Review: ‘Temple Folk’ Explores the Black American Muslim Experience

Aaliyah Bilal’s story collection, Temple Folk, was a National Book Awards finalist for fiction. (Photo by Tasha Pinelo)

By Mia Mikki

Black American Muslims are not often the protagonists of books. Relegated to the peripheries beyond literary focus, their stories were suddenly thrust into the limelight when Aaliyah Bilal’s debut short story collection, “Temple Folk,” was nominated for this year’s National Book Awards for fiction. 

Published by Simon & Schuster last July, Bilal’s collection explores the multifaceted dimensions of personal identity in a demographic that makes up a fifth of all U.S. Muslims. The collection’s stories confront prevailing stereotypes and offer an honest and open-minded survey of the often-overlooked lives within this unique crossroads of American identity.

A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that the majority of Black Muslims identify as Sunni Muslims at 52%, and 27% do not identify with any denomination. Bilal, raised in a Sunni Muslim household, is not so focused on this majority, instead turning her attention to a subsect of the demographic that has loomed large over Black American Muslims since the early 1900s: The Nation of Islam. 

Almost 100 years after its founding, The Nation of Islam, a religious and social organization focused on empowering Black Americans, remains an enigma to those on the outside. Its theology is simultaneously ultra-conservative and futuristic, dancing around traditional Islamic teachings, and is often deeply antisemitic. 

Its leaders are autocratic and charismatic—donning sleek black suits and bowties, their emphatically delivered sermons capturing the fascination and devotion of figures like Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali. During the height of the group’s influence in the 1960s, their ideas and actions left an indelible mark on the Black American experience.

The collection of short stories explores the Black American Muslim experience. (Cover art courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Not all of Bilal’s characters are Nation of Islam members; most exist on the cusp of a decision to stay or to leave the Temple. Several are estranged from its teachings, but all grapple with their faith, family, and freedom. Bilal treads a fine line here: careful not to take a side against an organization that, for many, provided a refuge from the hateful systemic racism that surrounded them.

At the collection’s open, Bilal uses a verse from the Qur’an as an epigraph, “It is He who made the stars as your guide through the darkness of land and sea,” words that exemplify the allure and validation of the Nation of Islam.

Each story in the collection is self-contained but thrums with a consistent feeling. In “Due North,” Bilal takes readers through the ethereal territory of grief and spirituality. An obedient daughter is pursued by the lingering spirit of her recently departed father, and something more personal, delving into themes that resonate with the Nation of Islam’s spiritual and ideological controversies.

This haunting narrative is deeply introspective, inviting readers to contemplate their own connections to their past and the beliefs that shape their existence within the context of this complex history.

Other stories like “New Mexico,” an imagined vignette of a former Nation of Islam FBI agent stalking a leader’s mistress, are more fanciful, but even these contrived narratives are grounded somewhere along the way in family dynamics and community bonds. The situation might be implausible, but the characters are all too human. 

Despite the situationally disparate narratives of each story, something in the thought patterns and motivations of her characters is intrinsically the same. Here, the rhetoric we are surrounded by informs the ways we act, speak, and ultimately think. The appeal of the Nation of Islam is tribalistic in nature. It removes the pesky complexities of individuality.

Yet even the Nation of Islam cannot fully snuff out a person’s character. The true artistry of “Temple Folk” lies in Bilal’s portrayal of human imperfection, fraught with an exquisite blend of compassion, nuance, and humor. 

In “New Mexico,” when a character finds his abusive father sick and covered in vomit, he thinks, “The immediate impulse I had was to spit on him.” Her characters are undeniably flawed, vindictive, and judgemental, but their struggles and growth are emblematic of a universal human experience. Here, Bilal is not just storytelling but reaching further into the realm of cultural exploration. 

The longer stories, like “Due North” and “Blue,” are the highlights of the collection—points where Bilal is more easily able to flex her creativity. It’s not a surprise that Bilal chose to place them at the beginning and end of the book. These are the ones that linger. 

If there is a glaring weakness in this collection, it’s that several stories end too abruptly, leaving you with far more questions than answers. You feel as though you have been dining at a restaurant with a server eager to clear away your plate before you’ve finished eating. 

 Bilal’s literary symphony not only breaks down barriers but constructs bridges of empathy and understanding. “Temple Folk” is an epiphany, an intricate journey into an oft-shadowed corner of American life. It serves as a testament to the power of words to illuminate the nuances of human identity and challenges the conventional definitions of belonging.