Moorish Science: “American Indigenous Islam”?

A picture of the Noble Drew Ali, North Carolina-born Prophet of the Moorish Science Temple of America, adorns a page on the progressive Muslim Wake Up! website featuring a story by Laury Silvers, who has taken note of our contention that Moorish Science, a little-known but highly influential precursor to the Black Muslim movement, represents an indigenous American form of Islam (see Moorish Science in the news, Sept. 21). Silvers calls for a more inclusive view of this tradition on the part of “mainstream” or orthodox Islam, while acknowledging stark doctrinal divisions.

Nourished by the Waters of Indigenous Islam

By Laury Slivers

Simply said, American Indigenous Islam in all its forms should be properly honored and respected by the Muslim community as part of the history and life of Islam globally. I do not mean simply Indigenous American Islam in the sense of the Islam of the slaves. I mean all of Indigenous American Islam, even the forms that are difficult for the “mainstream” Muslim to honor such as the Moors or the Nation of Islam. More than that, I would like to suggest that mainstream Muslims everywhere could learn from and be nourished by the radical critiques and spiritual wellspring of American religious traditions by recognizing Indigenous Islam as part of the global Muslim identity.

I would like to argue that mainstream Muslims should honor and respect all forms of Indigenous Islam past and present as—unequivocally—within the boundaries of Islam. I recognize that many mainstream Muslims deny that most forms of Indigenous Islam have any but the most tenuous affiliation with mainstream Islam. There are serious doctrinal issues at stake between the different forms of Islam, such as the nature of prophecy and the Qur’an. All the same, Indigenous Muslims lay claim to Islam in their own interpretive histories, and by virtue of that fact alone are Muslims. I would challenge those Muslims who disagree to consider that they recognize the variegated manifestations of Islam globally as “Islam” in a broad sense no matter their attitudes toward non-normative practices and doctrines. I have observed that most mainstream Muslims affirm the Islam of the most heterodox community abroad while reserving the right to criticize them for their errors. I believe most mainstream Muslims could extend this much honor and respect to Indigenous Islam without compromising their doctrinal or ethical positions (i.e., concerns about orthopraxy and orthodoxy in general, and concerns about racism in the Nation of Islam specifically).

If that much respect is possible, why is there such difficulty in the larger American Muslim community accepting and honoring the history and continued life of Indigenous Islam even in this limited way? Sherman Jackson has addressed this matter in his book Islam and the Blackamerican. Mainstream Muslims are uncomfortable with the blackness of Indigenous Islam. Jackson argues that Indigenous American Islam takes more from its roots and connections in radical anti-racist Black religious movements than from the early Muslim slave community, let alone the forms of Islam brought here by immigrant Muslims. Muslims from immigrant communities, and those who identify themselves as Muslims through those communities, perceive Indigenous Islam in all its forms and cultural traces as a participant in larger corrupting forces of the West. Immigrant Muslims must, then, supplant Indigenous forms—even the cultural traces of those forms in the lives of mainstream affiliated Blackamerican Muslims—with its own doctrinal and cultural forms. Jackson argues that Blackamerican Muslims need to retain for themselves the gifts of resistance and spirituality from Indigenous Islam even as they affiliate themselves with mainstream global Islam.

I would extend Jackson’s argument to other interpretations of Islam that have developed out of a distinctly American cultural imagination. These interpretations are likewise threatening to mainstream Islam in America because they respond to Indigenous Islam’s radical critique of white culture and resistance to the exclusionary claims of “orthodox” Islam. There is a broad spectrum of people professing interpretations that are nourished by radical culture in America, its alternative histories, and modes of religious and spiritual experience. This spectrum includes radical non-Muslims such as activist and author Bill Weinberg, Muslims on the margins such as Michael Muhammad Knight, and progressive Muslims committed to the mainstream Islamic intellectual tradition such as myself.

I believe that mainstream Muslims can learn and be nourished by these American critiques, forms of devotion, and spirituality. I would like to make it clear that I am not asking mainstream Muslims to treat all forms of Indigenous Islam with apologetic respect. But, I think that many of the critiques mainstream Muslims might have of some forms of Indigenous Islam are critiques that mainstream Muslims should also turn on themselves, i.e., sexism, isolationism, anti-Semitism, and racism. All Muslims need to confront these matters honestly—which means, for example, accepting and making intellectual and spiritual tawba over our own active or latent racism. Maybe then mainstream Muslims would be more receptive to Indigenous critiques of “mainstream” Islam. For instance, it isn’t hard to understand why the Moors would claim that the Qur’an is the product of a corrupted transmission since the God described there permits slavery. It is a matter of concern for all of us to sort out our history of slavery and make no excuses in doing so. But not only that, since mainstream Muslims do take the Qur’an as properly transmitted—and I include myself here—I believe we also have the obligation to work out a theology that does not explain away the injustices permitted by God in the Qur’an such as slavery and wife-beating.

The identification of Islam with a specific country of origin needs to be de-centered such that all Muslims might begin to appreciate the manifestations of Islam globally in all their complexity—which includes all American forms of it—as a rich inheritance (hence, my quotations around “mainstream” above to highlight this point). There are mainstream Muslims who have already taken these steps and gone further. I would argue some of them are blogging on God willing, one of the blessings of this Ramadan will be that more of us take these first steps toward recognizing ourselves as part of a larger Muslim family, and, God willing, ultimately act together against the social and political injustices plaguing all of us.

Laury Silvers is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Skidmore College. She is also on the team of The Muslim Women’s Health Project

See our last post on the politics of contemporary Islam.