Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Review: Sherman Jackson - Islam and the Blackamerican

Islam and the Black American: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection by Sherman Jackson. Oxford University Press (2005). ISBN 0-19-518081-X. 235 pages. Hardcover.

I was in Atlanta in 1991 when I heard a Louis Farakhan tape in which he said something like, “We did not stop riding the back of the bus to get on the back of the camel!” And, later, around that time frame, I remember reading a line condemning African Muslim hujjaj (pilgrims to Makka) passing the bones of their ancestors to worship at Arab shrines. (I think it was from Molefi Asante’s book Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change.) Lastly, I remember reading an article by Louis Brenner about the manner in which a scholar taught the attributes of God to common people in West Africa. And Dr. Jackson wrote a book which brought together all of these experiences for me.

The existence of a large group of indigenous Muslims in the United States is not duplicated in other countries ruled by Europeans and their descendants, in the Americas, western Europe, the Republic of South Africa, Australia and elsewhere. Dr. Jackson sets out to explain why this developed in the United States and not elsewhere, and at the same time project a path that Blackamerican Muslims must tread if they hope to preserve their Islam and succeed in overthrowing white supremacy. As it turns out, giving up the goal of overthrowing white supremacy would in fact end Islam among the Blackamericans.

A confluence of factors allowed Blackamericans to own Islam. The first was the imperative of Black Religion, a primordial, fitra-like belief in a just God who would not tolerate His people’s abuse and Who would Punish their oppressors. The second was that fact that their oppressors identified themselves as Christians, not Muslims. The third was that Muslim immigrants to the United States and white American converts were too few to define Islam in the United States. The fourth was the leadership of the proto-Islamists such as Noble Drew Ali and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who allowed their Muslim followers to appropriate White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) values without identifying their oppressors as the source of those values. The fifth was an early twentieth century crisis in Blackamerican Christianity, which inculcated those WASP values yet could not articulate them without surrendering moral supremacy to whiteness. The sixth was features in Islam which met Blackamericans’ needs. These were Islam’s theology, which is simple relative to that of Christianity, Islam’s Protestant-like absence of institutionalized ecclesiastical authority and the Qur’an’s frequent references to the God’s aiding the believers against their unbelieving oppressors.

Elijah Muhammad used the term “resurrection” to describe his movement’s impact on the Blackamerican. Dr. Jackson borrows this term and identifies Elijah Muhammad’s period as the First Resurrection. Blackamericans’ embrace of Sunni Islam since the 1970s is the Second Resurrection. And the challenges facing Blackamerican Muslims today require a Third Resurrection.

The Blackamerican Muslim today has lost control of the definition of Islam to Immigrant Islam in the United States, not because immigrant Muslims and their descendants practice a “purer” Islam but because of their relative affluence, their ideological self-assuredness and weaknesses in Black Religion. I would add to this list the foreign policy imperatives of the United States as it embarks on the re-colonization of the Muslim world. Immigrant Islam, by devaluing “the West”, prevents Blackamerican Muslims from contributing positively to Blackamericans’ struggle against white supremacy. The psychological dislocation of abandoning theirs own selves in exchange for a foreign, identity-based Islam leaves Blackamerican Muslims ineffective in both the secular and religious spheres.

The Third Resurrection of the Blackamerican Muslim must center on personal piety, mastery of usul al-fiqh, the bases of jurisprudence, to derive judgments on what is permissible and forbidden for Blackamerican Muslims, and an unwavering commitment to fight white supremacy. The Blackamerican Muslim will at that point be self-authenticating, needing the approval of neither white supremacists nor other Muslims. Blackamericans would be in the position of the African teacher and his pupils whom Louis Brenner described for me, neither colonizing nor colonized, with knowledge of this religion being treated as a public good and not a personal inheritance.

I’ve summarized in just a few paragraphs a densely written book, and of course I recommend reading it to understand Dr. Jackson’s arguments for why this is necessary.

I believe that Dr. Jackson could have discussed in more depth the writings and speeches of Blackamerican Muslims, especially those he identifies as belonging to the Dar al-Islam movement and those involved with the American Society of Muslims (pp. 48-51). Dr. Jackson notes himself that he was unable to explore the difference between how Blackamerican men and Blackamerican women view Black Religion, Christianity and Islam, and how the Third Resurrection would relate to gender differences. (p. 20)

The remainder of this review is a discussion of the role of non-Blackamerican Muslims in the light of Dr. Jackson’s arguments.

Dr. Jackson writes: I should add that Immigrant Islam is not synonymous with immigrant Muslims, especially those of the second and third generations, many of whom are actually opposed to its hegemony. Thus, while a successful Third Resurrection will necessarily attack the false pretensions of Immigrant Islam in general, this does not mean that it must target immigrant Muslims. The Third Resurrection is aimed at ideas not at people. Still, in the absence of a viable, American alternative, most immigrant Muslims are likely to remain at least provisional supporters of Immigrant Islam, for, if nothing else, the latter goes a long way in preserving their sense of authenticity, identity, and ownership. In this context, it remains to be seen how disaffected immigrant Muslims will relate to the Third Resurrection and vice versa. (p. 13)

Immigrant Islam is characterized by an attachment to “false universals,” which is “the phenomenon of history internalized, normalized, and then forgotten as history.” We humans take our own experience and assume anybody who does not see things the same way is “stupid, primitive or morally depraved.” (p. 9)

I see the situation facing U.S. immigrant Muslims and their descendants as similar to Blackamericans with the important exception that many immigrant Muslims can cross the “southern” border of America’s color line into honorary whiteness.

Non-Blackamerican Muslims can choose to resist white supremacy, abandon false universals and meet Blackamerican Muslims in presumable unity at the other side.

Non-Blackamerican Muslims can choose to join white supremacy. Part of the initiation into whiteness is the denigration of blackness. This was certainly the route non-Blackamerican Muslims were on prior to September 11, 2001, and that event both strengthened and retarded that trend.

An interesting question is what will happen to non-Blackamericans’ Islam if they choose to buttress white supremacy yet abandon their false universals. While I feel that personal piety and knowledge of the shari`ah would eventually force someone into opposition to white supremacy, Dr. Jackson criticizes a faction of Modernized Islam as being “overly academic and removed from the problems and sentiments of the folk.” It also “tends to view the legacy of white supremacy and racial terror as the special property of Blackamericans rather than as part of the social, political, and psychological history of America as a whole.” (pp. 90-1)

The third alternative is for non-Blackamerican Muslims to cling to the anti-culture Modern Islam, in either its politicized form or its symbolic, pietistic form. I think that this in the long-run is not viable, since it is difficult to pass this down from generation to generation. In addition, the July 7th London bombings demonstrate that it will produce at its fringes (or advanced stages, depending on how you look at it) acts of extremism which will eventually threaten the security of Muslim life in European and North American societies.

Dr. Jackson calls on American Muslims “to accept their Western experience as a primary element in shaping their respective identities, rather than as a post-facto pollutant added to an otherwise unadulterated mix …” This would “… greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the utility of appealing to [their respective identities] as an ultimate or greater authority in the context of contemplating American Islam.” (p. 92)

How should immigrant Muslims address white supremacy? The same way Dr. Jackson recommends for Blackamerican Muslims:
[Being grounded in both American reality and the classical Tradition], that
is, within the American constitutional order, the enterprises of resistance and
protest would be able to reassert themselves as acts dedicated to reforming
America and to holding her to her own ideals, rather than as attempts to destroy
her or impose upon her an alien vision from without. (p. 168)
Finally, a personal interest of mine has been Afrocentricity. Dr. Jackson has an excellent chapter entitled “Black Orientalism,” a reference to the late Edward Said’s book Orientalism. This intellectual movement “impugn[s] the propriety of the relationship between Islam and Blackamericans by ultimately calling into question Blackamerican Muslims’ status as authentic, loyal Blackamericans.” (p. 102) An on-line article by Dr. Jackson which introduceds this topic is available at

Dr. Jackson’s web page at the University of Southern California is

Last updated November 30, 2013.

No comments: