God's Will in America

I discovered Malcolm X late.

He died in 1965, eight years before I heard his message. Yet for me his words were fresh and new-and they could still strike fear into people's hearts.

Many years before Hollywood got around to putting his life on film, and decades before his X adorned baseball caps, I would hole myself up in a library and listen to recordings of his speeches. They were full of pent-up rage. He lashed out at the white man, whom he called a "blue-eyed devil" and derided as a liar, a drunkard, an adulterer, a thief, a murderer. I marveled at his gall, at the convincing tone of his seditious voice, at the power and conviction with which he said the black man's "natural religion" was Islam. He said the American Negroes' ancestors were, in fact, African Muslims and America wanted to hide this from the Negro because this country actually feared what the Negro could bring himself to do if he set his mind to it. Things could get out of hand.

I wanted to know more, so I visited the Nation of Islam's Boston temple, where I attended a sort of Sunday-school class. There, a well-dressed minister inveighed hard against Christianity, calling it the religion of "death" and saying its symbol, the crucifix, provided clear enough proof of that. Just open your eyes and see how Jesus was nailed to the cross, and how Christians adore the whole idea, he said.

On the streets, I met bow-tied brothers hawking bean pies and Muhammad Speaks, the Nation's newspaper. They eagerly preached one on one, and their dignified bearing-it seemed drilled into them-appealed to that part of me attracted to uniforms and regimentation. They were sharp, respectful, and streetwise-nationalist soldiers molded into a fearless image, that of Malcolm.

Ironically I found them charming. They fired my imagination. They were prepared seemingly to lay down their lives for a sacred-held cause, and as the scholar C. Eric Lincoln pointed out, self-sacrifice was the lifeblood of this movement. And they were always more than willing to carry on for hours, expounding on what they considered to be the treacheries of the white race, rehashing the teachings of their "honorable" spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, so their listeners might wake up and come "back to life," to their senses, by understanding a few simple "truths."

Yet they also had the ominous, disciplined look of a firing squad. I sensed there was something secretive, exclusionary, even combative, about them. The slightest perceived offense might tick them off or might be interpreted as a breach of trust. I imagined setting them off in a tirade just by debating some finer point. With their short haircuts and leery, ever-watchful gaze, they seemed ready to fall into rank-poised to bring a karate chop down on my neck. To me they were desperate, indoctrinated men locked in a fierce struggle.

Their version of Islam lacked the spiritual breadth I typically associated with religion. Its focus was shamelessly narrow, politicized and essentially racist. Elijah's Lost-Found Nation in the West was quasi-religious-a cult that appeared to be losing ground since Malcolm's assassination. It was no longer championed by that angry man who'd lured thousands of blacks with his charisma and seductive logic. His death had left a void.

Elijah himself was regarded as messianic and he did inspire the devotion of a large following, but to much of the black community his appeal was basically that of a wizened old man, a venerated entrepreneur with a philosophy of self-help that sounded eminently sensible and levelheaded, that sounded in fact like just the sort of thing I figured black America needed to hear. And heed.

In his teaching he effectively played on blacks' hatred for their conditions and their oppressor, using it as a unifying theme for his dogma and as the foundation upon which to build his community.

His instincts were superb. He worked the black community by crystallizing a clear vision of "the enemy," appealing to blacks' sense of belonging and by taking advantage of the black American's proclivity for joining. As Lincoln pointed out in his book The Black Muslims in America, the Negro is compelled to join in order to escape the isolation, the sense of deprivation he experiences as a social outcast. One could very easily become a member of his nationwide community, a positive, spiritually uplifting, intensely pro-black organization.

Still I wasn't convinced of Elijah's "truths" and I certainly didn't want to become one of his angry soldiers.

Then I learned that Elijah had declared his own prophet-hood and categorically dismissed the existence of life after death, saying this theological concept was ultimately a masterly scheme, a hoax devised to cheat blacks out of what they had earned in this world.

His abolition of the hereafter was heretical and, to me, offensive. It didn't smack of religion in any sense that I had known. In fact, it directly contradicted all I had ever learned about religion that was comforting.

And if I could have found his concept of no hereafter plausible, there was yet another unconscionable story to contend with: Elijah's myth about how the white race was actually an aberration, a race of virtual Frankenstein created by a mad black scientist named Yakub over 6,000 years ago. I also learned that Elijah's followers believed he was divine and thus would never die.

I couldn't decide which story sounded more preposterous. I told myself the Nation was not for me, and like many other black Americans disenchanted with him and resolved to repudiate Christianity for all its shortcomings, I checked out orthodox Islam.

As Malcolm described it in his gripping autobiography, published after his death, this "other" Islam, this "original" version, better fit my idea of religion. I liked what I learned about it. It was straightforward and unadulterated with racialist, backlash ideology; it stressed deeds more than intentions as the truest test of faith; for a godhead it offered no confusing trinity; and there was no intercessor. With prayer, one had direct access to one's maker. Islam seemed almost perfect.

What finally convinced me to convert was the futility of my own prayers. As a Christian, they made me feel beaten, ignored, betrayed. So, in early 1975, I submitted to Allah. 

It was a semiformal ritual, a simple one that ended before I was fully aware it had begun. I walked into a Manhattan mosque, and into the office of an Egyptian imam. He was austere. He took charge of my conversion, mirthlessly administering the shahada, the declaration of faith ("I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger"), as his equally somber assistant, Muhammad, recorded my name in a ledger. I walked out feeling delivered, telling myself, insh'Allah (God willing), someday I will pray in Mecca.

I didn't wear my religion on my sleeve. My approach to Islam took subtler form. Any action I undertook began with a statement of intention, Bismillah ("In the name of Allah"); I fasted every Ramadan (the holy month of fasting); and I prayed to Allah daily, feeling no compulsion to broadcast my conversion and thus become the subject of gossip. I'd weave my prayers into my frantic junior executive's schedule, disappearing every so often into a stockroom in J. C. Penney's corporate headquarters, where, barefoot on a flattened-out box and facing the direction I determined Mecca to be in, I whispered Arabic prayers as telephones rang and business buzzed as usual outside the tranquil little universe I'd created for myself.

My conversion was not unusual. I am one of millions of Americans, former Christians and Jews, who have embraced Islam over the last few decades, people who, unlike Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Malcolm X, have not made news.

Many who converted to Islam (myself included) did so in spite of reading absurd passages like the following from a high school text, a description of Islam that would almost have been amusing if it weren't so dangerously subjective:

It was started by a wealthy businessman of Arabia called Muhammad. He claimed that he was a prophet. He found followers among other Arabs. He told them that they were picked to rule the world.

Of course, American converts vary greatly in degrees of religiosity. Indeed many today do not practice Islam at all, and some merely borrow what they want from Islam and dismiss the rest, so that now, meeting someone named Khalil or Aisha or Naima or Rasul who is not a practicing Muslim is not altogether uncommon.

One of the mosques I attend has none of the charm of a cozy chapel. It exudes none of the soaring, otherworldly spirit that once inspired great cathedrals. It bears none of the trademarks we usually associate with Islam -no tear-shaped dome, no minaret, no delicate Qur'anic frieze. It's a simple loft in an unassuming building in the maze of lower Manhattan and it's adorned only with a drab carpet, a few posters of arabesque calligraphy, a beat-up desk, a bulletin board, a shoe rack, partitioned areas for men and for women, and a homemade minbar-a staired pulpit that looks makeshift enough to have been constructed of leftover paneling and carpeting. The place has the feel of a room where a grass-roots organization meets.

Yet it is here each Friday at lunch hour that hundreds of corporate executives, city employees, diplomats, blue-collar workers, and a few ex-hustlers assemble to answer a muezzin's Arabic summons to prayer. Facing Mecca, the congregation forms neat rows behind the imam, then listens prayerfully to him recite verses from the Qur'an and mimics his every move -standing straight, bowing on cue, standing again, and then prostrating, their noses pressed to the rug.

The mosque is located in a busy downtown district a half block from City Hall. There I meet all types of Muslims-Arabs, Africans, Asians, and many black and white Americans, some who converted because of Malcolm X's influence, some who have never traveled abroad but who nevertheless identify so thoroughly with Prophet Muhammad's hadith (traditions) that they wear robes as he, did over 1,400 years ago.

Reformed sinners praying shoulder to shoulder with those raised to live by Prophet Muhammad's Sun'nah-all are part of a movement that has spread across America, one paralleling the resurgence of Islam in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

In America Islam is no longer practiced solely by immigrants or by a mere handful of celebrities; millions pray to Allah daily and gather in large congregations every Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. And this movement stretches from the street corner, where white-robed, skullcapped Muslims sell incense and religious paraphernalia, to the boardroom, where Muslims look and dress no differently from anyone else; from makeshift inner-city mosques to the grand Islamic centers of New York or Chicago or Washington, D.C.; and from black and Hispanic communities to mesas in the Southwest and to lily-white suburbia.


Excerpted and adapted for this article from "American Jihad - Islam after Malcolm X" by Steven Barboza.

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Older Comments:
jazakALLAH&shukran true light will prevail&falsehood shall vanish it is the decree of ALLAH creator of this world&all ALLAHUAKBAR

One may choose to exclude comments from a website since posting at a website itself is not a right. However, I find it interesting that my criticism of the "Nation of Islam" for its crackpot racist conspiracy theories, anti-white, anti-Jewish public pronouncement were omitted. What are you frightened off? The truth?

Allah is the Greatest! I feel that the artical was very enlightening to one's spiritual growth and development. It is encumbent on all Muslims and other people of faith to seek knowledge and try and understand just what the Qur'an and the Sunna of Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings of God be upon him, warn us about treating all people with respect and dignity. We are a nation of people with a common goal, we have responsibilities to represent Islam in it's trues light. Our behavoir should be in line with what we teach others about our religion. Allah has stated in Qur'an that you are not better than the next person, only in piety. Islam does not teach racism...those with a disease in their hearts are the culprits of such mean and evil teachings. I do not beleive in what the Nation of Islam teaches, all that I can say is that they are less informed about the changing attitues and opinions of those who live and practice the Islam. However, Allah makes Muslims and He guides them to the truth. May the peace and blessings of Allah continue to guide us all to the truth.

Assalam Alaikum
Well the high reversion rate was predicted in Hadith towards the end of times. Its not people's efforts that make changes in people's hearts nor do they have the power to do so. Thanks to the One above who has never visited the Earth we witness these scenes. Islam reached America long before, there are muslim graves in Canada with the four Quls inscribed on them predating Columbus' arrival by centuries. Its not humans alone who are contributing to the eradication the sickenss of race/gender/wealth based caste system. Today's Europeans have been heard saying that when Jesus comes back to Earth, he will live among the poor and we won't follow him because we aren't going to sit with the poor!! and he is their God!!! Imagine if we followed the wealth based caste system, the three English merchants smelling of human defecation, wearing rags and without shoes would have never made it inside the Mughal Court during the reign of their Island Queen Elizabeth1 because India was the richest country at the time. Its ruler Jehangir was not offended at the sight of poverty and granted them an audience which resulted in his country the poorest among nations as his all his wealth and diamonds were taken and money was used to build the impressive buildings and roads of Britain we see today & this continues till today. The European 'civilization' and their cuisine and jewellery shops are not more than 150 years old since they learnt the art of looting colonies n continuing these actions in some form till today to keep their hegemoney on world's wealth. to top it all they sell arms to the 'darkies' of Asia & Africa to fight amongst one another, there is a war going on in every country in Asia and Africa over some European created border dispute. And if any among those countries has diamonds & gold then God help it main case in point, South Africa, Congo, Ghana, Tanzania... I can run down the list but u get the idea.

Peace to those who follow the Way of Truth.
First, I would like to comment on the article. It was nicely done and showed the progression of some of our brother's and sister's journey to true Islam. We must remember Islam in it's clear form was already here in the US long before slavery and longer than the Nation of Islam. This true Islam was broken out of the slaves once they arrived in the US. This is why we should appreciate our Islam and thank Allah(swt) always for this gift He gave us.
For the person who said the biblical christianity is eternal more than likely doesn't even follow his own book. Follow your Christ and we muslims will follow the One who created Christ.

I always use example from what Malcolm X done in preaching Islam especially after he came from Hajj. I hope his motivation can make us preaching Islam more wisely

Biblical Christianity is ETERNAL.

As-Salamu Alaikum, the brother mentions a Masjid in Manhattan where he took shahada, I believe it is Masjid Manhattan. The masjid lost its least of over 30 years and is at a small temporary location. It actually has to rent another place once a week just to accomadate the Friday prayer. It is in need of funds in order to buy a new building. This masjid caters to over 1000's of Muslims in NY. Insha'Allah if anyone can help the website is masjidmanhattan.com. Build a house of Allah and Allah will build a house in Jannah for you, insha'Allah. Jazaku Allahu Khryan. Sorry for this promotion but when the brother mentioned the Masjid I was compelled to do this.

interesting how the growth happens in a country like the US. and,
without billions poured into proselytising either, nor 'aid' money
and medicine in exchange for baptism, nor strategically 'targeting'
particular regions that seemed 'weaker' and 'ready for conversion'.
thanks for the account.