Juvenile Instructor » Malcolm X and Mormon Studies: A short review and some reflections on comparative religion
 


Malcolm X and Mormon Studies: A short review and some reflections on comparative religion

By: Christopher - April 17, 2012

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[1], 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.[2]

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?

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[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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8 Comments

  1. I’m interested in the Autobiography as a literary work – there’s a lot of useful comparisons to be made. I’ve before on this site compared it to Augustine’s Confessions and Lance Allred’s autobiography as a conversion narrative. But it’s also interesting as a collaborative literary work – I’ve before had undergrads compare it to Black Elk Speaks, given form by John Neihardt the same way Alex Haley gave form to the Autobiography.

    In Mormonism the comparable work might actually be the History of the Church.

    Comment by matt b — April 17, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  2. Christopher, thanks for highlighting Marable’s biography – I have yet to dig into it, but Malcolm X is one of my favorite historical figures and I’m excited to look at it. Your piece reminds me of the quote that I found in a several-part series in the Daily Universe at BYU in the 1960s about the Nation of Islam. Speaking about the founder of the Nation of Islam, the author referred to him having the “reverence and verve of a Mormon missionary” in his preaching methods. I was never able to definitely determine whether the author was at BYU or wrote the piece for a larger series, but it appears that it was written at the BYU level, which makes it interesting to consider that a LDS student may have drawn comparisons between the Church and the Nation of Islam.

    Comment by Ardis S — April 18, 2012 @ 12:44 am

  3. One of the professors here at Michigan was teaching about the Nation of Islam. She thought she had carefully prepared her students to talk fruitfully about the movement, but when she opened it up for discussion, the first comment was, “Well, it’s weird like the Mormons.” She thought she had failed, but perhaps the students were more right than she knew! :)

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 18, 2012 @ 7:52 am

  4. Fantastic post, Christopher, and important questions. As you hint at with your mention of Pratt, I think a comparison between Mormonism and NOI would be a fascinating way to engage the process of how followers interpret, appropriate, and synthesize a movement’s teachings from one generation to the next.

    This seems a field that religious studies scholars are, as of now, better equipped to address since historians like me (and like you admit in your post) are often focused on historical connections. Steve Taysom’s book on Shakers and Mormons, though historical contemporaries, seems the type of model that can be used.

    Comment by Ben P — April 18, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  5. Christopher, what a provocative post! I love the idea of a comparative religions course incorporating Mormonism and the NOI–perhaps including in the discussion American Jewish “Renewal” and neo-Hasidism movements.

    Comment by Nate R — April 18, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  6. I’ve always thought it would be fascinating to study the Plymouth community alongside Mormons who lived the Law of Consecration and other Utopian groups. How did they all come to “buy in” to the community concept? How did their visions of Zion play out against their expectations?

    Also…what about a study of Zionist Jews and the isolationist attitudes of early Intermountain West Mormonism? How did their ideas of a “promised land” where none would come to “hurt or make afraid” agree or disagree?

    Comment by J Stuart — April 18, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

  7. Thanks, everyone, for the responses. Over at Religion in American History, one commenter noted that he has proposed to teach a course comparing Mormonism and NOI:

    http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=37589721331585843&postID=3480737986442686090

    Comment by Christopher — April 18, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

  8. Love it. Loving the biography and loving the interesting overlaps.

    Comment by smb — April 19, 2012 @ 12:49 pm