by Ameen Izzadeen
(Deputy Editor The Sunday Times and Daily Mirror-Sri Lanka)
In 2003 Ameen Izzadeen spent nearly a month in the United States as a guest of the US State Department. This is part one of a series of observations penned after his visit. As an outside observer Mr. Izzadeens insights are both enlightening and squarely on the mark. Mr. Izzadeen addresses the concerns of Post 9-11 Muslims in America and the campaign to vilify the American Muslims. We present the series in its entirety.
Islam in America (P-3)
The American Islam: The struggle for unity
Originally published in the Daily Mirror of Friday, October 17th 2003
Is Islam one or many? Sunni Islam, Shiite Islam, Druze Islam, Ahmadi Islam and the Nation of Islam… the list goes on. Besides, in the modern lexicon, one finds terms such as historical Islam, moderate Islam, liberal Islam, political Islam, radical Islam, extremist Islam and even a Seventh Century Islam with some of these terms being complimentary but a large number of them are derogatory.
The terms that are derogatory are as old as Islam itself, but in the aftermath of 9/11, they have been used liberally by Western critics as well as politicians to demean Islam.
At the receiving end of this barrage of insults, are Muslims in America. But they are silent no more, as the title of former Congressman Paul Findley’s latest book suggests. How they counter such criticism is a jihad in itself. Their jihad is waged at the intellectual level and they are reaping the fruits of it. The irony is the more Islam is criticized, the more the West sees the real Islam. I shall discuss this struggle in detail in my next installment.
This week’s article focuses on part of that struggle aimed at unifying different versions of Islam.
There are two major streams of Islam in America: The Islam practiced by early migrants or African Americans and the Islam of latter day migrants from Asia, including the Arab West Asians. The dichotomy was evident when more than 50,000 adherents of the two groups held their annual conventions in Chicago in the first week of September at venues that were just three miles apart.
We visited both of these conventions and met several scholars, community leaders and officials. One of the questions that bugged us was: If Islam called for the unity of its adherents, why couldn’t they hold one convention?
Organizers of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a group largely representative of the Asian Muslim migrant community, told the media that the two groups enjoyed total comfort and cooperation regardless of the separate conventions.
But to any observer, the split was obvious. Throughout the United States, the two groups operate their own mosques and Islamic centers. Their goals, aspirations and struggles also differ. Yet we could see a silver lining among the dark clouds – the gap is being narrowed. The Afro-American Muslims, who comprise more than 30 percent of 10 million or so Muslims in America, are moving in the direction of a merger with their brethren from Asia, despite differences which are rooted partly in the way Islam came to America and spread among Americans.
With American Muslims striving to present a positive image of Islam in the face of new challenges that confront them after 9/11, leaders on both sides say they can ill afford rifts within their community.
“We’re different culturally and we’re different ethnically and that creates some difficulties in terms of communication and understanding,” Imam Earl Abdul Malik Mohammed, a national representative of black Muslim leader Imam W. Deen Mohammed of the American Society of Muslims, told Associated Press in an interview.
Though the two conventions in Chicago were just three miles apart and there was a special shuttle bus service between the two venues, the two groups held on to their own agendas.
As I discussed in my two earlier essays, Muslims came to the United States as explorers two to five centuries before Columbus and then as slaves from Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. These early Muslims struggled to keep their religion alive. In Alex Haley’s best seller ‘Roots: The Saga of An American Family’, the struggle of Kunta Kinte to preserve his Islamic roots has been vividly depicted. The book motivated many Afro-Americans in the late 1970s to trace their genealogical history and Islamic roots.
Despite their struggle to keep their Islamic identity, the Islam of the early immigrants underwent gradual change, veering away from mainstream Islam. The Afro-American Muslims believed that Allah was their God and Quran was their book; but various rituals, practices, interpretations and adaptations made them a distinct group. They also lived scattered throughout the United States. They were not a force to be reckoned with till the 1960s when they rediscovered their religion through Black Nationalist movements and the Nation of Islam, a controversial Afro-American group.
According to historians, the Nation of Islam (NOI) had its origin in two institutions:
(a) two black self-improvement movements that began shortly before World War I – the “Moorish Science Temple of America,” founded in 1913 by Timothy Drew, and the “Universal Negro Improvement Association,” founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey.
(b) the NOI was also shaped by Wallace Dodd Ford, a depression-era (1929) convicted drug dealer. Upon his release from California’s San Quentin Prison in 1929, he moved to Detroit to start a new life. Ford used a number of names, including Wali Farad and claimed to be from Mecca, Arabia.
A. I. Palmer of the Society for Adherents of the Sunnah says that Ford alias Wali Farad’s parentage was a mixture of white and South Pacific Maori and he used his skin color and his prison con skills to pass himself off to blacks as a “mystic” and a “prophet” from the Middle East.
“Working as a door-to-door rug salesman by day, Ford blended the ideas of Garvey and Drew along with a smattering of Islam, to form what would later become the Nation of Islam. Among his first students was an unemployed Georgia migrant worker, Elijah Poole, whom Ford renamed Elijah Muhammad. In later years, Ford mysteriously disappeared and Elijah assumed leadership of the NOI which he held until his death in 1975,” Mr. Palmer says. Elijah Muhammad developed a convoluted belief system based on ideas extracted from everything from Christianity to Masonry to Islam. He elevated Ford’s status to that of the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and himself to a prophet.
In brief, the NOI doctrine states that the first humans, a race of black people, whom the NOI calls ‘the Original Man,’ created white people in a genetic experiment 6,000 years ago. Elijah Muhammad claimed that they (the whites) would rule the world for 6,000 years and then be destroyed at the ‘end of their time’ by the blacks. He said that ‘Judgement Day’ means that at the ‘end of time’ the gods (i.e., blacks) would destroy the entire white race (devils) and then establish a Paradise (nation) on this earth ruled forever by the blacks (i.e., gods).
But mainstream Islam teaches that there is only one God and Prophet Muhammad is the seal of Prophethood. For these reasons, many migrant Muslims consider the Nation of Islam as a cult – like the Ahmadi or Qadiyani Islam of Ghulam Ahmed of the Indian subcontinent.
One of the prominent Afro-American Muslims who broke ranks with Elijah Muhammad’s NOI and rediscovered mainstream Islam was civil rights activist Malcolm X who was introduced to the movement while he was serving a prison term in 1956. Malcolm X, who changed his name to Malik al-Shabazz, left the NOI in 1964 after he challenged the lifestyle of Elijah Muhammad and returned from the Haj pilgrimage. He formed an organization called Muslim Mosque Inc and in 1965 was assassinated in New York.
The split in the NOI was also a reawakening. The mantle of leadership of the NOI fell on W. Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad. He was a visionary from his student days at the University of Islam – the name the NOI gave to its schools, including primary schools. He questioned his father’s Islam and compared notes with mainstream Islam, which he was attracted to.
Imam W. Deen Mohammed gradually moved his hundreds of thousands of followers towards mainstream Islam. But Louis Farrakhan lagged behind and revived the old Nation of Islam under his leadership.