Dannin's ethnographic study seeks both to explain the appeal of Islam to African-Americans and explore "issues of theology, religious conversion, and social transformation as they apply to the extraordinary rise of Islam as an American religion." Given these ambitious goals and Dannin's self-professed ignorance of Islam and Arabic, Black Pilgrimage to Islam is only partially successful.
In ten lucidly written chapters, the author presents several fascinating conversion portraits and organizational biographies, some decidedly more engaging than others. The book's first third surveys a variety of individuals, groups, and institutions that the author maintains were precursors of the contemporary African-American interest in Islam. Dannin convincingly argues that there has always been a segment of "unchurched" individuals in the black community, who as non-Christians were open to alternative religious experiences. In the early twentieth century, groups such as Noble Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple of America and Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam vied for the allegiance of both the unchurched and the disaffected Christian. Later, more "orthodox" Muslim groups—the author unfortunately does not offer a discussion of Islamic "orthodoxy" or the apparent diversity within this tradition—emerged to challenge the hegemony of the Nation of Islam, following the lead of Malcolm X.
Dannin's work is strongest when his ethnographic voice comes through. His discussion of the spiritual quest of Naima Saif'ullah, an African-American Muslim woman, raises many interesting questions about patriarchy, sexual attitudes, economic realities, and spiritual longings in the black community. In these instances, the author richly supplements the dominant conversion narrative of Malcolm X, which is emphatically a masculine, political pilgrimage to Islam. But Dannin falls somewhat short at thoroughly assessing the mass of information that he has gathered. For example, the allure and repulsion of polygamy for African-American Muslims is not fully explained, nor the manner in which new converts imagine their racial identity within the framework of being a "double minority." At bottom, Dannin's book is most important for colorfully bringing further attention to the need to study Islam among African-Americans.