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

The tension between the Farrakhan and W. Deen Mohammed camps in the Seventies was overt, but today, here and elsewhere, the two groups have managed to coexist peacefully despite their differences. "I don't want to be used as a wedge in a divisive way," cautions Nuriddin. "There are no divisions, just schools of thought. As long as you follow the ways established by the Prophet, there should be no confusion. I think we do have the right perception of Islam under Imam Mohammed's leadership."

Likewise, members of the Nation of Islam evince no animosity for the former Nation of Islam now under W. Deen Mohammed. "I attended Jumu'ah prayer [at Masjid Al-Ansar] this afternoon," says Minister Gerald Muhammad, Rasul Muhammad's top assistant at Mosque No. 29. "I've met the imam and some of his assistants. They've got some beautiful brothers there."

William Clark, owner of Afro-In Books & Things, located on NW Seventh Avenue between the two mosques, confirms the cordiality of their relations and the importance of both to the community. "They are both respected," he says. "Anything they put their hands on is for the upliftment of the community. They may not see eye to eye ideologically, but for me, on the outside, I have nothing but praise for both groups. I carry both their newspapers in my store."

Though its philosophy is not as overtly political as that of its NOI neighbor, Masjid Al-Ansar is active in both the neighborhood and the broader religious community of Dade County. In addition to a prison outreach program, Masjid Al-Ansar stresses education. Its Clara Muhammad School has students from preschool to third grade; the school also offers Arabic classes to all ages. Senior members of the mosque often conduct classes about the tenets and philosophy of Islam at churches and synagogues.

Mosque No. 29 also has a prison ministry. The program of study taught at the mosque's meetings stresses personal responsibility, self-improvement, and individual community activism. And, as with all Nation of Islam mosques, the men of Mosque No. 29 walk the streets of Miami's black neighborhoods every Saturday in their crisp suits, polished shoes, and bow ties, selling copies of the NOI's newspaper, the Final Call, and, as Gerald Muhammad describes it, providing "a visible presence" to deter crime in these neighborhoods.

The high visibility of Farrakhan's Nation of Islam -- on the street level as well as on the national scene -- has made it the best-known group of Muslims in America, despite its relatively small size. Historian Paul Lee says he has counted as many as eighteen splinter groups that draw from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, all claiming to be his true spiritual heirs. Farrakhan's is probably the largest of those that adhere to those teachings, but Lee estimates that no more than 15,000 people are members nationwide. Abdurahman Alamoudi of the American Muslim Council estimates the Nation of Islam's membership at 20,000. The Nation of Islam and the other, smaller factions are all "dwarfed" by the estimated 1.5 million members of W. Deen Mohammed's ministry, Lee says.

Rasul Muhammad is vague about the size of the NOI's membership, both in Miami and nationwide: "If I may quote Malcolm X, 'Those that know don't say. And those that say don't know.'

"There are those who believe that the Nation of Islam was never intended to be a mass movement, and I would tend to agree with that," Rasul Muhammad continues. "Our structure has never been to build huge houses of worship. We believe that God makes you a revolutionary. Not with weapons and bloodshed, but revolutionary in your thinking and in the way you live."

W. Deen Mohammed concurs with his younger brother that the size of the Nation of Islam's membership is not a true measure of its importance. "The Nation of Islam offers a strong black image, a militant image," Mohammed says. "Farrakhan's actual following is probably 20,000 people at the most, but his influence reaches maybe a million youngsters."

Several hundred thousand blacks, mostly men, of all ages answered Farrakhan's call for a unity and atonement demonstration in Washington in 1995. The response of Miami's black community to the Million Man March, as with most other things related to the NOI, was mixed, with few people taking a lukewarm position. Thousands of Miamians traveled north to participate in the march, but the congregation of Masjid Al-Ansar made no concerted effort to join up.

"Why take all those resources, from one million people, and bring them somewhere else?" asks Nuriddin. "Why not keep all those resources circulating in the community instead of taking them away? This way, those resources only helped some people."

The Reverend Michael Moss of Bethel Apostolic Temple in North Miami, like most other people who attended the Million Man March, is not a Muslim; he calls the event "the most spiritual moment of my life." Determined to keep alive the interfaith black unity he witnessed at the march, Moss has cultivated a close relationship with Rasul Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. So close that when Louis Farrakhan came to speak in Miami in 1996, Moss welcomed him to his own temple. He maintains that many other Christian ministers in the black community haven't forgiven him for that.

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