Ishmael Reed’s 1972 Afrofuturist novel, Mumbo Jumbo, is a classic and masterful literary work. However, behind the words on its pages lies a modern Sabian polemic and interpretatio afro-americana. The novel is set in a pandemic-era 1920’s America. The disease was a Vodoun-inspired, dance and free-love hysteria called “Jes Grew” that primarily infected African Americans, who needed to be quarantined if they succumb to the disease. It is obvious that Reed aligns with this behavior and sees it as the true means to liberation, while he directs his sharpest criticism to the “Atonists,” monotheists who follow a traditional religion but are secretly controlled by a Freemasonic cabal called the Wallflower Order. In other words, he believes that Traditionalists/Hanifs are close-minded prudes who oppose the essential elements of humanity.
Such a perspective is not new. The dialectic between Sabian/Spiritualists and Hanif/Traditionalists has been at the heart of metaphysical debates since the inception of religious history. Perhaps the fact that he was on of the first to articulate this concept in an African American context is his greatest feat and few, if any, have discussed this aspect of his book. In this post, I will examine Ishmael Reed’s novel in light of what we know of Sabianism. We will uncover his Sabian polemics, counter-narratives, and his vision for Black liberation.
Mumbo Jumbo represents a modern-day Sabian polemic against the Hanifs of our times, or as he refers to them, the Atonists. Throughout the novel, Reed characterizes the Atonists as anti-nature, anti-fun, authoritarians who have made the world a terrible place to live by enforcing laws, making people work, and limiting freedom. They thrive on paranoia and a sense of control over people’s actions as demonstrated by his pairing the malevolent Wallflower Order with monotheism and the righteous virus known as Jes Grew with polytheism and liberation.
Reed constantly mocks Christian and Muslim sentiments throughout the novel. In Reed’s world, they are on the side of the Wallflower Order who oppress those they consider heretics and apostates. There is a Muslim character by the name Abdul Sufi Hamid (an allusion to Abdul Hamid Sufi, the Harlemite convert to Islam and labor leader who died in 1938) who had possession of an ancient Egyptian text that held the secret wisdom of the Black man. He is part of the Black resistance along with Papa LaBas (a Vodoun priest and the book’s protagonist) and Black Herman (a medicine man). However, because Abdul is Muslim he is incapacitated by his “Atonist” belief that the people infected by the Jes Grew “Epidemic” are just primitive, superstitious heathens. He does not identify with them because he is an arbiter of people’s tastes and clings to a belief that Muslims are superior to pagans. In one instance, he belittles the epidemic by claiming it’s “a lot of people twisting they butts and getting happy. Old, primitive, superstitious jungle ways. Allah is the way. Allah be praised.”
In a dialogue in which Abdul attempts to distance himself from Christianity, Papa LaBas goes on a diatribe stating that Islam derived from Christianity. He repeats the theories of Orientalists who believe that Muhammad wanted to impress Christians with his knowledge of the Bible. He goes on to say that both Christianity and Islam find women to be evil and acknowledge the same angels like Gabriel and prophets like Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. Then he says that they both condemn the Jews because of the “pantheistic contingent” among them. Here he points out that the Jews are God’s chosen people and yet there are Sabians among them who do not deny the worship of other gods. Black Herman brings up the fact that the “Koran” has been accused of lacking chronology and Muhammad of being ambiguous and inaccurate with regards to the identity of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Abdul has no response but a scripted intolerant retort telling them not to criticize his religion. “Atonists Christians and Muslims don’t tolerate those who refuse to accept their modes,” he claims. Abdul is said to have “picked up the old Plymouth Rock bug and [is] calling it Mecca.” LaBas says that the images in the temples of ancient Egypt were so explicit that other nations burned them and called it obscene and pornographic.
While these extensive dialogues feature between the plot of the novel, they tell us a lot about the position of the author and the debates that existed in the Black community at the time of the book’s publishing. Reed skillfully brings the ancient Sabian polemic to 20th century Black urban America, a population situated for such influences. As Sabian movements with Islamic overtones like the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple directed people from Christianity with their harsh critiques of the religion, their orientation to their roots, and programs for Black liberation, the Afrocentrists went one step further by calling Black people to reject the monotheistic Hanif paths all together and to join them in their polytheistic Sabian paths. This coupled with the Free Love Movement of the 60’s made Sabian-inspired ideas particularly attractive during that era.
Sabianism as Liberation
It is clear that Reed’s idea of Black liberation is a syncretic hedonism linked to jazz music and diasporic African cultures, a position taken by many Black cultural nationalists of the 60’s and 70’s. As early as 1962, Oseijeman Adefunmi (formerly Serge King), founder of the Yoruba Temple in Harlem, articulated a sentiment aimed to critique Islam’s austerity: “The African, being supremely creative and cosmopolitan, will eventually revolt against a culture which debars plastic sculpture and other traditionally African expressions such as dancing, syncopated singing, smoking and drinking.”
Moreover, Adefunmi challenged Islam’s efficacy in protesting White supremacy. He believed, as Reed insinuates, that Islam and Muslims detests the same things the White power structure hates about Africans: its pantheon of gods, dancing, and drumming. As such, Islam is not sufficiently African and is thus, more tolerated by White supremacists. The Islam of enslaved African Muslims, he contends, vanished because it was not authentically African, as opposed to other African spiritual and cultural elements that survived slavery. Of course, Adefunmi brings up the East African slave trade as another reason as to why Blacks should reject Islam. (Adefunmi, Oseijeman. Tribal Origins of African-Americans. New Oyo [Harlem]:Yoruba Temple, 1962, 1, cited in Knight, 2020, p. 33).
In my estimation, the things to which Afrocentric Sabians are calling are not a means to liberation but they are the means to bondage both physically and spiritually. Did the Europeans not trade alcohol for slaves? Did this addiction not lead certain tribes to fight others and sell them into slavery? Does sexual promiscuity not lead to broken families and disease; the exact things that destroy our communities in the U.S.? Were African people not singing and dancing before, during, and after slavery? If so, what difference does it make if they choose not to now? While it is natural for people to enjoy themselves (according to their personal tastes, which might or might not include singing and dancing), fun is not a sole means to ending oppression and other social ills.
Moreover, practicing a tribal religion did not protect Africans from capture and enslavement any more than practicing Islam or Christianity. At least Islamic law regulates the trade and treatment of slaves and prohibits slavery on the basis of race. The Mamluks of medieval Egypt were not Africans but Eastern Europeans and Central Asians. Likewise, the African Tippu Tib played a major role in the East African slave trade just as much as the Ibāḍī sultans from southern Arabia.
What is more, African Muslims played just as much a role in fighting the European slave trade as their participation in it. In fact, more Africans (including those who practice traditional religions) participated in the slave trade than Europeans. The Europeans that traded in slaves were a minority of rich and opportunistic royalty and businessmen. The peasants of Western Europe were not part of this.
Counternarratives and Interpretatio Afro-americana
Even deeper than than their challenge against a single Abrahamic religion is the neo-Sabian tendency to create counter-narratives to what we know of the scriptures. Starting in Chapter 52, Reed recounts a history of religious figures that has no basis in tradition or scripture. Rather, it is a myth (i.e. false story) that serves the purpose of undermining people’s beliefs about the prophets and their works.
In Reed’s myth, Osiris is the hero and hip prophetic personality who spread knowledge of agriculture, music, and most importantly dance. He was an Egyptian prince who studied at a university in the Arabian town of Nysa. He typified the Jes Grew infection discussed previously in the novel. Osiris even ventured to Teotihuacán and Olmeca in South America to spread his knowledge.
The first villain was Set, who opposed his brother, Osiris. Set was obsessed with war, hated nature and agriculture, and had an egotistical jealousy of Osiris. Plus the fact that Osiris married their sister, Isis, further intensified Set’s hatred. Reed writes of Set in the following words:
He went down as the 1st man to shut nature out of himself. He called it discipline. He is also the deity of the modern clerk, always tabulating, and perhaps invented taxes.
The next villain was Akhenaton, the devotee to Aton, from which the Atonists in the novel take their name. The Egyptians rejected his creed of monotheism and killed him.
Next in his succession of villains is Moses, the adopted son of a Pharaoh and initiate of the Osirian Mysteries. He sought leadership in the order by tricking Jethro, a genuine follower of Osiris, into teaching him the secret tunes that he inherited from Osiris as well as the Book of Thoth acquired from a conjured vision of Isis. Yet, his plan did not work. Moses only attained from it the aggressive and violent magic, which made the people mock and hate him. As a result, he loathed the book and hid it in a tabernacle.
The next villains were the Knights Templar, a Christian Atonist group modeled after the rogue Ismāʿīlī Assassins. A librarian for the Knights Templar named Hinckle Von Vampton found the copy of the Book of Thoth in their library. As the Knights Templar were being executed throughout Europe for worshiping the “Black god Baphomet,” Hinckle escaped with the book and lived for hundreds of years. He eventually ended up in the U.S., where the Wildflower Order, created by the Atonists, aimed to find him and the book in order to put an end to the Jes Grew pandemic, which evoked fun and benevolent magic.
These counter-narratives are reminiscent of the Mandaean (Sabian) narratives about Noah, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. As we know, rejection of the prophets or a selection of them is a common trait of Sabianism. Beyond their simple rejection of the Hanif prophets is the Sabian proclivity to invert prophetic narratives to demean them and champion their beliefs. This inversion lies at the heart of the Sabian/Hanif divide and is at the heart of many religious conflicts as alluded to in the novel. I would even argue that this is why non-canonical texts like the Book of Enoch and the Nag Hammadi were rejected from inclusion in the Bible by some religious denominations. These books’ presentations of the prophets align too much with the counter-narratives of the Sabians. As the Hanifs sought to subdue the slander, turmoil, and licentiousness of the Sabians and prevailed, the Sabian response was to operate secretly and to foment doubt and rebellion from behind the scenes. The Afrocentrist, with his worship of ancient Kemet and infatuation with traditional African religions has succumb to the Jes Grew disease, and it has stunted their intellectual and spiritual growth as liberators for the Black community because they focus their efforts against the Hanifs among them. This mantle was picked up by Ishmael Reed in his novel. Though it will go down in history as a post-modern literary masterpiece it will forever be cast in the heap of Sabian mumbo jumbo.
Adefunmi, Oseijeman. Tribal Origins of African-Americans. New Oyo [Harlem]:Yoruba Temple, 1962
Knight, Michael Muhammad. Metaphysical Africa: Truth and Blackness in the Ansaru Allah Community. Pen State University Press, 2020.
Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo: A Novel. Ebook. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 1972.
For an interesting (though perhaps not entirely persuasive) attempt to equate spiritual dimensions of Islam with African Traditional Religions see Oludamini Ogunnaike”s Deep Knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions ( Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020). There is an open access edition.