Politics & Policy

A Century of African-American Islam

Most Black American Muslims trace their roots to a recent religion founded in Newark in 1913.

The year 2013 marks the centenary of the reported founding of the Canaanite Temple in Newark, N.J. That was the very earliest form of an indigenous African-American Islam, one completely distinct from normative Islam, the 1,400-year-old religion from Arabia founded by Mohammed. From this movement came Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan.

The century divides into two main eras: inventing a new religion (1913–1975) and moving toward normative Islam (1975–2013).

Timothy Drew (1886–1929), an American black who called himself Noble Drew Ali, founded the Newark temple and then, in 1925, the oddly named Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA), whose origin is more well verified than the Canaanite Temple’s. His ideas derived mainly from four unlikely sources: pan-Africanists, the Shriners, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and white racists.

From pan-Africanists such as Edward Wilmot Blyden and Marcus Garvey, he appropriated the notion that Christianity was the religion of whites and that Islam was that of non-whites. As a practicing Shriner, Noble Drew Ali borrowed traits from this organization, such as the use of “Noble” before one’s name, the requirement that men wear fezzes, and a network of lodges. From Ahmadis he took Arabic personal names, the crescent-and-star motif, the prohibition of pork, and the notion of Jesus traveling to India. From white racists came the idea that accomplished black Americans are not Africans at all but “Moors,” “Moorish-Americans,” or “Asiatics” (this last a mythical people of northwest Africa, the Moabites, who migrated to sub-Saharan Africa).

From this unique mixture, Noble Drew Ali concocted the 64-page scripture of his religion, The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America. Despite its name, this scripture has almost nothing to do with the Koran of normative Islam; it’s largely plagiarized from two texts, one occult Christian and the other Tibetan. Even more strangely, this Koran focuses not on the figure of Mohammed but on Jesus.

Noble Drew Ali invented a new identity for American blacks. By adopting it and avoiding association with Africa, and by expressing loyalty to the United States, they would appear to be new immigrants, he hoped, and like other newcomers would escape entrenched stereotypes and avoid segregation. But such was not to be. As the historian Richard Brent Turner writes in Islam in the African-American Experience, “Noble Drew Ali did not understand that the melting pot was closed to black people in the 1920s.”

The Moorish Science Temple of America declined with Noble Drew Ali’s death in July 1929. The organization still exists with a following of about a thousand adherents. One member, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, was convicted for his part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and sentenced to 35 years. Another, Narseal Batiste, got 13 and a half years for planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.

The Temple played a key role as precursor to the Nation of Islam (NoI), which came into existence in July 1930. MSTA began the dual tradition, subsequently picked up by NoI, of appropriating the imagery of normative Islam without its content and then using this new religion as a vehicle to escape white racism. Both MSTA and NoI focused primarily on un-churched American blacks and served as a bridge for them to convert to normative Islam. Many MSTA traits survived in the Nation of Islam, such as the term “nation,” the “Asiatic” identity, the rejection of the term “Negro” and of the belief that dark-skinned Americans came from Africa, the identification of Islam with “people of dark hue,” the prediction that all whites would be destroyed, and the leader’s claim to prophethood and even at times divinity.

Many of NoI’s earliest members had previously belonged to MSTA, and they often saw the Nation as the Temple’s successor. Elijah Muhammad, NoI’s effective founder, praised the MSTA forerunner and sometimes modestly portrayed his movement as “trying to finish up what those before us started.”

Since 1975, the momentum has shifted away from MSTA and NoI and toward normative Islam, which has more than a billion adherents. MSTA and NoI cannot compete against the depth, gravitas, and resources of this world faith. The Nation of Islam has been bleeding members to normative Islam; it hangs on today thanks mostly to the prominence of Louis Farrakhan, who is sick and elderly. After he passes from the scene, NoI will probably follow MSTA into a rapid decline as African-American Muslims overwhelmingly adopt normative Islam.

Despite their likely insignificance in the future, MSTA and NoI retain their importance because nearly all of today’s approximately 750,000 African-American Muslims — and a potentially much larger community in the years ahead — trace their roots to that Canaanite Temple in Newark a century ago.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

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