The paired posts in this series were developed in connection with a workshop supported by the three-year Luce Foundation funded project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” directed by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Read the introduction to the series here.
This is the fourth installment in this series of paired essays. In this post, Noah Salomon reflects on Noble Drew Ali’s “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928,” in his essay, “Exceptional Americanism.” Salomon’s essay is paired with Spencer Dew’s reflection on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s posthumous message, The Last Will and Testament (or, The Last Message).
To read the previous posts, click here.
In his “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928,” Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America movement, makes an eager plea for inclusion of his community into the constitutional and cultural framework of the American legal order. My colleague Spencer Dew, in an essay for our workshop, described this plea as “far from a revolutionary reimagining of the status quo . . . a prophetic call for inclusion of his people within the status quo.” Noble Drew’s recognition that black Americans, present for generations, were and, without his intervention always would be, never fully American (or, as he puts it, only Americans by “granted privilege,” not by right), while people coming from the most far off and exotic lands had a clear path to full citizenship in the American assimilatory promise, motivated the strategy he advocates in this short essay. Noble Drew calls on his community to define itself on the basis of nationality (as “Moors”) rather than race (as “Negros”). Such a strategy not only recognizes the essential and indelible place of race in the American legal experiment (then under the shadow of Jim Crow, now in the documented bias in incarceration rates), over and above any other category of human belonging, but offers a way of unthinking it: to insist that race is a construct and to call on his people to adopt a new identity, one based on nationality and religion.
The case of Noble Drew Ali impresses on us that, in our discussion of American exceptionalism, we need not only to look at how America frames itself as an exception—this is clear from its stance on everything from its nuclear policy to its attitude towards international law to the intense localism of its media and entertainment consumption—but at how that which is excepted from the American promise pushes back, in often surprising ways. For Noble Drew, this process of embodying what I call “exceptional Americanism”—the exception seeking to enter into that from which it has been excepted—took place through redefining black Americans as a nationality, rather than a race, and thus aspiring to become one among many immigrant groups entering into the melting pot. In doing so, he not only sought to unsettle the place of the exception to American political life, rejecting its racialized premises, but also pushed back against the scientific conclusions of the day, insisting that there is no race but the human race.
Uday Mehta has argued that liberalism works through perpetuating a tension between universal promise and a system that delineates exceptions—those people who are not yet ready for the liberal gift. In the American story, slavery and manifest destiny constitute the two founding exceptions to the liberal promise. Though some might read Noble Drew’s essay as simply blaming black Americans for the oppression they faced, through, as he puts it, their refusal to state their “free national names,” I want to suggest that his agenda is more radical, attempting, as he does, to redefine the very categories through which his community has been interpolated. It is for this reason that Noble Drew so vociferously rejects the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, which, though they granted black Americans rights, did so within the framework of race: “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Rejecting the categorization of his people by race allows Noble Drew to define his community on its own terms: less the historical Moors of the Maghreb than a creative synthesis of the multiple components of the African American experience and twentieth-century esotericism, projected onto a new image of nationhood.
Though it is understated in this essay, we cannot forget that the Moorish Science Temple not only espoused a nationality but a religion too (“they are to claim their own free national name and religion”), one that Peter Lamborn Wilson has described as “Americanizing the prophetic spirit . . . with a kind of folk Sufism.” Refusing narratives that see Noble Drew’s connection to the Islam he claimed as tenuous at best, Wilson speculates on a legible connection to the broader Islamic world from sources as diverse as Moors brought to the Americas by Spain following the conquest of 1492, to the Ismaili-Knight Templar pacts (whose wisdom was passed down by the Masons), to the alleged discipleship of Noble Drew’s parents under Muslim reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and esoteric Sufi orders. Followers of Noble Drew have at times embraced such a Muslim heritage and at other times have rejected it. In any case, like other warnings from prophets, “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928,” insists not only on social censure for a failure to reform, but divine sanction as well. That is to say, rejecting one’s free national name would not only have political consequence (non-recognition) but eschatological ones (“enormous earthquakes, disease, etc.”).
Getting his people “back into the constitutional fold” through prodding them to re-embrace their forgotten identity as Moors and as Muslims seems a striking move in the day and age in which we are reading this piece. That is to say, I could not help thinking of this 1928 example and wondering if, had Noble Drew lived today, he would have emphasized his identity as “Moor.” Though technically referring to people of North African decent, the Muslim of orientalist fantasies of the early twentieth century has become the nightmare of the twenty first. Today’s Moors are among those most commonly left out of the “constitutional fold” that Noble Drew sought so enthusiastically to enter, constituted as the objects of persistent surveillance, stopped at borders and checkpoints. Whether indexed in “how they treat their women” or in the looming threat of terrorism, it is undeniable that the Arab or Muslim American in the post 9/11 landscape is exceptionalized, arguably written out of the constitutional order. The national categorization of yesteryear has lost any potential advantage it once had, as race has come to rear its head at every turn, here in a set of pathological tendencies of the Muslim that cannot be unlearned no matter the name of the country now printed on her passport. Take the US rules on visa waiver countries implemented under the Obama administration, which stipulate that those Europeans with “dual nationality” (a term I think intentionally left undefined) with a roster of “coincidentally” Arab and/or Muslim majority countries are no longer granted visa waivers but must go through special security protocols, and apply for a visa. Here it is clear that the Muslim and Arab (as races that cannot be unlearned) constitute the ultimate exception to the whole concept of post-Enlightenment citizenship: that nationhood dissolves any previous and irrational ties to race and religion. Here, the Muslim serves as the exception to the rule, never able to become fully and equally European in the minds of US immigration authorities. So, would Noble Drew’s strategy be effective today as a means of transcending the predicament of black Americans, now in an era of pessimism or even disbelief in the nation?
Exceptional Americanism is still, however, very much a strategy for people across a whole swath of identities, who seek to justify their exception as part of the rule, to participate in those purportedly inalienable rights the Constitution guarantees that are too often and for too many frozen in a state of exception. Noble Drew’s stirring jeremiad offers both a genealogy of our present—in showing the frantic scramble to escape the race exception—and presents a contrast to where we are today, when certain nations have been assigned a pathological character, with dire consequences for the coherence of not only America’s identity as a land of immigrants, but the entire edifice of citizenship, when Muslim-American seems an impossible gulf to bridge.
In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, theology and politics were inextricable, a relation theorized by Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini in this posthumous address to the citizens of the Islamic state he helped found. It serves, further, as an example of the revolutionary dynamic that he birthed, and continues to maintain it.
The centrality of revolution in the case of Iran parallels the centrality of revolution in America. In both cases, revolution is not limited to an historical moment but is a characteristic of consciousness for citizens of the (revolutionary) state. Khomeini’s text can thus facilitate analysis of American exceptionalism. For America, as a political experiment, depends like Iran on a revolutionary subjectivity, shaped by and shaping the notion and practice of revolution, delimiting and defining the role and concept of the citizen in relation to the government.
This revolutionary subjectivity has three main valences. First, there is an eschatological valence in which current actions are located in a cosmic drama, with consequence. Second, there is a device by which the climax of history keeps repeating. Third, there is a practical valence to Revolutionary subjectivity; it demands action in the here and now.
Both eschatology and the repetition of history depend upon a religious framework. With the term “politico-religious,” Khomeini denies any distinction between the religious and the political. Further, however, he identifies such division as key to political oppression and the suppression of true religion. In short, conceiving of religion and politics as separate is a global problem for which revolution is the necessary solution.
Furthermore, Khomeini rereads religious history as revolutionary history or as a prolegomenon to revolution. Distinctively Shia history and rituals of remembrance here become acts of condemnation of and protest against tyranny and oppression; “cries of lamentations” becoming the voice of proto-Revolutionary gatherings and the Infallible Imams who “became martyrs as a result of attempting to eradicate oppressive governments” emerge as proto-Revolutionary leaders. Oppression here is transhistorical, with historical particulars seen as repetitions of a larger dynamic, “in each age and era.” Thus, “mourning ceremonies” are not only about “historical martyrdom” but are “cries of protest of the oppressed against criminal leaders throughout history until the end of time.”
Within Khomeini’s larger narrative of history, Islam has become subject to the corruption that previous prophetic messages were subject to in the Qur’an’s own historical narrative. The revolution thus replicates the revelation, as the present jahiliyya (in which tyrants insist that religion and politics are seen as separate categories) demands a correction, a return to truth. As a typological approach to history, this has real echoes with America, as does the parallel mythic basis for building a nation on a divine model, and the understanding of the revolution as a perennial process. The stakes of the (continuous) revolution are cosmic: the end of human freedom, or, in Khomeini’s case, “the downfall of religion.”
In both Iran and the United States, revolutionaries are those who, rather than being born into political systems continually birth such systems via their own sacrifice, suffering, and pious dedication to ideals. The dynamic here is less maintenance than continual re-creation. As such, it is painful, demanding the ultimate sacrifice, generating canons of martyrs that exemplify the ideal of the citizen-as-revolutionary. There are states born of revolution and states that depend on a perpetuation of the experience of revolution, framed within a theological register.
Such revolutionary states reveal a facet of political theology unnoted by Carl Schmitt, not least because the distinct, revolutionary subjectivity of such state projects destabilizes sovereignty by exposing it as always already multiple. In the Iranian case, the sovereign is God but also the scholar/judge and even the oppressed people united as one. Sometimes these sovereigns exist simultaneously, but it’s unclear if they can ever exercise sovereignty exclusively, which, of course, is supposed to be the defining quality of the sovereign. In the United States we live a similar dilemma, with the sovereign “We the People” standing as a check on tyranny which can (only) be understood via the model of Sovereign and which draws its authority from a Sovereign God. The stars on the Great Seal represent individual sovereigns (citizens and states) joined together in a star-shaped constellation, and this “Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers,” in the words of designer Charles Thomas. This is worlds away from the Schmittian ideal of sovereign as decider of exception. Rather, these revolutionary states promise sovereignty to all citizens, but only ever as a form of relation, a matter of negotiation. Freedom in such systems is necessarily a matter of limits and compromise.
As in Khomeini’s texts, the American model of popular sovereignty creates a tension by emphasizing agency on the one hand and the necessity of sacrifice for community on the other. “Rise up and fight for your rights!” Khomeini says, though an implicit limit on such freedom comes with his attention to selfishness as the mark of those tyrants and stooges that the revolution opposes.
This destabilized model of sovereignty—multiple, contested, not behaving the way sovereignty is supposed to according to traditional theological or political models—poses a threat to the state, tilting it toward anarchy. Khomeini’s turn to education responds to this danger, education here being the difference between those “ignorant clerics” who teach “superstitions” and those true clerics who teach authentic religion, a product of “the theological centers, the universities.” Those who “have control over all these agencies” thus preserve order and keep the revolution safe from either satanic encroachment from outside or anarchic corruption from within.
Emphasis on the individual’s role in seizing control of the state clashes with the reality of knowledge as hierarchical. An epistemological tension—over access to knowledge, elite control thereof—permeates revolutionary subjectivity. This is particularly the case with law, where the promise of equal access clashes with the fact that those who have invested time and money in formal legal education have performative skills that others, as mere citizens, lack. In a text emphasizing freedom, Khomeini takes refuge in the formalities of such education, granting to an elite the control over structures of law that will preserve the state from collapse from within as well as without. Consider, in comparison, American invocations of the blessing of God as well as the insistent American belief in rule of law, in being a nation of laws rather than men, even if simultaneously a nation of “people” united as sovereign/s. Law is located, in both revolutionary states, as beyond the hands of the people. As Paul Kahn notes in relation to the “the counter-majoritarian difficulty” of the US Supreme Court’s relation to American popular sovereignty, elite judges and legal scholars exercise their own level of sovereignty over the citizens of the revolutionary state. (For more on Paul Kahn’s Political Theology, see Stephanie Frank’s essay.)
Championing “political theology” as “an effort to describe the social imaginary of the political,” an expansion over the limited, genealogical sense of Carl Schmitt’s declaration that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state [including law] are secularized theological concepts,” Paul Kahn holds that “religion” and other social form such as “law” and “politics” are never separate but always entangled with one another. Not only is this claim in keeping with recent scholarship on the secular as dependent on and productive of certain modes of religion (with religion, law, and politics seen to implicate and support each other), but it is also reflective of a native stance, advanced by patriotic thinkers as part of an expression of revolutionary subjectivity.
In the exceptional United States, as in states, like Iran, born of similar rhetoric and maintained via parallel engines of ongoing revolutionary fervor, a particular political theology is evident. In this imaginary, the immediate historical moment is approached as ever-consequential to the cosmos and familiar from religious narratives. Such political theology, while promising agency and liberty to the individual citizen, simultaneously requires constant sacrifice from citizenry and is rife with tensions regarding the negotiations of sovereignty and the accessibility of epistemology and law.