In his “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928,” Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America movement, makes an eager plea for inclusion of his community into the constitutional and cultural framework of the American legal order. My colleague Spencer Dew describes this plea as “far from a revolutionary reimagining of the status quo . . . a prophetic call for inclusion of his people within the status quo.” Drew Ali’s recognition that black Americans, present for generations, were and, without his intervention always would be, never fully American (or, as he puts it, only Americans by “granted privilege,” not by right), while people coming from the most far off and exotic lands had a clear path to full citizenship in the American assimilatory promise, motivated the strategy he advocates in this short essay. Drew Ali calls on his community to define itself on the basis of nationality (as “Moors”) rather than race (as “Negros”). Such a strategy not only recognizes the essential and indelible place of race in the American legal experiment (then under the shadow of Jim Crow, now in the documented bias in incarceration rates and police violence against unarmed civilians), over and above any other category of human belonging, but offers a way of unthinking it: to insist that race is a construct and to call on his people to adopt a new identity based on nationality and religion.
The case of Noble Drew Ali impresses on us that, in our discussion of American exceptionalism, we need not only to look at how America frames itself as an exception—this is clear from its stance on everything from its nuclear policy to its attitude towards international law to the intense localism of its media and entertainment consumption—but at how that which is excepted from the American promise pushes back, in often surprising ways. For Drew Ali, this process of embodying what I call “exceptional Americanism”—the exception seeking to enter into that from which it has been excepted—took place through redefining black Americans as a nationality, rather than a race, and thus aspiring to become one among many immigrant groups entering into the melting pot. In doing so, he not only sought to unsettle the place of the exception to American political life, rejecting its racialized premises, but also pushed back against the scientific conclusions of the day by insisting that there is no race but the human race. Uday Mehta has argued that liberalism works through perpetuating a tension between universal promise and a system that delineates exceptions—those people who are not yet ready for the liberal gift. In the American story, slavery and manifest destiny constitute the two founding exceptions to the liberal promise. Though some might read Drew Ali’s essay as simply blaming black Americans for the oppression they faced, through, as he puts it, their refusal to state their “free national names,” I want to suggest that his agenda is more radical, attempting, as he does, to redefine the very categories through which his community has been interpolated. It is for this reason that Drew Ali so vociferously rejects the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, which, though they granted black Americans rights, did so within the framework of race: “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Rejecting the categorization of his people by race allows Drew Ali to define his community on its own terms: less the historical Moors of the Maghreb than a creative synthesis of the multiple components of the African American experience and twentieth-century esotericism, projected onto a new image of nationhood.
Though it is understated in Drew Ali’s essay, we cannot forget that the Moorish Science Temple not only espoused a nationality but a religion too (“they are to claim their own free national name and religion”), one that Peter Lamborn Wilson has described as “Americanizing the prophetic spirit . . . with a kind of folk Sufism.” Refusing narratives that see Drew Ali’s connection to the Islam he claimed as tenuous at best, Wilson speculates on a legible connection to the broader Islamic world from sources as diverse as Moors brought to the Americas by Spain following the conquest of 1492, to the Ismaili-Knight Templar pacts (whose wisdom was passed down by the Masons), to the alleged discipleship of Drew Ali’s parents under Muslim reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and esoteric Sufi orders. Followers of Drew Ali have at times embraced such a Muslim heritage and at other times have rejected it. In any case, like other warnings from prophets, “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928” insists not only on social censure for a failure to reform, but divine sanction as well. That is to say, rejecting one’s free national name would not only have political consequence (non-recognition) but eschatological ones (“enormous earthquakes, disease, etc.”) as well.
Getting his people “back into the constitutional fold” through prodding them to re-embrace their forgotten identity as Moors and as Muslims seems a striking move in the day and age in which we are reading this piece. That is to say, I could not help thinking of this 1928 example and wondering if, had Drew Ali lived today, he would have emphasized his identity as “Moor.” Though technically referring to people of North African descent, the Muslim of orientalist fantasies of the early twentieth century has become the nightmare of the twenty-first. Today’s Moors are among those most commonly left out of the “constitutional fold” that Drew Ali sought so enthusiastically to enter, constituted as the objects of persistent surveillance, stopped at borders and checkpoints. Whether indexed in “how they treat their women,” in campaigns for anti-sharia legislation, or kept from crossing our borders under the looming threat of terrorism, it is undeniable that the Arab or Muslim in the post 9/11 landscape is exceptionalized, written out of the constitutional order. The “free national name” of yesteryear has lost any potential advantage it once had, as race has come to rear its head at every turn, here in a purported set of pathological tendencies of the Muslim that cannot be unlearned no matter the name of the country now printed on her passport. Take the US rules on visa waiver countries implemented under the Obama administration, which stipulate that those Europeans with “dual nationality” (a term I think intentionally left undefined) with a roster of “coincidentally” Arab and/or Muslim majority countries are no longer granted visa waivers but must go through special security protocols, and apply for a visa. Here it is clear that the Muslim and Arab (as races that cannot be unlearned) constitute the ultimate exception to the whole concept of post-Enlightenment citizenship: that nationhood dissolves any previous and irrational ties to race and religion. Here, the Muslim serves as the exception to the rule, never able to become fully and equally European in the minds of US immigration authorities.
Would Drew Ali’s strategy be effective today as a means of transcending the predicament of black Americans, in an era of pessimism or even disbelief in the ability of the citizenship to do its magic? Exceptional Americanism is still, however, very much a strategy for people across a whole swath of identities, who seek to justify their exception as part of the rule, to participate in those purportedly inalienable rights the Constitution guarantees that are too often, and for too many, frozen in a state of exception. Drew Ali’s stirring jeremiad offers both a genealogy of our present—in showing the frantic scramble to escape the race exception—and poses a contrast to where we are today, when certain nations have been assigned a pathological character, with dire consequences for the coherence of not only America’s identity as a land of immigrants, but the entire edifice of citizenship, when Muslim-American is rendered an impossible gulf to bridge.