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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3.3 (2001) 251-263
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East of the Sun (West of the Moon):
Islam, the Ahmadis, and African America
This article attempts to intervene in the standard narrative of African American Islam, where ideas of separation and exclusion reign. Far less inscribed, however, is a history of African American Islam which views the faith as a religion of universal belonging but one which arrives at it through a particular aesthetics of living. Music is an important part of this story and of this article and, when it was originally delivered, the paper began with Yusef Lateef's "Meditation" (Prestige, 1957) and concluded with John Coltrane's "Acknowledgment" (Impulse, 1964).
Traveling somewhere between living in a racialized state and stating the life of a race lies the story of African American Islam. Found in narratives of struggle and spirit, of edification and propagation, of incarceration, incarnation, and ideology, and of Blacks, Asians, and Middle Easterners, this is a tale seldom told and even less often heard. When it does get some play, the way is in a single key. Separation is sounded brassily as the dominant chord, modulating being minor into a major ideology. The dissonances of dissidence. From Moorish Science to Garveyism, from Elijah's honor to Malcolm's rage, Islam is understood as a tool of politics, pliant to complaint and made to speak a language of plain truth against [End Page 251] the tricknology of white folk. The soul almost disappears, replaced with an iconography of militarized Islam, boots and bowties battling white supremacy, dividing One Nation Under God with the Nation of Islam.
The fate of Malcolm concludes this narrative by necessity. Epiphanies of a universal spirit clash with narrow-minded parochialisms in a death match of blood and assassination. Malcolm is lionized and history, tragically, marches on. But did this battle between the particular and the universal, between Islam as a unique expression of African American political aspirations for separation and Islam as a universal religion of belonging first find its articulation with Malcolm's rupture with Elijah Muhammad, or has the customary story we have up until now been unable to comprehend the complexity of Islam in the African American experience? Is the divide between the universal and the particular so easily drawn as a picture in black and white, or are there sepia tones of black, brown, and beige that call out to be seen? This article is an examination of the browns and beiges, a look at the notes and tones of the Muslim experience.
I would like to start with three tableaus, one involving an Asian immigrant, another looking at Brother Malcolm, and the third a study in sound. All three are signifying the idea of Islam in the United States, finding a context in which to belong along with a place to disagree, and providing me a text with which to continue.
Islam in African America has a history as long as memory, when Muslim slaves from Africa wrapped their faith tightly around them as invisible armor against daily degradation. But the practice does not seem to continue. Religious revivalists in the early part of the twentieth century, mostly in the North where large numbers of new migrants sought the strength of a community, found populations willing to listen and eager to believe. In 1913, Timothy Drew donned a fez and claimed Moroccan heritage for his people in the Moorish Science Temple. For all its imaginative reconstruction, the Moorish Science Temple has little under the surface to connect it to worldwide Islam. But its spirit of displacing the term "Negro" from Blacks, of thinking of darker skinned peoples as Asiatics and Moroccans, [End Page 252] of allying Drew Ali with "Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha, and Confucius" 1 is part of the productive tension between separatism and universalism that will follow all African American Islam throughout the rest of the century. But it would be in the next decade, with the growth...