08 Apr

C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (1961)

The Black Muslims in America was the first scholarly work to examine the Nation of Islam (NOI) and African American Islam more generally as significant movements in American history. This book is a sociological study of the NOI. It is in its third edition and, for some, it remains the authoritative book on the NOI.

Lincoln argued that NOI was primarily a political movement and secondarily, if at all, a religious movement. More often than not, Lincoln discounted the “religiosity” of the NOI. He argued that the movement’s “religious values” were “not part of the movement’s basic appeal, except to the extent that they foster and strengthen the sense of group solidarity” (The Black Muslims in America, 1994, 26). Thus, Lincoln viewed the movement from a functionalist perspective. The NOI, according to Lincoln, appealed to disenfranchised black Americans because various sociological factors pushed them toward the movement. Religion functioned to hold the group together, but had no real meaning to NOI members. For Lincoln, the NOI created a political community among black Americans. As Edward Curtis notes, “Lincoln argued that the movement’s success stemmed primarily from its ability to create an exclusionary sense of community among its members” (Curtis, Islam in Black America, 2). In other words, the NOI served as a platform for Black Nationalism. Lincoln distinguished the political function of the NOI from its religious function. Lincoln was not the only scholar in the 1960s who argued that religion and politics were distinct. Like his contemporaries, Lincoln defined religion as theology, salvation, and constructed meaning. Religion was not action or political activity in this world. In fact, this is what Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.D. Muhammad, argued in the 1960s and 1970s. Religion was more than creeds and thoughts. Religion was theology, salvation, meaning, and political action in this world.

Lincoln also coined the phrase “Black Muslims” to refer to the followers of Elijah Muhammad. Black Muslims were “America’s foremost black nationalist movement” (The Black Muslims in America, 1994, 2). The Black Muslims’ “ultimate demand” was that “blacks be allowed to set up a separate state within the United States, occupying as much as one-fifth of the nation’s territory” (The Black Muslims in America, 1994, 2). This phrase conjured the notion that members of the NOI were militant anti-Americanists seeking their own nation. It reinforced the notion that this group was solely a political group. While Elijah Muhammad did call for the United States to give land to the NOI for its own nation, members did not refer to themselves as Black Muslims. They called themselves Muslims and Bilalians. Moreover, while Muhammad called for a separatist nation, he also called for the improvement of black lives in America by their practice of Islam.

Lincoln’s functionalists approach has had lasting impacts on the study of the NOI. Many scholars continue to view the group as a political movement with few ties to religion, or Islam. Scholars are slowly coming around to the fact that the NOI was a religious and political movement, and its members were Muslims. Despite Lincoln’s approach, his work remains crucial for contemporary studies of the NOI. Lincoln was the first scholar to take the NOI seriously as a movement central to American history.

07 Apr

Edward Curtis, Islam in Black America (2002)

This book examines the tension that exists between the idea that Islam is “universally applicable to the experience of all human beings” and the idea that Islam is applicable to “the experience of a particular group of human beings” (1). Curtis traces this tension in African-American Islam by analyzing the thought of five prominent black figures who wrote about the relationship between Islam, black identity, and black liberation: Edward W. Blyden, Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Wallace D. Muhammad. By examining the thoughts of these figures in their respective contexts, Curtis explains when and how these men understood Islam “as a tradition for all human begins, a tradition for only black human beings, and sometimes, a combination of both” (1). Islam in Black America is divided into seven chapters: one on method, one each for the five figures listed above, and one on closing remarks.


Chapter 1 calls for a re-assessment of scholarly approaches to the study of Islam. To rescue the study of African-American Islam from functionalist approaches, Curtis argues that scholars should study Islam according to Talal Asad’s definition of “tradition.” Moreover, this study of “tradition” should emphasize Alasdair McIntyre’s definition of “living” tradition. Islam as a living tradition is “an historical process in which human beings, interacting with each other in discrete social contexts, invent, embrace, and inherit something [questions, ideas, rituals, symbols] that they care about and argue over, whether explicitly or not” (4). Moreover, in what may be the most important suggestion for the study of Islam, Curtis advises: “the student of Islam should not even insist on using a person’s identification with the Qur’an as a kind of minimal definition of what it means to be a Muslim….The mere fact that one has labeled oneself a Muslim indicates some sort of participation, however slight, in the process of Islamic history” (6).

Chapter 2 begins the academic recovery of African-American Islam by examining the paradoxical thought of Edward W. Blyden. Blyden appropriated Islam in particular ways to encourage racial equality and black greatness while simultaneously stressing universal Islam. Chapter 3 examines how Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple (MST), launched a particular form of Islam. This Moorish, or Asiatic, separatist tradition defined membership according to biological descent, nation, and creed. Chapter 4 traces the “absolute particularism” of Islam promoted by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Muhammad endorsed Islam as the “natural” religion of African-Americans, which “fostered a positive sense of black pride and advanced the fight for black liberation” (63). Chapter 5 argues that at the end of his life, Malcolm X faced a “double burden” as he struggled to understand the separate natures of universal Islam and black identity. Chapter 6 suggests that Wallace D. Muhammad “offered two competing visions of social change that seemed to pit a universalistic Islam against a particularistic black struggle” (108). Muhammad blended particular Islam with the universal as he traced black Muslims’ identity to Bilal, and interpreted the Qur’an and sunna in light of African-American historical experiences. Chapter 7 briefly examines the thought of Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of the NOI. Farrakhan combined particular Islam with the universal in his espousal of black messianism in the role of universal human redemption.


Although Curtis supports the study of Islam in terms of universalism and particularism, he waivers in his support of this method in the conclusion. Curtis lauds Wallace D. Muhammad for moving away from the creation of essentialist Islam towards a “historicist” approach. Yet, in a strange twist Curtis suggests that this relativism could lead to the radical deconstruction of Islam where “one might end up with competing forms of particularism” (139). This is peculiar because Curtis went to great lengths to argue that Islam has always been interpreted in particular ways given historical circumstances. Curtis goes on to suggest that radical particularism could be “avoided, however, if participants in the discourse decided that something is universal to them all—like a commitment to social justice or the centrality of the Qur’an and the hadith” (139). This suggestion also seems out of places since in Chapter 1 Curtis suggests that scholars not use the Qur’an as a litmus test for deciding who is a Muslim.

While Curtis’s closing remarks do not square with his introductory remarks, the larger methodological points of Islam in Black America are steps in the right direction for the study of African-American Islam. Scholars need to understand Islam as a living dynamic tradition, and accept as Muslims those who self-identify as Muslims. However, scholars need to push Curtis’s categories of universalism and particularism. Curtis criticized this framework himself in “African American Islamization Reconsidered” (2005). Curtis advised that “Rather than evaluating African Americans’ ‘Muslim-ness’ by juxtaposing their religious practices with some ahistorical mode of the ‘real’ Islam (usually seen to be embedded in authoritative readings of Islamic sacred texts), I seek to chart how African-American Muslims have constructed what is ultimately an imagined communal identity.” In the end, Curtis argues that universalism and particularism are not helpful categories for studying Islam, particular African American Islam.

Future studies of Islam in American need to go beyond textual analysis and tracing thoughts of prominent figures. Scholars need to understand how Islam in America and “Old World” Islam are actually lived traditions. That is, how individual people practice Islam in their everyday lives by using texts, things, images, bodies, and spaces.

03 Apr

Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” (1967)

“Civil Religion in America” examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy. Bellah argues that American civil religion is distinct from American religions and that it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of religion.


The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract. There Rousseau argued that civil religion recognized: 1) the existence of God; 2) the life to come; 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice; and 4) and the exclusion of religious intolerance. Civil religion for Rousseau was meant to unify the state, give authority to the state, and act as a binding force for members of society who practiced individual religions. America’s Founding Fathers did not rely on Rousseau’s phrase, but the ideas circulated among them. At the center of American civil religion is “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” (8). While Bellah does not examine the emergence of American civil religion in the early Republic, he does look to the Founding Fathers and Presidential addresses to tease out its characteristics. 1) God is central. He is uitarian (yes, little “u”). He is austere and focuses on order, laws, and rights of human. He is not defined in terms of love and salvation. This God is not a deist. The founding documents recognized God as active in American history. 2) America is central because America is the new Israel, which can be rewarded or punished. 3) American Civil Religion centers on sacred, historical events like the American Revolution and the Civil War. 4) It has sacred scriptures like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. 5) It has sacred heroes and martyrs like Washington and Lincoln. 6) It focuses on the sacred theme of sacrifice. 7) It has sacred places like the Capital, battlefields, and cemeteries. 8) It has rituals practiced on sacred days, like Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July. Bellah does not talks so much about the afterlife in American civil religion. But, one could argues that it is there.

Civil religion, Bellah argues, “at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experiences of the American people” (12). American civil religion is not anti-clerical or militantly secular. It borrows from the traditions of American religions and most Americans see no difference between them. Sometimes Americans disagree with American civil religion. Sometimes American civil religion upholds equality in the face of oppression. “The civil religion has exercised long-term pressure for the humane solution of our greatest domestic problem, the treatment of the Negro American” (15).

Civil religion changes and in the 1960s was involved in theoretical and theological redefinitions of which it was not aware. Americans challenged the centrality of God in America. Bellah argued that this would impact American civil religion: “If the whole God symbolism requires reformulation, there will be obvious consequences for the civil religion, consequences perhaps of liberal alienation and of fundamentalist ossification that have not so far been prominent in this realm” (15). Civil religion has helped America think and act through its most serious situations, including independence and slavery. The next issue to consider is what American civil religion will mean for the United States in the world. If America seeks after unlimited power and empire then, Americans must think about how American civil religion with affect the world. Americans would have to incorporate new international symbolism in civil religion. Bellah thinks this can be done: “Fortunately, since the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, the reorganization entailed by such a new situation need not disrupt the American civil religion’s continuity” (18). Bellah is confident that civil religion can transform as America becomes a world power. However, he is less sure how atheism will impact American civil religion’s reliance on God.


Bellah argues that civil religion is not the notion that Christianity is the national faith. Civil religion is also not Herberg’s “American Way of Life,” which suggests that civic religion in American is faith in faith. Herberg suggested that the increase in religiosity and church practice in 1950s America did not really reflect an increase in Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish religiosity or practice. Rather, it reflected Americans’ recognition that religion in general, or faith in faith, was important to American life. Going to a Protestant church was merely a ritual in the American Way of Life. It did not necessarily reflect one’s going to church to practice Protestantism in any particular ritual or creedal form. For Herberg, the American Way of Life was the secularization of American religions. One went to church or synagogues because that was what Americans did as part of the American Way of Life.

Bellah, on the other hand, argues that “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” Civil religion and American religions flourish alongside one another. Americans are not able to see civil religion, Bella argued, because they do not recognize Durkheim’s notion of “religious dimension.” Durkheim argued that every group had a religious dimension which defined its overall identity. Bellah suggests that this dimension can be easily examined in southern or eastern Asia. American civil religion has not been recognized because of the way the West defines “religion.” Religion “denotes a single type of collectivity of which an individual can be a member of one and only one at a time” (19, n. 19). Durkheim argued that religion united clans of clan-based societies in its creation of a collective consciousness. Bellah argued that American civil religion united individual Americans in similar ways.

02 Apr

Patrick D. Bowen, “U.S. Latina/o Muslims Since 1920” (2013)

Brown provides an overview of the development of the U.S. Latina/o Muslim community since 1920. U.S. Latina/o Muslim have been converting to Islam since the 1920s. Converts joined African-American Muslims communities like the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, and Sunni Muslim groups. Racial inequalities in the United States brought Latina/os and African-American Muslims together. U.S. Latina/o Muslims also joined immigrant Muslim communities. In the 1970s, a small group of U.S. Latina/o Muslims started the Alianza Islamica, an organization to promote the Latina/o identity of Muslims. This created tensions among some African-American and U.S. Latina/o Muslim because the latter invoked the term “Moor” to connect to their Latina/o Muslim heritage. Since the 1920s, the term had been used by African-American Muslims to evoke their African Muslim heritage. U.S. Latina/o Muslims continue to foster a Latina/o Muslim culture and heritage today. This article supports the notion that Islam in America cannot be studied without studying American history. American Muslims, like other religious Americans, are shaped by their social, cultural, historical, and geographic locations.

31 Mar

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, Islam in America and “The Moslem World” and “Voice of Islam” (1890s)

In the introduction to Yankee Muslim, Brent D. Singleton outlines Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb’s Islamic mission to America from 1893 to 1897. The mission, officially known as the American Islamic Propaganda (AIP), was funded by Hajee Abdulla Arab and Moulvi Serajuddin Ahmed of Bombay. Webb stationed the mission headquarters in New York where he established a free lecture room, a library, and the Moslem World Publishing Company (MWPC). In 1893 the MWPC published Islam in America, a short book in which Webb explained why he became a Muslim. It also outlined the practices and beliefs of Muslims in other counties. The MWPC also issued the pamphlet “A Guide to Namaz,” and the newspapers The Moslem World (from May 1893 to 1893), The Voice of Islam (from November 1893 to June 1984), and The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam (from January 1895 to February 1896).

According to Singleton, financial exigencies and dissent among AIP members contributed to the dissolution of the mission in 1897. Singleton argues that Webb contributed directly to the failure of the AIP: “His main failure was the inability to truly imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race…It is clear that by choice and ideology Webb left himself only a small window for success, pinning his hopes on a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia” (47). Singleton’s comments are noteworthy because they suggest that the AIP failed because Webb reached out to the wrong audience, “a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia.” This suggestion is intriguing and deserves more attention. Did Webb reach out to the wrong audience with his publications?

To answer this question, I think scholars must situate Webb, the newspapers, and the Muslim mission in their historical contexts. Race and class were important to Webb, but not in the way that Singleton suggests. In other words, the newspapers and mission’s failure had little to do with Webb’s inability to “imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race.” Historians must move beyond recognizing Islam as a force that engulfs believers. Islam, like Christianity, has no one message about race and class. People practice religion, for better or worse, based on their geographic location, historical circumstances, and local and familial traditions. Webb probably believed that he imbibed the true teachings of Islam in Victorian America. This leads me to the second point. Scholars must situate American Islam within its American context to understand how and why Webb’s mission flourished or floundered. This investigation may start by examining the publications of the AIP and the historical context of 1890s America.

The publications are important for understanding Webb’s mission because late-nineteenth-century America was inundated with newspapers and missionary literature. In this light, I think scholars can ask: How did the form and content of the AIP publications work compared to other mission literature? Did the AIP publications do what readers expected them to do (i.e., relate the truth and Words of God, quote from scriptures, etc.)? Scholars should also examine the actual content of the publications for more evidence about the failing of the AIP. Articles written by Webb in The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam suggested that the mission failed for reasons other than those stated by Singleton. Singleton argued that Webb did not proselytize among the American masses, people who, Singleton suggested, would have accepted Webb’s Islam. However, Webb suggested in his articles that: 1) he was so popular in the American presses that damaging rumors spread about the mission before he could control them; 2) American Christian missionaries in the East were sending damaging reports about Muslims back to America; and 3) that the American press blamed unrest in the Ottoman Empire on Muslims and supported Armenian Christians. It seems that Webb was very popular among the intelligentsia as the presses published numerous articles about him (some serious, others mocking). Thus, it appears that Webb was more well-known in America than he has been given credit for. Rather than Webb’s unpopularity, targeting the wrong audience, and inability to practice Islam, the failure of the AIP appears to have more to do with the American and international context in which the AIP emerged.

By examining only a few the articles written by and about Webb, scholars have overlooked the contentious context in which the AIP arose in America. They have also ignored the surplus of American print media that Webb and the AIP would have had to contend with. This appears to be a general problem with studies of Islam in America. Muslim missions and movements are treated as anomalies that emerged in America and cannot be explained. American religious, historical, and international contexts (especially the cultural exchange between other American missionaries) are ignored. Scholars must recognize the American contexts in which groups and individuals practiced Islam. Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America were times of religious, spiritual, social, and economic restlessness and reform. Some upper-middle class, white Americans, like Webb, looked to non-Christian forms of religion for Truth. These men and women were formed by liberal Protestantism which lauded progress, whiteness, and respectability. Scholars cannot extract people from their historical context and expect to fully understand the success or failure of their missions. Like other Americans Webb and his followers were searching for their identities in new and thought-provoking ways. Webb targeted white, middle-class Americans who were also searching for Truth in religion and media. After all, this was the heyday of Spiritualism and spirit photography. The failure and floundering of the AIP must be explored in these historical terms and relationships.

29 Mar

Imam W. Deen Mohammed, “Message of Concern” (1982)

Imam W. Deen Mohammed delivered the lecture “Message of Concern” at a meeting of the Committee for the Removal of All Images that Attempt to Portray the Divine (CRAID) in Dallas, Texas in 1982. CRAID was initiated in the 1970s as an interfaith movement that called for the removal of images of Jesus from Protestant and Catholic churches across the United States. Mohammed argued that images of Jesus, particularly white images of Jesus, were psychologically harmful to the African American community. The images taught black Americans to worship and suffer under a white God. Mohammed argued that removing these images from churches would aid in the uplift of black Americans, particularly black Christians. Mohammed also argued that removing the images would help black Americans recognize the message of Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the American Muslim Mission.


“Message of Concern” highlighted the reasons why Mohammed founded CRAID and promoted its work. CRAID was intended to remove images in religion “that invite the members of the religions to worship, or to address those images as Deities, or as G-d’s [sic]” (8). Images of the white Jesus on the cross were psychologically harmful to black Americans. These images suggested that God was white and called black Americans to suffer under a white God. According to Mohammed, “But when you look at it [white image of Jesus], no such ideas can come in your mind, because your reality does not agree with that part of the image. So, isn’t this an injustice” (18). These images should be removed to repair injustice.

Removing images of Jesus was a particularly American problem for Mohammed. He argued that white images of Jesus in churches violate the United States Constitution: “This is the concept in the Constitution of these United States of America. The Constitution of the United States recognizes the sacred dignity of the human person. It does not give priority to ethnicity over what is essentially the human being” (19). Images of Jesus, particularly white images, sanctioned the divine in human form. This human form of God authorized which humans had authority and power in the world. These imaged forms of Jesus elevated whites over blacks. This violated the United States Constitution because the Constitution did not elevate one race or ethnicity over another. Rather, it upheld the dignity of all humans. According to Mohammed, the necessity of removing these images was supported by the Constitution. Removing images of Jesus was an American problem rooted in American history.

Mohammed argued that the American Muslim Mission had a particular mission in America. “The Mission is to make America deliver.” The Mission was going to make America deliver on its promises of freedom, equality, and the sacredness of human dignity. America also had to deliver on the promise in religion. According to Mohammed, the promise in religion was the Gospel’s message that “parables are going to be pushed back, and out of the way as a veil opening up for the light, and the knowledge shall come to us in plain language that all of us can understand. In other words, that wording in scripture, promises us what America in the West had tried to deliver.” Mohammed suggested that America had a particular role to play in religion, in the Gospel, in the American Muslim mission. That role was providing, “Publication education. Equal access to knowledge.” America was to fulfill the divine will of the scriptures which said that all men would recognize “the Reality of their Purpose” by accessing knowledge. Jesus promised knowledge to all people through the Gospel and Muhammad was the messenger to the illiterate. Removing images of Jesus would allow black Americans to see and fulfill the messages of Jesus and Muhammad.