About a month ago I was privileged to attend a small gathering of writers, scholars and thinkers–some from academia, others from outside it–loosely structured around the theme of UFOs. Professors Jeffrey Kripal and Diana Pasulka, two religious-studies scholars doing groundbreaking work on UFOs (and many other things) were the moving spirits behind it. There were about 15 of us.
We didn’t all agree on what UFOs are, how “real” they are and in what way(s) they’re real. Some of us were disposed to see them as something real “out there,” breaking our standard scientific molds and forcing us to look for new molds big enough to hold them. Others saw them as a human phenomenon, specifically a religious one, and were skeptical or at least agnostic about their physical existence.
But that UFOs are important and exciting, and that attention must be paid, none of us doubted.
I don’t want to give more details about the meeting; some of those who were present may prefer not to be mentioned publicly in connection with it. But I am able to say that I met two very remarkable people there: Professor Stephen C. Finley of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Louisiana State University, and Erin Prophet, author of the amazing memoir Prophet’s Daughter.
I’ll talk about Erin and her story of her life as–yes, a prophet’s daughter–in a later post. In this post and the next, I want to tell you about Stephen’s research on UFOs and the Nation Of Islam (NOI, or “Black Muslims” as they’re often called).
It’s a topic I blogged about, completely unaware of Stephen and his work, just about a year ago. I was delighted to discover that Stephen’s been raising some of the same questions I have. “What do we make of the numerous other African Americans for whom UFOs are indispensable in their quests to make sense of the world?” he asked in an unpublished paper discussed at the conference. “What does it mean that these narratives do not make it into our scholarly texts and theorizations about UFOs? … why is it the case that these accounts are ignored?”
Unlike me, however, Stephen brings a formidable scholarly expertise on the NOI to his search for the answers.
In 2012 he published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion: “The Meaning of Mother in Louis Farrakhan’s ‘Mother Wheel’: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Cosmology of the Nation of Islam’s UFO.” As you’d expect of a JAAR paper, it’s written in dense academic prose and doesn’t make for easy reading. But if you have access to back issues of JAAR, give it a try. It’s worth the effort.
The paper describes two visionary experiences claimed by Farrakhan, 30 years apart. The first took place in December 1955, when the young musician was wavering between his secular life as an entertainer and NOI’s demand that he put all such things behind him. He had an engagement at the Nevele Club in the Catskills, which he goes out of his way to tell us “was a Jewish resort. I just said I’m going to get it all out of my system. I sang ballad. I sang some classical. I sang the blues. I played some classical violin. I played jazz violin.”
That night Farrakhan had his vision: two doors, one with success written over it and a pile of diamonds and gold before it. The other, veiled in black, was marked Islam. “I was told to choose. And I chose Islam.”
Farrakhan also remembered seeing, perhaps (though it isn’t clear) as part of the same vision, the form he’d filled out for membership in the NOI. Two men were discussing his form; there was “cursive writing” on it, which he identified as Arabic, but which one man told the other to “turn over” because it wasn’t yet time for Farrakhan to see it.
The “cursive writing” recurs in Farrakhan’s vision of the “Mother Wheel,” which he experienced on the night of September 17, 1985, but–for reasons that Farrakhan tried to explain, but that I don’t find very convincing–kept to himself until revealing it at a press conference over four years later. Ted Koppel, interviewing Farrakhan in 1996, called his “Mother Wheel” story “gibberish.” Stephen begs to differ:
“Without a doubt, Farrakhan’s experience of the Mother Wheel gives coherence to his religious life, and it serves as a lens through which we can, therefore, interpret his religious and political activities and discourses and those of the NOI.”
Was this a “UFO abduction”? We have to be careful of our terminology, and avoid imposing the categories of white-American UFOlogy on religious experiences that are cognate but may have crucial differences. As far as I can tell, Farrakhan never used the word “abduction” to describe it, and spoke of it as a “UFO” only with careful qualification:
“In a tiny town in Mexico, called Tepotzlan, there is a mountain on the top of which is the ruins of a temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl–the Christ-figure of Central and South America–a mountain which I have climbed several times. However, on the night of September 17, 1985, I was carried up on that mountain, in a vision, with a few friends of mine. As we reached the top of the mountain, a Wheel, or what you call an unidentified flying object, appeared at the side of the mountain and called to me to come up into the Wheel.”
“A Wheel, or what you call an unidentified flying object.” Hard to be more explicit than that. To white America, the “wheels” are an unknown and baffling phenomenon, the “unidentified.” Blacks, by contrast, are the very “people of the Wheel.” “We are a strange people in your midst,” Farrakhan tells white America. “You look at us, but you do not know us.”
Summoned into the Wheel, Farrakhan remembers having been “somewhat afraid.” He wanted his friends to come with him, “but a voice came from the Wheel saying, ‘Not them; just you.’ I was told to relax and a beam of light came from the Wheel and I was carried up on this beam of light into the Wheel. I sat next to the pilot, however, I could not see him. I could only feel his presence. … I was escorted by the pilot to a door and admitted into a room … at the center of the ceiling was a speaker and through this speaker I heard the voice of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad speaking to me as clearly as you are hearing my voice this morning.”
Elijah Muhammad, NOI leader and ideologue whose mantle Farrakhan claimed–against considerable opposition within the movement–had died in 1975. But in the Wheel, “he spoke in short cryptic sentences and as he spoke a scroll full of cursive writing rolled down in front of my eyes, but it was a projection of what was being written in my mind.”
The “cursive writing” again; and now we begin to recognize it as the “scroll” that appeared to the prophet Ezekiel in the sequel to his merkavah (“chariot,” a.k.a. UFO) vision, a “roll of a book … written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe” (Ezekiel 2:9-10). It’s not the only reflex of Ezekiel detectable in Farrakhan’s visions. “In the visions of God” Ezekiel was carried and “set … upon a very high mountain” (40:2), just like Farrakhan. He had his merkavah vision “in the thirtieth year” (1:1)–although the “thirtieth year” of what, he doesn’t say, and Bible scholars are to this day baffled by the allusion. Farrakhan also had his “Wheel” vision in “the thirtieth year”–1985, counting from his inaugural vision in 1955.
These Ezekiel references are my own suggestions, and I don’t know if Stephen would accept all of them. It doesn’t seem that Farrakhan ever flagged them explicitly. But in another paper of Stephen’s, published in a volume which he co-edited on Esotericism in African American Religious Experience, he demonstrates that for Louis Farrakhan the number 30 has long been very special. As a marker of time, it can apply to days or months or years; Stephen gives many examples.
“That was 1955,” he quotes Farrakhan as having said about his first vision, “and then 1985, or thirty years later comes and I’m up on the Wheel.”
But not just any Wheel–a Mother Wheel. What does that “mothering” quality mean for Farrakhan, his faith, his UFOlogy?
Here’s where the real work of interpretation in Stephen’s JAAR paper begins. You’ll read about that in my next post.
by David Halperin
Learn more about David Halperin on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/davidjhalperin
Connect to Journal of a UFO Investigator on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator
and Find David Halperin on Google+