Most of us have probably at least heard about the heretical disbelieving cult known as Nation of Islam and its charlatan false prophet. This is because despite having a small following, it has a presence in American pop culture. Some famed individuals, such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, were initially associated with Nation of Islam before they left the group and embraced real Islam.
But there’s actually another less-known group that may also require our attention, especially since Wallace Fard Muhammad (the actual founder of Nation of Islam) was strongly linked with it during his formative years. Fard was closely affiliated with the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA)—which was most active in the ’20s and ’30s—and its intriguing founder, Noble Drew Ali.
Racialized “Spirituality”… Covering Liberal Activism?
Who exactly was Timothy Drew (a.k.a. Noble Drew Ali)?
Writing for the Chicago Reader in 2007, Tasneem Paghdiwala summarizes this heretic’s wordview as follows:
Not much is known about Timothy Drew before he became Prophet Drew Ali. He was born in North Carolina in 1886, possibly to a Cherokee woman and a Moroccan Muslim father, or maybe to freed slaves. A framed picture of him hangs from the gold domed altar of Temple No. 9. He looks tall and thin, unremarkable except for the belted silk robe and tall fez he’s wearing. The Moors’ version of his life story says he left home at 16 and joined a band of Gypsies who took him overseas to Egypt, Morocco, and the Middle East. In Morocco he was approached by the high priest of a mystical Egyptian cult who recognized him as the latest reincarnation in a line of prophets including Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad. The priest gave Drew a book that he said was a lost section of the Koran, and when Drew returned to the States he called it the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America. It says, “The last Prophet in these days is Noble Drew Ali, who was prepared divinely in due time by Allah to redeem men from their sinful ways; and to warn them of the great wrath which is sure to come upon the earth.”
Drew claimed that blacks in America were sinfully ignorant of their true racial heritage. They were all descendents of the Moors, a Moroccan Muslim tribe that conquered Spain in the seventh century and spread Islam to Europe. He started dressing in Moorish fashion: fezzes and feathered turbans and silk robes, with a curved sword at his side. When the Moors’ descendents were brought to America in slave ships, he said, white slave owners systematically hid the truth of their noble origins and renamed them “black,” “colored,” and “Negro.” Just as bad, these “so-called blacks” forgot Islam and took up “the false god of the Europeans.” Drew had been dispatched by Allah to eradicate the “slave marks” from blacks in America. His job was to inform them that their true name was not black, colored, or Negro, but Moorish-American, and return them to Islam—or Islamism, as he called it.
Thus, similar to the Nation of Islam, it is just racial politics disguised in the garb of pseudo-spirituality and some weird rewriting of history (I’m not sure actual Moroccans would appreciate such “cultural appropriation”).
This kind of Black nationalism, even radical, was nothing new at the time (see the works and public recognition of Marcus Garvey). However Noble Drew Ali had come along and injected a religious rationale into it.
Prior to him, Edward W. Blyden had written about Christianity and Islam from the perspective of Black nationalism (interestingly, despite being a Christian himself, he believed Christianity had a demoralizing effect on Africans and considered Islam to be more “authentically African”).
However, Noble Drew Ali made “racial spirituality” an integral part of the discourse.
Like the Nation of Islam and other Black nationalist (or supremacist, as some would describe them) groups, the Moorish Science Temple of America emphasized the need not only of “racial purity” but also a kind of civilizational allergy towards anything “European.”
Emily Suzanne Clark thus notes in a related academic article:
In addition to his concerns about racial identity, Ali preached the importance of keeping physically and spiritually clean. He wrote in the Koran, “We, as a clean and pure nation descended from the inhabitants of Africa, do not desire to amalgamate or marry into the families of the pale skin nations of Europe.” Ali argued for racial purity as a means to maintain Moorish integrity, and linked to this was bodily purity. Among the organization’s prohibitions and rules, as recorded by Fauset, “Bodies must be kept clean by bathing… Use of meat of any kind and eggs is forbidden. But fish and vegetables may be eaten. Indulgence in European games, attendance at motion picture shows, and secular dancing are forbidden. Shaving, cosmetics, straightening the hair, use of intoxicants, and smoking are forbidden.”
Anxieties surrounding food, bodily cleanliness, and the use of particular products existed alongside decrees against European culture, thus interconnecting physical, racial, and religious purity. Physical, mental, and spiritual cleanliness would determine people’s susceptibility or resistance to bodily disease and contamination.
But behind this facade of pseudo-religiosity, there is an evident and undeniable link to liberalism.
In fact, it can easily be argued that these New Age pseudoreligions—which haphazardly jumble together all traditions and are devoid of any coherent faith model capable of countering modernity—could only be founded within a liberal era characterized by relativism in every sphere.
When examining the politics of the Moorish Science Temple of America in particular, the liberalism is apparent in its rhetoric surrounding “citizenship” and its unapologetic endorsement of American democracy and secular-liberalism.
Spencer Dew makes such a thesis in The Aliites: Race and Law in the Religions of Noble Drew Ali—a book-length study (one of very few) about the Moorish Science Temple of America.
In the introduction he outlines ideas which will be developed upon throughout the course of the book (p. 18):
I conclude with consideration of Ali’s theological vision of American democracy. Ali, insisting that religious and cultural difference was a requirement for American citizenship, universalized difference, identifying the state’s system of secularism as Allah’s plan for humanity. While secularism contains and manages religion, Ali insisted upon a model of religion— as proprietary, inherited, a mode of difference that all people must have in order to be citizens— in which such management was, again, claimed to be the plan of Allah.
He writes a little later, on p. 44:
A religion modeled on and responding to the conditions of the “secular city” with its social, political, and legal demands. Those demands became, to a large part, the focus of the religion, understood as “citizenship,” a struggle to transform society and align it with the transcendent true law of God. “True religion,” as contemporary Aliite thinkers Matthews-El insists, is “a means to an end, a journey, way of living, it is a process not an event.”
The book is replete with such observations.
Just like with other forms of modernist religiosity, we can thus conclude that the Moorish Science Temple of America is merely another Trojan Horse; one that aims to liberalize and secularize the masses in the name of “spirituality” while camouflaged beneath radical racial politics.
The Moorish Science Temple of America has of course lost the momentum that it had during the ’20s and ’30s—the decade or so when Noble Drew Ali “worked” before dying under mysterious circumstances.
Apart from the death of its founder, the Moorish Science Temple of America was struck with another heavy blow in the form of the Nation of Islam and also orthodox traditional Sunni Islam. Its membership (which had reached tens of thousands during its peak) was depleted through people leaving and joining one or the other.
Yet, besides its own devotees (such as the YouTube channel Amexem), the ideas of the Moorish Science Temple of America are still present in the public discourses of many Black nationalist groups.
For example I am sure that many of you may have come across discussions about African-Americans supposedly being “Moors.”
We can all learn a lot from these little lessons in history.