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.