restricted access Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975 (review)
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Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975. By Edward E. Curtis IV. The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 241pages. $19.95.

Edward E. Curtis’s close reading of articles and cartoons published in Muhammad Speaks, during the nadir of the Nation of Islam (NOI), provides [End Page 739] heretofore-unexplored discourse on how Black Muslims perceived, understood, and validated their practice of religion and connected it to traditional Islam between 1960 and 1975. First, the text “examines the political and social aspects of the NOI through the lens of its believers” (6). Second, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975 places the actions of participants within the rubric of canonical ideas and concepts articulated, albeit within the context of a collective, African American experiential history, by Elijah Muhammad. Lastly, the text demonstrates through commentaries and cogent, cartoon images how NOI constituents evaluated and used ideas espoused by Elijah Muhammad to create a viable and meaningful ideology for everyday living.

Defining the NOI as a religious movement sets a new precedent in the murky terrain of public discourse about the Nation in the United States. That Curtis critically interrogates the concept of religiosity among NOI adherents and pinpoints specific behaviors to support this claim challenges past scholarship that has too easily dismissed the efforts of African Americans, particularly those that addressed social/political concerns. Yet, “for those that believed in Allah and His Messenger Elijah Muhammad, the desire for social and political liberation was often expressed in religious terms” (34). Within the community of NOI believers, the following actions, highlighted in the text, shaped the practice of religion: “historical imaginings” that created a foundation and context for beliefs among NOI followers; “the creation of religious doctrines and theologies, the making of imagined communal identities, the performance of ethical imperatives, and participation in ritualized activities” (33).

In addition, personal interpretations, a functional hermeneutic that addressed individual participant needs and religiosity within the ritualized function of the organization, also served to bolster the practice of religion among Black Muslims. It is important to remember that NOI practices were developed to function in the service of daily life conditions of urban African Americans and their specific communities.

Curtis’s text presents critical, primary texts from Muhammad Speaks, the official newspaper of the NOI in the 1960s–early seventies, to show heightened religiosity within the NOI. Focusing his lens at the epicenter of the praxis, Curtis shows how NOI constituents and personal commentaries published in Muhammad Speaks reveal practitioners’ beliefs about critical concepts. Their remarks contextualize the multiple meanings of NOI beliefs in members’ lives. The text’s value lay in its illumination of the multifaceted, multi-textured, and varied responses of NOI practitioners to the injunctions, rules, regulations, policies, and associative imaginings espoused by Elijah Muhammad.

For example, in chapter 2, “Making A Muslim Messenger: Defending the Islamic Legitimacy of Elijah Muhammad,” Curtis shows how immigrant and indigenous U.S. citizens sought to legitimize Elijah Muhammad’s leadership particularly within the Islamic tradition. Curtis notes that “almost all these intellectuals (both within and outside the NOI family) held fast to the idea that they followed the Messenger of God, an Abrahamic prophet who had [End Page 740] been commissioned by God to lead African Americans toward Islam” (37). The chapter concludes with reference to columnist Tynnetta Deanar’s use of the Qur’an as the authoritative source to interpret biblical texts, circa 1969. Deanar, like ministers Lonnie Cross and Louis Farrakhan, “stayed in the movement through the 1960s and into the 1970s, privileging Elijah Muhammad’s esoteric interpretations of the Qur’an in their readings of the holy book” (65). As such, NOI members not only affirmed the practice of religion within the NOI but also validated their beliefs in Islamic terms.

Chapter 3, “Black Muslim Narratives: Orienting the Nation of Islam in Muslim Time and Space,” discusses the nature of the Black man’s “true identity” according to “Elijah Muhammad’s doctrine of the original man” (73). In articulating that Blacks were descendents of “the original Asiatic black nation of the universe” (73), the NOI’s historical narrative placed Blacks...