During my tenure as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, I have been pulled in a variety of academic directions. While I do not regret my decision to major in political science—indeed, I hope to study political science at the graduate level—I do wish that I had discovered the Department of Religious Studies before the closing semester of my junior year. Deciding to minor in Religious Studies so late in my academic career provided some logistical challenges, but it also prompted me to spend a full semester focused almost exclusively on religion through courses with Dr. Manuela Ceballos on Modern Islam and Islamic literature and courses with Dr. Randal Hepner on Rastafari and religious violence. Whether I was reading translations of Sufi poetry or early ethnographical work pertaining to Rastafari, prominent themes in my other studies—the impact of colonialism on the modern world, the role of social movements in enacting meaningful change—became clearer in my mind.
Before I began my first Islamic Studies course, I felt that I already held a basic understanding of what Islam was: a religion based on the belief that the Prophet Muhammad received divine revelations that were chronicled in the Qur’an. Somewhat paradoxically, the expansion of my knowledge of Islam led to a reduction in my willingness to offer any single definition at all. Looking specifically at the role Islam played during 20th century America provided the opportunity for me gain a deeper understanding of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple of America, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the United States—an important area of American history with which I lacked familiarity.
The influence of Malcolm X’s legacy on modern activism led me to develop a special interest in the NOI’s history, and this interest soon shifted toward Wallace Muhammad—Elijah Muhammad’s youngest son and the leader of the Nation of Islam following Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975. In an attempt to learn more about the least recognized leader of the NOI, I chose to research Wallace’s attempt to shift the movement from one of racial particularism to one grounded in universalist doctrine. The core of the paper revolves around the assertion that Wallace’s tenure was one of great complexity; he continued to echo some of his father’s messages about the intrinsic link between Blackness and Islam—namely through the appropriation of Bilal ibn Rabah, the first Black Muslim and a key figure in Islamic history—while also simultaneously reducing Black voices in his mosques. With the help of Dr. Ceballos, who first spurred my interest in religion and provided invaluable insight and feedback for the project, the article was published in the 2017 issue of Pursuit, the University of Tennessee’s undergraduate research journal.
As applications for PhD programs near, I am increasingly grateful for my experiences with the Department of Religious Studies. Courses through the department have helped me become a better writer with more clearly defined ambitions, and I will continue to benefit through the indelible mark Dr. Ceballos and Dr. Hepner have had on my conceptualization of various issues. Irrespective of the area I go on to study, ideas underscored during their courses—the importance of nuance, the power of individuals and movements to push for positive change—will remain with me.