Malcolm X and Mormon Studies: Some Reflections on Comparative Religion

Christopher Jones

I hadn't seen Paul's post on Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention when I posted my own brief thoughts on the book this evening at the Juvenile Instructor. My reading of the book led me to consider the potential usefulness of comparing early Mormonism with the Nation of Islam. Thinking readers here might be interested, I thought I'd throw up a quick post highlighting it and soliciting feedback (especially from you religious studies folks with training in comparative religion). Feel free to head on over to JI and read the whole post, but here's the relevant excerpt:
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 [prophetic claims, alternative myths about America's racial order, secretive sexual liaisons among the group's leadership, and an uneasy relationship with the tradition from which they each emerged]. ...
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?


Cooper Harriss said…
Thanks for your post, Christopher. I use Mormonism and the NOI as bookends to my "Religion in American Life" survey and really hope, in the near future, to teach a course that resembles the one you mention. Here's the intro to my course proposal, which offers some of the grounds for comparison that I see as pertinent:

This course offers an in-depth and comparative examination of Mormonism and the Nation of Islam: two vital religious movements that emerged among diverse populations in the United States at representative moments of dynamic transition and migration in American history. Furthermore, both traditions have served to reify and affirm the coherences of race and nation—“blackness” for the Nation of Islam and “whiteness” for the Mormons. Both groups build
upon standing religious traditions (a proto-“Judeo-Christianity” [in all of that term’s complexities] for Mormonism; Islam for the Nation of Islam), revising them extensively according to historically specific American contexts (the Second Great Awakening and Manifest Destiny in the early American Republic for Mormonism and the racial dynamics of Jim Crow that fed the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban north in the early twentieth century for the Nation of Islam). Furthermore, both groups claim fantastic myths of origin (Joseph Smith’s golden tablets and Wallace Fard’s tale of Yakub the evil scientist) that correct perceived historical misconceptions (Jesus appeared to the Native Americans, generating an “America gospel”; the role of Africa as locus of glorious past and future ideal). Both also
remain controversial to this day for maligned social attitudes, practices, and the ways in which
they have been, at times, unfairly misunderstood. Together we’ll examine the histories, theologies, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and cultural contributions of these two groups aiming to understand how and why they emerged and what they have to say about religion and its
relationship to race and nation in American transnational contexts.
Christopher said…
Thanks for weighing in, Cooper! I'm thrilled to hear that you already use Mormonism and NOI like this in a course and have proposed another than compares them explicitly. Please be sure and report back if the course is approved and how it goes once you've taught it.
Jim B. said…
There are some very fruitful conversations that emerge from comparing these two movements. I find it especially helpful in thinking about the categories students use to try to define religious movements. As you note in your post there is a similar movement in conversations about both groups: people immediately want to figure out, is Mormonism really Christian? Are members of the NOI really Muslim? Drawing on Ed Curtis' work on the NOI, I find it helpful to step back and change the framework. Let's take adherents at their word in how they understand themselves. Curtis suggests shifting the inquiry to ask what it reveals when people (both insiders and outsiders) argue for or against the NOI as a truly Islamic tradition or Mormonism as really Christian. Those questions open up both broad issues about the nature of religion and identity, while also pointing to the specific contexts from which the claims about identity emerge.

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