Expanding the Story of the Nation of Islam

This post is part of our online roundtable on Ula Taylor’s The Promise of Patriarchy 

Washington DC, The National Mall, October 10, 2015. A rally in commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian, Flickr).

Today the Nation of Islam (NOI) is one of the more important religious political groupings in Black America. Unlike the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose archives are sited at the Library of Congress, the University of California-Berkeley, and other repositories, researchers seeking to tell the story of the NOI are not as lucky in gaining access to the raw materials from which organizational history is constructed (such as correspondence, member diaries, and reports from branches). Historians so bold as to research and write about this important group merit our immense thanks. This is notably the case with the book at hand, which is a masterpiece of reconstruction and storytelling that unearths revelations about the NOI through the lens of gender that undoubtedly will withstand the test of time.

Ula Y. Taylor may be best known for her riveting book on Amy Jacques Garvey, the spouse of Marcus Garvey, in which she grapples with weighty matters not only relevant to Black America but to the entire planet. A decline of the organized left in recent decades has created fertile conditions for the rise of various forms of nationalism, which often present women in patriarchal terms that are not liberating or emancipatory. The question becomes how to convince half of a community that nationalism is in their best interest. As Taylor suggests in The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam, NOI women’s involvement was facilitated by a coruscating white supremacy that countenanced lynching—and worse.

By telling the fascinating story of those like Clara Poole (wife of Elijah Muhammad), Taylor weaves a detailed tapestry of how women like Poole kept the NOI intact when, for example, her spouse was incarcerated because of charges for pro-Tokyo sympathies during World War II. Taylor also recounts the story of Burnsteen Sharrieff, the secretary of W.D. Fard, who inspired the Allah Temple of Islam that gave rise to the Nation of Islam.

Like any good history, Taylor’s worthwhile study raises a number of inquiries that should keep students busy for years to come. For example, it is well past time for the dedicated researcher to investigate more systematically the Asia-Pacific roots of the NOI. Other scholars have suggested that Fard was of Pakistani or Turkish origin, or even possessing Maori roots. Researchers would do well to look at the early twentieth century religious movement in New Zealand founded by T.W. Ratana, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the NOI. Though a number of studies detail the multiple links between Black America and what used to be called British India (which encompasses today’s Pakistan), it would be useful to examine the ties between Turkey and the Ottoman Empire and Africans in North America over the centuries.

This leading power comprised overwhelmingly of Muslims ruled a good deal of North Africa, influenced Ethiopia (at various times helping to preserve its oft challenged sovereignty) and its late seventeenth century decline in many ways paved the way for the rise of the African Slave Trade to North America in that Western European nations thereafter had less fear of being enslaved in Algiers as they sailed southward to West Africa. Indeed, bookends for the rise of the African Slave Trade include the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Muslims (which led to a frantic search by Western Europeans for a route to the riches of Asia, culminating in the hinge year of 1492) and the halting of the Ottomans in 1683 at the gates of Vienna.

Such an exploration would shed bright light on today’s invocation of the concept of the “Asiatic Black Man,” an androcentric conception that is still heard frequently, though it is unclear if those who mouth this potent phrase are aware of its tangled roots and diverse meanings. In that light, we need deeper research in pre-1945 Japanese sources that would shed light on the various ties between Tokyo and Black America. When this important research is conducted, inexorably the work of Ula Taylor will be seen as foundational and an important contribution to women’s studies, Black studies and religious studies.

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Gerald Horne

Gerald Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. Horne received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University. His research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. One of the nation’s most prolific and influential historians, Horne is the author of more than thirty books.

Comments on “Expanding the Story of the Nation of Islam

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    I certainly agree with Dr. Horne’s assertion that the Nation of Islam is a largely untapped organization whose shroud and mystery has been intentional and by design. This organization could prove to be fertile, yet nearly impenetrable, terrain for scholars seeking future research project.
    In many ways, for outside observers, the patriarchal constructs that one sees within the Nation of Islam appear draconian, however, as with most observations of such dynamics, what one observes on the surface does not faintly tell what is really occurring. It is a similar phenomenon as what we see occurring during the patriarchal black church directed Civil Rights Movement that gives observers the impression that it was only Martin King, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy, etc. who mattered greatly when in actuality the contributions of heroines such as Ella Baker proved to be the engine that motivated so much of that movement’s activism. Ula Taylor’s work, as always, goes more than skin deep in her display of the crucial role women played inside of an organization that outsiders consider a bastion of patriarchy.

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    I can hardly contain my excitement on hearing the question of patriarchy and the NOI being the subject of a book. I was first attracted to the NOI in 1966 coming off my SNCC /Black Power experience in Atlanta. Mosque #15 in Atlanta was led by Abdul Rahman. I fell in love as an 18-year old committed to fighting racism and easily attracted to charismatic men of the period. It took nine years for me to write my letter and be accepted into the Nation in 1975. My first Saviour’s Day was the funeral of Elijah Muhammad. In addition to being a woman in the Nation, my politics were being shaped as a working-class Black woman active in my union at the phone company. Oh well, let me stop writing my book here. Look forward to reading the book by Ula Y. Taylor

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