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Meet Alaina Morgan, postdoctoral scholar of Islam in the African diaspora

Sep 25 2018

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Alaina Morgan is a historian of Islam in the African Diaspora and a postdoctoral fellow at the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Department of Religious Studies. 

Specifically, Dr. Morgan's work investigates the intersection between race, religion, and political life among Muslims of African descent in the contemporary Americas and the larger Atlantic world. Her current book project explores the ways that Islam and Blackness were used by Muslims in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Anglophone Caribbean to form the basis of transnational anti-colonial and anti-imperial political networks. Prior to joining Stanford, Dr. Morgan received a Ph.D. from New York University's Department of History and a J.D. from Columbia University School of Law.
She recently spoke with the Abbasi program for its annual newsletter; read the full interview below.

How did you become interested in studying the history of Islam in the African Diaspora?

It wasn’t an all at once kind of thing, but instead my interest in Islam in the African Diaspora was a product of interests building on other interests.  Well, that and a lot of luck, circumstance, and being in the right place at the right time! I’d always been interested in the study of religion.  I grew up in a nominally Catholic family, and was forced to perform all of the rites even though I expressed a disinterest in doing so.  My father always joked that I became interested in religion in order to be able to reason myself out of having to go to Catholic afterschool education.  That was probably partially true, but I was fascinated by what people got out of religious affiliation.  Why did they decide to practice and why?

Once I got to college I kept on studying religion.  I was originally a major in Psychology, but decided that I disliked the way that Psychology was taught as a discipline at Rutgers University (where I went to college), and missed dedicating myself to the study of religion.  Then, 9/11 happened and the Twin Towers came down.  I’d lived in the New York area my entire life and could see the towers from my Sophomore year dorm on a clear day, so it was something that impacted me very personally and very hard.  Regardless, I recognized that the narrative that was being told by conservatives and even those who considered themselves to be liberal about Islam in America was narrow at best and simply untrue at worst. 

After college, I decided to go to Law School where I thought that I would probably go into academia to deal with issues of freedom of religious expression.  I didn’t end up doing that kind of law, and instead, I spent five years practicing corporate law before I realized that I needed to make a change.  In 2011, I applied to a graduate program and ended up getting accepted into NYU’s History Department where I began to put together of all of my interests in racial identity formation, religious belonging, political activism, and Islam in America specifically.  The rest is … well as we historians say, history.

What is your current research focus at Stanford, and what are some of the highlights of your experience so far?

My research currently focuses on anti-colonial and anti-imperial political activism by Muslims of African descent in the contemporary Atlantic world.  More specifically, my research focuses on the ways that Muslims of African descent formed transnational communities centering anti-colonialism and Islam as key components in the global struggle for Black liberation.  I argue that these forms of colonialism took place over a fifty-year period of time (from 1955-2005), over two continents (North America and Europe), and that as the nature of colonialism and imperialism changed, so did the ways that these Muslims understood their relationship to each other, to the nations of which they were citizens, and their strategies to obtain liberation from racial, social, and economic oppression.

One of the biggest highlights of my experience is the amount of support  – not only financial but interpersonal – that I’ve received from faculty and staff at Stanford.  When I accepted this fellowship, I was told that time would be the most valuable resource that I would have in these two years and that they would be invaluable to building scholarship that would eventually serve to bolster my case for tenure.  I’ve had that time and I’ve been able to have that time protected through a very supportive Department chair and Director and Associate Director of the Abbasi Program.  The other highlight has, without a doubt, been my students.  The classes at Stanford are much smaller than I was used to from my graduate teaching, but the small class size makes it possible for me to engage with, and support, my students in ways that I would be unable to do in a larger class.  The students at Stanford are brilliant, curious, and have pushed me to think about my research and teaching in new ways.

What course (s) are you teaching at Stanford, and what are some of the learning outcomes for your students?

Last year I taught two courses – one in the winter quarter called Islam in America and one in the spring quarter called Islam, Race, and Revolution: A Pan-American Perspective Islam in America is a lecture course designed to introduce students to the broad topic of the experience and legacy of Muslims in America from approximately the 19th century to the present day.  We start that course with several theoretical perspectives which challenge common misconceptions of what it means to be a Muslim in America or elsewhere in the world.  What I want is for students to recognize two things.  One, that the experience, beliefs, and practices of Muslims in America (or elsewhere) are not monolithic, but instead are adaptive and syncretic.  And two, that the history of Muslims in America spans hundreds of years and is part of the religious fabric of our nation.  Muslims are in no way foreign to the Americas, they have been a vibrant and essential part of its religious and political life.

The second course, Islam, Race and Revolution: A Pan-American Perspective was a seminar designed for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.  This course’s objective is to introduce students to the ways that Islam and race together have been used by Muslims throughout the Americas as a basis for political action.  I want to introduce students to the ways that Islam has been used by Muslims politically – in terms of Black Power, the Civil Rights movement, Third World solidarity movements, etc. –  in order to break apart this notion of political Islam as an irrefutable evil.  

In the upcoming year, I will only be teaching Islam in America during the fall quarter in order to focus more deeply on my own research and on a series of programming initiatives.

What are you hoping to accomplish through your research? Or how do you hope your teaching/research will contribute to a better understanding of Islam and Muslim societies today?

I’m trying to accomplish so much, both academically and socially.  First, I am trying to promote an understanding of how religion and political discourse have been used together to affect Black liberation.  Second, I am trying to make a critical intervention in the field of intellectual history.  Too often, both Black people and Muslims are discounted when considering the intellectual contributions that they have made to the world.  For hundreds of years, intellectual historians have studied the genealogies of thinkers from France and England about people of African descent and Muslims without considering how those people have thought of themselves.  I want to emphasize the genealogy of both Black and Muslim intellectual production.  It is critical to bring these histories to light.  Third, I want to bring to light the things that oppressed people have done for themselves to combat their own oppression.

These goals are also tied to my teaching as well.  When most students come to me, they have had no training about the history of Islam in America. We begin during the transatlantic slave trade and they are amazed by a few things.  First, is the degree to which Muslims taken from West Africa were determined to maintain their religious traditions even in the face of every attempt to suppress their religion and to Christianize them.  Second, is the long history of Islam in America.  Third, is the extent to which Muslim slaves resisted their enslavement in both quotidian and violent ways.  There’s so much misinformation about Islam in America that is circulating today that it is critical for students to have a basic understanding of the history of Islam in America to combat these hateful and harmful narratives.

Why is it important to study Islam/Muslim societies?  

I think that the answer to this question lies in the need to ask this question in and of itself. I am not sure that we, as scholars of Western institutions, would ever need to ask a question like – why is it important to study Christianity or Christian societies? Or why is it important to study Judaism?  Islam as a religion and as a guiding cultural principle has had a remarkable place in forming the world that we live in today.  From politics to art, Muslims have had an important place in forming this world.  And I think that part of the misunderstanding of Islam – that it is barbarian or violent – are stereotypes meant to detract from the beauty that Muslims have given to the world and the advances that Muslim societies have provided.  In the present day, the value of studying Islam and Muslim societies is, I think, critical to the project of promoting inter-religious tolerance and reducing racially and religiously motivated violence.

Learn more about the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.