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

Anthony has remained a member of Mosque No. 29 since his victory over his substance-abuse problem. El-Amin says that his theological and sociopolitical differences with his son, while not a source of real tension, do generate some spirited discussions. "We get into it now and then," El-Amin allows. "Right now he's just pro-Farrakhan, instead of the Qur'an [Koran]. You can listen to a man, and take some of the man's ideas, but you've got to also check and see what God says about it."

El-Amin doesn't try to force-feed orthodox Islam to his grown son. His attitude is patient, paternalistic. "If I just come out and tell him a lot of things that are going on, he'll say I'm against Farrakhan," he says. "So I just sit and wait. Sooner or later, I know he's going to come around."

With a larger-than-life portrait of Elijah Muhammad gazing enigmatically down at him, Rasul Muhammad reflects on his memories of his father. Not what he wrote or taught, or what others taught Rasul about him, but his own personal recollections.

"My memories of my father are those of a young boy, who saw his father -- and sees his father -- as Superman," Muhammad says. "My father didn't have to be the Messenger of Allah or the leader of the Nation of Islam. My father took advantage of the time that we had together, and made me to know, as his son, that he loved me.

"As strange as it may sound, I would say this to you: As I grow older, I get to know my father better in the book of myself," Muhammad intones, using syncopated rhythms to emphasize his words. "I turn pages in my own experience in life, where I find his writing. There are traits in me I can trace directly to him, and there are things that I instinctively know, that I know he knew, and I know because he knew."

He laughs at the awkwardness of the sentence, exposing the gap between his front teeth. The thickset minister is conversing in a small conference room in Mosque No. 29, a tidy leased storefront at 5660 NW Seventh Ave., which became Miami's Nation of Islam headquarters in December 1995. Entering the mosque is not a simple matter; all nonmembers must usually undergo a search of their bags and their person, and during the thrice-weekly meetings here, neither Caucasians nor reporters are allowed. The presence of either, Muhammad explains, might be disruptive.

Today Rasul Muhammad has forgone the formality of a pat-down for his visitor, and he is outfitted much more casually than the spit-and-polish stereotype of the typical NOI man. With his oval face and extra-large Calvin Klein polo shirt, Muhammad looks far younger than his 32 years. That is, until he begins talking about the wrongs that have been done to black people in America. When he holds forth on the plight of the "mentally and spiritually dead of the human family," his broad, expressive countenance takes on a daunting gravity and maturity.

Rasul Muhammad is among the most influential ministers in the Nation of Islam, and not only because of his bloodlines. Of course, it doesn't hurt that his father was a founder of the movement in which he now serves. (His mother, known as Mother Tynnetta Muhammad, holds a lofty position in Louis Farrakhan's organization. She is referred to by members of NOI as Elijah Muhammad's wife, although the only person to whom Elijah Muhammad was ever legally married was Clara Muhammad -- and she was still wed to the patriarch at the time of Rasul's birth.)

From 1989 to 1995, Rasul served as minister of Mosque No. 1 in Detroit, birthplace of the NOI. His posting here shows how important Miami is to the NOI's leadership: Mosque No. 29 not only serves Miami, but it is also the headquarters for the Nation's newly formed Seventh Region, which includes South Florida, the Caribbean, and the rest of the hemisphere south of the Rio Grande.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Rasul spent most of the first twenty years of his life moving between his father's retreat in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and various U.S. cities. He speaks fluent Spanish. He and his wife Adriana currently live in West Broward; they have a sixteen-month-old daughter Jamillah and are expecting another child in December.

As Rasul Muhammad has settled in, his ministry has sought to capitalize on the momentum generated by the participation of Miami's black community in the Million Man March. Though recruitment of new members to the NOI is part of his program, he also intends to be a catalyst for change across lines of faith. "If the African-American community in this country is a sleeping giant, in Miami it's comatose," he chides.

Rasul is well known for his approachability and interpersonal skills. "Rasul tends to bring people together," says Paul Lee, a Detroit-based historian who served as a consultant for Spike Lee's film Malcolm X. "He's maybe the best diplomat the Nation of Islam has."

"The most important thing that I'd like to stress, and that's what Islam in root stresses, is the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity," Rasul Muhammad says, flexing his diplomatic muscles. "That's what the Prophet Muhammad taught. That's what Jesus taught. That's what Moses taught. That's what Abraham taught. I am very much for building bridges of understanding and communication, which would be based on a disciplined principle of accepting and learning to appreciate diversity."

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