Afterthoughts By: Hajj

Concerned with the Contributions made by Africans & African Americans Toward the Development of Islam in North & South America.

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By: Morroe Berger

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Does all this add up to a religion at all, and to anything resembling what the world has traditionally known as Islam? Islam does not have a central authority with the power to admit and exclude applicants. Anyone who accepts Islamic doctrine and tries to perform certain prescribed rituals has the right to call himself a Muslim. Whether the followers of Elijah Muhammad are “orthodox”, or “good”, Muslims is, practically speaking, irrelevant. Some Muslim sects are hardly willing to regard others as co-religionists, while to many Asian or Near Eastern Muslims, the Islam of African tribes converted centuries ago is still something strange. Yet all are Muslims. The most serious charge against the black Muslims is their exclusiveness, for traditional Islam does not exclude races, colors, or nations – indeed, that is one reason why Elijah Muhammad and his followers are attracted to it. They are not perturbed by this contradiction, however, and persist in regarding their Islam as exclusively for American “so-called Negroes.”

Does Elijah Muhammad, or Malcolm X, it is often asked, “really” believe in the Messengers cosmology and natural history? I see no reason to doubt it. Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in the cosmology of the Bible and the Koran? One may argue that Elijah Muhammad is “sick” if he thinks he is in communications with God. So, then, has been any previous religious leader from the point of view of nonbelievers. Elijah Muhammad is on no shakier ground than anyone else who ever claimed to hear God. It is true that much of what he says is incomprehensible, but so is much of the Bible and Koran; a few millenniums of exegesis by powerful minds may do for his confusions what it has done for other religions. True, his Islam has smaller ethical and universal content than other religions, but that does not make it any less a religion.

The future of the black Muslims is closely tied to their religious appeal and, of course, to the realities of Negro life. I do not think they can grow much larger, because they must retain their religious character in order to be distinctive, and it is precisely this religious character that puts people off in a secular age. The Muslims will probably face a serious crisis when the time comes to find a successor to Elijah Muhammad. How will the newcomer’s status be defined? Will the movement become more active politically? How can it get beyond the position of a small, narrow cult that is cohesive only because it requires so much of its adherents?

I am assuming, of course, that Elijah Muhammad’s religion will not become the religion of American Negroes. I believe that the age of world-conquering religious movements is over, yet I believe also that the Black Muslims have set in motion the kind of ideological ‘wave’, which, in the past, has engulfed worlds. Such ideas have spread, as did Christianity and Islam themselves, through cultures alien to the ones of their origin. But there are many examples of failure, and even success has been riddled with failure. The Muslims of Arabia, for example, failed to convert the Jews, and the Christians have failed to convert the Muslims. If a religion succeeds, it is a great spiritual revival revealing divine purpose. If it fails, it is a “cult” to provide amusement for the nonbeliever. The Black Muslims provide one mode of adjustment for the Negro to a difficult life. The white world says that he is no longer an African, but has refused to allow him to become a full American. The white world has belittled the Negro’s past and denied him a proud future. The Muslims have retorted by saying: let us separate completely and forever.

It is a kind of tragedy in a world where all the races are becoming, whether in enmity or brotherhood, not less, but more dependent one upon the other.

Morroe Berger, Professor of Sociology at Princeton, has written a number of articles and books on United States race relations and Islam. This article was prepared from a larger study, supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health.

This article was originally printed in Horizon magazine Winter, 1964.  Vol. VI, NO 1

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By: Hajj Haroon

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One of the interesting facts about this article is that it was written at a time when both Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, (El Hajj Malik al Shabazz) were still alive and in their primes –at a point in their respective careers when a large-scale change was due.

In the case of Elijah Muhammad the bell exclaiming The Final Call had begun to ring –controversy began to resound throughout the Nation as the Sweet Messenger’s feet of clay were exposed to a shocked but expectant world.

For Malcolm X –it was the impetus that placed him further in the eyes of the world to be consumed by the flames of Martyrdom.