian author V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street (1959). He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, and was very prolific and a sharp observer of human nature, albeit a curmudgeon. He passed away in 2018. Miguel Street, a study of neighborhood characters on a street in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad, was one of his earliest books. When I read it as a child in Guyana, it was the first time I had ever seen people like me and my family and neighbors in a book. Most of what I had read before were English storybooks with white children, in that former British colony. It was a revelation. I didn’t know people who looked like me and who were not from America or England were important enough to be in a book. And now I’m a professor of literature, and I’ve written my own book about many people like me.
Hajj newspaper ad, Guyana, 1969
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you?
Muslim futurism will be heavily digital, as we build new spaces for and ways of creating, communing, and sharing in virtual and semi-virtual realities. I think that’s a given. But I want to leave space, in Islamic art and culture, for the intersection of the analog, the material, and reverence: I want us to stand outside the Great Mosque in Djenné, Mali, and marvel at its architecture, on a site where Muslims have prayed since the thirteenth century, if we are able to save it from climate destruction, at the same time as we create online art and move through the world in new ways. Whatever the form and genre, connection remains paramount: to the history of Islam and its arts and cultures, and to each other and to our world.
For more information check out
Sapelo Square: https://sapelosquare.com/2021/10/07/episode-8/
The Polis Project: https://youtu.be/yihtFVWUuBY
Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) at Northwestern University: https://youtu.be/woeLj9lhP6c
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.
- Personal Twitter: @aliyahrkhan - Work Twitter, as director of the Global Islamic Studies Center at the University of Michigan: @umichGISC
- Instagram: @farfrommecca
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aliyahrkhan/