Book Review By Professor Hakim Bruce Cosby
Herbert Berg-Elijah Muhammad- Makers of the Muslim World
Elijah Muhammad by Herbert Berg is an effort to understand the significance of Elijah Muhammad to African Americans and the Muslim world at large. How is it that a man who labored successfully for forty years to build the Nation of Islam, an Islamic organization, is so grossly neglected by scholars? Heretofore, only two scholarly books have been written about Elijah Muhammad: Claude A. Clegg’s An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (1997) and Karl Evanzz’s The Messenger- The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (1999). Berg, a professor of religion specializing in Islam in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the Book Review By Professor Hakim Bruce Cosby Herbert Berg, Elijah Muhammad- Makers of the Muslim World University of North Carolina Wilmington, seeks to add to this meager scholarship by situating the Nation of Islam in American history and comparing Elijah’s theology to other Islamic movements.
He grounds this analysis in the sporadic history in which Islam was introduced to the United States. Documents confirm that Islam came to North America as early as 1527 with the presence of Estevan or Stephen the Moor, a Moroccan Muslim. He was followed by Job Ben Solomon (d.1773), Abd ar-Rahman Ibrahima (d 1829), Lamine Kebe (d 1837), and Umar ibn Said (d.1864). It is estimated by some scholars that one third of enslaved Africans shipped to North America were Muslims. Berg is clear on what happened to this history: “Slavery as practiced in the United States erased many African ethnicities and identities, replacing them with a single racial identity: the Negro.” This was a stark contrast to “the Caribbean and Brazilian expressions of other African religions such as Candomble, Macumba, Umbanda, Santeria, and Voodoo.” Islam therefore had to be reintroduced to African Americans.
There was little missionary zeal among the Arab Muslims, who immigrated primarily from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine to the United States between 1875 and 1921. The first Muslim missionary was actually a white American, Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb (d.1916), who had converted to Islam in the Philippines. However, his message of universal brotherhood made few converts. Shaykh Daoud Ahmed Faisal founded the Islamic Mission, the first Sunni African American organization in New York City, in 1924.
His political philosophy paralleled Franz Fanon’s anti-colonialism, while simultaneously advocating American patriotism. The first Muslim-born missionary to come to the United States was an Ahmadi- Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, who arrived in the America in 1920. His proselytizing Ahmadiyya school of thought among African Americans was not well received. The Ahmadis were founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1875-1951), who was proclaimed to be the divinely appointed Mujadid (Renewer) of Islam, the promised Messiah of the Christians and Mahdi awaited by Muslims. (However, Berg does not mention, which is significant, the impact of Ahmadiyya on some of the most creative jazz musicians- Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, Mc- Coy Tyner, and Yusef Lateef, to mention a few.) Indirectly the Ahmadis influenced the Nation, as evidenced by the adoption of books written by Maulana Muhammad Ali, a leading Ahmadiyya; his English translation of the Quran and Anti-Christ, Gog and Magog were required reading in the Nation of Islam.
The first indigenous African American formulation of Islam was established around 1915 by Noble Drew Ali in Newark, New Jersey. Drew Ali wrote his own “Koran,” which was an eclectic mix of Christianity, Freemasonry, Egyptology and theosophy. He taught that African Americans were not Negroes, Black or even Colored -- they were “Asiatics” or specifically Moors. Thirty thousand Moorish Scientists survive today. In addition, Muhammad Ezaldeen, a former follower of Noble Drew Ali, founded the Addeynu Allahe Universal Arabic Association in the 1930s, an impactful movement in New Jersey and Upstate New York. Elijah Muhammad would establish the second indigenous African American formulation of Islam in the United States.
According to Berg, the more direct antecedents of “prominent features of Elijah Muhammad’s Islam” can be found in the teachings of two African American Christian clergy: the Pan-Africanism of Edward Wilmot Blyden (1834- 1912) and the African-centric theology of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915). Blyden’s classic Islam, Christianity and the Negro Race, theorized a unique African Personality and the notion that being an African is affirmed more in Islam than Christianity. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is best known for the proclamation that God (or at least the image of god) was a Negro. Elijah Muhammad “almost single-handedly developed an indigenous form of Islam in the United States.” He “converted a large number of Americans to a religion which at that "time was almost completely foreign to American soil.” And he did so “in face of strong and sustained opposition [from the United States government].”
By the end of his life there were mosques in almost every major city, and Islam was no longer a religion merely of immigrants and their descendants. He converted hundreds of thousands perhaps millions to Islam. His significance is often eclipsed in the dominant media by his high profile followers, Malcolm X, Warith Deen Muhammad, Muhammd Ali and Louis Farrakhan. However, in Berg’s assessment, scholars have missed the foundation of these well known Muslims by not paying sufficient attention to the legacy of Elijah Muhammad. Berg’s analysis seeks to move beyond the racial mythology of Elijah Muhammad teachings. He achieves this by focusing on two questions: was Elijah unique in his seemingly unorthodox teachings, and in the final analysis, can he be considered a Muslim? On these questions Berg introduces a set of novel conceptual tools. Berg argues that it is a major mistake to approach Islam as a monolith. Few scholars “recognize that Muslims have been divided from the beginning on doctrines, practices, and polity…” Schools of thought will vary from Sunni, Sufi to Shia.
A Sunni Muslim in Indonesia may not recognize the practices of a Mouride of Senegal. Because the history of Islam is characterized by different schools of thought (or denominations), it is more proper to speak of multiple formulations or Islams. Another way of understanding the theology of Elijah Muhammad in the larger Islamic context is to compare his teachings with those of the ghulat, a term “used by heresiographers to accuse Muslims of exaggeration or hyperbole (ghuluw) in religious matters.” It was employed (often in internal debates among Shiites, Druzes and Ismailis) to disapprove of the exaltation of imams above ordinary humans. One example is the idea that “Ali did not die or that he was an incarnation of Allah.” Though different, Elijah’s theology suffers from three similar characteristics.