"Peace to the GODZ!" The Five Percent and the Nation of Islam in the Context of African Traditional Religion
(A Note on Elijah Muhammad's "African" Islam)
“The Black Man (plural) is God”: this theological claim of the Nation of Islam (=NOI), made popular mainly through the teaching of the Five Percent Nation, is most bewildering to outside observers. Mattias Gardell, in his important study of the NOI, noted in 1996:
“If studied carefully, large parts of the elaborated NOI creed appear to be highly illogical. Different statements contradict each other, they are inconsistent and arrive at different, mutually exclusive conclusions…God is on the one hand the One, without associates, eternal and infinite, and on the other hand we learn of a plurality of Gods, none of whom live forever. These apparently contradictory theses are all matters of belief; they are all regarded as true…Not infrequently, a text oriented religion’s theological elite, well versed in the sacred scriptures, may be bothered to find contradictory statements. A…kind of systematization may be undertaken, rationalizing conflicting elements and publishing philosophical treatises expounding explanations and solutions to the religious riddles…Should an elite religious segment (of the Nation of Islam) materialize in the future, a conceivable puzzle to wrestle with would be the existence of a plurality of gods in such a staunchly monotheistic religion as Islam.”
As (presumably) a part of the NOI’s theological elite, I have recently highlighted a number of “seemingly” contradictory aspects of our theological creed; I have also undertaken the very rationalizing and systematizing that Gardell suggests, particularly as it relates to the very issue Gardell raises here: the puzzle of “the existence of a plurality of gods in such a staunchly monotheistic religion as Islam.”
Here I want only to very briefly highlight a point in the latter’s regard: this “puzzle” of the One God and the Many Gods which characterizes NOI theology (and is inherent in the claim ‘The Black Man is God’) is puzzling only OUTSIDE the context of African Spirituality. While Elijah Muhammad speaks of a Nation of Gods, African Traditional Religion (ATR) scholar and theologian Rev. Dr. A. Okechukwu Ogbonnayas documents that ATRs affirm a “community of gods,” an African concept which he calls “communotheism” and describes:
“Divine communalism is the position that the Divinity is a community of gods who are fundamentally related to one another and ontologically equal while at the same time distinct from one another by their personhood and functions.”
The many gods that constitute this divine community are “fundamentally related” because they all derive and descend from the Great Ancestor (Nana Nyame), who is God. As my high school friend who has blossomed into a wonderfully impressive theologian and scholar, Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman, elaborates:
“In communotheism, there is immanence in that there is radicle relationality among the members of the divine community and between the divine community and the world, and there is transcendence because geographic distance and ‘physiological decarnation’ (death) cannot destroy the radical relationality. While there is distinction (eroding any real classification of pantheism), there is no idea of a separatism between the human and the divine.”
Indeed: The Black Man (communo-) is God (theism). The “Oneness” that is posited by Western notions of “monotheism” actually exists in African Spirituality among the gods of the divine community in the One cosmic power or vital principle that inheres in everything but is concentrated hierarchically across beings– the ASE of the Yoruba, the CHI of the Igbo, the NTU of the Bantu. This is the “spark” of God within all of the Gods and which unifies all beingness.
Not only are the gods “fundamentally” or “radically” related, but they are also all “ontologically equal”, though they are not MANIFESTLY equal. Dr. Coleman points out regarding the divine community of God, the gods and the ancestors:
“Their difference in divinity is one of degree, not kind. There is divine multiplicity.”
Every god does not articulate his or her ase, chi, or ntu to the same degree. This is precisely what I alluded to two weeks ago when I said:
“The Democratization OF Divinity does not negate Hierarchy WITHIN Divinity.”
Thus, the “puzzle” of the NOI’s “gods” is puzzling on when viewed against the backdrop of Western notions of monotheism and polytheism, but this is trying to square a circle. It is perfectly comprehensible in the context of African Spirituality: The Black Man is God because Black men and woman (The Gods) are each articulations of the Spark and Power of God (ase/chi/ntu) because they are the blood relation (unkulunkulu) of the original ONE Black God, the Great Ancestor Unkulunkulu or Nana Nyame. Within this “community of gods” or communotheism there is divine hierarchy because not all gods manifest the unifying ase/che/ntu to the same degree, though all are potentially (ontologically) equal.
Mattias Gardell, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996) 165, 170.
A. Okechukwu Ogbonnaya, On Communitarian Divinity: An African Interpretation of the Trinity (New York: Paragon House, 1994) 23.
Monica A. Coleman, “From Models of God to a Model of Gods: How Whiteheadian Metaphysics Facilitates Western Language Discussion of Divine Multiplicity,” Philosophia 35 (2007): 334 [art.=329-340].