Metaphysical Africa: Truth and Blackness in the Ansaru Allah Community, published by Penn State University Press, by Michael Muhammad Knight, is an in depth look into the history and philosophies of the Ansaru Allah Community in the United States. Knight does a remarkable job of not only explaining who they are, their association with Black/African nationalism, and their part in the history of Islam in America.
While Knight might be best known for his fiction and his irreverent non-fiction (Tripping With Allah) recently his writing has more reflected his status as an Assistant Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies at University of Central Florida. In some ways this book is a synthesis of those two rather distinct characteristics. For while his approach to the material is completely academic, including footnotes and references to original source material, the subject matter is not conventional.
In a series of chapters that covers everything from the Ansaru Allah Community’s history to its various practices and beliefs, Knight paints a picture of what looks to be a confused mess. However, upon setting aside preconceived notions of what a religion, specifically Islam, should look like, you begin to see a sense and a logic to what at first might be interpreted as chaos.
While the early personal history of Al Imam Isa Al Haadi Al Mahdi’s conversion to Islam is a bit muddied, he claims to have converted to Islam in the 50s and others claim he converted in the 60s, he was definitely a member of the State Street Mosque in Brooklyn. Here he would have encountered more than just mainstream Islam and been exposed to everybody from Sufis to former Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple members.
However according to Knight even more important would have been his exposure to the Sudanese-American community who attended the mosque. For it was this country that he would later claim to be not only his ancestral homeland, but the centre of African Islam.
Like some Africans, the Kel Tamasheq of Mali and Niger who were converted to Islam and renamed Tuareg (rebel against Islam) by Arab invaders, Al Mahdi and his Ansaru Allah Community evolved Islam into something of their own making. For the Tamasheq this meant retaining their animist beliefs within the Islamic framework while in the case of the Ansaru it meant incorporating elements of African spiritualism, Christianity, Judaism, Sufism and other metaphysical practices into an American based Afrocentric Islamic belief system.
While African American nationalism has always been an element of the Nation of Islam it seems Mahdi was far more intent on creating a distinct African American religion than others. His search for non-Arab roots of Islam might have led him down paths others would consider heretical (in fact Knight points out the main secondary source on the community from the 1980s was a Saudi backed book labeling Mahdi a charlatan) but they all seem to have been attempts to create something that was more representative of the African American experience than either the Arabic or South East Asian versions that dominated the mainstream.
Knight is too good a writer and academic to be anything but honest about Mahdi and the Ansaru Allah community. For Mahdi is currently serving a hundred year sentence on various sexual assault and abuse charges casts a pall on his legacy. However, he also doesn’t dismiss them as others do.
All the elements, from extraterrestrials to ancient Egypt, that ended up under the tent of the Ansaru Allah community aren’t as random as they might seem. Everyone of them have adherents in broad swathes of modern American life – from Sufi Temples in Philadelphia to those who believe that aliens were responsible for building the pyramids.
Knight shows that each step on their journey wasn’t just a pin balling from one belief to another, but a progression and growth in an attempt to create something unique. Perhaps a little out there for most people but not as much as it would seem on the surface.
Knight is at his objective best when it comes to describing the community and all its practices. He’s scrupulous in his use of either primary sources or reliable secondary sources in order to give us as accurate as possible description of the Ansaru Allah community and its enigmatic leader.
His research was helped by the fact the community was incredibly prolific in producing leaflets and flyers describing who they were and what they did. Knight’s massive personal collection of these printed materials are prominently displayed throughout the book, and give the reader a pictorial record of the community’s evolution to compliment his writing.
Metaphysical Africa: Truth and Blackness in the Ansaru Allah Community is an important, well researched, documentation of one of the more controversial representations of Islam in modern American society. You may not agree with their practices or what they believed in, but Knight will convince you their influence can’t be ignored.