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Islamizing the Black Body: Ritual and Power in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam

  • Edward E. Curtis


Ever since C. Eric Lincoln published The Black Muslims in America, in 1961, many observers of the Nation of Islam (NOI) have seemed convinced by his claim that the movement was neither very “religious” nor “Islamic” in nature. In that classic study, currently in its third edition, Lincoln conceded that “the Black Muslim movement constitutes a legitimate religion within the definition of the sociology of religion” but also maintained that “religious values have a secondary importance.” For Lincoln, the success of the movement stemmed not from the particular nature of its religious activities but from its ability to provide a sense of “group solidarity” to the dispossessed black working class. According to Lincoln, this sense of community was produced through the group's embrace of black nationalism, which he understood to be “first a defensive response to external forces—hostile forces that threaten their creative existence.”



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The author thanks Ahmet Karamustafa, Jack Kerkering, Char Miller, and Mike Soto for their helpful comments and suggestions.

1. See Lincoln, C. Eric, The Black Muslims in America, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994). The other classic scholarly work on the movement is Essien-Udom, E. U., Black Nationalism: A Searchfor an Identity in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). More recent overviews of African American Islam include Aminah Beverly McCloud, African American Islam (New York: Routledge, 1995), and Turner, Richard Brent, Islam in the African-American Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997). Other books that examine closely related topics include DeCaro, Louis A., On the Side ofMy People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X (New York: New York University Press, 1996); Gardell, Mattias, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); and Clegg, Claude A. III, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).

2. Lincoln, Black Muslims in America, 26, 215.

3. Ibid., 43.

4. Ibid., 63.

5. Ibid., 210.

6. Ibid., 46.

7. Bell, Catherine, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 204-5.

8. Ibid., 197.

9. Ibid., 211.

10. Ibid., 202.

11. See ibid., 209, 213-14.

12. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham uses the term “multiple consciousness” in her history of the black Baptist women's movement from 1880 to 1920 to insist that the “church, like the black Community, cannot be viewed solely through the lens of race.” Employing gender analysis in her work, Higginbotham shows how her subjects craft their identities and develop their consciousness in response not only to issues of race but to those of class and gender as well. I adopt her useful phrase here to emphasize the “multiple positioning” of the subjects of my own study and to suggest that such positioning is quite common in the history of African American religious life. See Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 1315 .

13. Manifestations of this theme in African-American history are enormously diverse. Examples range from the practice of freedwomen joyfully donning fine clothes (as a way of celebrating their dignity) to the famous antilynching campaign of Ida B. Wells, who advised that a “Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every home.” See Giddings, Paula, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Bantam, 1984), 1730 . For more recent scholarship, see also Reid-Farr, Robert F., Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); White, Shane, Stylin': African American Expressive Culturefrom Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998); and Fishburn, Katherine, The Problem of Embodiment in Early African American Literature (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).

14. Arguably, bodily abuse was as prevalent after slavery as before. For examples, see Chinn, Sarah E., Technology and the Logic of American Racism: A Cultural History of the Body as Evidence (London: Continuum, 2000); Roberts, Dorothy E., Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon, 1997); and Jones, James H., Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (New York: Free Press, 1993).

15. Turner, Patricia, I Heard It through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 23 .

16. Ibid., 221.

17. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 217.

18. Ibid.,221.

19. Muhammad Speaks, April 5,1968, 4.

20. See, respectively Muhammad Speaks, April 2, 1965, 6; October 15, 1965, 9; June 4, 1965, 6; April 10, 1964, 5; and February 17, 1967, 12.

21. Muhammad Speaks, December 31, 1965, 14.

22. Muhammad Speaks, July 9, 1965, 3.

23. Muhammad Speaks, April 16, 1965, 8.

24. Elijah Muhammad, How to Eat to Live (1972; repr., Newport News, Va.: National Newport News and Commentator, n.d.), 19-20. The NOI was not the only African American religious movement to shun the consumption of pork. Black Jews, like the Commandment Keepers of the Living God, also avoided pork as part of their observance of kosher rules. See Washington, Joseph R. Jr., Black Sects and Cults (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1973), 134 . Even more, the NOI was only one of many African American new religious groups to ban behaviors like the polishing of nails, straightening of hair, gambling, and the wearing of short dresses. See Fauset, Arthur Huff, Black Gods of the Metropolis (New York: Octagon, 1974), 7375 . But to understand the importance of these practices to NOI members, it is important to situate them within the specific context of NOI religious activity and not simply the more general context of other African American new religious movements.

25. As explained in the leader's Message to the Blackman in America, among other places, Elijah Muhammad's doctrine of black chosenness, or the myth of Yacub, argued that the black man was the “original” man. Blacks, he taught, existed in a state of Eden until a mad scientist named Yacub genetically engineered an inferior being, the white man. The white man, a cave-dweller, was brutish and violent and eventually overcame the more civilized black man by enslaving him. The black man lived thus oppressed, without knowledge of his true self, until God himself appeared in bodily form to elect a messenger who would mentally resurrect his chosen people. This man's ministry, however, was mere precursor to the real jubilee, an eschaton in which God would dispense with genetically inferior whites and restore blacks to their original greatness. See Muhammad, Elijah, Message to the Blackman in America Ritual and Power in Elijah Muhammad''s Nation of Islam 191 (1965; repr., Newport News, Va.: United Brothers Communications Systems, 1992), 111, 31, 110-22, and 265-91.

26. X, Malcolm and Haley, Alex, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine, 1987), 201-2.

27. Muhammad Speaks, November 12, 1965, 6.

28. Muhammad, Elijah, The Supreme Wisdom (1957; repr., Newport News, Va.: National Newport News and Commentator, n.d.), 34 . 29. Ibid., 23.

30. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 211.

31. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 204-5.

32. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 213-16.

33. Ibid., 215-19.

34. Ibid., 149, 154-58.

35. Forrest, Leon, Relocations of the Spirit (Wakefield, R.I.: Asphodel Press, 1994), 100 .

36. Abdul Shabazz, a carpenter, was born in 1948. I interviewed him on February 27, 1994, as part of a larger oral history project conducted among African American Muslims in St. Louis. More excerpts from my interviews canbe found in Edward Curtis, “Islam in Black St. Louis: Strategies for Liberation in Two Local Religious Communities,” Gateway Heritage 17, no. 4 (Spring 1997).

37. Forrest, Relocations of the Spirit, 74.

38. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 225-26.

39. Shabazz, interview with author, tape recording, February 27, 1994, St. Louis, Missouri.

40. Abdul Shakir, interview with author, tape recording, February 25, 1994, St. Louis, Missouri.

41. Lorene Ghani, interview with author, tape recording, March 3, 1994, St. Louis, Missouri.

42. Early, Gerald L., The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1994), 250 .

43. On “uplift” efforts by and among black Baptist and African American club women, see further Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent, esp. 185-229, and Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 95-117. On the NOI's appropriation of rituals and symbols from the black fraternal orders, including the Shriners and Masons, see Allen, Ernest Jr., “Identity and Destiny: The Formative Views of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam,” in Muslims on the Americanization Path?, ed. Haddad, Yvonne Y. and Esposito, John L. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 180-82.

44. Moses, Wilson J., The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 61 . Another of Moses’ works situates the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X within the literary and philosophic tradition of black messianism. See Moses, Wilson J., Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 183-95 and 207-25.

45. See Kelley, Robin D. G., Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1994), 163-65.

46. Ibid., 169.

47. Ibid., 10.

48. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 211.

49. Muhammad, Supreme Wisdom, 26.

50. Muhammad, Message to the Blackman, 15-18, 26-32, 161, 230.

51. See Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 6-7; Lincoln, Black Muslims in America, 41-46; and cf. Baer, Hans A. and Singer, Merrill, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 111-46. Baer and Singer label the Nation of Islam a “messianic-nationalist sect,” grouping the NOI with other “Separatist,” “militant,” and “counter-hegemonic” movements that have offered a “fundamental critique of the place and treatment of people of African heritage in American society” (111-12).

52. See Patterson, Orlando, Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse (New York: Stein and Day, 1977), 67 .

53. Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, ed., Classical Black Nationalism: From the American Revolution to Marcus Garvey (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 2 .

54. The sections entitled “Program and Position,” “Economic Program,” and “Land of Our Own and Qualifications” focus on political and economic issues. See Muhammad, Message to the Blackman, 161-205, 220-47.

55. These sections of the book feature the following titles: “Allah Is God,” “Original Man,” “Islam,” “The Bible and the Qur'an,” “The Devil,” “Prayer Service,” “The Persecution of the Righteous,” “Hypocrites, Disbelievers, and Obedience,” “The Judgment,” and “Answer to Critics.” See Muhammad, Message to the Blackman, 1-160, 206-19, 248-341.

56. Barboza, Steven, American Jihad: Islam after Malcolm X (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 151 .

57. Malcolm X and Haley, Autobiography of Malcolm X, 252. Once again, all of the elements of ritualization can be observed: the deliberate manipulation of time and space; the “restricted codes of communication”; the “distinct and specialized personnel”; special objects, texts, and dress; particular physical or mental states; and the “involvement of a particular constituency.” See Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 204-5.

58. Muhammad Speaks, March 11, 1967, 25.

59. Early, Culture of Bruising, 251.

60. Curtis, “Islam in Black St. Louis,” 37.

61. Muhammad also quoted frequently from the Bible. But, like other Muslims throughout history, he asserted that the Old and New Testaments, while sacred, had been corrupted over time. The Qur'an, he said, was the only Holy Scripture directly from God. Unlike most Muslims, Muhammad also claimed that he alone understood the real meaning of both the Bible and the Qur'an. See Muhammad, Message to the Blackman, 86-98.

62. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 73-74. The similarity between C. Eric Lincoln's analysis of the NOI, which was written in the second half of the 1950s, and that of Wilkins was not coincidental; both views seemed to be influenced by black middle-class hopes for progress on civil rights. The more these leaders could point to phenomena like the NOI, the better they could argue for a stronger civil rights bill.

63. King, Martin Luther Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Black Writers in America, ed. Barksdale, Richard and Kinnamon, Keneth (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 867-68.

64. DeCaro, On the Side of My People, 146.

65. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 313-19. For a more detailed analysis of the criticism of Muhammad and its effects on his religious thought, see “Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) and the Absolutism of Black Particularistic Islam,” in Curtis, Edward E. IV, Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

66. Clegg, An Original Man, 136-42.

67. Imam Wallace D. Muhammad, address at Washington University in St. Louis, October 8, 1996. Cf. Muhammad Speaks, March 1962, 1, 4.

68. Muhammad, Elijah, Muslim Daily Prayers (Chicago: University of Islam, 1957), 4 .

69. Ibid., 8-9. According to the manual, these include the dawn prayer or fajr, the early afternoon prayer or zuhr, the late afternoon prayer or ‘asr, the sunset or evening prayer called maghrib, and the late evening or nightfall prayer called ‘isha. Cf. Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 105-11.

70. Muhammad, Muslim Daily Prayers, 10-11. Ablutions, according to the manual, require “washing the hands to the wrists; rinsing the mouth three times; cleansing the inside of the nose with water three times; washing the face three times, washing the arms to the elbows three times (the right arm should be washed first); wiping over the head with wet hands; wiping the ears with wet fingers; wiping around the neck with wet hands; and washing the feet (the right one first) to the ankles.” The manual also instructs the believer to seek information from their ministers about a “complete bath” (Ar. ghusl).

71. Ibid., 12-13. The person designated as prayer-caller is directed to stand “erect on the prayer rug or sheet, facing the Holy City of Mecca (East), with your hands upright touching the ears, and [to] recite: Allah is the Greatest (Four times) / I bear witness that there is non [sie] worshippable other than Allah (Twice) / I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah's Messenger (Twice) / Come to Prayer (Twice) / Come to Success (Twice) / There is non [sie] worshippable but Allah (Once).” Included is a reminder to add the line “prayer is better than sleep” in the call for the fajr prayer.

72. Ibid., 14-20. The manual outlines the difference between the obligatory or fard elements and the traditional or sunni elements of prayer and teaches believers how to perform a rak`ah, a series of “standing, bending, rising, and prostrating” that comprises the “basic unit” of prayer. It also includes an admonition to announce one's intention to perform the prayer (Ar. niyya) and the words to be recited (once again translated into English). The manual does not discuss what one does with one's hands during the prayer cycle nor does it outline which bodily position aecompanies the various spoken parts of the prayers.

73. While congregational prayer was performed in the Philadelphia temple sometime during the 1960s, when the independent-minded Wallace D. Muhammad was minister, and though some individuals took it upon themselves to pray, there is no evidence to suggest that saht was ever performed on a wide-scale basis in the NOI. Samuel Ansari, interview with author, October 29, 1995, St. Louis, Missouri. Imam Ansari, leader of St. Louis’ Masjid al-Mu'minun, reports that he began to pray in the early 1970s.

74. Muhammad Syeaks, October 15, 1962, 8.

75. Muhammad, Message to the Blackman, 155.

76. Muhammad Steaks, January 31, 1963, 8.

77. While the Autobiography of Malcolm X did not emphasize this factor in explaining Malcolm's 1963 break with the NOI, other accounts make it clear that Malcolm X had been influenced by Sunni Muslim criticisms of the movement well before his departure. This omission in the autobiography can be understood partly as a literary device that allowed Malcolm X and Alex Haley to dramatize more fully the importance of Malcolm's 1964 pilgrimage to his development as a Sunni Muslim. See DeCaro, On the Side of My People, 4-8, 159-170; “Islamic Universalism, Black Particularism, and the Dual Identity of Malcolm X (1925-1965),” in Curtis, Islam in Black America; and cf. Malcolm X and Haley, Autobiography of Malcolm X, 288-342.

78. See Zafar Ishaq Ansari, “W. D. Muhammad: The Making of a 'Black Muslim’ Leader (1933-1961),” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 2, no. 2 (1985): 248-62; Clegg, An Original Man, 245, 333 n. 15; and see further “Wallace D. Muhammad (b. 1933): Sunni Islamic Reform and the Continuing Problem of Particularism,” in Curtis, Islam in Black America.

79. Lincoln, Black Muslims in America, 210-15.

80. See Eck, Diana L., “The Multireligious Public Square,” in One Nation Under God?: Religion and American Culture, ed. Garber, Marjorie and Walkowitz, Rebecca L. (New York: Routledge, 1999), 320 ; and Eck, Diana L., On Common Ground: World Religions in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). The latter is a CD-Rom.

81. A useful introduction to the dominance of public Protestantism can be found in Albanese, Catherine L., America: Religions and Religion, 3d ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1999), 396431 . See also Handy, Robert T., A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Marty, Martin E., Protestantism in the United States: Righteous Empire, 2d ed. (New York: Scribner's, 1986); and Tuveson, Ernest Lee, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

82. See Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

83. Baer and Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century, 143.

84. Porterfield, Amanda, The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late-Twentieth-Century Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 6 .

85. Robert Wuthnow has identified the civil rights movement as a key context for the “restructuring” of American religion. See Wuth-now, Robert, “Old Fissures and New Fractures in American Religious Life,” in Religion and American Culture: A Reader, ed. Hackett, David G. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 378 ; and see further Wuthnow, Robert, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

86. For two useful general introductions to this argument, see Raboteau, Albert J., Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Wilmore, Gayraud S., Black Religion and Black Radicalism, 3d ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1998).

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Islamizing the Black Body: Ritual and Power in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam

  • Edward E. Curtis


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