Is Marvin X the Father of Muslim American Literature?
by Dr. Mohja Kahf
Is there such a thing as Muslim American literature (MAL)? I argue that there is: It begins with the Muslims of the Black Arts Movement (1965-75). The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of its iconic texts; it includes American Sufi writing, secular ethnic novels, writing by immigrant and second-generation Muslims, and religious American Muslim literature. Many of the works I would put into this category can and do also get read in other categories, such as African American, Arab American, and South Asian literature, "Third World" women's writing, diasporic Muslim literature in English, and so forth. While the place of these works in other categories cannot be denied, something is gained in reading them together as part of an American Muslim cultural landscape. Like Jewish American literature by the 1930s, Muslim American literature is in a formative stage. It will be interesting to see how it develops (and who will be its Philip Roth!)
I suggest the following typology of MAL only as a foothold, a means of bringing a tentative order to the many texts, one that should be challenged, and maybe ultimately dropped altogether. My first grouping, the "Prophets of Dissent," suggests that Muslim works in the Black Arts Movement (BAM) are the first set of writings in American literature to voice a cultural position identifiable as Muslim. Contemporary Muslim writing that takes the achievements of the BAM as an important literary influence also belongs here, and is characterized similarly by its "outsider" status, moral critique of mainstream American values, and often prophetic, visionary tone. In contrast, the writers of what I call "the Multi-Ethnic Multitudes" tend to enjoy "insider" status in American letters, often entering through MFA programs and the literary establishment, getting published through trade and university book industries, garnering reviews in the mainstream press. They do not share an overall aesthetic but are individual writers of various ethnicities and a wide range of secularisms and spiritualities, and indeed I question my placing them all in one group, and do so temporarily only for the sake of convenience.
On the other hand, my third group, the "New American Transcendentalists," appears to cohere, in aesthetic terms, as writers who share a broad Sufi cultural foundation undergirding their literary work. Their writings often show familiarity with the Sufi poets of several classical Muslim literatures (e.g., in Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Urdu), as well as with American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, and that which tends toward the spiritual and the ecstatic in modern American poetry. Finally, the "New Pilgrims" is my term for a loose grouping of writers for whom Islam is not merely a mode of dissent, cultural background, or spiritual foundation for their writing, but its aim and explicit topic. Of the four groups, the New Pilgrims are the ones who write in an overtly religious mode and motivation, like Ann Bradstreet, Cotton Mather, and the Puritans of early American history. This does not prevent them from being capable of producing great literature, any more than it prevented the great Puritan writers. Here is an example of just a few writers in each category, by no means a comprehensive list:
From the Black Arts Movement:
• Marvin X, whose Fly to Allah (1969) is possibly the first book of poems published in English by a Muslim American author.
• Sonia Sanchez, whose A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974) is the work of her Muslim period.
• Amiri Baraka, whose A Black Mass (2002) renders the Nation of Islam's Yacoub genesis theology into drama. As with Sanchez, the author was Muslim only briefly but the influence of the Islamic period stretches over a significant part of his overall production.
Later Prophets of Dissent include:
• Calligraphy of Thought, the Bay area poetry venue for young "Generation M" Muslim American spoken word artists who today continue in the visionary and dissenting mode of the BAM.
• Suheir Hammad, Palestinian New Yorker, diva of Def Poetry Jam (on Broadway and HBO), whose tribute to June Jordan in her first book of poetry, Born Palestinian, Born Black (1996), establishes her line of descent from the BAM, at least as one (major) influence on her work.
• El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) is an iconic figure for this mode of Muslim American writing and, indeed, for many writers in all four categories.
• Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali, an influential figure in the mainstream American poetry scene, with a literary prize named after him at the University of Utah, brought the ghazal into fashion in English so that it is now taught among other forms in MFA programs.
• Naomi Shihab Nye, Palestinian American, likewise a "crossover" poet whose work enjoys
prominence in American letters, takes on Muslim content in a significant amount of her
• Sam Hamod, an Arab midwesterner who was publishing poetry in journals at the same time as Marvin X.
• Nahid Rachlin's fiction has been published since well before the recent wave of literature by
others who, like her, are Iranian immigrants.
• Mustafa Mutabaruka, an African American Muslim, debut novel Seed (2002).
• Samina Ali, midwesterner of Indian parentage, debut novel Madras on Rainy Days (2004),
was featured on the June 2004 cover of Poets & Writers.
• Khaled Hosseini, debut novel The Kite Runner (2003).
• Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim of New York Irish Catholic background, whose punk rock novel The Taqwacores (2004) delves deeply into Muslim identity issues.
• There are a number of journals where Muslim American literature of various ethnicities can
be found today, among them Chowrangi, a Pakistani American magazine out of New
Jersey, and Mizna, an Arab American poetry magazine out of Minneapolis.
New American Transcendentalists
• Daniel (Abd al-Hayy) Moore is an excellent example of this mode of Muslim American writing. California-born, he published as a Beat poet in the early sixties, became a Sufi Muslim, renounced poetry for a decade, then renounced his renouncement and began publishing again, prolifically and with a rare talent. His Ramadan Sonnets (City Lights, 1986) is a marriage of content and form that exemplifies the "Muslim/American" simultaneity of Muslim American art.
• The Rumi phenomenon: apparently the most read poet in America is a Muslim. He merits mention for that, although technically I am not including literature in translation. Then again, why not? As with so many other of my limits, this is arbitrary and only awaits someone to make a case against it.
• Journals publishing poetry in this mode include The American Muslim, Sufi, Qalbi, and others.
New American Pilgrims
• Pamela Taylor writes Muslim American science fiction. Iman Yusuf writes "Islamic
romance." This group of writers is not limited to genre writers, however.
Dasham Brookins writes and performs poetry and maintains a website, MuslimPoet.com, where poets such as Samantha Sanchez post. Umm Zakiyya (pseud.) has written a novel, If I Should Speak (2001), about a young Muslim American and her roommates in college. Writers in this group also come from many ethnicities but, unlike those in my second category, come together around a more or less coherent, more or less conservative Muslim identity.
Websites tend to ban erotica and blasphemy, for example. The Islamic Writers Alliance, a group formed by Muslim American women, has just put out its first anthology. Major published authors have yet to emerge in this grouping, but there is no reason to think they will not eventually do so. My criteria for Muslim American literature are a flexible combination of three factors: Muslim authorship. Including this factor, however vague or tenuous, prevents widening the scope to the point of meaninglessness, rather than simply including any work about Muslims by an author with no biographical connection to the slightest sliver of Muslim identity (such as Robert Ferrigno with his recent dystopian novel about a fanatical Muslim takeover of America). It is a cultural, not religious, notion of Muslim that is relevant. A "lapsed Muslim" author, as one poet on my roster called himself, is still a Muslim author for my purposes. I am not interested in levels of commitment or practice, but in literary Muslimness.
Language and aesthetic of the writing.
In a few cases, there is a deliberate espousal of an aesthetic that has Islamic roots, such as the Afrocentric Islamic aesthetic of the Muslim authors in the Black Arts Movement.
Relevance of themes or content.
If the Muslim identity of the author is vague or not explicitly professed, which is often the case with authors in the "Multi-Ethnic Multitudes," but the content itself is relevant to Muslim American experience, I take that as a signal that the text is choosing to enter the conversation of Muslim American literature and ought to be included.In defining boundaries for research that could become impossibly diffuse, I choose to look mainly at fiction and poetry, with autobiography and memoir writings selectively included. I have not included writings in languages other than English, although there are Muslims in America who write in Arabic, Urdu, and other languages.
Love And War
by Marvin X
preface by Lorenzo Thomas
by Mohja Kahf
Have spent the last few days (when not mourning with friends and family the passing of my family friend and mentor in Muslim feminism and Islamic work, Sharifa AlKhateeb, (may she dwell in Rahma), immersed in the work of Marvin X and amazed at his brilliance.
This poet has been prolific since his first book of poems, Fly to Allah, (1969), right up to his most recent Love and War Poems (1995) and Land of My Daughters, 2005, not to mention his plays, which were produced (without royalties) in Black community theatres from the 1960s to the present, and essay collections such as In the Crazy House Called America, 2002, and Wish I Could Tell You The Truth, 2005.
Marvin X was a prime shaper of the Black Arts Movement (1964-1970s) which is, among other things, the birthplace of modern Muslim American literature, and it begins with him.
Well, Malik Shabazz and him. But while the Autobiography of Malcolm X is a touchstone of Muslim American culture, Marvin X and other Muslims in BAM were the emergence of a cultural expression of Black Power and Muslim thought inspired by Malcolm, who was, of course, ignited by the teachings and writings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
My interest is contemporary literature, and by literature I am more interested in poetry and fiction than memoir and non-fiction, although that is a flexible thing. I argue that it is time to call Muslim American literature a field, even though many of these writings can be and have been classified in other ways-studied under African American literature or to take the writings of immigrant Muslims, studied under South Asian ethnic literature or Arab American literature.
With respect to Marvin X, I wonder why I am just now hearing about him-I read Malcolm when I was 12, I read Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez and others from the BAM in college and graduate school-why is attention not given to his work in the same places I encountered these other authors?
Declaring Muslim American literature as a field of study is valuable because recontextualizing it will add another layer of attention to his incredibly rich body of work. He deserves to be WAY better known than he is among Muslim Americans and generally, in the world of writing and the world at large.
By we who are younger Muslim American poets, in particular, Marvin should be honored as our elder, one who is still kickin, still true to the word!
Love and War Poems is wrenching and powerful, combining a powerful critique of America ("America downsizes like a cripple whore/won't retire/too greedy to sleep/too fat to rest") but also a critique of deadbeat dads and drug addicts (not sparing himself) and men who hate.
"For the Men" is so Quranic poem it gave me chills with verses such as:
for the men who honor wives
and the men who abuse them
for the men who win
and the men who sin
for the men who love God
and the men who hate
for the men who are brothers
and the men who are beasts
"O Men, listen to the wise," the poet pleads:
there is no escape for the men of this world
or the men of the next
He is sexist as all get out, in the way that is common for men of his generation and his radicalism, but he is refreshingly aware of that and working on it. It's just that the work isn't done and if that offends you to see a man in process and still using the 'b' word, look out. Speaking of the easily offended, he warns in his introduction that "life is often profane and obscene, such as the present condition of African American people."
If you want pure and holy, he says, read the Quran and the Bible, because Marvin is talking about "the low down dirty truth." For all that, the poetry of Marvin X is like prayer, beauty-full of reverence and honor for Truth. "It is. it is. it is."
A poem to his daughter Muhammida is a sweet mix of parental love and pride and fatherly freak-out at her sexuality and independence, ending humbly with:
it's on you
Other people don't get off so easy, including a certain "black joint chief of staff ass nigguh (kill 200,000 Muslims in Iraq)" in the sharply aimed poem "Free Me from My Freedom." (Mmm hmm, the 'n' word is all over the place in Marvin too.)
Nature poem, wedding poem, depression poem, wake-up call poems, it's all here. Haiti, Rwanda, the Million Man March, Betsy Ross's maid, OJ, Rabin, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and other topics make it into this prophetically voiced collection of dissent poetry, so Islamic and so African American in its language and its themes, a book that will stand in its beauty long after the people mentioned in it pass. READ MARVIN X for RAMADAN!--
Mohja Kahf Associate Professor / Dept. of English, Middle East & Islamic Studies, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville
Two Poems for the People of Syria by Marvin X and Mohja Kahf
how much water can run from rivers to sea
how much blood can soak the earth
the guns of tyrants know no end
a people awakened are bigger than bullets
there is no sleep in their eyes
no more stunted backs and fear of broken limbs
even men, women and children are humble with sacrifice
the old the young play their roles
with smiles they endure torture chambers
with laughs they submit to rape and mutilations
there is no victory for oppressors
whose days are numbered
as the clock ticks as the sun rises
let the people continue til victory
surely they smell it on their hands
taste it on lips
believe it in their hearts
know it in their minds
no more backwardness no fear
let there be resistance til victory.
--Marvin X/El Muhajir
Oh Marvin, how much blood can soak the earth?
The angels asked, “will you create a species who will shed blood
and overrun the earth with evil?”
And it turns out “rivers of blood” is no metaphor:
shiny with blood hissing from humans? Dark
and dazzling, it keeps pouring and pumping
from the inexhaustible soft flesh of Syrians,
and neither regime cluster bombs from the air,
nor rebel car bombs on the ground,
ask them their names before they die.
They are mowed down like wheat harvested by machine,
and every stalk has seven ears, and every ear a hundred grains.
They bleed like irrigation canals into the earth.
Even one little girl in Idlib with a carotid artery cut
becomes a river of blood. Who knew she could be a river
running all the way over the ocean, to you,
draining me of my heart? And God said to the angels,
“I know what you know not.” But right now,
learn the names of all the Syrians.
See what your species has done.
PALESTINE by Marvin X (Imam Maalik El Muhajir)
I am not an Arab, I am not a Jew
Abraham is not my father, Palestine is not my home
But I would fight any man
Who kicked me out of my house
To dwell in a tent
I would fight
To the ends of the earth
Someone who said to me
I want your house
Because my father lived here
Two thousand years ago
I want your land
Because my father lived here
Two thousand years ago.
Jets would not stop me
From returning to my home
Uncle toms would not stop me
Cluster bombs would not stop me
Bullets I would defy.
No man can take the house of another
And expect to live in peace
There is no peace for thieves
There is no peace for those who murder
For myths and ancient rituals
Wail at the wall
Settle in "Judea" and "Samaria"
But fate awaits you
You will never sleep with peace
You will never walk without listening.
I shall cross the River Jordan
With Justice in my hand
I shall return to Jerusalem
And establish my house of peace,
Thus said the Lord.
© 2000 by Marvin X (Imam Maalik El Muhajir)