“The Name Means Everything”: On the Birth of the Black Muslim

by Will Caldwell

First Posted on April 19th, 2016 

“From Mr. Muhammad on down, the name, ‘Black Muslims,’ distressed everyone in the Nation of Islam. I tried at least two years to kill off that ‘Black Muslims.’ Every newspaper and magazine writer and microphone I got close to: ‘No! We are black people here in America. Our religion is Islam: We are properly called Muslims!’ But that ‘Black Muslims’ never got dislodged.” [1]

Malcolm X here dates the birth of the term “Black Muslim” to 1961, when C. Eric Lincoln published his seminal study, The Black Muslims in America. The book arrived at an important moment for the Nation—“at just about the time we were starting to put on our first big mass rallies.” Malcolm describes a process that is no doubt still familiar to Muslims in the United States. The media got out ahead of the Nation’s attempt to define itself in the eyes of the wider American public, creating a narrative that the NOI leadership neither desired nor controlled. “The press snatched at that name,” Malcolm tells, forcing him and Elijah Muhammad into a mode of perpetual damage control. Just as the television documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, had “projected the ‘hate teaching’ image of us” in 1959, so too did the press brand a “Black Muslim” figure that seemed scarcely recognizable to the Muslims it supposedly represented.

71iW3DjmQMSThis “Black Muslim” figure not only disrupted the Nation’s project of naming “so-called negroes” according to their proper Islamic history; it also effectively reinscribed the attributes of that “negro” by denying them access to any history at all. Lincoln describes Black Muslims as emerging from “the sociological drama of contemporary America, especially… the American Negro’s increasing dissatisfaction with the ‘bit’ role he has been permitted to play.” The Black Muslim emerges from an emotive reaction—“dissatisfaction” or “racial hatred”— against his or her immediate political surroundings. The Nation of Islam “could discard all its Islamic attributes—its name, its prayers to Allah, its citations from the Quran, everything—without risking in the smallest degree its appeal to the black masses.” The Nation’s perceived religious heterodoxy mattered little to Lincoln, however, as he defined the movement as, essentially, a form of “black nationalism.” The NOI leadership doubtless recognized his “Black Muslim” figure as the “so-called negro” in different clothes. This was a figure whose name reflected black subordination to white hegemony/supremacy rather than a legitimate place for black peoples in the Americas among the global ummah of Muslims. [3]

The birth of the Black Muslim provides an excellent example of what Hussein Agrama calls “the questioning power of secularism.” Agrama shows that secular political power is exercised not by defining the proper line between religion and politics, but rather by constantly interrogating that line so as to assert the legislative authority of the state ever deeper into the ostensibly private realm of religious belief. The Black Muslim is, in many ways, born from this very questioning power, which asks “is he is truly a Muslim or a “black nationalist” masquerading in Islamic garb?” His inauthenticity in calling himself a Muslim is therefore his primary characteristic—“black” always qualifies “Muslim” rather than adding to it, enriching it, or locating it within a particular history. Defining members of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, or the Five Percent Nation as “Black Muslims”—as, indeed, countless members of the press, academy, and law enforcement have—is therefore always to invite the policing of the secular questioning gaze. It raises a question only the state may answer through governance, thereby pulling these Muslims into the orbit of its representational politics and reformist religious programs. Malcolm thus learned in the early sixties what Noble Drew Ali taught his congregation over thirty years earlier: “The name means everything.” [4]

But how might the so-called “Black Muslims” of the twentieth century appear under a different name and, indeed, a different set of questions? How might they transform if we reject the very questioning power that renders them problems to be solved by the secular state? To put it yet another way: what emerges as interesting, powerful, and edifying when we today seek to understand the names these Muslims chose to use as well as the questions they asked themselves?

Taking Malcolm’s claim seriously—that “black people here in America” can and should be “properly called Muslims”—requires a move beyond the secular space of the U.S. nation-state from which the opposition between “religion” and “politics” emerges. For the proper (that is, historical) relationship between Islam and racial blackness was forged not in a secular space but rather in a colonial one that transcends the borders of the United States, spanning the Atlantic to unite Africa and the Americas into a single geography. It is from within this space of modern Atlantic colonialism that these Muslims’ own names and concepts, such as the “Asiatic Black Man” and the “Lost-Found Nation” gain their true salience. These names speak to Islam’s long history as a radical tradition of abolition and anticolonialism throughout the African diaspora in the Atlantic. It is here, from within diaspora and geographies of Atlantic colonialism, where claims like Malcolm’s to be “properly called Muslims” were so frequently made; and it is from here that we may begin a genuine exploration of Islam in the United States.

[1] Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 252.

[2] ibid.

[3] C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 210.

[4] Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 29.

religioiusstudies-people-grads-caldwell-will-80x100Will Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in Islam and American Religions. He specializes in the history of early twentieth-century African American Muslims, with a focus on issues of race, empire, and internationalism.

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