Truth and Blackness in the Ansaru Allah Community
- ISBN: 9780271087092
- Published By: Pennsylvania State University Press
- Published: September 2020
Meticulously researched, well-written, and beautifully illustrated, Michael Muhammad Knight’s Metaphysical Africa: Truth and Blackness in the Ansaru Allah Community offers unique insight into the “public discourse” of the Ansaru Allah Community, also known as Nubian Islamic Hebrews (AAC/NIH) (4). Since the man who would come to be known as Issa Al Haadi Al Mahdi established the first iteration of the movement in late 1960s Brooklyn, AAC/NIH has published hundreds of newsletters, books, and tapes. Engaging these with an explicit “focus on various resources and strategies through which AAC/NIH formulated and communicated its truth” (24), Knight dispels popular and academic lore. AAC/NIH is most often seen as highly incoherent, characterized by fissures and breaks between so-called Jewish, Muslim, and UFO “phases,” the epitome of a postmodern spirituality or the work of a “gnostic trickster.” Knight arrives at a radically different conclusion: the outward changes—in attire, symbols, vocabulary, and names—belie a consistent and coherent set of ideas and practices.
In eight thematic chapters, Knight demonstrates that this stability is evidenced, perhaps most consistently, in the various ways in which Al Mahdi established an explicit link between Blackness and Islam. In Al Mahdi’s “Sudan-centered vision of African Islamic spirituality” (153), Islam was seen as timelessly Black (12), the foremost expression of a “transhistorical Blackness” (39). Knight highlights that the movement engaged in local and transnational conversations about “global Blackness and global Islam” (154). Knight shows, for instance, that Al Mahdi was in conversation with and critical of both anti-Muslim Afrocentrist discourse and that of what he called “pale Arabs” (which he distinguished from “Black Arabs”). Claiming that Arabic was “inherently Black,” he dethroned the latter as the foremost authorities on Islam (Ch.1). In chapter 6, Knight discusses Al Mahdi’s successful attempt to further efforts that wed the supposedly disparate discourses of Egyptosophy and Islam. Metaphysical Africa consistently challenges the persistent idea that this and Al Mahdi’s other seemingly unconventional pairings—Islam and Hebrew, Judaism and UFO religion, Sufism and American metaphysical traditions—suggest entities that are “naturally and obviously” separate and distinct (166). In contrast, Knight presses, their boundaries are porous, their histories entwined.
For Knight, Al Mahdi’s vision of African Islamic spirituality presents an iteration of “metaphysical Africa,” the term that forms the title of the book and that Knight develops from Catharine Albanese’s “metaphysical Asia.” Albanese sought to describe how white Americans reinvented Asia in light of their own metaphysical categories. Knight’s intervention not only shifts the focus from Asia to Africa, but also from white to Black people: in line with several recent publications, Knight shows that esoteric categories, ideas, and themes were and are widespread among Black Americans, too. As both rubric and discourse, “metaphysical Africa” offers a helpful way to collectively think about this wide variety of disparate groups, movements, and ideas—from Frances Cress Welsing’s melanin theory to the Moorish Science Temple of America.
To arrive at this new interpretation of AAC/NIH, Knight has reviewed an impressive number of primary sources. He also offers a sense of what these books, pamphlets, posters, newspapers, and other artifacts look like, reproducing many of the covers and offering lively descriptions of their contents, including photos and advertisements. Still—and I realize it’s a bit of faux pas in a review to ask for more; a single book can only do so much, and Knight already offers an incredible amount—I wished for a more materially oriented analysis of the ways in which the movement, to quote the blurb, “spread through the prolific production and dissemination of literature and lecture tapes.” How were the booklets, pamphlets, and lecture tapes made? By whom? How and when where they shared? Who had access to these artifacts? Knight offers clues, for instance by opening with a wonderful description of a poster of Al Mahdi that hung in New York subway stations (1-2), mentioning a question-and-answer session at the “Hall of Knowledge” that was open to the public and was recorded (226), noting that “AAC/NIH men became publicly visible by peddling, begging, and proselytizing in distinctive Ansar garb” (69), invoking the “unaffiliated consumers of AAC/NIH books, pamphlets and lecture tapes” (148), and alluding to a few bookstores and publishing labels. Yet, his explicit focus on the “resources and strategies” through which AAC/NIH communicated their truth could have produced, I think, a more elaborate, central discussion of the precise and material ways in and through which this truth was disseminated. The book does, however, dedicate its final chapter to the overlooked role of the movement in hip hop, which highlights one of the ways through which AAC/NIH’s “metaphysical Africa” reached beyond the “thousands of followers” (148).
The extensive bibliography of primary sources also demonstrates just how prolific Al Mahdi was, although Knight emphasizes that we should think of AAC/NIH “media” as produced by a “collective of thinkers,” not just Al Mahdi (27). This argument is part of an explicit and commendable attempt to spotlight the community of members and readers and decenter the singular focus on the leader, who is incarcerated for sex trafficking and abuse. At the same time, it remains, for the most part, unclear who belonged to this community. Highlighting this paradox does not necessarily function as a critique of this book, though, as Knight’s aims and stakes are of a different kind; rather, I hope that Knights’ careful, nuanced, and innovative interpretations of the movement’s teachings inspires more new scholarship that focuses on those who read, followed, and wrestled with them.
As it stands, Metaphysical Africa is a great achievement. Students and scholars of Afrodiasporic religion, culture, and politics will find much use in the concept of “metaphysical Africa,” Knight’s innovative discursive approach, and his reinterpretation of the movement’s teachings. Those interested in Islam, in turn, will benefit from Knight’s expansive and deep knowledge of transnational and polycultural Muslim discourse. In addition to the themes identified above, the book also includes a discussion of the figure of Bilal (chapter 4) and a highly original analysis that, rather than focusing on the movement’s “influences,” shows how Al Mahdi incorporated a diverse set of Black Muslim figures into an ”epic story” in which he himself emerges as the central purveyor of Black unity and destiny (chapter 2). The book deserves an even wider readership, however. In studying how Islam, Judaism, Egyptosophy, and UFO religion were all “originally linked” for Al Mahdi (241), Knight shows that religions are not and have never been discrete, easily separated, and well-demarcated entities that are then “combined” or “enter in conversation” with one another. Although Knight is not the first to raise and address this issue, his expansive and nuanced critique of syncretism, which “invents categories, measures their limits, and names their violators” (238), should be of interest to many in our field.
Justine M. Bakker is assistant professor in comparative religious studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands.Justine BakkerDate Of Review:June 21, 2022