This article challenges still pervasive scholarly claims that Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI) was neither primarily religious nor Islamic in nature. Using ritual as a vantage point from which to analyze the structure and function of both religious and political activities within the movement, this essay shows how the ritual "islamization" of the black body was a central feature of movement life from the 1950s through the 1970s. Adopting some theoretical tools from Catherine Bell's Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, the article also explores the relationship between ritual and power within the organization itself and in its interactions with the larger social worlds of which it was a part.
In creating and sustaining NOI rituals, Elijah Muhammad and his followers depicted the black body as a battleground for the souls of black folk, a site of contestation where members of the NOI would save themselves from white and black Christian violation, poison, and in the case of men, emasculation. NOI rituals sought to reform the black body by paying attention to issues of body weight, diet, coiffure, attire, cleanliness, and more. At the same time, these rituals emphasized the centrality of Elijah Muhammad's prophetic voice in the practice of Islamic religion. Muhammad's followers often understood the performance of these ritualistic acts as a response to the prophetic call of the Messenger of God.
But because Muhammad's prophetic authority within this ritual complex was legitimated by means of an Islamic ideology, it was not without its limits. Having utilized Islam to name and define his ritual activity, Elijah Muhammad laid claims to a religious identity shared by millions of other people. When immigrant, foreign, and other African American Muslims began to question his religious legitimacy, he responded by entrenching himself further in his own African American Islamic metaphysic, resulting in his isolation from much of the American and global Muslim community. This isolation led, in turn, to questions and even rebellion among some of his most prominent followers, including Malcolm X and sons Akbar and Wallace.
For many, if not most, followers, however, ritualization in the NOI did not result in rebellion against Elijah Muhammad but a negotiated empowerment and personal liberation. By recasting many middle-class African American Christian traditions into a new Islamic mold, Elijah Muhammad was able to advocate traditionally Protestant behaviors without seeming to engage in racial, religious, or class capitulation. Participants in Muhammad's ritual complex thus created a protest movement that opposed the ideological orientations of the dominant culture while perpetuating some its most conservative practices. While some outside observers may have seen these persons as black Puritans, the believers themselves felt like black radicals. As far as they were concerned, the islamization of the body led to their political and religious salvation——and had the potential to free all other black persons as well.
- ©© The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture