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.

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.

23 Mar

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963. The Birmingham Campaign called for marches, sit-ins, and nonviolent direct action against continued segregation and racial violence in Birmingham. The Birmingham court issued injunctions against these protests. African Americans continued their protests and many were arrested and jailed for their participation, including Martin Luther King, Jr. While in jail King’s allies smuggled in newspapers that commented on the events. One article was “A Call for Unity” written by eight white, liberal ministers. The white ministers opposed King’s actions and called on King and his supporters to desist in their nonviolent resistance. The ministers argued that the justice system would eventually work out the issues of segregation and racial violence.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” addressed and responded to the complacency of these white ministers. King wrote the letter on the margins of newspapers, scrap papers, and a legal notepad. The bits of paper were smuggled out of the jail by King’ supporters and edited. Excerpts of the letter were published in May 1963 in the New York Post Magazine. The full letter, titled “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was published in June 1963 in Liberation and The Christian Century. The letter was also published under the title “The Negro is Your Brother” in July 1963 in the Atlantic Monthly. King also included the letter in his book Why We Can’t Wait in 1964.


King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reminded the white ministers he had been invited to Birmingham to engage in a nonviolent direct action program. King had organizational ties to the area. Moreover, King noted “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Thus, King argued that he and protestors were not “outsiders,” as the white ministers had suggested. They had a right as guests, promoters of justice, and citizens of the United States to be in Birmingham.

The letter then addressed why it was exigent for civil rights supports to be in Birmingham in the first place. Birmingham was one of the most thoroughly segregated cities in the United States. Previous attempts and promises of desegregation proved futile. Businesses had not removed racial signs from stores as had been promised. Thus, King and others’ nonviolent direct action was meant “to create such a crisis and creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

King also responded to the white ministers’ accusations that the protests were untimely. King reminded the white ministers that the new government administration in Birmingham needed to be prodded in the right direct. Moreover, King argued that there was no better time. African Americans “have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” The time was right because African American had already waited too long for justice.

The letter also challenged the white ministers’ notions of “just laws.” King reminded the ministers that just laws were man-made laws that squared with moral law or God’s law. Unjust laws were man-made laws that did not support God’s law. King invoked Saint Thomas Augustine, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich in his explanations of just laws. These invocations showed white ministers that King had been trained as a theologian like them. He could invoke “great” theologians just as they could to make arguments about Christian justice. King also invoked constitutional rights of citizens and the Biblical story of the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace to support notions of Christian justice and protest.

King also indicted the white ministers on accounts of their complacency. King noted, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order,’ than to justice.” White liberal ministers and Christians were lukewarm in their commitments to civil rights. According to King, “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The letter also reminded the white ministers that King and protestors’ actions were not meant to induce violence. Condemning nonviolent protests because they might precipitate violent was like “condemning the robbed man because his possessions of money precipitated the evil act of robbery.” This was illogical. Moreover, King also reminded the white ministers that he and the nonviolent protestors were not the violent ones whites should be worried about. King argued that he “stood in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community.” One force was the “complacency made up of Negroes.” The other force was “one of bitterness and hatred, and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement.” King urged white ministers to recognize that there was another, “more violent” black movement. King argued that he and the white ministers had a common goal: Christian peace and justice.

Nevertheless, King reminded the white ministers that he was “greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.” He called white ministers and Christians to reform the church, “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.” In the event that the church and Christians could not meet the challenge, King relied on American ideals to uphold justice for African Americans.

King lauded the American ideal of freedom because it would help African Americans achieve freedom and justice. According to King, “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is Freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.” Elsewhere King noted, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” King recognized that American Civil Religion and Christianity ensured the freedom and justice of African Americans.

King closed his letter “as a fellow clergyman and Christian Brother,” “not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader.” King called white liberal ministers to live up to their Christian faith and to take a stand on injustice in America.

See full text of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 12 June 1963, The Christian Century, 767-773.