African-American Sectarian Movements

Islam in America. Editor: Jane I Smith. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Meanwhile, a number of other African American groups have spun off from the ideology of the Nation of Islam, manifesting themselves as quasi-Islamic as they borrow some elements from orthodox Islam and disregard others. The extent to which these sectarian groups are accepted by Muslims as part of the fabric of Islam is often difficult to gauge, although they are increasingly accused by Sunni African Americans, as well as those in the immigrant community, of being beyond the boundaries of what is Islamically acceptable. Looking to Asia and/or Africa as the source of identity continues to be a common theme for black sectarian movements in the last part of this century as it was for people such as Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Muhammad. Two examples can serve to illustrate the nature of some of these groups.

The Ansar Allah community is a black sect founded almost thirty years ago by Isa Muhammad, who was familiar with the teachings of both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. Like those groups, the Ansar have consistently emphasized the importance of American blacks’ breaking free of the inferior status to which whites have consigned them, striving to attain dignity and self-worth by a black rather than a white definition. Isa Muhammad, however, rejected the claims of both Drew Ali (whose version of the Qur’an he ridicules) and Elijah Muhammad to prophethood. In what is clearly an effort to position himself within the range of competing “Islamic” messages to African Americans, he proclaims his own message to supersede theirs and others. Isa Muhammad’s origins seem deliberately to have been obscured, though he says he was born in 1945 in the Sudan, exactly a century after his grandfather the Sudanese mahdi Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdullah. He claims to have written more than 365 books and pamphlets by the power of Allah speaking through him, and indeed many of these are available. Since 1990 all of his written works have appeared under the name As Sayyid Isa al Haadi al-Mahdi.

Originally called the Ansar Pure Sufi in the late 1960s, with the Star of David and an Egyptian ankh part of its symbolism, the group changed its name to Nubians and then Nubian Islamic Hebrews. The mahdist Islamic crescent was added to its symbols, and its members were requested to wear long African robes. Soon they began to publish a newspaper and several journals, and Isa himself went to Trinidad in the West Indies to establish more branches. In 1973 he traveled to Egypt and the Sudan, where he says he was visited by the figure of Khidr, the so-called “green man” who is said to be a spiritual guide of Muslim mystics. From that point, his teachings began to sound much more specifically Islamic, and he portrayed himself as responsible for propagation of the Qur’anic message in the West. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, Isa Muhammad lost no time in identifying himself as Elijah’s legitimate heir. His affirmation of the importance of being black carried the corresponding condemnation of the “pale-skinned” race in a series of attacks on whites that rivaled even early NOI ideology. The “Nubian Islamic Hebrews” terminology was dropped, and the community was officially named the Ansar Allah, from Sura 61:14 of the Qur’an, which refers to the “helpers (ansar) of Allah.” In 1981 Isa seemed to proclaim himself the promised messiah of Islam, and by 1988 he was able to trace his descent through the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn directly to the Prophet himself.

By the beginning of the 1990s, Isa Muhammad began to sound more orthodox in his preaching and teaching, modifying earlier attacks on whites. Nonetheless, he continued to refer to black Americans as Sudanese or Nubians and to his own task of raising up these sole surviving members of the tribe of Israel. Much of the more recent literature shows him proclaiming that the Ansaru Allah follow the teachings of the Qur’an more closely than any other Muslims, especially those of Saudi Arabia.

Ansaru Allah communities are now located in many cities of the United States, as well as in a number of countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and even Europe. Their headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, in a mosque called Masjidu’l-Mukhlasina. It includes a school offering classes on a range of Islamic sciences, with lectures halls, playground facilities, a library, and a museum of ancient Islamic relics.

The verbal contest between some Saudi Muslims and Isa Muhammad became sharper over the years. Isa accused Arabs, among other things, of Westernizing and modernizing, equating that with coming under the influence of Christianity. Although he officially retired as imam of the Ansaru Allah community in 1988, giving way to new leadership, heightened attacks against him by certain Saudi intellectuals have caused him to come out of retirement for the express purpose of defending himself and his community, as well as launching counterattacks.

The community, still small, continues to be redefined and, after moving toward Sunni Islam, now seems to be reversing itself. Isa Muhammad indicated that a real Muslim is also really a Christian and that the Ansar are followers of Jesus awaiting his second coming. Since 1974 the Ansar has again changed significantly, and is now known as the Holy Tabernacle Ministries, with increasing attention to such things as the extraterrestrial beginnings of the Nubian peoples. Its leader now assumes the name of Dr. Malachi Z. York. The Ansar thus serve as a fascinating example of the mixture of Islam, black nationalism and identity, and a number of the traditions making up the fabric of American religion.

Another spin-off from the Nation of Islam is a group called Allah’s Nation of the Five Percenters.15 This group’s message is transmitted in a variety of ways, as for example through the staccato lyrics of rap music. The movement, founded in Harlem in 1964 by former NOI member Clarence “Pudding” 13X, has spread across urban America and is now found in major cities from New York to Los Angeles. Its direct appeal affirms even more immediately than the NOI doctrine the value of being black, and it especially attracts African American youth. An enthusiastic Nation advocate for some years, Clarence began openly to question the NOI’s teaching that W. D. Fard was God. Since the NOI itself taught that the original black man was God, and clearly Fard was not black, he could, therefore, only be human. Indeed, Clarence came to believe and teach that not only is God black but, by extension, that all blacks are themselves God. After being reprimanded by the Nation, Clarence 13X left with some of his associates to begin preaching to black street youth.

Always a smooth and articulate speaker, Clarence first developed what has become the popular fast rap message of the Five Percenters. Each youth who learns the ideology is charged to pass it on to someone even younger. For more than two decades the movement was headquartered at the “Allah School in Mecca” in Harlem.

In June of 1969 Clarence met the fate of Malcolm and others, shot by unidentified gunmen. Some blamed the NOI for avenging his departure, although Farrakhan, who was then head of Harlem’s Temple Number 7, strongly denied it. Like Malcolm’s, Clarence 13X’s murderer was never caught.

Five Percenter ideology is a complex combination of vaguely Islamic symbolism, black supremacy theory, and popular culture. To NOI teachings about the original black man, Clarence added a classification of people according to percentages. The largest group is the 85 percent of the world’s population who do not know God, ultimately work to destroy themselves and others, and are incapable of salvation. The next 10 percent have knowledge and power but are the oppressors and teach that God is a “spook” who cannot be physically seen. This group includes both orthodox Muslims and white Christians. Finally come the 5 percent of righteous people who understand that the Living God is the black man and who teach freedom, justice, and equality. The 5 percent are thus to be the righteous teachers of all others.

For the Five Percenters, Islam is less a religion than a way of life. It borrows from Sufism the science of interpreting the meaning of letters of the Arabic alphabet, which it develops into an elaborate system called the Supreme Alphabet. This science is balanced by the Supreme Mathematics, a kind of esoteric system of numerology that also relates to similar interpretations in parts of Islamic Sufism. The numbers also have particular moral messages about how members are to understand and comport themselves. The Five Percenters acknowledge the status of males as Gods by teaching that the proper name for the black man is Allah, which stands for the physical members of arm, leg, leg, arm, and head. Black men often adopt names that reflect their divine status, such as “Allah Supreme” or “God Allah Mind.”

The group is also called “The Nation of Gods and Earths.” In this classification, men are the Gods and women the Earths, or sometimes men are the Suns and women the Moons reflecting their light. What makes a woman a Muslim, in fact, is her testimony that her man is actually “Allah.” Earthly productivity is stressed, with a premium put on bearing the child of a “God.” Earths are required to cover their hair and wear full-length dresses and are thus sometimes taken for Sunnis. This is not pleasing to the latter, who greatly object to the Five Percenters’ use of any terminology that would identify them as Muslims. For the Nation of Gods and Earths, Sunni Muslims, who are part of the 10 percent, are as guilty as Christians of perpetuating the false idea of a “spook” God.

While the exact membership of the Five Percenter movement is difficult to determine, there is no question of their popularity among young African Americans. The medium of rap music is an effective tool for propagating a message based on fast talk and tricky reinterpretations, and several popular rap recording artists have consciously identified with and propagated Five Percenter ideology. The rap never stales because it keeps incorporating the latest in slang expressions and developing new and fresh interpretations to fit the conditions of each new set of possible recruits.

Immigrants, African Americans, and converts from other groups all combine to illustrate the many ways in which it is possible to be Muslim in America. Just as many characteristics distinguish them from one another, so too they share many concerns. In the following chapters we will look at some of the issues members of all of these communities face as they try to define who is Muslim and who is not, to assess what roles are appropriate and necessary in a Western context, and to determine what as Americans they share as they attempt to forge an Islamic umma in the West.