In The Aliites, Spencer Dew traces the history and impact of Ali’s radical fusion of law and faith. Dew uncovers the influence of Ali’s teachings, including the many movements they inspired. As Dew shows, Ali’s teachings demonstrate an implicit yet critical component of the American approach to law: that it should express our highest ideals for society, even if it is rarely perfect in practice. Examining this robustly creative yet largely overlooked lineage of African American religious thought, Dew provides a window onto religion, race, citizenship, and law in America.
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E pluribus unum Drew Ali's Democratic Theology
One Out of Many: Ali's Vision of Diversity
One of the three texts on the Great Seal of the United States, adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782, is the Latin phrase e pluribus unum: "out of many, one." Originally a statement on the union of the individual colonies into a single nation-state, the phrase has reverberated throughout the country's history as a reference to the defining characteristic of America as a country of immigrants — a country of multiple nationalities of people in the Aliite sense, its citizenry composed of the descendants of varied ancestries, inheritors of myriad cultures, practitioners of diverse religions.
Ali did not just affirm this conception of America, he claimed that Allah mandated it. To be an American citizen, Ali taught, one must proclaim one's nationality and practice that nationality's cultural inheritance as a predication for what he called "the sacred obligations of American Citizenship." The flag of one's distinct ancestry must be displayed in order to announce one's legal access to the rights represented by the flag of the United States. Cultural and religious diversity, in this view, was not merely a feature of American society, it was a requirement for full participation in the American political system. Only by acknowledging (and supporting, living within, committing to) the "vine and fig tree" of one's own ancestral nationality could one be part of the broader civic project, of this country predicated on the notion of being a collection of "united" differences. Ali responded to problems of discrimination, bias, and hierarchies based on difference by reimagining American diversity and pluralism as elements upon which the democratic experiment depended.
At the same time, this system universalized difference and, thus, leveled it. All citizens of America, in Ali's understanding, were minorities. Moors, in proclaiming their nationality in order to have their "Divine rights" recognized and to be "unmolested by other citizens that they can cast a free national ballot at the polls," were just like everyone else. Such was, according to Ali, American protocol for all peoples: "If Italians, Greeks, English, Chinese, Japanese, Turks and Arabians are forced to proclaim their free national names and religion before the constitutional government of the United States of America, it is not more than right that the law be forced upon all American citizens alike."
As a "Universal Prophet," Ali addressed "all nations of the earth," declaring that his was the only system that could bring peace. The universal Allah on whose behalf he spoke had sent a number of "true and divine prophets," each with a revelation to their own nation. Worship of Allah was different "in all lands," a singular religion split, as if through a prism, such that unique versions were revealed to each nationality, around the globe. Ali, while focused on his own nation of people — those Moors who had long been unconscious of their true identity and lived in oppression as Negroes in America — preached to all peoples, urging them to follow the same instructions. Return to your ancestral tradition, your nationality, he said. This was his task as "the last prophet of these days."
Explicitly, he spoke of his prophetic mission, in part, as "returning Christianity to the Europeans," getting white people to embrace their difference, as well — and thus accept their role within a pluralistic society, not as superseding and colonizing, but as one nation among many out of which the United States of America was composed. As Sylvester Johnson has argued, Ali's "pluralizing ideology, asserting that particular peoples should possess particular religions," inverted "colonial ideas about universalism and particularity," rendering Christianity as particular to whites, rather than as universal, and declaring it destructive rather than salvific for the world's nonwhite peoples.
Ali's eschatological vision imagined a future of harmonious pluralism that would balance a degree of national cultural autonomy with coexistence and equal participation in a shared, democratic body politic. The lion and the lamb, which Ali identified as the rich and the poor, would lie down together without rancor, and each "nation" would exist under its own "vine and fig tree," a utopian vision of American democracy that originated in the context of local Chicago politics.
This chapter examines the role of Chicago in shaping Ali's take on "Islamism" and "Moorish" nationality, and then expands the investigation to two other Aliite religions (the Nuwaubian Yamassee and the Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah) and into the present. It analyzes Ali's model of religion — explicitly pluralistic and democratic, religion conceived in relation to the American state's secularism, explicitly sacralizing the notion of e pluribus unum.
For Ali, the United States, a country predicated on difference and unity across difference, was the product of Allah-God's plan and offered a unique opportunity for the instantiation of divine law. America, thus, offered the possibility of equal justice for all, under law (and thus under God), within a political system where diversity was both required and regulated, a mosaic of distinct "vine and fig trees" assembled under the U.S. flag. Ali saw an example of such e pluribus unum on the local level, in Chicago.
A Theology of Local Democracy: Ali's MSTA
Ali's vision developed in a specific time and place, the Chicago of the 1920s. Ali described this city as offering a unique model of God's plan for humanity. Chicago's local political scene made that city "closer to Islam" than any other city, Ali argued. Chicago's political scene thus resembled the theology Ali laid out in his movement's central scriptural text, the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America, also called the Circle Seven Koran, a text that presented Allah as a deity with a democratic nature, apportioning revelation on a representational basis, sending prophets to each of "the families of nations." This family included "Europeans," by which Ali designated a range of so-called white nationalities, as well as "Asiatics," his term for a spread of so-called brown and black peoples, from the inhabitants of Africa to those of South America and Asia. Allah had established for each nationality a distinct religion, conveyed by the divine prophet of that nationality. Ali used the term "Islam" as the universal term for religion, distinct from both the specific "Islamism" he preached to his Moorish community and the Christianity of the "Europeans," or whites. Islam in this sense was a divine design for pluralistic harmony and civic cooperation, parallel to an idealistic interpretation of Chicago's civic body as a tapestry of nationalities united, each with its own "vine and fig tree" and its own elected representative voicing its members' interests in City Hall. Ali insisted that this political system was exceptional. "There is but one Chicago," he wrote in one of the many short pieces published in the original MSTA newspaper, the Moorish Guide, and later canonized in Moorish Literature (ML), a compilation of Ali's writings studied, individually and communally, by Aliites.
In "So This Is Chicago," Ali reiterated his sense that all of the earth's nations "are now being forced to contribute their share in this American life," and noted that while "some of the nations here are put at a disadvantage supposedly" because of the color of their skin, the real restraint is "a peculiar psychology designed to hold them in mental slavery." His system promised to supplant this poisonous psychology, replacing an identification with the category of Negro with a new identification with the true and empowering category of Moor. Chicago offered a particularly suitable venue for this project, as it was as unlike other American cities as America is unlike the other countries of the globe. What would happen among the Asiatics of the world would happen first in the United States of America, and this would happen first in Chicago, "the first cosmopolitan city of this nation" — the only American city, Ali told his Moorish community, "that has all features of this American life engaged in by our people. Aldermen seated in the council of the city. Men high in official affairs of the city generally. There is but one Chicago."
Ali's vision of vines, fig trees, lions, and lambs, while borrowing language from biblical apocalypticism, was resolutely this-worldly and practical. Black migrants had long overlaid religious imagery onto the journey to the North. Ali saw this promised land as a place where one could exercise rights, under the law. While the salvation that would come with citizenship would lead, ultimately, to the transformation of society, in the meantime it had real material rewards. Among Ali's immediate hopes was the hope that his community would be granted patronage jobs in return for political activism and loyalty to the Republican Party machine of Mayor William Hale ("Big Bill") Thompson (1869–1944, mayor of Chicago 1915–23 and again, with Aliite help, 1927–31).
In what would become a hallmark of Aliite tradition, Ali offered evidence — objective proof — for his claims. Another famous early photograph, still cited by Aliites today as demonstrating the efficacy and achievability of Aliite claims, illustrates this. A group shot, this image frames Ali with men and women from his MSTA as well as special guests whose presence at a Moorish event the community wanted to preserve on film. Ali wears regalia befitting the title of prophet. He leans back in a chair garlanded with flowers, wearing a robe and sash along with a turban from which feathers extend at the crown. His fellow Moorish Americans likewise wear various forms of eye-catching headwear and garments that visually proclaim their nationality. The fez, the most iconic of male Moorish headwear, is here, as is the turban, the most popular Moorish headwear for women. There is some variation, as well, including one boldly striped pharaonic headdress.
Flanking these Moorish Americans are representative political and economic leaders of the Chicago's so-called Black Belt. Among those paying their respects to Ali and the MSTA is Jesse Binga, founder of the first privately owned African American bank in Chicago; Louis Anderson, incumbent alderman (City Council representative) for the predominantly black Second Ward, up for reelection; and Oscar De Priest, candidate for U.S. Congress, soon to be the first African American elected to such an office since the early, fleeting days of Reconstruction. These last two are part of the slate of the Republican Party machine courted by Ali with promises of a sizeable Moorish American voting bloc and an even larger MSTA-led voter registration drive. These three figures remain particularly important in Aliite memory, with quotes from them, praising the MSTA, frequently repeated in Aliite texts — for example, De Priest stating that "I feel that with the help of the Moorish Americans in this city, that I have won." The photograph serves as evidence of Ali's teachings and their efficacy. This event, with the MSTA hosting local power brokers, represents the culmination of the project of proclaiming "nationality," not merely citizenship as a status but citizenship as a practice, a process of political engagement that leads to social transformation.
Ali's movement was influenced by Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), so much so that Ali, and Aliites to this day, refer to Garvey as "the forerunner of the prophet." Yet while Garvey called for global black unity and migration "back to Africa," Ali focused on the possibility of reforming America. Political engagement, use of the law, was and remains the hallmark of Ali's thought. Ali is said to have visited Garvey in federal prison in 1927, and shared the Jamaican thinker's focus on practical economic concerns, quest for political sovereignty through unity as a nation, and attention to the use of media, from newspapers to the framed copies of the MSTA "Divine Constitution and By-laws," which, as with parallel UNIA documents, were hung in MSTA meeting places. Ali also echoed Garvey in drawing on the American religious movement of New Thought, with its emphasis on human perfectibility and individual responsibility for circumstances, individual attitude and action, as a path to new modes of being.
Ali arrived at a fortuitous political moment for African Americans in Chicago's history. Mayor Thompson — whose name became synonymous with spoils politics and general corruption, "Thompsonism"— found himself in a closely contested reelection battle in 1927 and made a strategic decision to court votes in the "Black Metropolis" of the city's South Side. His "America First" slogan was expanded, as he later stated in a victory statement printed in the leading African American newspaper in Chicago, the Chicago Defender, to mean "I am for America and American citizens first, last and all the time, without any distinction of race, creed or color," a stance he, like Ali and his followers, linked directly to the Declaration of Independence, to American tradition, and to, if not the legal as interpreted and enforced by the state, then an idealized notion of values at the heart of U.S. law as represented in the rhetoric of its founding documents. The move cost Thompson white votes and led to a public racist smear campaign — "palm cards of Thompson kissing a black child ('Thompson — Me Africa First' appeared on the reverse side)," for instance — but the Great Migration had been pumping new black voters into the city, and the move paid off. Thompson was already familiar with racist hate mail and had already been rewarding loyal black Republicans with patronage jobs at a much higher rate than any previous mayor. Such political moves represented pragmatic attempts to treat the black neighborhoods as what, in Chicago, they most resembled — the other "ethnic ghettoes" of immigrants who could be courted and then counted on for loyalty as bloc voters for a political machine that rewarded its own.
Ali, turning to claims of Moorish nationality as a way to guarantee American citizenship, struck upon the same logic as his fellow citizens "of foreign extraction" with their "realistic view of political patronage." Such immigrant communities engaged in their own "politics of respectability," linking individual and community behavior to the possibility first of acceptance as equal participants in, and then for broad structural reform of, society. But Ali's community, through its claims to nationality, sought to escape the "deeply rooted history of stigmatization" associated with black Americans. As Moors, they could expect to be treated like "recent immigrant groups," free of the stigma of "Negro" identity as well as the consequences of the legal category "Negro." Coming together under the red Moorish flag, as a unified nationality group, Ali's MSTA engaged in "ethnic coalition politics," making a bid for recognition as a constituency group, voting in solidarity as a bloc of citizens. Ali's MSTA thus resembled the myriad other "ethnic political clubs" started in Chicago by immigrant groups with an eye toward the quid pro quo of livelihoods in exchange for votes. Even the language used to describe such politics reflects the level of material need to which it appealed: below the level of graft and payoffs for rich cronies, local political machines in Chicago were built on "bread and butter" strategies for building up a voter base, swapping something as basic as food for electoral support.
Attention to "bread and butter" matters as much to Aliite history as attention to real political power. Ali laid out a "doctrine of economic security." Moorish Americans, he wrote, as part of their responsibility as citizens, ought "to urge that our business men and women build on the principle of service ... [and] keep firmly in mind the necessity of keeping each dollar spent as much as possible within the spheres of our own activities where they will create further openings of business enterprises and wider opportunities for the men and women of our group to procure soundly remunerative employment." Ali insisted that "no other one thing is more needed among us at this time than greater economic power." Ali's mission to his nation involving working for "social or material benefit," "for mutual improvement, for dispensing charity, for aiding the unfortunate, for protecting our civil rights, for aiding one another and for elevating the nation," as a post-Ali column in the MSTA's Moorish Voice put it. Much of Aliite history is geared toward practical and immediate concerns — employment, food to eat, a communal economy wherein Aliites support each other. Early MSTA members started businesses, from laundries and cafeterias to grocery stores, while the organization itself ran a publishing company and newspaper as well as the Moorish Manufacturing Company, which sold cleaning products and health supplements. Aliite political organization and Ali's theories of politics and law must be considered in light of this focus on practical economics as well.(Continues…)
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Table of ContentsPreface: Dialing in to Contemporary American Religion
Introduction: “To Be Law-Abiders and Good Citizens”: Drew Ali’s “Divine and National Movement”
1 E pluribus unum: Drew Ali’s Democratic Theology
2 Stars in Relation to Stars: Aliite Sovereignty in Politics and Law
3 Annuit cœptis: Recognition, Authority, and Law
4 Beneath the Wings and the Shadow of the Eagle: Aliite Sovereignty and the Power of the State
5 The All-Seeing Eye: Display and Surveillance
6 The Unfinished Pyramid: Knowledge and the Legal
7 Novus ordo seclorum: Experiments in Reordering Society
Conclusion: Aliite Faith in American Citizenship