In 1963, historian Robert Payne penned a lengthy article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “Why 400,000 Follow Mohammed.” The piece told the story of Islam’s “Arabian” origins in reverential (and highly orientalist) fashion, narrating the humble origins of the Prophet Muhammad as an orphan and “poverty-stricken youth,” and describing the God of the Qur’an as “stark, elemental, beyond all human comprehension,” an Almighty who “rides the whirlwinds, fixes the starts in their courses, penetrates into the recesses of the human heart, and all things are known to Him.”
The central impetus for Payne’s essay, however, was not to introduce an unfamiliar religion to the American public but to clarify the “truth” of Islam’s Sunni orthodoxy in the face of “the rise of the black Muslim sect” in the U.S. The teachings of the black Muslims of the Nation of Islam, under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the author emphasized, “are directly opposed to the teachings of Islam”—in particular, their stance on “race hatred” against whites. Payne closed the piece by unequivocally placing the NOI and its adherents beyond the pale of an authentic Islam, saying that the organization’s beliefs were “unthinkable” to “the true Moslem” (italics added).
In the almost half-century since, the Times appears to have done little to shift the Good (Orthodox) Muslim-Bad (Black) Muslim paradigm asserted in Payne’s article, which paints stark dividing lines between the “good” racial universalism of a “global” Sunni Islam and the “bad” racialized parochialisms of the NOI, and of African American Islam more broadly. Indeed, this very same logic was at the heart of David Lepeska’s April 10 article regarding current NOI leader Louis Farrakhan’s recent support of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. Leading with the unsubstantiated claim that Farrakhan was championing Qaddafi to bolster the dwindling ranks of his organization, Lepeska stated that the NOI had lost its appeal in black America, and that African American converts were now more “likely to join traditional sects led by Arab and South Asian immigrants.” Like Payne five decades ago, Lepeska and the Times found it necessary to situate black Muslims beyond the pale of Islamic orthodoxy, this time via a quote from Islamic studies scholar Ihsan Bagby, who stated, categorically: “The theology of the Nation contradicts the basic tenets of Islam.”
In his response to Lepeska’s piece, Edward Curtis aptly addresses many of the article’s shortcomings, pointing out the sharp racial divisions between black, Arab, and South Asian communities in the nation’s mosques, and thus contradicting Lepeska’s notion that most African American Muslims join through immigrant congregations. In addition, he contextualizes Farrakhan’s support of Qaddafi within a long history of Pan-Africanist politics and activism, which have always been at the heart of African American Islam, thus refuting the idea that Farrakhan is suddenly pandering to the black masses to regain his limelight (as well as the almost laughable notion that support of Qaddafi would somehow galvanize black Americans to join the NOI). Finally, he rightfully emphasizes how the NOI has always been, not simply a political, but a deeply religious organization and criticizes the media’s attempts to “shape and constrain what constitutes legitimate Islam.”
As a scholar who studies the intersections of race and Islam in the contemporary U.S. cultural imaginary, my concern with media narratives such as Payne’s and Lepeska’s is not so much how they portray the teachings of the NOI as contradictory to Islam’s Sunni orthodoxy (which they are), but how charges of the group’s lack of compliance with this orthodoxy are somehow linked to acts of racial betrayal, an equivalence used to diffuse and discredit the NOI’s (or any other offending organization’s) critiques of state-sponsored racism and/or U.S. military aggression and intervention. In the 1963 piece, the NOI’s black nationalist position is summed up as “race hatred” of whites, a stance that must be exposed as anathema, not only to the integrationist rhetoric of the civil rights movement, but to what Payne portrays as the universalist and egalitarian ethos of orthodox Sunni Islam, whose teachings, interestingly enough, dovetail nicely with the fundamental tenets of U.S. liberal democracy.
Lepeska merely updates this formula for the post-9/11 era; Farrakhan’s support of Qaddafi is dismissed as the ego-driven ranting of a fringe religious figure, as have been his criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and calls for slavery reparations over the course of the last decade. Indeed, the bulk of the article is spent discussing Farrakhan’s and the NOI’s fading relevance, as opposed to addressing the NOI leader’s specific objections to the U.S. intervention in Libya, including his concerns over our “meddling in another country’s internal affairs and calling for regime change” and his indication of America’s failure to intervene in other conflicts between a state and armed groups, such as in Israel-Palestine, or in the other democratic uprisings in the Middle East—e.g. Yemen, Egypt, Syria, etc.
It’s an interesting discursive strategy for the Times to dredge up during a time when Islamophobic rhetoric is at an all-time high, to champion the “orthodox” Islam of “traditional sects led by Arab and South Asian immigrants” in order to delegitimize the internationalist and antiracist spirit of black protest that has long been the hallmark of African American Islam. Whether Farrakhan’s teachings are legitimately “Islamic,” or whether the NOI is an “authentic” Muslim organization, is not the issue here—let’s leave that to the theologians, as opposed to a media establishment that continues to exhibit a stunning ignorance of the intertwined histories of race and Islam in America. A more productive question might be: why is the NOI’s “unorthodoxy” still news?
More than anything, the Good (Orthodox) Muslim-Bad (Black) Muslim paradigm reveals the media’s seemingly willful ignorance of the longstanding diversity of Islamic practices within black America and of the consistently worldly, heterodox, and syncretic legacies of African American Islam. The contemporary landscapes of Muslim America have been inexorably formed through processes of cultural interaction and exchange, both between black and “immigrant” Muslims and amongst various African American Islamic organizations themselves, since “Islam,” in its many forms, began its spread through African American communities in the urban landscapes of the post-Reconstruction North. Since the early twentieth century, in places like Detroit and New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Milwaukee, both “orthodox” and “heterodox” Islamic organizations such as the Moorish Science Temple, the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, the NOI, Darul Islam, the Hanafis, Ansaru Allah, the Five Percent Nation, the American Society of Muslims (founded by Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad, after he assumed leadership of the NOI, in 1975), and many others, have all been a part of the making of a distinctly African American—and thus, distinctly American—Islam. Each of these organizations, one can safely argue, has in one way or another advanced its Islamic engagements through discourses of black liberation and the spiritual quest for black humanity—what African American Sunni Muslim scholar Sherman Jackson has called the “cosmic no” of black Religion.
This “cosmic no” to the U.S. intervention in Libya was also expressed by African American Sunni Muslim leader Imam Zaid Shakir. Shakir (along with Shaikh Hamza Yusuf) is among the most prominent Muslim American leaders in the contemporary U.S. and seeks to revive in the West the “traditional” study methods and sciences of the classical Sunni tradition. (The two, along with scholar Hatem Bazian, recently founded Zatyuna College in Berkeley, which is seeking become the nation’s first accredited Islamic college.) On March 24, Shakir posted a widely-circulated essay on his blog, New Islamic Directions, entitled “Why I Oppose the US-Led Intervention in Libya.” In it, he stated that while he knew that his position “may be perceived as an unpopular one, not least because the Libyan rebels themselves called for—and have received military assistance from the West,” he nonetheless warned against the dangers of “a US-led invasion of another Muslim country,” predicting that U.S. intervention “will likely lead to far more civilian deaths than would have occurred [in] a strictly Libyan affair.” He also pointed out, as had Farrakhan, that the ouster of Qaddafi was likely a high priority for the U.S. due to how Qaddafi had long been “leading a Pan-African movement under the auspices of the African Union,” in which Libya’s oil revenues were being used toward Africa’s economic empowerment. In his concluding remarks, Shakir wrote: “I do not believe western intervention is solely motivated by humanitarian concerns, nor do I believe it will succeed. I cannot support it.”
Unsurprisingly, Shakir’s views received no coverage in the mainstream media.