Two Faces of Islam

Two distinct factions of a religion -- one extremist, the other orthodox -- are vying for the minds and souls of Miami's Muslims

In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes what he calls "fishing" expeditions: Nation of Islam members trying to recruit new adherents.

Sitting in the cramped office of Automotive Plus, 62-year-old Isiah El-Amin wipes from his hands the fine blue dust of automotive paint he has sanded from a battered Ford. Accompanied by the occasional whine of power tools, the bespectacled black man with the close-trimmed graying beard recalls the evening in 1964 when Miami members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) first "fished" for him.

"I was hard into nightclubbing then," El-Amin says, fidgeting with a paper towel. He describes how he and his companions were between Overtown hot spots when two Muslims accosted them.

"John 5X and James 7X invited us to go to the meeting at the Masonic Temple. I said, 'Man, we gotta swing over to the Birdland,'" El-Amin recalls, his accent hinting at his Mississippi upbringing. "They said, 'You can do that anytime. Look, we've got a minister here from out of town. Come in here and see what he has to say.'"

El-Amin went, and he was hooked. The discipline of the members, the stinging critique of white racism, and the message of black separatism and superiority struck a chord with him. He officially joined shortly thereafter, changing his name from Isiah Mabbry to Isiah X (the only Isiah in Miami's mosque; as the names of his recruiters show, several Johns and Jameses had already joined in Miami). He began studying the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, who helped found the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930.

El-Amin followed the tenets of the NOI faithfully into the Seventies. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, El-Amin, like most Miami adherents, was faithful to the leadership of his son and successor Wallace Muhammad. The change at the top was a traumatic one for the Nation: From his headquarters in Chicago, Wallace abolished the old power structure and business enterprises, did away with the messianic theological concepts and Afrocentric mythology that conflicted with traditional Islam, and even scrapped the name "Nation of Islam."

Throughout this turmoil, El-Amin stayed with the new leadership, opening his mind to Islam as it was practiced by some 1.5 billion people around the world, 6 million people in the United States, and 10,000 or so in Dade County. But not everyone agreed with the changes Wallace Muhammad instituted. In 1978 Louis Farrakhan re-established the Nation of Islam, complete with Elijah Muhammad's political and religious doctrines. Though the following of Wallace -- who is now known as W. Deen Mohammed -- was and is a larger group, around 1.5 million strong, Farrakhan's Nation of Islam has maintained a higher public profile.

The influence of the reconstituted Nation of Islam in Miami has been fitful, but it has been growing in recent years. And in 1990, Isiah El-Amin saw history repeat itself as the local members of Farrakhan's Nation of Islam fished for his son Anthony.

The tale El-Amin recounts, as he works the paper towel into a crumpled wad in his calloused palm, spans much of the history of the Nation of Islam in Miami. El-Amin is one of the senior members of Masjid Al-Ansar, the Liberty City mosque that, after becoming the Nation of Islam's home base in 1968, made the transition to the mainstream-Islam ministry of W. Deen Mohammed. This masjid (the Arabic word Anglicized as "mosque") remains a thriving house of worship for not only black Muslims, but for Miami's small yet growing immigrant Muslim community.

But just four blocks north of Masjid Al-Ansar on NW Seventh Avenue is the current headquarters of the Nation of Islam in Miami, which, though small, holds a significant position in the NOI's hierarchy. Recently, two factors have helped to invigorate Miami followers of Farrakhan: first, the city's

significant turnout for the Million Man March on Washington in 1995; second, the arrival, that same year, of Rasul Muhammad, another son of Elijah Muhammad, as the new minister of the Nation's Miami outpost, Mosque No. 29.

El-Amin, like many other long-time members of Masjid Al-Ansar, believes that the original teachings of Elijah Muhammad are something he and other congregants of his generation have outgrown, but he says he doesn't feel any animosity toward Farrakhan's people. "I don't have a problem with [Farrakhan's Nation of Islam], because as it stands today it is really good for some," he says. "Some people have to be drilled, have to be told what to do. They can't actually move on their own."

El-Amin's son Anthony, like his three sisters, grew up under Elijah Muhammad's teachings. A teenager at the time of the founder's death, the 37-year-old Anthony -- who now goes by Anthony Muhammad -- is currently a member of Mosque No. 29.

Anthony Muhammad declined to be interviewed for this story. As his father tells it, the circumstances of Anthony's joining the Nation of Islam are quite common among its members, the best-known example being Malcolm X: He'd had what El-Amin describes as a "bad drug problem," which was coming to a head in 1990. "Some of the brothers [in the Nation of Islam] started talking to him. At that time, he asked me what I thought. And I said, well, anything that would take him away from drugs, I was for it."

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