Shadia: A mainstream look at the Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam teaches a different kind of Islam from the one I know.

So I wanted to take part of Black History Month to explore the organization, which is closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement but never far from controversy.

Though I do not agree with some of the nation's interpretations of our shared faith, nor some of its leaders' past rhetoric in relation to other races and faiths, I discovered some fascinating details about the organization through candid interviews with a current leader and a past member who later converted to mainstream Islam.

I interviewed Minister Ishmael Muhammad, a son of the late Elijah Muhammad, a Nation founder who taught Malcolm X.

Ishmael Muhammad is now assistant minister to the Nation's leader, Louis Farrakhan. Ishmael Muhammad is considered by observers to become a likely successor.

I also interviewed Abul Kareem Hasan, a former Nation member, who is now a mainstream imam in Los Angeles.

When I first came to America at age 15 and learned of the organization, I felt offended by stories about members who called for self-segregation and suggested black superiority — an understandable reaction to centuries of mistreatment by white Americans, but a far cry from the faith I knew that urges followers to transcend race.

There were also well-publicized tensions between Jews and the Nation of Islam, which some have accused of anti-Semitism. It's a point that the Nation's leaders deny, but many Jews cannot forgive.

Another point of contention: Nation Muslims view Elijah Muhammad as a messenger of God, when Muslims believe that all prophecy ended with the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam doesn't place one race over the other. One's superiority for God is only measured by his or her actions and piety. We believe that we all come from Adam, who was made from clay, so the idea of Muslims who view themselves as different was a concept I had trouble wrapping my head around.

But I went into this week's interviews with an open mind.

In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, I learned that the Nation of Islam sought to free African Americans from true inequality and that improving their collective, battered self-esteem and breaking free of white oppression was part of that healing process.

"The Nation of Islam aims to elevate black people in America by raising their level of consciousness and giving them a knowledge of self, and it is that essential knowledge of self that black people, after 400 years of suffering in this nation being enslaved and mistreated, that we're able to be restored," said Ishmael Muhammad by phone from Chicago.

And considering the conditions of African Americans at the time this movement began more than 80 years ago, it's easy to understand why the Nation was attractive to so many of its followers, said Hasan, who once taught that black people were superior to whites.

Modern-day Nation of Islam members say the organization does not teach black superiority. The Nation is also something of a gateway to mainstream Islam.

Many of today's mainstream African-American Muslims were once members of the Nation but later chose to leave and become part of mainstream Islam, Hasan said.

In the middle of the last century, particularly before the Civil Rights Act, the Nation, using some of Islam's concepts, promised a new beginning, a way to change the existing conditions, a way to love oneself. It offered a path to independence.

"We were enslaved by Christians and brutalized under that slavery by Christians that left us feeling less than human beings," Hasan said. "When we began to hear a message that Islam was a religion, and it would free us from those shackles that white men placed on us, we accepted that right away, and we accepted all the do's and don'ts of all that."

Hasan said the idea of black superiority didn't come from Islam, but was a strategy used by Nation leaders to strengthen the black man, who was brutalized and taught by society to believe that the white man was above him.

"Those are things that were taught to offset some of the inferiority complex, and it worked," Hasan said.

But then Hasan read the Koran with an open heart. He realized that he had the notions of race and the concept of God, as taught by the Nation, all wrong.

There were many who made the same transition as Hasan, including Malcolm X and Ishmael Muhammad's brother, Warith Deen Muhammad, who took over the Nation of Islam after his father's death and began preaching the mainstream principles of Islam.

The organization regrouped with some of its old beliefs again in the 1980s with Farrakhan, who became a lightning rod for critics.

But the organization no longer teaches black superiority, Ishmael Muhammad said.

Ishmael Muhammad said Islam teaches that superiority in God's eyes is only measured by one's piety, not by his race or color.

He said his father didn't preach superiority either, but that some interpreted his teachings that way.

"We acted immaturely with that knowledge, and it made us feel better than others, better than the white man, better than the Asian ... but that was not designed for us to see ourselves as better, but designed to restore ourselves and see the immeasurable qualities that God has put in black people in relationship to other people," Ishmael Muhammad said.

He said his father didn't allow any other races to join the Nation because black people needed to work on themselves, learn about themselves and learn to love themselves first.

Today, all races are welcome in the Nation, he said.

I asked whether the Nation of Islam has fulfilled its purpose and whether it's time for it to move toward mainstream Islam, which also offers a chance at an independent and a free life.

Ishmael Muhammad doesn't see a difference between members of his organization and the rest of the Muslims out there.

I still do.

Maybe I don't have the right to say this, but as someone who feels protective of my religion, I think that if Islam was used by the Nation, even in the wrong way, to help a people — a people who were humiliated, brutalized, enslaved and lynched for so many years — free themselves, then it certainly cannot be all bad. But it's still not the Islam I know.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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