“The Name Means Everything”: On the Birth of the Black Muslim

Malcolm X here dates the birth of the term “Black Muslim” to 1961, when C. Eric Lincoln published his seminal study, The Black Muslims in America. The book arrived at an important moment for the Nation—“at just about the time we were starting to put on our first big mass rallies.” Malcolm describes a process that is no doubt still familiar to Muslims in the United States. The media got out ahead of the Nation’s attempt to define itself in the eyes of the wider American public, creating a narrative that the NOI leadership neither desired nor controlled. “The press snatched at that name,” Malcolm tells, forcing him and Elijah Muhammad into a mode of perpetual damage control. Just as the television documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, had “projected the ‘hate teaching’ image of us” in 1959, so too did the press brand a “Black Muslim” figure that seemed scarcely recognizable to the Muslims it supposedly represented.

In Ferguson, Nation of Islam members push for peace

August 25, 2014

FERGUSON, Mo. — Ever since Michael Brown, a young, unarmed African-American, was shot by a police officer on Aug. 9, various crews have played a part in achieving the tentative peace that has taken hold of the St. Louis suburb once rocked by protests.

Some wear black T-shirts with large white letters that spell out “Peacekeepers.” Others dress in bright orange shirts and call themselves “Clergy United.” All acknowledge that the Nation of Islam has been a key player since the very beginning.

Last week, Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who took over the police security patrol in Ferguson, acknowledged on national television that the Nation of Islam and other groups — such as Black Lawyers for Justice — helped control the crowds on West Florissant Avenue. Others on social media pointed out that the Nation of Islam protected businesses from looters.

Yet, many find the Nation of Islam — a Muslim sect that dominated headlines during the civil rights era but has since diminished in prominence — problematic.

In some ways, Nation of Islam members are not unlike other Muslims. They worship Allah and pray five times a day. They also fast during Ramadan and require a pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj. But the Nation of Islam also calls for a separate nation for blacks, according to international representative Akbar Muhammad.

On Sunday (Aug. 24), Minister Louis Farrakhan, the national representative of the Nation of Islam, addressed Brown’s death directly from the religious group’s base in Chicago.

Narrating Islam in Black America: Philadelphia Museum Preserves Story of Islam in Black America

August 1, 2014

For many Muslims born to immigrant parents in this country, our first encounters with an indigenous American Muslim tradition allowed us to see pieces of ourselves in the cultural life and history of the United States. Whether it was watching slaves carry their religion to Southern plantations in the TV series “Roots,” poring over the prison conversion story in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” sifting through old footage of Muhammad Ali citing his religious beliefs as his rationale for refusing his Vietnam draft notice, or deciphering Islamic references in the lyrics of hip-hop artists such as Lauryn Hill or A Tribe Called Quest, each moment illuminated a rich archive of American Muslim history that we had never been exposed to in our homes, schools, or even in our mosques.

The New Africa Center on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia is a small museum dedicated to preserving what Abdul Rahim Muhammad, the Center’s director, calls the “lost and found history of American Islam.” The Center features items donated largely from Abdul Rahim’s own personal journey as a convert to the Nation of Islam during the 1950s when it was under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad to the Nation’s transformation and transition under Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah’s son.

“A lot of people, even Muslims themselves, don’t know about the Muslim experience in America, particularly the African-American Muslim experience,” said Abdul Rahim. “When I grew up, we were the voice of the community. Now we’re barely heard.”

Rahim claims that Warith Deen Muhammad continued to face criticism from Muslim leaders who had recently immigrated to the United States for speaking too much about racial issues and not enough about the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.

“They thought he was trying to create a new Islamic movement. But he was really trying to help black people solve an identity crisis and help us reconnect with our roots as African Muslims and the sunnah of the Prophet and the story of his companion Bilal. But people would tell Warith Deen that he needed to talk more about Abu Bakr and the other main companions. No, he stuck with Bilal because Bilal spoke to us.”

Is It Nation of Islam Time Again in Hip-Hop?

July 19, 2014

A revival of the Nation of Islam connection—if it avoids repeating some of the errors of the past—could signal a new era of consciousness in commercial hip-hop.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a wave of commercial hip-hop artists, like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, Eric B. & Rakim, Paris, Gang Starr, Ice Cube and MC Ren, used their platform to promote political awareness, community uplift and cultural self-determination. They drew their inspiration in part from Islam—as culture, ideology and religion—influenced primarily by the Nation of Islam and its offshoot the Nation of Gods and Earths, or Five Percenters.

As movements, both the NOI and NGE actively engaged hip-hop artists and the communities in which the artists and their audiences lived. The NOI organized anti-crime patrols, established drug-prevention programs and negotiated gang truces. The NGE’s cipher gatherings rewarded those most skilled in wordplay. The theologies of the NOI, and the NGE in particular, proclaimed the black man “God,” and while contested by other Muslim traditions, this fit perfectly within the hip-hop tradition of the superlative boast (who, after all, could top God) and placed black men at the center of hip-hop’s universe.

For Electronica, the NOI is much more than stage props or costumes: He has sampled Elijah Muhammad on his tracks; and in his freestyle remix of Drake’s “We Made It” with Jay Z, he declares the Muslim “shahada”—the testimony of faith that “there is no god but Allah”—in Arabic and proclaims himself “the Farrakhan of rap.” In the days since his performance, Electronica has tweeted and Facebooked even more references to the NOI and its leadership. He’s clearly committed to asserting the presence of the NOI and NGE more broadly in hip-hop music and culture.

And he’s not alone in this NOI revival in hip-hop, and in black culture more broadly. Earlier this year, R&B artist Raheem DeVaughn collaborated with Chicago rapper Rhymefest to release “Final Call (Saviours’ Day).” The song’s title references both the NOI’s annual Saviours’ Day convention and itsFinal Call newspaper, sold by the FOI, who are also featured prominently in the music video.

The Fruit of Islam seem well suited for this role. When Jay Elect stepped to the stage with FOI in tow, he seemed to be channeling a moment from 25 years ago when Public Enemy took to the streets of Brooklyn, also with FOI, to film the Spike Lee-directed video for their anthem, “Fight the Power.” More than an entourage, the FOI’s military like presence conveys a charismatic power onto whomever they secure, a level of real-world seriousness: “They treated him like he was Barack Obama,” remarked one observer of the FOI guarding Jay Z at the festival.