Edward E. Curtis IV, a professor of religious studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis, has written on Muslim life in books such as The Practice of Islam in America (NYU, 2017) and Muslims in America (OUP, 2009). In his new book, Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest (NYU, Feb.), Curtis offers detailed profiles of individual Syrian Muslims who lived in the American heartland from the early 1900s through World War II. These often over-looked stories help showcase the rich history of diversity in the region as well as our nation, says Curtis, who is the descendent of Syrian Midwesterners.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book features Mary Juma, a farmer, and a musician, Abdullah Igram, as well as a dozen others: how did you decide who you were going to include?
I started by casting a wide net, then I quickly decided to tell the story of those people for whom I could capture the nitty-gritty, everyday details of their lives. Not just the ideas that they themselves put on paper, but the people for whom I could know what they ate, what they wore, where exactly they lived, and how they felt about where they lived. I wanted to recreate their sense of place as much as possible. I also wanted to tell the stories of a diverse group of Syrian Muslims.
Why do you think it is important for people to learn the stories of Muslims during this time and place?
The most important contribution in this book is to recover the idea that the American heartland has always been racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. Too many of us look back on our past and think that it was all white and all Christian. That’s never been the case. By rediscovering the stories of our Midwestern ancestors, we find that we have a different past—a past rooted in pluralism.
Can you tell me about some of the research that went into writing this book?
I based my stories on oral histories that I found in local libraries throughout the Midwest and the National Museum of American History. Another primary source was the Sanborn Insurance Maps, which allowed me to see where they lived, in what kinds of buildings, how large it was, what it was made of, and what were all the other buildings around them so that I could imagine the noises that they heard, the smells of their neighborhood, and how it looked. City directories, immigration records, U.S. census records, marriage certificates... The list of sources is quite long.
What surprised you most while doing research for this books?
A Dakota farmer was written up approvingly in a local newspaper about planting a Syrian pea. In its native language, it’s called, “hamus.” They meant, “humus,” or chickpeas. So early on, these Syrian farmers, before World War I, were coming to the Dakotas and planting chickpeas so that they could make hummus. It symbolized how Muslims were planting part of themselves in the Midwest. Not to make it a foreign land, but to participate in the Midwest. To combine something of the old world and the new world, and to bring it together.