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“How to Eat to Live”: Dietetics and Economies of Salvation in the Nation of Islam, 1965-1975


This thesis examines Elijah Muhammad’s preoccupation with and eclectic interpretation of Islamic diet as articulated in the How to Eat to Live series, published in articles as well as two books between 1965 and 1975. It argues that the gravity that Muhammad accorded to dietary practice offers important clues about the place of the body in a political economy of the sacred that was central to the Nation’s activities during this period. A close reading of these texts complicates the view of the eating body as a “symbol” for social and political ambitions. Instead, it reveals how correct consumption was instrumental to the production of two sacred bodies: the physical body of the Original Man, and the political-economic body of the Nation of Islam. This thesis shows how Muhammad conceptualized eating as part of a set of divinely prescribed practices that aimed to discipline the body in order to liberate the members of the Lost-Found Nation from mental, physical, and economic slavery. Within this economy, the everyday matters of what, when, where and how to eat were far from trivial, or even “secular” concerns. On the contrary, they constituted a critical component in the technologies of the self which were, in Muhammad’s view, the instruments of both individual and collective salvation.

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