I was pleased to learn this week that the late Manning Marable’s exhaustive biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize in History. Thoroughly and thoughtfully revisionist, Marable’s account of Malcolm X’s life challenges much of what is presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a now classic piece of 20th century American literature that has popularized a particular view of the Nation of Islam minister and his role in the Civil Rights, Black Muslim, and Pan-African movements. Deconstructing the Autobiography (which was published posthumously and, as Marable highlights, heavily edited by “co-author” Alex Haley), Marable then reconstructs the life of the man born Malcolm Little, utilizing a wealth of primary sources, including letters, diaries, interviews, and even FBI files. It is a fascinating biography and well worth the read for anyone interested in the life of this controversial figure.
It also provides a captivating account of the Nation of Islam’s rise in mid-20th century America. The NOI—a somewhat militant Black Nationalist sect that emerged in Great Depression-era Detroit and Chicago—was founded by the mysterious Wallace D. Fard but grew to national prominence under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad in the mid 20th century, when Malcolm Little converted and quickly rose to prominence as a talented preacher and recruiter. Later, Malcolm grew disillusioned with Muhammad’s leadership and left the NOI. His inability to leave it alone, though, ultimately led to his assassination in February 1965 at the hands of NOI henchmen.
Oddly enough, the book caused me to reflect on early Mormonism. There were similarities that struck me as relevant and potentially useful in considering Mormonism’s place in the American religious landscape. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a historian and am adamant that all individuals and communities deserve to be studied and understood as products of specific historical contexts. Mormonism emerged as both a product of and challenge to the emerging evangelical order in 1830 upstate New York. The Nation of Islam appeared almost exactly 100 years later in the heavily-populated urban centers of the Midwest. Each responded to distinct social and cultural environments, targeted their message to radically different groups of people, and emerged from very different Abrahamic religions. I couldn’t help, however, noticing what they had in common.
Both groups claimed prophecy, offered alternative myths to give meaning to America’s racial order, adhered to strict dietary code, and conducted secretive sexual practices (that on their face look sometimes strikingly similar to one another), and maintained an uneasy relationship with the religious tradition from which they sprang. It is this last parallel that I found the most striking and potentially useful. Mormons, their critics, and the scholars who study them have gone the rounds in debating whether or not Mormonism is Christian and if its adherents are Christians. I’ve asked in the past whether or not it’s useful to think of Mormons as Protestants, while others have rightly pointed out Mormonism’s affinity with Catholicism. I wonder, though, whether it might be good to stop and consider other native-born American religions and their relationship to the movements they simultaneously claim and challenge. And I think the Nation of Islam could be helpful in that thought process. Elijah Muhammad’s movement considered themselves Muslims (and like the Mormon Church today, pointed to its name as evidence of that purported fact), yet they also possessed distinct beliefs, expanded on some Islamic points of behavior, and ignored other practices traditional to Islam that separated them from other Muslims throughout the world. They sometimes cooperated with larger bodies of Muslims throughout the world but just as often struggled to gain credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the international Islamic community. It was, in the end, this conflicted relationship between international Islam and the Nation of Islam, that (in part) led Malcolm X from the NOI and into explorations of orthodox Islam and Pan-Africanism.
Forgive me for wading into the waters of comparative religion—a subject in which I maintain an interest but possess little to no actual training—but I think an article, or a book, or a course comparing the two movements (especially in their early manifestations) might be both interesting and useful to scholars of each movement. And here’s where I open it up to you, the readers: What does reflecting on the NOI’s relationship to Islam add to our thinking about Mormonism’s relationship to Christianity? Beyond consideration of their respective relationships to the larger movements from which they were birthed, what might we learn from such a comparison? Are there other religious groups that might be worth including in this conversation?
 On this point, I eagerly await the completion of Kate Holbrook’s dissertation on comparative foodways in 20th century Mormonism and the Nation of Islam.
 As a brief but relevant aside, I read Terryl Givens and Matt Grow’s biography of Parley P. Pratt (see my review here) shortly after completing A Life of Reinvention. In many respects, Pratt possessed a similar place in early Mormonism to Malcolm X in the Nation of Islam. Both were brilliant minds, able debaters, and active missionaries for their respective faiths who were equally strong-headed and occasionally butted heads with their ecclesiastical superiors. Both met untimely deaths at the hands of angry assassins. If a course comparing Mormonism to the Nation of Islam were to be taught, having students read and compare these two biographies would make for a compelling assignment, I think.