Islam and Black Emancipation

Robert Dannin reviews Patrick D. Bowen’s The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975

Patrick D. Bowen, A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2: The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975, Leiden: Brill. 2017, 429pp., $202.00

Twenty-five years ago I undertook similar research, and I felt like an usher prowling the aisles of a darkened theater. Its seats were filled, but the cavernous space was silent. Flashlight in hand I peered from side to side, asking questions, trying to identify names and faces, soliciting conversion narratives, teasing confessions of faith from a hazy past, formulating and testing ideas about historical networks connecting the members of this enigmatic audience. I had authored a dozen papers from ethnographic and documentary data, and eventually published Black Pilgrimage to Islam, but my book raised more questions than it answered. Historians of religion followed with their own contributions, assembled in much the same way. Unfortunately, a systematic field of inquiry concerning Islamic conversion among African Americans never materialized.

Patrick D. Bowen picked up this challenge independently in The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975, and is now completing the job. I am awestruck by his formidable work. Bowen illuminates the same theater spectacularly, as if turning on powerful lights and mounting the stage for a command performance, directing members of the audience to stand, self-identify, submit their credentials, peer over their neighbors, and sometimes trade seats to render their affiliations more visible. The mezzanine is a chorus of references populated by long-departed FBI agents holding dossiers, journalists, and scores of authors – historians, sociologists, religion scholars, and autodidacts. The result is a genuine tour de force achieved by untangling old knots and weaving the loose strands into a rich narrative tapestry to yield an authoritative, encyclopedic tableau of matchless depth and scope.

Written in an accessible, eloquent language, this book often reads like a good detective novel. Although a work of non-fiction, it so fully immerses the reader in the characters and events of subaltern history as to make it comparable in literary richness to the novels of Chester Himes or Ishmael Reed. Better yet, it evokes the mystery of an Ellingtonian jazz suite in its evocation of a taboo world known only to the cognoscenti. It contains, in fact, the first meaningful use and interpretation of linguistic research on this topic and deftly weaves historical and sociological perspectives with African-American folklore to create a richly textured impression of street culture and its processes.

The reader will be quickly impressed by the volume and quality of historically and geographically comprehensive research devoted to constructing an intelligible narrative that distances all peers in this field of inquiry. Bowen begins with a careful examination of evidence for African-American Islamic worship prior to the twentieth century and discovers an organizing principle in the “red flag” symbolism that anchors his inquiry well into the 1900s. He identifies the roots of modern Islamic conversion, the aptly termed “African American Islamic Revival” (AAIR), during the 1920s when Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) assembled the diverse trends of African-American political dissidence into the country’s first post-slavery mass movement. The author’s sophisticated discussion emphasizes the UNIA’s critical features of civil society, self-defense, and armed militancy in a process of communal self-empowerment that opened the door to religious pluralism. Alternatively stated, the UNIA broke the stranglehold of the Black Church, perfectly illustrated in the author’s description of Newark, NJ, where Southern-born migrants eschewed middle-class places of worship and formed their own communities, more than doubling the number of churches and storefronts between 1914 and 1932.

Following the demise of Garveyism the reader meets the leading personalities of an underground society comprised of hoodoo and conjure men, Freemasons, Shriners, Moors, Ahmadiyya missionaries, mystics, seekers, renegades, dissenters, and militants who constructed Islamic worship around a life-world all but invisible to the uninitiated. For all its concrete manifestations in the way of stylized headgear and other fashion elements, there has been a persistent historical blind spot with respect to the proliferation of Islam in Black America. In his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro, no less an authority than W. E. B. DuBois chose to ignore the religious affiliations of a full 15% of African-American households surveyed who refused to identify themselves as Christians. He dismissed their beliefs as “African survivals” or “traditionalist” and then fell silent, hardly the analysis one might expect from a sociologist trained in the rigors of the German scientific tradition for which a statistically significant deviation always requires explanation. Consternation? Embarrassment? Or was this subculture a veritable “red flag” warning away respectable academics who even two generations later in the person of Henry Louis Gates Jr. demonstrate a remarkable aversion to discussing Islam or even the verified instances of Arabic literacy among slaves?

The UNIA’s debates about religion and religious identification, indeed its ambivalence on this matter, demonstrated the organization’s inability to resolve questions of culture without disrupting the political unity it had already achieved. Quite simply it had to content itself by giving free reign to matters of conscience and spirituality including heteroclite forms that could easily merge into many alternative religious currents. This development set the stage for Noble Drew Ali and the rise of the Moorish Science Temple of Islam (MST).

Here the author hits his stride in describing the staggering creativity of Professor Drew’s Moorish apocrypha, a hodgepodge of composite beliefs mixing “uplift ideas, esotericism, little-known knowledge about North Africans, pre-existing black religious currents, and Garvey’s black nationalism” arranged to satisfy the curiosity of seekers eager for a sequel to the familiar, well-worn copies of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, a Last Testament, be it the Qur’an or the “Circle 7 Koran.” Drew sorted fragments of diverse “red flag” traditions, and connected them to normative beliefs, interwoven with sectarian variations and bits of regional folklore. His Moorish Science Temple was in effect an underground laboratory for a vast ontological experiment focused on Black self-actualization. It sourced “preexisting networks” in the double sense of tracing real historical and genealogical antecedents while simultaneously probing individuals’ souls for expressions of a common humanity not only to redeem the legacy of slavery but also as a general philosophy of emancipation. Moors aspired to a unique Zeitgeist, readily translated the Arabic greeting, “Peace,” and fashioned avant-garde wardrobes to symbolize their personal transformations. For all its contradictory dogma and competing themes, no different than other nascent religions, Drew’s MST flourished because it was unconstrained by church-bound dogma. It repurposed the naturally effervescent conjure and hoodoo traditions for a new era and found widespread acceptance by those eager to re-appropriate the culture of mumbo-jumbo where social status implied possession of gris-gris, mojo, and jass. As Ishmael Reed wrote in a fictional context, its popularity “jes grew.”

Drew’s death in 1929 brought about a typical post-prophetic aftermath, the Great Schism, with a succession of companions (or disciples) including Kirkman Bey, Turner-El, Givens-El, and others who in the West African tradition described as sherifism by Cheikh Anta Diop staked their claims to holiness through fictional genealogies. The author’s exposition of this period is another example of first-rate research and writing evident in the extraordinary intellectual care he has taken to catalog and narrate the subsequent history of the MST. His interpretation of C.M. Bey’s Clock of Destiny and concomitant reporting on history of Cleveland’s Moorish movement is equally brilliant. As the primary site of my own fieldwork I can attest to the widespread fascination for the legend of Tonelli among the city’s African-American and Italian communities. A Black Moorish-Muslim with an Italian surname, Tonelli was a fixture in Little Italy, accepted by the mob “because he was tough and refused to remove his fez for anyone,” not even the police who eventually managed to incarcerate him in a mental institution.

Back in Chicago the murder of Sheik Claude Green, Drew’s putative rival, served to remind Moors that they still languished in the belly of the beast. Despite its unprecedented knack for generating fraternal solidarity, the MST offered few lasting solutions; Noble Drew Ali’s admonition for Moors to refrain from antagonizing white authority attested to an unstable balance between the racist social order and a doctrine that required constant tweaking. Whatever the MST meant to its thousands of adherents, it also posed the threat of organized Black resistance and no doubt revived the primordial white American fear of slave rebellions.

It is in this context that the rise of the Nation of Islam (NOI) deservedly receives much different treatment. Among the iterations of the AAIR, it has proved the most enduring example of a Black nationalist-separatist movement. Nonetheless, the author preserves a sense of continuity within the AAIR narrative by illustrating the NOI’s adaptations for a new generation of followers at a greater emotional and cultural distance from the original “red flag” network. This approach would be stronger with a more sustained meditation on NOI eschatology. For instance, the myth of a “mother ship” is an unmistakable reference to the proliferation of cargo cult religions in the South Pacific. Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of “Cargo” Cults in Melanesia is a detailed ethnographic study of chiliastic movements that aimed at the ontological reconstruction of people suffering under the yoke of Western colonialism. Unlike Professor Drew’s Moors, though more consistent with UNIA and NOI, cargo cults operate upon an inversion principle. Redemption comes by reversing the polarity of dominance whereby a subject people usurps the role of its oppressors. In other words, there is no attempt to transform society only to imitate the hegemon, a limited objective that dispenses with free expression in favor of in-group loyalty and submissive obedience to a new leader. Although seldom discussed this was a source of Malcolm X’s dispute with Elijah Muhammad. The present text does not explicitly refer to this aspect of their rupture, but it should. Malcolm’s doctrinal break with the NOI over issues of corruption concealed his greater dissatisfaction with a blind “cult” mentality. Given Malcolm’s familiarity with the UNIA and MST, is it not likely that he viewed the emergent Black revolutionary underground as a more appealing expression of emancipation than the NOI?

The demographic explosion of Islamic proselytization from 1945 to 1975 makes the book’s last section somewhat hard to manage, leaving the reader with a detailed historical chronicle minus the emblematic threads that rendered the early narrative so intelligible. Symbolic of this sea change, our pilot has all but abandoned the “red flag” to fly other colors instead – the Republic of New Afrika’s black-red-green; the Five Percent Nation’s black-red-gold; and solid green representing the worldwide Islamic umma. Keeping track of numerous movements requires a taxonomy that defies most objective criteria and often focuses on the groups, mosques, or individuals who have generated the most available data and living testimony. In these rough waters, Bowen strives mightily to maintain an even keel while navigating the many homegrown spinoffs amidst a growing trend toward internationalization and orthodox Sunni evangelization. Forced into an unwieldy multilinear itinerary he selects a course charted in the preceding section when Malcolm X’s post-hajj career forked at the crossroads of Sunni orthodoxy (Muslim Mosque Inc.) and revolutionary militancy (Organization of African American Unity). This leads to an extended genealogy of Black revolutionaries and organizations, some deviating more than others from the path to Islam. The general impression here is that of a speedy tour through the annals of mid-twentieth-century rebellion serving, perhaps unconsciously, as a subtle inducement for the reader to think that the AAIR underpinned all Black militancy. The author thus sallies undeterred into a thicket of hyperbole, stating, “African American Islam was no longer simply one of many manifestations of the change—it was now a principal force whose constant presence was shaping this cultural transformation on numerous levels.”

This debatable conclusion is symptomatic of literary overreach and engenders a loss of historical perspective. It would have been more appropriate to temporize the foregoing assertion by navigating between the idea of influence-greater-than-numbers Islam and widespread popular attraction to a Civil Rights movement under the aegis of the SCLC as well as its more radical exponents including the socialist, A. Philip Randolph; the feminist and communist, Angela Davis; and gay, atheist intellectuals like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin. It is impossible to deny the ontological pluralism informing the Civil Rights and Black Power movements just as one cannot fully acknowledge the author’s Islamic Cultural Renaissance without crediting the rich stew of sectarian and secular influences so apparent in Afrocentrism and the concomitant struggle by artists to create a vast aesthetic dimension from Motown and Gee’s Bend to Toni Morrison and Spike Lee.

Returning finally to the narrative of Islamic conversion in the aftermath of the rebirth and death of Malcolm X, we learn that the orthodox Sunni trajectory, blocked for many decades, now accelerated. Although the NOI still held many African-American converts tightly within its orbit, three principal organizations – Dar al-Islam, Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, and the Islamic Party of North America – followed the example of Muslim Mosque Inc. and began to break away, each in its own fashion and each frequently nourished by the pan-Islamic ideologies of Maududi’s Jamaat-i-Islami or Qutb’s Ikwan al-Muslimin. Rounding out this fast-paced script are outlier cults like the Nubian Islamic Hebrews (Ansars) and the streetwise NOI offshoot, Five Percent Nation. Bowen’s nuanced, adroit exposition and his account of the death of Elijah Muhammad concludes the present volume and sets the stage for its sequel when Warith D. Muhammad shepherds the Black Muslims into the worldwide umma, presumably healing the 500-year-old rift created by the Atlantic slave trade

Why was the path to orthodoxy so elusive for almost a century? What precisely was the price for access to a global religious community? The critical issue here is the contest between various representations of the AAIR and external sources of authority, especially in cosmopolitan cities where foreign-born Muslims might at any time and for any reason invoke a litmus test as to what was properly Islamic. From an historical and anthropological perspective, the leadership role of imam or sheikh was relatively easy to claim in the absence of any legitimizing authority aside from one’s followers. Institutional autonomy was the key to success of early proselytization among disaffected Christians, and, moreover, it was profoundly anchored in folk traditions. Indigenous coalitions like the Uniting Islamic Society (1943-47) and the Dar al-Islam (1967-81) always reflected convivial assemblies as opposed to the irritating and embarrassingly obvious racial and ethnic hierarchies embodied in the Islamic Society of North America or the Muslim World League. (To be considered a “stooge” became the ultimate insult directed by Black Panther and Black Liberation Army converts toward imams considered to be quislings dependent on foreign donations.) It was in this sense that the brilliance of the NOI was born of necessity; at the zenith of postwar cosmopolitanism Elijah Muhammad severed all relations with external authority by excluding immigrant Muslims altogether. Those who accidently stumbled into NOI temples were made to feel unwelcome. That Muhammad hired an immigrant Arabic teacher seems anecdotal at best. The subsequent history of the AAIR mirrored this conflict and grew more complex in the period to be covered in Bowen’s next and final volume.

Closely related to this discussion is another mode of legitimation, namely the role played by the State that unfortunately evades Bowen’s consideration despite his use of primary references taken from FBI and police reports. What presumed crimes were likely to trigger the intense surveillance of Muslim converts and their organizations? How was this information used and shared among government agencies?

The ongoing conduct of police inquiries, entailing the recruitment and manipulation of informers, points to policy directives targeting a class of suspects as threats to public security. Although their files yielded a treasure of biographical information, employed neutrally herein to solve puzzles and fashion a coherent narrative, the State security agencies surely compiled these materials for purposes more nefarious than routine surveillance. For example, COINTEPLRO was the most wide-ranging covert plan to infiltrate and disrupt in extremis African-American dissidents. Other kinds of meddling were indirect and with varying consequences. For example, grassroots organizations benefitting from federal Great Society programs such as the National Urban League’s assistance to numerous “street academies” implied a state-sanctioned activity. Such was the case in Cleveland too where Da’ud Malik Shabazz used municipal funds allocated to his non-profit community center to support the Universal Islamic Brotherhood mosque. In the aftermath of the 1971 Attica uprising, state and federal prison authorities actively funded Islamic worship and the formation of a cadre of Muslim chaplains lending important yet overlooked assistance to the legitimation process. Though beneficial to inmates in countless ways, these services also contributed significantly to maintaining the repressive order of the penitentiary. An analogous trend in 1980s saw the rise of NOI security patrols as part of HUD’s privatization of security in public housing where their violent tactics were sometimes recognized by politicians and the press as acts of “civic responsibility.”

How do these outcomes harmonize with Bowen’s comment that Islam was celebrated as “the universal symbol of the liberation of the oppressed”? In what real sense did the attendant influx of thousands more African Americans to “international forms of orthodox Islam” reaffirm a lost-found source of power and wealth?

As targets of racially driven criminal investigations and domestic intelligence operations the hoodoo men, self-styled prophets, hajjis, vanguard revolutionaries and all their fellow-travelers nurtured an impulse for redemption that was firmly rooted in a shared vision of freedom. That vision was radically distinct from their lived reality, and it gave rise to a caste of adept practitioners determined to conjure it into existence through collective prayer and communally shared values. Begun under the standard of the red flag, it became Islam; to the overseers it appeared then, and now, as the specter of insurrection. Professor Bowen’s book makes it plain that what these men and women saw was truly against the law. I am willing to bet that it was against orthodox Islamic law too.

 Robert Dannin is a trustee in academic affairs at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachucetts.

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