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The first Muslims arrived in the American colonies and later in the United States as African slaves. Although a few and noteworthy Muslim American slaves left written records of their lives, Islam was largely extinguished by the white slave owners. Sectarian and racial forms of Islam were introduced into the United States, particularly within urban African American communities, by Ahmadiyya missionaries and the Moorish Science Temple. The rise of the Nation of Islam under Wali Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad and its bifurcation under the latter’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan deserve special attention, as do the initial appeal of the Nation of Islam’s racial formulation of Islam and, decades later, the willingness of most of its members to move to Sunni orthodoxy after Elijah Muhammad’s death. The second major, though not entirely separate, strand of Islam in the United States, though often interacting or competing with the first, comes from Muslim immigrants. This group brings unique issues, such as living in a largely Christian society, competing with the Nation of Islam, refuting stereotypes in the media and popular culture, finding a political voice, and coping with post-9/11 Islamophobia, all leading to the consideration of the prospects for a uniquely “American Islam” that reflects U.S. pluralism and (supposed) separation of “church and state.”
Sylvester A. Johnson
Beginning with trans-Atlantic slavery, which forced hundreds of thousands of people into what is presently the United States, religion among African Americans consistently featured a complex of efforts toward innovation, preservation, and agential intervention rooted in efforts toward survival against structures of racial domination. Social factors including slavery, black responses to a range of political conflicts, influences of immigration, and the varieties of genealogies that have constituted religious formations among African Americans contributed to the creation of formal Christian denominations, intentional communities of Orisha, and transnational movements of Islam. Also important are the insurgent challenges that African Americans have proffered as a rejoinder to social oppression. But this progressive tendency has been paralleled by sharply conservative religious formations that check any easy generalization of African American religions as being predisposed toward social justice movements. Also important are social sources of autonomous church formation, the role of Black Nationalism, anticolonial forms of religion, and Yoruba revivalism of the mid-20th century.
Kathryn Gin Lum
Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line.
The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come.
Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.
Peter J. Thuesen
In the free marketplace of religious ideas that is the United States, Americans have disagreed over many things. The form of church government, the proper way to worship, the extent of the scriptural canon, and the limits of racial and gender inclusion are but a few of the questions on which the nation’s majority Christians have erected boundaries among themselves, to say nothing of their differences with non-Christians. Yet an equally important source of denominational divisions has been the nexus of issues surrounding agency (humans’ freedom to act as they choose), voluntarism (defined here as the quest for salvation through this-worldly action), and predestination (the otherworldly question of whether God predetermines each person’s eternal destiny). Particularly contentious has been the question of predestination, especially the problem of whether God elects persons for salvation conditionally (based on their foreseen faith or merit) or unconditionally (based solely on his inscrutable wisdom). In the 16th and 17th centuries, this debate cut across the Reformation divide, with each position represented among both Catholic and Protestant scholastics. The New England Puritan clergy were the first major bearers of this scholastic tradition, which abounded with paradox and logical distinctions. The intensity of Puritanism’s predestinarian psychology generated a widespread anti-Calvinist backlash in the 19th century and contributed to the growth of a number of upstart denominations, including Methodists, Universalists, Restoration Movement “Christians,” Mormons, Adventists, and Christian Scientists. Debates over free will and predestination also bred factionalism and even threatened schism in several denominations, including the Congregationalists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Less frequently, non-Christians weighed in, occasionally embracing the trope of anti-Calvinism as a way to demonstrate their own traditions’ compatibility with American freedom. By the early 21st century, though the rise of nondenominational megachurches and an increase in “nones” (people with no religious identification) had weakened the hold of traditional doctrines on many Americans, the tension between voluntarism and predestination remained basic to theism as it has been for millennia.
The ʿAlawis are adherents of an Islamic sect, the origin of which can be traced back to 9th-century Iraq. They are an offshoot of early Shiah Islam with ancient Iranian, Christian, and Gnostic influences. Outsiders often call them “Nusayri,” after the sect’s founder Ibn Nusayr. Practically all ʿAlawis are Arabs. Their total number is about four million, among which some 2.5 million reside in Syria, where they constitute roughly 12 percent of the population. Many ʿAlawi beliefs and rites are still kept secret by the community, being revealed only to initiate male members. One key element in their faith is the belief in a divine triad that has manifested itself to the ʿAlawi community in seven cycles. Other characteristics are an extraordinary veneration for Muhammad’s son-in-law ʿAli, the belief in the transmigration of the soul, and a very large number of holy shrines, which are frequent in all regions settled by ʿAlawis. Because of the esoteric nature of the ʿAlawi religion and the scarcity of authentic written sources, many details of their creed are subjects of vigorous public and scholarly discussion.
For many centuries, the ʿAlawis were an economically weak, socially marginalized, and persecuted group whose heartland was western Syria. The public rise of the community began with the establishment of the French mandate over Syria after World War I and reached its zenith when the ʿAlawi Hafiz al-Assad became president of Syria in 1971. Since then, the disproportionate political and economic influence of the ʿAlawis in Syria has fueled confessional conflicts with the Sunni majority, which culminated in the civil war that began in 2011.
The Alevis are a religious community on the periphery of Shia Islam. The name “Alevi” means “Adherents of ʿAli,” alluding to Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, who enjoys extraordinary veneration among Alevis. Alevism was developed in Central Anatolia during the 13th century by itinerant Muslim mystics. It includes elements of pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism and aspects of mainstream Shia Islam, which influenced it through cultural contacts with Safavid Iran. Alevism never was a unified and homogeneous community but has always had a variety of sub-groups. For centuries Alevis practiced their rites in secret, which created suspicion and rumor among Sunnite Muslims. Today’s Alevis still have to struggle with this distrust, and are often regarded as heretics by the Sunnites. The designation “Alevi” came into use in the early 20th century as a collective term for a number of religious groups such as Bektaşi, Tahtacı, and Abdal, and today is used instead of the former, pejorative term Kızılbaş (“Red-Heads”). The Alevis are the largest religious minority group in the Republic of Turkey, where their estimated number is around 15 million. Large Alevi groups also reside in the Balkan states as well as in Central and Western Europe, particularly Germany and Austria. Roughly two-thirds of the Alevis are Turkish speakers. The other third speak Kurdish and Zazaki.
In the 1980s, the community underwent the so-called “Alevi revival,” a process of exposure and openness that can be partly explained as a reaction against the re-Islamization of Turkish society. Today Alevis perform their rites and express their beliefs openly.
Although they share certain features with them, the Alevis should not be confused with the Alawis (Nusayris), who live in southern Turkey and Syria and who are all Arabic speakers.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Alternative religious movements have played a significant role in American history. There is no easy definition for these types of groups; their ideas and practices vary. One clear commonality, though, is their development on the sociocultural margins. Thus, inherent in alternative religious movements is a critique of dominant culture, and this offers a powerful means of engaging issues of race in America. Other groups, however, choose to echo prevailing racial ideas as a means of making themselves mainstream. The typical narrative of American religious history is white and Protestant, and alternative religious movements have provided both criticism and approval of that story.
While a close look at every alternative religious movement would be impossible, even an abbreviated exploration is revealing. During the antebellum period the question of slavery and the white supremacy that supported it prompted alternative religious movements to ask questions about equality. While many Shakers and Spiritualists recognized value in all, other groups, like the Mormons, encoded contemporary racial assumptions in their early theology. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, African Americans and Native Americans criticized white supremacy by offering alternative explanations of humanity’s history and destiny. The 1890s Ghost Dance movement envisioned an Indian paradise devoid of whites, and in the early 20th century black alternative movements in northern cities emphasized the religious significance of their blackness. Though these groups criticized the white supremacy surrounding them, others continued to emphasize the superiority of whiteness. In the latter part of the 20th century, many Americans associated racialized alternative religious movements, such as the Nation of Islam, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and the Peoples Temple, with fear or brainwashing. In examining how alternative religious movements engage racial assumptions, articulate racial discourse, or create religio-racial identities, a study of these movements illuminates the interplay between religion and culture in American history.
W. Clark Gilpin
Sin and salvation, as an interconnected pair of ideas, imply that human life as it is ordinarily lived has been diverted from its true good or distorted from its proper form. Taken together, these paired ideas thus imply a narrative of human transformation, a redemptive process that recovers human life from erroneous ways and reorients it toward an ultimate goal or a transcendent power through which life is fulfilled. Narratives of redemption from sin have taken many forms in the course of American history, but in considering any specific example it is useful to recognize its relationship to two especially common patterns. In some cases, the redemptive narrative is organized around a decisive personal experience, and autobiographical accounts of “conversion” that describe such transformative events are common in American religious literature. In other cases, the redemptive narrative accentuates the gradual process of shaping a way of life that incorporates an individual into the ongoing social practice of a community, through spiritual disciplines ranging from meditation and prayer to acts of public witness and compassion. In either of these versions, redemptive narratives frequently hinge on the reconciling work of a transcendent power, in which salvation represents the event or process that incorporates individual persons into a society or a natural order of existence that is itself the subject of a larger, even cosmic history of redemption. In all of these variations, American narratives of redemption have interacted with broader cultural ideas of human nature and the possibilities for human psychological and societal change.
Juan Carlos Moreno García
The ancestor cult was a common feature of pharaonic society, aiming to provide social cohesion to extended families as well as close intermediaries with the netherworld. As active members of their respective households, ancestors were objects of veneration and care but were also subject to social obligations toward their kin. However, the continuity of such cults was not exempt from threats, from gradual oblivion to destruction of tombs. Furthermore, tensions between individual strategies and customary duties toward one’s kin were another source of instability, especially when officials sought to create their own funerary services and to transfer them to their direct descendants. Such tensions are particularly visible in social sectors close to the king. The assertion of royal authority depended on the elimination of potential sources of political counterweight, and also on the weakening of kin solidarity among members of the elite. As such, the promotion of the cult of royal ancestors, granting individual rewards to selected members of the court and developing personal contact with gods, was part of this strategy. In other cases, “cultural ancestors” provided prestigious links with golden ages of the past, for instance when authorship of sapiential texts was attributed to famous officials of the past or when scribes wrote graffiti in their tombs. Finally, ancestors and ancestral memories were also invented and manipulated for ideological purposes, such as providing legitimacy in periods of political division or prestigious links with the royal palace and the values it promoted.
Ancestor worship thus appears as an active, multifaceted social activity, operating at different levels (individual, domestic/family, community, palace), whose distinctive idiosyncrasies depended on the context in which it operated. Tensions but also mutual influences permeated all these spheres, thus making ancestor cults a dynamic manifestation of social values, political practices, and religious beliefs in pharaonic Egypt.
Matthew Avery Sutton
Apocalypticism has had a powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a strong sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. Although there are many kinds of apocalypticism, in the United States, Christian forms have dominated. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered Americans the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.