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

"There's only one Islam. If you take one thing out of it, you don't have Islam any more," says Fred Nuriddin, the imam (prayer leader) of Masjid Al-Ansar. "And the worst sin you can commit is to try to make someone equal to God. If you're doing that, then you don't have Islam."

Rasul Muhammad is aware that some Muslims have dismissed the Nation of Islam's theology. He and his fellow members, though, see no contradiction between believing in the divinity of Fard Muhammad (also known as W.D. Fard, a mysterious figure who taught Elijah Muhammad his race-specific interpretation of Islam before he disappeared in the early Thirties) and being good Muslims. "Life is constantly revelatory," he says. "It's always bringing new things into view. As that is an essential aspect of life, it is likewise an essential aspect of God. God is revelatory."

And though his interpretation of God's revelations diverge with those of his older brother, Rasul Muhammad has pleasant childhood memories of W. Deen Mohammed, formerly known as Wallace Muhammad.

"Wallace was always very kind to me. Always," Rasul Muhammad says. "Very sweet, very warm. As a boy, I had nothing against him. And I still have nothing against him, using that terminology. I just have some differences with him with regards to how he handled the value and the importance of his father's work. I have not spoken to him in a while."

Similarly, W. Deen Mohammed has fond memories of young Rasul. "I saw him as a little fellow around the house before the trouble: the assassination of Malcolm and the passing of our father," says Mohammed in a phone interview from the offices of his ministry in the suburbs of Chicago. At 64, Mohammed is 32 years older than his half-brother. "He was active and sociable, a little hyper at that time, but a lovable person. I think he has a very good heart."

Before Rasul left Detroit for Miami, W. Deen Mohammed saw a televised debate between one of his imams and Rasul. "It was a debate, but it was in a friendly spirit, and [Rasul] impressed me as being very intelligent," Mohammed says. "I have hopes that, one day, he will come closer and closer to what is real Islam." Mohammed confirms that the two of them have not spoken in some time. "I wouldn't want the Nation of Islam to think I'm trying to pull him away from them," he explains.

And though differences exist and lines of communication are not always open, a bond between the ministries of Farrakhan and W. Deen Mohammed remains.

"We're relatives. We're blood relatives, literally and figuratively," Rasul Muhammad proclaims. "Not just with myself and their leader, as blood brothers, but the whole community."

Abdul Waheed, a small wizened black man with a long goatee and lucid blue eyes, stands at the top of the staircase inside the entrance to Masjid Al-Ansar and sings out the athan, a long string of lilting words in Arabic, punctuated throughout with Allahu Akbar -- God is great. He faces first one direction, then another, as he calls Miami's Muslims to prayer.

Were the mosque located in an Islamic country, Waheed would sing out the five daily calls to prayer from a minaret, and his voice would very likely be amplified by loudspeakers, floating over the rooftops of the city and mingling with the melodies of neighboring houses of worship. Masjid Al-Ansar, a compact, dignified, two-story edifice at 5245 NW Seventh Ave., has no such tower, and the reverberations of Waheed's voice reach little farther than the whitewashed stucco walls and tile floors of the foyer.

The mosque is almost empty; it is 5:00 p.m. on a Friday, and the big crowd that came out at midday for the Jumu'ah communal prayer -- a multiethnic throng large enough to necessitate double parking on NW 53rd Street all the way to the I-95 overpass -- has long since gone. Waheed completes the athan, then returns to the prayer hall upstairs to await any of the faithful who might respond to his voice.

Seated in the downstairs office that services both the mosque and its Clara Muhammad School (a 35-student elementary school named for the wife of Elijah Muhammad), Melvin Sabree, a soft-spoken 43-year-old man dressed in a navy blue kufi cap and matching shirt, is outlining the main misconceptions about his faith. "The three things that people always ask about are women, terrorism, and Farrakhan," he says wearily. His refutations: Women are respected under Islam; terrorism is about politics, not religion. And Farrakhan?

Sabree, an assistant to Imam Fred Nuriddin, understands the appeal of Farrakhan's tough stance and rhetoric. "The African-American people have been denied and deceived for so long that it creates a kind of desperation in the people," he says. "So when someone comes along who's bold enough to tell this white man, this oppressive man, about himself, it's like someone is speaking the way we really feel."

But Sabree believes that the message of the Nation of Islam no longer addresses the needs, temporal or spiritual, of the black community. "W. Deen Mohammed once said [Farrakhan's] Nation of Islam was like a franchise," Sabree says. "You open up your doors, and you sell your product. And what the Nation of Islam is selling to the people are outdated teachings, teachings that have long since been abandoned."

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