The Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America (1965)—a pivotal text in the history of US American Islam—begins with pointed criticism of the notion of God as Father. Muhammad writes:
The Christians do not believe in God as a human being, yet they believe in Him as being the Father of all human beings. They also refer to God as He, Him, Man, King, and The Ruler . . . They cannot tell us what He looks like, yet man is made like Him and in the image of God, and yet they still say He is a mystery (unknown) . . . If God is a mystery, you are lying to the world when you say that you know Him.
Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI) from 1934 until his death in 1975, sought to expose what he saw as the “lie” of the Christian concept of the Trinity: that God could simultaneously be the Father and the Son, both imagined in human forms, as well as the Holy Ghost, what Muhammad referred to as “mystery.” He particularly scorned the idea of God as “the Father of all human beings,” lambasting the notion that Christians saw themselves as the “Children of God” and fashioned themselves in the image of the Supreme Being they believed was, at the same time, wholly disembodied, unknowable.1This critique of the Trinity is often cited by both Black and non-Black former Christians as a central reason for their conversion to Islam.
This prolonged critique, which continues for almost thirty pages, does not extend in any way to issues of gender, to God’s gendering as male. Muhammad’s problem with God as Father is that “He” simply cannot be a man and a mystery at the same time. Instead, Muhammad taught that Allah was a man: Master Fard Muhammad, who arrived in Detroit in 1930 to bring Islam to Black Americans, and that he, Muhammad, was Fard’s prophet.2While such notions of Fard’s divinity and Muhammad’s prophethood were immediately rejected by the NOI’s various Muslim counterparts both in the United States and beyond, and would later be rejected by the majority of Black Muslims, Muhammad’s notion of God as human closely resembled non-NOI Muslim logics comparing the Prophet Muhammad to Jesus. Muslims do not view the Prophet Muhammad as the son of God, nor God’s proxy. The Prophet is instead understood to be fully human. However, he is the “best of us,” the last and greatest of God’s prophets and an exemplary model of human behavior. Whether one is male or female, Muslims are taught to emulate the Prophet’s deeds and actions in every aspect of their lives. To worship and honor Allah, Muhammad taught, Black Muslims needed to partake in a highly disciplined program of spiritual, physical, and psychological development that was fundamental to the construction of a strong Black nation and, thus, for Black liberation. Conservative gender norms, with women relegated to “domestic” space, and men positioned as earners and protectors, were integral to this project.
In this forum’s considerations of fathers as God-like and God as father-like, the NOI, as well as the Black American Muslim experience more broadly, offers critical insights into the relationship between fatherhood and patriarchy, and how religious women have reckoned with the implications and consequences of these terms within US contexts of race and gender. Black Muslim women’s lives, both within and outside the NOI, show that while they did not view God as Father, they willingly entered into and participated in patriarchal structures in which they were to submit to traditional notions of femininity and be “protected” by men. Thus, Black Muslim women, most formerly from Christian backgrounds like Muhammad (the son of a Baptist preacher), rejected Christian teachings of the Trinity and divine fatherhood at the same time that they embraced the NOI’s patriarchal structures. As historian Ula Taylor writes, to be a NOI woman was to “negotiate an investment in patriarchy” in order to secure “betterment of the nuclear (Black) family and, ultimately, the larger black nation.”
In my book Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam, which offers an account of Islam in the United States through the lives and narratives of women across the twentieth to twenty-first centuries, one chapter explores how mainstream media treatments of the NOI during the 1950s-60s portrayed the group as an insurgent threat to the Cold War social order in the United States due to how the group presented patriarchy as integral to Black nationalist politics. I argue that in a time when middle class white American men felt emasculated by growing numbers of white working women, the patriarchal structure of the NOI—and Black women’s seeming obeisance to this order—represented a vitality, dominance, and strength that challenged white American men confronted by the threats of independent women and the Soviet aggression. In other words, white men were scared of losing their dominance as paternal figures in the home as well as on the world stage. One should thus read Elijah Muhammad’s condemnation of God as Father at the start of Message as an attack on white male dominance, as well as a means to announce the assertion of Black male dominance in its stead.
His words resonated deeply with both Black men and women. In the absence of a theology of a divine father, Black Muslim women honored Black men as fathers and husbands, and expected honor and elevation in return as wives and mothers, as part of a project of Black liberation. This NOI desire to reinstate the heteronormative nuclear family as central to their political and religious aims grew directly out of the destruction wrought upon Black families by slavery, during which Black Americans were roundly excluded from the institution of marriage until after the end of the Civil War. When they were finally permitted to marry, they did so in great numbers; by 1880, 80 percent of Black American families included a husband and a wife. Yet the legacies of slavery rendered marriages and families vulnerable to massive stresses such as unemployment and poverty, as well as the ongoing effects of racial violence and trauma in Black American life. In the face of such stresses, concepts of family and marriage became encoded into discourses of racial uplift and Black progress from the close of the nineteenth century onward.
As historian Anastasia Curwood discusses in her book Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars, marriage was considered a “signifier for sexual morality in a time when all black people were stereotyped as immoral” and in particular as a way of demonstrating how Black women had overcome their “depraved sexuality” in slavery and therefore could not “demonstrate a chastity that was beyond reproach.” A patriarchal structure was thus necessary, as was famously argued by E. Franklin Frazier in The Negro Family in the United States in 1939, because a system of maternal power had developed under slavery and matriarchal women had become a dangerous force who were emasculating and demoralizing men. In order to rehabilitate Black families, Black men needed to be restored as primary earners and heads of household, which would then lead to the achievement of moral rectitude and racial progress.
Therefore, we see how the NOI’s investment in patriarchy was much in line with Black middle-class logics—which were intimately tied to the Black American church—of respectability and racial progress of the time. Yet, the vast majority of the group’s followers hailed from working–class Black communities, and many had felt alienated by the bourgeois—and oftentimes disdainful—attitudes of Black middle-class churchgoers toward the “depravities” of the Black working class. As such, Elijah Muhammad and the NOI rendered such “respectable” behaviors as desirable by imbuing them with an urgency and militancy that rejected Christian beliefs, but not the values and behaviors heretofore promoted by the Black Church. To put it another way, the NOI made respectability radical.
Despite a theology that went “beyond God the Father,” Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam replicated the patriarchal attitudes and behaviors feminists such as Mary Daly decried in Christianity. But unlike white feminists, Black Muslim women put their faith in the “promise of patriarchy” offered by the NOI due to their desire for protection from white supremacy, to find solace from the racial and sexual violence of their daily lives. Farah Jasmine Griffin has called this “the promise of protection”: the notion that Black men’s protection and reverence would constitute a space of safety for Black womanhood. Over time, however, many Black Muslim women were forced to come to terms with how these “promises” were left unfulfilled. Many left the organization, while others continued to seek strength in its traditional gender structures.3Following Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son Warith Deen Mohammad transitioned the NOI’s practices toward normative practices of Sunni Islam, which one might argue allowed for more agency for Muslim women. It is important to note that many women, such as acclaimed poet Sonia Sanchez, who was a member of the NOI between 1972-75, did leave the group due what Sanchez described as “stifling” attitudes toward women’s autonomy and creativity. However, when the NOI, was revived under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan in the 1980s, Black women continued to join the group, which maintained the importance of conservative gender norms.
Being Muslim argues that a continual desire for racial and gendered agency impels women’s engagements with Islam in a US context. Within the patriarchal structures of the NOI, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s rejection of divine fatherhood enabled many of the group’s formerly Christian Black women to divest themselves of the anti-Blackness of whiteness-invested Christian discourses. Yet, this theological shift did not upend the material constraints of gendered structures of power within the organization. This is reflective of “Islam” writ large; whereas Islamic scriptures resoundingly do not portray God as a patriarch or father figure, male-centric, and oftentimes patriarchal, interpretations of scripture historically mark traditional Islamic exegesis (tafsir). As the example of the NOI shows, the doing-away, or recalibration, of patriarchal notions of divine fatherhood does not, as a matter of course, produce gender-egalitarian modes of spiritual and religious life, unless accompanied by sustained efforts to remake the material contexts—social, political, and cultural—of everyday lives.