Two Faces of Islam
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.'"
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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."
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."
A surprising statement perhaps, coming from a representative of the Nation of Islam, a movement that has often demonstrated a virulent streak of bigotry against whites in general and Jews in particular.
"When Rasul Muhammad came to speak at the University of Miami [in March 1996], his voice was gentler, and his face was smiling," recalls Art Teitelbaum, Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League, "but he is the declared, personal representative of Louis Farrakhan, a person who trades in anti-Semitism and anti-white racism. Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is an engine for bigotry, and no amount of good works or constructive words can detoxify the poison of the hatred."
Rasul Muhammad contends that teaching about the crimes that white and Jewish people have done to blacks does not make the Nation of Islam a bigoted group. "You cannot begin the restoration or the reparation of a people who have suffered throughout the centuries, a systematic genocide, without first pointing out what's wrong," he says. "And that's probably the controversy around the Nation of Islam and its leader, the Honorable Louis Farrakhan. That we do not bite our lip or our tongue, we don't bow or scratch where we don't itch, we don't buckle under pressure, and we don't shake up under threats."
While responding to accusations of anti-Semitism made against his mentor, Rasul spends a few minutes explaining that most Jews are not Semitic people but white Europeans -- which, according to the original NOI canon, makes them just as much "devils" as any other whites. "Anybody who makes any constructive criticism with regards to the State of Israel, or Jewish affairs, is immediately called anti-Semite, going back to Henry Ford, when he put out his book The International Jew. He was ruled out as anti-Semitic for his views comparing the Jew and the gentile in this country. And he later apologized for it." He lets out a single, rueful laugh. "And that's another mechanism. You're supposed to apologize. Who's apologizing to us?"
Neither Rasul Muhammad nor any other member of the NOI is apologizing for a book its Historical Research Department produced in 1991, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which propounds the theory that Jews were primarily responsible for the slave trade that brought Africans to the New World. The work is predominantly a compilation of quotations from Jewish scholars. Many current scholars, white and black, Jewish and otherwise, have roundly condemned The Secret Relationship as a deliberate effort, using distortion, selective quotations, and outdated sources, to exaggerate the role of Jews in the enslavement of Africans. That its contents are accepted as truth by members of the Nation of Islam is seen as evidence that Farrakhan's followers, despite the diplomatic skill and eloquence of ministers like Rasul Muhammad, continue to embrace anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
Rasul Muhammad maintains that, while "race-consciousness" is an essential part of the Nation of Islam's program for the improvement of black people's lot in America, white people -- or Jews -- are not the real problem. "The mindset of Satan is in black, brown, red, yellow, white, Mexican, European, African, American, South American," Rasul declares. "It's all throughout the world. That's why Paul says in the New Testament, we fight not against flesh and blood, but principalities, the rulers of darkness. Who are the rulers of darkness? Those who rule over the ignorant."
And black Americans' ignorance of their history, he adds, keeps them from dealing with the rest of humanity as equals. "Do I know enough about me to come around you, and not stop being me as long as I'm with you?" he asks. "You understand? It's a matter of identity, the extent to which you can be yourself, and not like something or somebody else. Amongst black people in America, we do still suffer, in 1997, an identity crisis."
The identity of the Nation of Islam's followers as Muslims has been a subject of much debate throughout the movement's history. Congregants at both Mosque No. 29 and Masjid Al-Ansar say they strive to uphold the tenets of Islam as outlined in the Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad directly from God. But aside from its black-nationalist political platform, which calls for reparations for slavery and the formation of a separate country for black people, the catechism of the Nation of Islam -- under Farrakhan, as under Elijah Muhammad -- contains some concepts that give pause to other Muslims.
"What's the controversy, if any?" Rasul Muhammad asks rhetorically. "The Honorable Elijah Muhammad said that he met God in the person of Master Fard Muhammad. That's controversy number one. Controversy number two: The Honorable Elijah Muhammad became known as the Messenger of Allah. Orthodox Muslims have a problem [with that]."
Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that lobbies on behalf of American Muslims, says that these ideas are so far removed from mainstream Islam as to be heretical. "We believe Islam is for everybody," Alamoudi says. "And the crucial difference is that, for us, Allah is in the heavens; for them, God was incarnated on Earth. That, we cannot accept."
"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."
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.
"Many of our preachers are still tools in the hands of their former slave masters, simply doing their bidding and following their instructions," Moss accuses. "Our oppressors do not want us to come together, do not want us to join together, to become a force. And because I'm having intimate fellowship with Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, I am now anathema."
As Moss condemns his fellow ministers' demonization of Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam and its supporters are also quick to decry the treatment the NOI gets in the mainstream media. Nonetheless, the mass media have given Louis Farrakhan far better name recognition than that of any other Muslim leader in America. "Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is the beneficiary of white media anxiety, just as Elijah Muhammad's was," says Paul Lee.
Members of Masjid Al-Ansar express some frustration at Farrakhan's high profile, while their national leader -- who, in addition to being a less compelling orator than Farrakhan, is also far less inclined to make inflammatory racial or political statements -- gets relatively little ink.
"Some of the media is sensation-seeking, not truth-seeking. I believe they're giving this kind of publicity to Farrakhan to distract the American public, because now that the clear teaching of the Qur'an has come on the scene, they really don't want that to be heard," Melvin Sabree posits. "If that is heard, not just by African Americans, if that is heard by human beings in general, that's going to touch something in the core of their being, and they're going to respond to that truth. Then you're going to start to have some people want to make some changes, massive changes, about what's going on in society -- good changes, positive changes.