"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Islam in America (I)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Islam in America (I)

The following post first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on October 21, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
I had just finished teaching an undergraduate class in news reporting and writing and was about to close the lecture theater when a young, light-skinned African woman in her late teens, or perhaps early 20s, approached me.

She was clad in what you would call archetypal female Muslim attire—hijab and all. When I fixed my gaze on her, I was almost sure that she was a Fulani girl from Nigeria. As you can expect, I greeted her in Hausa with all the enthusiasm and eagerness that I could muster.

“What’s thaat?” she responded, with a sassy African-American accent. I was jolted back to reality. I apologized and told her that I was greeting her in a Nigerian language because I had mistaken her for a Nigerian.

Why did she come to the classroom? She wanted me to allow her to use a portion of the lecture room to say her Zuhr prayers. Of course, I gladly obliged her. After her prayers, out of curiosity, I asked her when and why she converted to Islam. “I didn’t convert to Islam,” she said. “I was born into Islam. My parents, too, were born into Islam.” She dislocated my preconceptions about Islam in America in more ways than one.

On the second day after this encounter, I met another African Muslim man at the metro station. He was dressed in resplendent white robes—the kind that you see everywhere in northern Nigeria and almost nowhere in America— jump-up trousers, a skullcap, etc. He kept a long, luxuriant and shiny beard, which he fondled repeatedly. And he was holding a copy of the Holy Qur’an.

He looked markedly different from everybody around. Nobody could persuade me that I was not looking at a DanIzala from Zaria or Kano or Ilorin. My previous misadventure with the black American Muslim woman was not sufficient to tamper my overconfidence with caution.

“Assalam alaikum,” I greeted him. His eyes almost literally popped out with excitement. “Wa alaikumus salam,” he responded with a fluency and vim that reinforced my conviction that he was definitely an African, and most probably a northern Nigerian Muslim in America.

So I proceeded to speak to him in Hausa. Then there was stupefied silence from him. “I am sorry, but are you by any chance Nigerian?” I asked, thinking he was probably a non-Hausa-speaking Nigerian Muslim.

When he spoke, his American accent at once indicated to me that I was wrong again in my assumptions— and presumptions.

He was a New Yorker who came to Atlanta to visit his relations. He, like the woman I had met earlier, didn’t convert to Islam; he was born into it. He went to Arabic and Islamic schools as a child, he told me. He speaks Arabic fluently and reads the Qur’an with a perfect, even musical, Arabic accent. He is also an itinerant preacher when he’s not at work.

As soon as we got into the train, he started preaching to people who cared to listen to him, copiously quoting verses from the Qur’an in Arabic and translating them into English with a remarkable ease. He was dispelling common misconceptions about Islam through scriptural evidence and challenging his listeners to open their hearts and minds to what he called the real message of Islam.

I thought he was unusually bold—preaching Islam inside a metro train in a country where Islam and terrorism have become, or are becoming, synonymous in popular consciousness.

It is not every day that I encounter these kinds of people here. But I have met people like that with a regularity that I never had when I lived in Louisiana. I have since found out that there is a sizable population of indigenous Muslims in America, especially among black Americans in big metropolitan areas.

But given the enormous spatial and historic gulf between Muslim nations and the United States (until recently, that is, thanks to immigration and technology), how did America have third- and sometimes fourth-generation Muslims among its indigenous population?

It is customary in popular commentaries to attribute the early presence of Islam in America to the rise of the Nation of Islam. However, as I will show next week, this is a wee bit historically inaccurate. While the Nation of Islam is far and away the best-known Muslim group in America, courtesy of the high-profile controversies it has courted over the years, several efforts antecede it.

But, first, what is the Nation of Islam? How did it emerge and spread? And how is it similar to and different from mainstream Islam?

The Nation of Islam is basically a black American Muslim organization. Some of its teachings, as you will see shortly, will strike any orthodox, mainstream Muslim as heretical, even blasphemous. It was started in 1930 by a man whose real identity is still shrouded in mystery and controversy. He is known to us as Wallace Fard Muhammad. But alternative names on record for him are: David Ford-el, Wali Farad, Farrad Mohammed, W.D. Fard, and F. Mohammed Ali. Within the Nation of Islam, he is simply known as Master Fard Muhammad.

While the Nation of Islam insists that Wallace Muhammad migrated from Saudi Arabia to the United States, official U.S. records say he was originally a New Zealander of mixed Polynesian and European ancestries. Two different versions of his photographs are kept by U.S. official records and by the Nation of Islam. It’s not clear where the truth lies.

Wallace Fard Muhammad taught that Islam was the original faith of black people in America before their enslavement. He also taught that blacks were the original people that Allah created on Earth, and that white people were a race of devils created on the “island of Patmos” by a wicked scientist named Yakub. Black people, he claimed, were inherently divine, created by Allah from the dark substance of space, and that a spacecraft was waiting to wipe out all white people from the surface of the Earth when the appointed time came.

Upon his death (his followers believe he only ascended to Heaven), a certain Elijah Poole (who was renamed Elijah Muhammad by Wallace F. Muhammad) took over the leadership of the Nation of Islam and immediately conferred divine status on Wallace F. Muhammad.

He taught that Wallace Muhammad was not only the “long-awaited Messiah of the Jews and the Mahdi of the Muslims” but was, in fact, Allah in human flesh! His birthday, February 28, is still celebrated to this day by the Nation of Islam as the “Savior’s Day.”

However, it is important to note that members of the Nation of Islam believe in all the five pillars of Islam.

The group rose to national and international spotlight when the inimitable Malcolm X became its spokesman. He held the world spellbound with his admirably charming oratorical brilliance and penetrating wit.

He elevated the Nation of Islam from a cult of a few hundred adherents to a veritable spiritual and political mass movement. In spite of its heretical teachings—from the perspective of an orthodox Muslim—it played a significant role instilling racial pride in black people, in ennobling erstwhile criminals, and in encouraging American blacks to embrace the philosophy of economic self-sufficiency.

In time, however, Malcolm X’s phenomenally growing national and international profile would invite the envy of both Elijah Muhammad and other members of the Nation of Islam, including Malcolm X’s erstwhile protégé, Louis Farrakhan. But two decisive incidents led to a final, irretrievable rupture in the relationship between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

The first was Malcolm X’s discovery that Elijah Muhammad was a lewd old reprobate who had impregnated several teenage girls. Malcolm X was shattered by this discovery. He had trusted Mr. Muhammad with every fiber of his being and had thought of him as the very epitome of moral rectitude.

The second event was Malcolm X’s press conference, in 1963, during which he described President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” Elijah Muhammad was utterly mortified by that statement. So he suspended Malcolm X as the spokesman for the Nation of Islam.

When it became clear to Malcolm X that the suspension would not be lifted, he broke away from the Nation of Islam. That breakaway would mark the first step in his journey to the discovery of mainstream Islam.

He went on pilgrimage to Mecca and met many orthodox Muslims. It was an epiphany of no mean proportion for Malcolm X. He also visited Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, and many other African and Muslim countries.

(When he visited Nigeria, the Muslim Students’ Society of the University of Ibadan hosted him and named him “Omowale,” meaning the son has returned home, a name he cherished profoundly).

Upon returning from Mecca, he changed his name to El-Hadj Malik el-Shabbazz and became the symbol for the spread of orthodox Islam among American blacks. Of course, he became too dangerous for both the white power structure in America (a phrase he was very fond of in the last years of his life) and the Nation of Islam. And so he was murdered in cold blood at the behest of Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan with the alleged connivance of the FBI.

Muhammad Ali, the famous American boxer, and Elijah Muhammad’s own son, Wallace Muhammad, were among people who were persuaded by Malcolm X’s message that the Islam that Elijah Muhammad taught was counterfeit, and they continued with the process of reforming the doctrines of the Nation of Islam in conformity with orthodox Islam. For this, they were suspended from the organization for “dissident views.”

However, in 1974, a year before his death, Elijah Muhammad reinstated his son to the Nation of Islam. And after his death in February 1975, his son was unanimously appointed as the Supreme Minister of the NOI. He used this position to dislodge the teachings of the Nation of Islam that were in conflict with orthodox Islam.

He also renamed the Nation of Islam to the “American Society of Muslims” and changed his own name from Wallace Muhammad to Warith Deen Muhammad.

Louis Farrakhan was outraged by these changes and he quietly dissociated himself from the new American Society of Muslims. In 1978, however, Farrakhan revived the Nation of Islam under its original, unorthodox teachings.

This means that the current Nation of Islam still believes, among other heretical teachings, that Fard Muhammad was Allah in human flesh and that white people are devils who are inherently incapable of being Muslims.

This article continues next week.
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