Converts traded the names given them and their ancestors by plantation slave owners for X.
Just before one on Friday afternoon, members of Masjidul-Taqwa, a Muslim mosque or masjid, are parking their cars along the 2500 block of Imperial Avenue. The women's heads are wrapped, turban-style, in colors and patterns that match or complement near-ankle-length dresses and long tunics. A long, white caftan floats from the shoulders of one man, but most wear slacks and sport coats or suits. All wear skullcaps. The Muslim men use both hands to grasp a brother’s hands. Salutations exchanged between men and women are respectful and warm — “Brother,” “Sister,” “Ma’am,” “Sir.”
Evening prayer. Farrakhan spoke that year at Gompers Junior High School defending changes being made by Imam Muhammad. Then in 1977 Farrakhan made his break. Some in the San Diego group followed him out.
Friday is the Muslim “day of gathering,” a rough equivalent of Sunday in the Christian world. By one, the hour of the Friday midday prayer, seventy-five men. women, and children are slipping out of their shoes by the door to the auditorium that serves as a musallah (“where you worship Allah”).
The musallah is painted daffodil yellow. A breeze carries in the wail of sirens off the streets and ruffles the American flag that stands next to the lectern. Men sit at the front. Women sit in back, and the children, preternaturally dignified, tuck up close next to their mothers’ hips.
Elijah Muhammad and son Wallace under photo of W.D. Fard
Aqeel El-Amin is president of Masjidul-Taqwa’s consultative body. A tall, dark-skinned, prematurely graying, forty-three-year-old father of six children, El-Amin is an account executive at radio station XHRM. Back facing the worshipers, hands cupped to ears, El-Amin intones the traditional Islamic call to prayer. He then turns to face the group and says, “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (the Arabic for “Peace be unto you”).
Khalilah and Aqeel El-Amin. "My wife said, “You go there one time, you come back and you call your mother a liar?’"
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam” (“And unto you be peace”) comes the reply.
As El-Amin repeats prefatory prayers, another half-dozen worshipers enter. They kneel, foreheads touching the carpet. One latecomer is an immensely weary-looking man in a tan suit, Yusuf Abdullah, proprietor of Yusuf's Restaurant at Twenty-eighth and Imperial Avenue and grandfather of Sagon Penn. (The latter is currently on trial in San Diego for murder and attempted murder.) Several worshipers bear decidedly Arabic features, but most assembled here are “black” Americans, men and women whose skin color ranges from beach sand to uncreamed coffee to El-Amin’s near-ebony.
Najieb says women were never “put back” by the Nation, that “the only place we sit in the back is in worship.”
What is now Masjidul-Taqwa was once the local temple of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, a group called “Black Muslims” by almost everyone but themselves. After the death of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader, in 1975, the Nation and this local group both began to splinter.
Nationally, one faction is headed by Louis Farrakhan, who gained notice during Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Farrakhan’s group, still calling itself the Nation of Islam, has remained black nationalist and antiwhite, anti-Jewish. Local Farrakhan followers are estimated at well under one hundred.
Those engaged in Friday’s prayer at Masjidul-Taqwa represent the second faction in the Nation split. Across the country it numbers among its brothers such familiar names as Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Jamal Wilkes, Ahmad Rashad, and Muhammad Ali. This group, with 100 to 200 active members locally, identifies with the worldwide community of Muslims. Orthodox Islamic leaders recognize this group as authentically Islamic. Some Masjidul-Taqwa members have made the obligatory hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. This group follows Islam in proclaiming the equality of people of all colors; it is strongly opposed to anti-Semitism. It hopes to contribute to the development of a distinctly American Islam.
On this particular springtime Friday, Yasin Abdul-Latif, a tall, thin, lab technician at the V.A. Hospital, strides to the lectern to deliver the weekly lecture. “We are embarking on a fast for the month of Ramadan, with complete abstinence during the day from food, water, and sexual relations,” he tells the group. “Our intentions must be pure. The fast is not about your thinking, ‘I’m gonna lose ten pounds.’ ” Murmurs of agreement riffle through the musallah.
“The purpose of fasting,” Abdul-Latif continues, “is to train ourselves in submission. We should fast with our objective as Allah, Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him.” He inclines his head respectfully as he intones this salutary designation.
Abdul-Latif refers to a verse in the Koran. Plages turn as several men search for the passage in their own books. (Islam was founded in the Seventh Century A.D. in Mecca by Mohammed. On his fortieth birthday, an angel appeared in a vision, bidding Mohammed to preach the worship of one true God, Allah. This vision and those that followed were recorded in what became the Koran, Islam’s sacred book.)
By 1:30 several older children have drifted out of the auditorium into rooms used by the Sister Clara Muhammad School. Twenty-one children, from first through fifth grade, attend the school daily. Many of the younger children are now asleep, heads on their mothers’ knees. Aqeel El-Amin’s wife, Khalilah, helps a drowsy toddler onto her lap. The child promptly dozes off.
“People think fasting in the Arabic desert countries must be extremely difficult. It’s so hot there,” Abdul-Latif tells his audience. “And to go without water all day is not easy. But to fast in the United States is more difficult. Not because it is hot, but because America is morally and spiritually depraved.
“In the U.S., opposition is put in the way of righteousness.... Look at what we are subjected to,” Abdul-Latifs voice rises. “All things that are corruption are right here." He lists drugs, pornography, violence. “Can’t nothin ’ shock us.” Nodding, the congregation murmurs agreement. “But opposition leads to strength. The more weight we lift, the better the result. We are in training here.... Ramadan gives us a whole month to train, to build up strength.
“Oppression is real all across the world.... Afro-Americans, we don’t have to go far to fight oppression.” His voice is almost crooning now. “Our condition currently is miserable. It may not be so much a physical misery as in other parts of the world.
“Ours is a condition of mental slavery.... You can go out on that street right now,” he points toward the windows opening onto Imperial Avenue, from which, as if on cue, yet another wailing siren can be heard, “and see what the condition of the Afro-American is.... Even though we are one hundred years up from slavery, we still do not have control of our lives. The frightening thing is that we don’t care. We are satisfied.” He says it sadly.
Then he brightens and gives his message its final chord. “As Muslims we have a responsibility to teach the oppressed to rise out of his condition. When one is oppressed, all are oppressed.”
“Yes, yes,” the people say quietly.
Aqeel El-Amin replaces Abdul-Latif at the lectern. He announces that during Ramadan, prayer and potluck will take place here each evening at fastbreaking time. He reminds the group to patronize local Muslim-owned businesses — an auto detailing shop in National City, a tax accountant, an air-conditioning and refrigeration company, a landscape service. He tells them that they may make their zakat, or “charity” payment, today. (Each believer, locally, donates 2.5% of his or her net income. The donation supports the needy and the upkeep on the mosque.) El-Amin introduces a man wearing sailor whites, recently transferred to San Diego. “He and his wife will be with us for the next two years. We welcome them,” says El-Amin.
Elijah Muhammad, this group’s leader until 1975, was the son of a Baptist preacher. He was born Elijah Poole in Georgia in 1897. In Detroit in 1931, Boole met a salesman named Wallace D. Fard. Fard claimed he was the savior sent by Allah. Allah, taught Fard, was God’s true name. God was a black man. His true religion was Islam. Furthermore, African slaves brought to America were Muslims. They became lost sheep and had been lost for 400 years. He, Fard, came to rescue these sheep from the wolves (white men) and return them to Islam.
Fard’s teachings melded black nationalism and separatism, Islam, Protestant bootstrap work ethic, dietary taboo, and Puritan morality. He gave Poole the name Elijah Muhammad and made him his assistant.
In 1934 Fard vanished. Elijah Muhammad then called himself “Messenger, Leader, Teacher, and Spiritual Head of the Lost-Found Nation of Al-Islam in the West.” The Messenger lambasted whites as “blue-eyed devils.” He eschewed integration. He exhorted believers to study so as to advance their race and to keep themselves from being victimized by white devil “tricknology.”
Converts traded the names given them and their ancestors by plantation slave owners for X — John Smith, for example, became John X. Their contemporary dress changed to somber black suits and ankle-length dress and veil. They gave up liquor, drugs, tobacco. Obey all those in authority, Muhammad said — but if you are attacked, don’t turn the other cheek. Work hard, become self-sufficient, the Messenger urged believers. Contribute to the Nation’s poor fund. Through the fund, your money will create jobs, buy farms, open businesses. We will build a new nation, perhaps in Africa, perhaps in five Southern states in the U.S.
In rising staccato phrases, the Messenger would warn of an imminent Armageddon, prophesying that Christianity and the white devils in “the wilderness of North America” would soon be vanquished. A Golden Age would emerge. The black man would rule again, as he had in the beginning, here and everywhere. “What’s good news for the sheep,” the Messenger said, “is bad news for the wolf.” After Friday’s prayer, Jameelah Najieb and Kareemah Majied, sisters in their seventies, take seats in the mosque’s upstairs office. Bright blue and bright pink turbans wrapped around their heads match their tunics and trousers and set off the gingerbread color of their unlined skin. Jameelah Najieb, a forceful, dignified woman, has settled in the chair behind the desk and faces her sister, Kareemah Majied, a woman more likely than Najieb to laugh or turn impassioned.
The sisters moved to San Diego from Miami in the early Forties. Together with Yusuf Abdullah, they are the only original members still actively involved at Masjidul-Taqwa. (In 1950 the first Nation of Islam temple on the West Coast was established in San Diego. It became Temple No. 8. New York City’s temple was No. 7.) Jameelah and Kareemah’s mother, Mary X, was the first woman on the West Coast to receive an X. Their brother, once Henry X, now Henry Majied and retired in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was Temple No. 8’s first minister.
Henry X heard about the Nation in 1949 from two men just out of prison. He wanted his sister Jameelah Najieb to hear the ex-prisoner, and she did. Raised as a Baptist, she found his teachings “strange.” She telephoned her mother. “Something is wrong with him,” Najieb told her mother.
Mary X, who had already heard the ex-prisoner, laughed and said, “Oh, no. someone is tellin’ the truth. This is somethin’ I’ve been lookin' for for a long time.”
Najieb went again to hear him. “I listened,” she says, “and I accepted what he was teaching.” When her sister, Kareemah Majied, heard, she too accepted the teaching.
Those who wished to join wrote to Chicago to apply for membership. A letter would then be sent from which every comma, every word, and every dotted i was to be precisely copied. The letter was then mailed to the Messenger at his Chicago headquarters. Kareemah Majied remembers that she and her then-teenage daughter, who came into the Nation at the same time, wrote and rewrote their letters.
Jameelah Najieb says, “If it wasn’t right, they sent it back and you did it all over.”
“You had to write that letter and get that X and then live the life,” says her sister, who when her letter was accepted became Lula X. “And it was strict;” she says about “the life.”
Nation members did not use tobacco, alcohol, drugs. They did not eat pork.
(The Messenger taught that pigs were a graft between a rat, a cat, and a dog.) Dating, movies, radio, television, dancing, and participation in sports were forbidden, as were long vacations. You were not to sleep more than health required. You ate one meal per day, between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Men were to cut their hair short and leave it natural. “Conking” or “processing” was taboo. Women could not be out after dark unless chaperoned. They were to be covered, head to ankle. Members did not vote, seek public office, or join the armed services. Any breach of the law of the Nation resulted in suspension, isolation, or expulsion.
The new Sister Lula X was excited, she says, to have found a religion that was good for her. “I was so happy. I was just like a kid when Santa Claus comin' and gonna bring all those beautiful things.” One immediate change was in her eating habits. “Everybody, all my family, went to the refrigerator, and whatever pork or lard was there, it went out in the trash.”
All converts were instructed in their people's history. “You get all excited when you hear your history. You get to thinkin' deep, and you stand up and say, ‘Oh, now I know all this. I thought I was jus’ an old nigger,’ ” Kareemah Majied says.
After Majied came into the Nation, “It felt like everything left to me was something good. I thought of all the things that happened to me and put it behind.”
In 1950 Henry X wrote to the Messenger to ask if he could visit. The Messenger gave permission. Jameelah Najieb and her brother went to Chicago. She remembers about the man some followers called God, “He was short and had a light brown complexion. He looked Oriental, like a Chinaman or a Japanese.”
The Messenger appointed and assigned all ministers. The latter, who took a vow of poverty, were paid “expenses” by the Nation. In early days the sum was small. Before he became a minister, Henry X had worked in construction. Once he began to teach, his family pitched in, cooking and selling dinners to support him, his wife, and his children. “Every minister that’s been here in San Diego, my family, we was the backbone,” says Jameelah.
In 1950 Henry X began teaching out of his home, at Thirty-second and Webster, then later from another house at Thirty-second and Clay. In addition, he traveled to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles, establishing new temples. Until 1957 he commuted regularly from San Diego to Los Angeles. Najieb (who says women were never “put back” by the Nation, that “the only place we sit in the back is in worship”) traveled with her brother. “We built all the way up the West Coast,” she says.
In the mid-Fifties, while the group still met at Thirty-second and Webster, there was trouble. As Jameelah Najieb tells the story, “We had a lot of Relievers comin’ in. They [the police] came along and kept harrassin' us ... flashin' lights in the windows, low-ridin' and whistlin’ at us.
“They [San Diego police] came to my brother’s house and wanted to search without a search warrant. So they got into it.... My brother made time behind that, six months, for violating the rights of officers.
“We had to go downtown and see the head FBI and have a meeting with him, and that was the only way we got them all off us. He was polite, but he asked my brother to please not teach Islam to the people. It was just somethin’ they didn’t want to accept. It seemed to me that everybody should be glad to see someone try to lead a beautiful life. We had a rough time, but we overcome it.” Until Temple No. 8 moved to the Imperial Avenue building in 1957, Nation members were deliberately not as noticeable in Southeast San Diego. Not wanting to attract police attention, the women did not wear full Nation dress. But the community grew. When Temple No. 8’s building (the home now of Masjidul-Taqwa) was dedicated in 1958, more than 500 people attended the service.
On the national level, Malcolm X was spurring the Nation's growth. Born Malcolm Little in 1924 and converted to the Nation while doing time for robbery, he received his X in 1952. In 1954 Elijah Muhammad named him minister of New York City’s Temple No. 7. A fiery orator, tireless, fiercely devoted to Muhammad and Nation. Malcolm X — the ‘‘Big X” — crisscrossed America, increasing membership in established temples and founding new ones.
In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation by color in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Riots broke out across the nation as blacks attempted to enter formerly all-white schools. Late in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a black cleaning woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give her bus seat to a white man. “There comes a time when people get tired,” said Montgomery Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott of Montgomery's bus system began. Television screens began to show sit-ins, pray-ins, swim-ins, police dogs, fire hoses, beatings, bombings, murders.
In 1959 Mike Wallace produced a television special. The Hate That Hate Produced, a kaleidoscopic whir of “shocker” images presenting the Nation as disciplined, hate-mongering squads of black racists. Life, Look, and Playboy interviewed the Messenger and Malcolm X. Before Wallace’s program aired. Nation membership was 30,000. By 1961 it was 100,000.
By then as many as 300 people might attend a Nation service or special event. The Fruit of Islam (abbreviated to “FOI” or the “Fruit"), the collective arm of the Nation, whose function it was to oversee temple discipline, to stimulate fundraising, to protect brothers and sisters. Nation businesses, and places of worship, had grown to more than one hundred members. Muscular, eyes sharp, black suits and white shirts and black bow ties crisp, the men of the FOI kept watch outside Temple No. 8 during services. Just inside the door, the FOI and the Muslim Girls Training (MGT), the latter by then wearing flowing dresses and scarves, patted down those who sought to enter, checking for weapons, liquor, drugs, and cigarettes.
In 1961 Muhammad Ali Abbas-Hassan was a freshman at San Diego Junior College (now San Diego City College). Abbas-Hassan had come to San Diego from Memphis, Tennessee, in 1955 when he was twelve. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Abbas-Hassan, whose “slave” name was Oliver Wilker, had considered becoming a priest, in part as a way of helping his people. At San Diego Junior College, he met Muslim foreign students as well as so-called Black Muslims. The latter he found “unique, different than other blacks. They always had an answer, were self-assured, studied hard, and were serious about life. If you can imagine what an angel would be, they were like that — almost mythical, always neat, never allowing themselves to be in a derogatory position. They never took no stuff.”
In 1962 Abbas-Hassan — then known as Oliver Walker — sent his letter to Chicago. He didn't dot his i’s correctly. The letter came back. After a rewrite, it was accepted. Oliver Walker became Oliver 2X. (If you were the second person named Oliver to become a Nation member, you became “2X”; *if you were the third, ”3X”; and so on.) “A rose is still a rose, and a fool can still be a fool if her name is Johnnie Mae Jones,” says Abbas-Hassan. “But with the change of name, there came a change of attitude.”
Abbas-Hassan joined FOI. “Tough. They were physically clean, spiritually clean.” The Messenger forbad use of weapons. “You were taught to respect all laws and all those in authority, including police. If the police made contact and if what they asked was lawful and correct, we were to obey. But if they put their hands on you, send them to the cemetery. These were people who were not afraid of death.” Abbas-Hassan has been a policeman for the City of San Diego since 1978 and is now a community relations officer in that department. He says that Imperial Avenue “was crystal clean during the days of the FOI. You would have this junkie. Four brothers would grab him. No one would challenge us. We’d just say, ‘Get in, brother.’ ” The FOI would “cold-turkey” drug addicts and more often than not were successful in getting and keeping brother addicts off drugs.
As for drug pushers, “We warned them very sternly, said, ‘Brother, don’t do it anymore.’ After a while they disappeared. If they didn’t, some stern actions were taken,” says Abbas-Hassan. “If someone hurt some of our sisters, he would disappear.”
FOI brothers instructed new male members in cleanliness, hygiene, and manners. How one lived was to reflect one’s faith. Converts were taught to bathe daily, scent their bodies with musk oils, change clothing every day, and to keep mints, cloves, or fennel seeds handy so that their breath would be sweet. “Your actions would reflect the scent of your body. Your speech would be fragrant, flavorable, like your breath,” says Abbas-Hassan. (The Muslim Girls Training operated similarly with female converts.) “Not only did these men transform you from what you used to be, they kept an eye on you,” he says. “We had our own CIA. We spied on each other. You couldn’t do any wrong”
Temples around the United States competed in sales of Muhammad Speaks. If a man did not sell his newspaper quota, he paid for the papers and kept them. “Some people, you'd go by their house, see the papers stacked up to the ceiling,” recalls Abbas-Hassan. “Those ol’ crazy black Moslems” is what the Southeast community called Nation members in those days. “They tolerated us,*loved us, and respected us,” Abbas-Hassan says. “They didn’t join us because they didn’t want to give up their ‘hawg,’ women on the side, liquor, and dope. They didn’t want to sell papers. ‘Hey, I’m no paper boy,’ they’d say.”
The Nation took no part in civil rights demonstrations. Abbas-Hassan recalls that he was with Henry X in 1962, selling Muhammad Speaks, on a day black and white people were demonstrating at Sixth and Broadway in front of the Bank of America. Abbas-Hassan had his Argus C-3 camera with him. “Those poor Negroes and white folks were begging the Bank of America for jobs. Something caught my eye, a window opening. I saw people take a bucket, and I could watch it falling, human urine and feces, falling down on the people. I caught that scene on my camera.”
Abbas-Hassan joined the army in 1964, so he was expelled from the Nation of Islam. “Once you were cast out of the community, couldn’t nobody talk to you,” says Abbas-Hassan. “They’d look at you like you were dead.” In 1968, however, when he came home from the service, he was permitted to rejoin the Nation. He had studied martial arts in Japan and was invited to teach at the temple. While he had been gone. Temple No. 8 had grown. Radiating out from the temple, just as Elijah Muhammad had planned for every Nation temple, were Muslim-owned businesses — plumbers, a barber shop, several restaurants (Steak ’N Take and Brother Jusefs), two grocery stores, a clothing factory. (The last made the uniforms worn by the MGT.) “There were painters, teachers, contractors, doctors, a lot of young people. The school was doing an excellent job of educating our children. There were more ‘quality people' in the group, people who could lead.”
It is a weekday evening. Aqeel and Khalilah El-Amin's four-bedroom home in Encanto sits on a slight rise. The roof is bathed by twilight. Inside, the house is quiet. The five children still at home are doing their homework.
The El-Amins and their two oldest children joined the Nation in 1973, shortly after Aqeel El-Amin’s discharge from the navy. Eighty to one hundred families were active in Temple No. 8 by that time. On his first visit there, says El-Amin, “I saw that these people were workers, pioneer-types. They were in the process, then, of renovating the building. I walked in over paint buckets and two-by-fours.”
But it was the analysis of white America and American Christianity that stunned El-Amin. “I said, ‘That’s it!’ ” he says, straightening his chair up suddenly and clapping his hands together. “At that time in order to test if you had any backbone, the minister would say, ‘How many of you are strong enough, brave enough, black enough, to stand up for this truth?’ Naturally, you didn’t want to say you weren't, so you jump up. I jumped up because I knew it was a reality.
“I went back home espousing to my wife and the landlady, our next-door neighbor, what I had heard. I said, ‘My mother, what she’s been tellin' me, it's not the truth.’ [Aqeel El-Amin’s mother is a Holiness preacher.] 'My wife said, “You go there one time, you come back and you call your mother a liar?’ ‘I am not callin' her a liar, but what she’s been sayin', it’s not true, and white folks are devils, you know.’ My wife said, ‘I know you're crazy.’ The lady next door was white, and my wife was trying to get me to shut up.”
El-Amin didn’t care who was hearing him that day. “It identified the oppressor in terms in which I had not thought of identifying him. Nothing could really hurt as much as they hurt you with the word nigger, the word boy."
Khalilah El-Amin’s husband chose her Arabic name for its meaning, “a good friend,” but he might well have selected the name to indicate onomatopoeically the way in which the lilt of her voice bears words along. “I thought he was gone crazy. I really didn’t understand,” she says. She had heard that Nation women were oppressed, that they were “bald-headed” under the scarves. “You didn’t hear too much of the positive,” laughs Khalilah.
“So I did, I thought Aqeel was off his rocker. The very first time I went, though, I had to accept for myself, not for him, because it was something that I had been searching for. It was that strong.’’
Khalilah adopted Nation dress, at that time long dresses and scarves that covered the head. “People in California dress so different,” she says, laughing, “that no one really paid much attention to Muslim dress.”
Their girls were eleven and seven when the El-Amins joined. They asked their mother if they could wear Nation dress. Says Khalilah El-Amin, “Our oldest daughter was going to Helix. She wrapped [Muslim women use “wrap” as a verb to indicate the act of covering the head] most of the time, not because she was made to. She chose to”
Khalilah El-Amin went to work in the Nation clothing factory that stood across the street from the temple. (The building now houses a video game arcade.) Aqeel El-Amin joined FOI. Temple No. 8 was taking 1000 newspapers per week, and Aqeel was assigned one hundred. “Before you could get your allotment sold, the next bunch would arrive,” he laughs. The paper sold for twenty-five cents. The seller kept five cents; the balance was turned over to the FOI captain.
Over two decades, Temple No. 8 remained relatively conservative. Through the mid-Sixties, there were internecine struggles at Chicago headquarters. In 1964 Malcolm X, who had been “silenced” in 1963 by the Messenger (who himself was accused of fathering several children by his secretaries), broke with the Nation. A year later he was assassinated. In larger cities, temple members were likely to take sides in this split. Here, believers remained neutral and went on about their business.
Many of Temple No. 8’s older members had remained more cut off from the outside world than had Nation members in other cities. They had also tended to continue to be particularly stringent in their practice. By 1970, among members of San Francisco’s Temple No. 27 or Los Angeles’s No. 26, it was not uncommon for believers to eat more than once a day. Not at Temple No. 8. Here, as late as 1975, a believer caught eating even a Saltine before 4:00 p.m. might be admonished. Here, MGT members might say to a sister newer to the faith, “Sister, I will be over to check your house to see that it’s clean,” or, “Your dress is too tight.”
According to Aqeel El-Amin, the faithful had come to believe that the Messenger would never die, or that he would not die until the black man ruled once again. “We never thought of Elijah Muhammad — Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him — as passing, not until we had accomplished our goals.”
One story that passed among the believers, says El-Amin, concerned the Day of Judgment. Before that day came, the Messenger would warn them. (After that day, America would burn for 1000 years, and another 1000 years would pass before the land cooled.) The Muslim mother ship, a spaceship, would drop leaflets over the Nation temples. Then the ship would come to carry away the believers.
In January and February 1975, rumors of Elijah Muhammad’s failing health passed through the Nation’s several hundred temples. In mid-January he was hospitalized. Wallace Fard’s birthday, February 26, was annually celebrated as Savior’s Day. In 1975 Aqeel El-Amin, together with other San Diegans, went to Chicago for the national celebration. Late on the 24th, television and radio announced that Elijah Muhammad was near death. Nation members discounted the announcement as “just the devil, trying to discourage us.” On hearing that the Messenger had indeed died, some local believers could not accept it. Several flew to Chicago to see for themselves.
Muhammad Ali Abbas-Hassan was attending classes at San Diego City College on the day Elijah Muhammad died. Nation members at the college, of whom there were approximately thirty, got together. Some of the brothers, says Abbas-Hassan, “believed they would go, right then, to a paradise.”
In Chicago, plans for Savior’s Day went ahead. Elijah Muhammad had passed leadership to his son Wallace, a quiet, hard-working, middle-age man who had studied Arabic, made the hajj, been close to Malcolm X, and forged relationships with Muslim leaders in other countries. At the Savior’s Day celebration, held in Chicago’s McCormick Auditorium, all the ministers from each U.S. temple — including Louis Farrakhan, at that time minister of Temple No. 7 — endorsed Wallace Muhammad’s leadership. The new leader included in his message the story of Joseph’s coat of many colors. On the podium next him was a Turk, a white man. The Turk spoke, emphasizing brotherhood. Then, Nation ministers hoisted the new leader onto their shoulders to show their support.
“It was a real 180-degree turn,” says Abbas-Hassan.
“No one,” says El-Amin, “knew what was going to happen.”
Almost immediately changes came. Within a year, the “white blue-eyed devil” was invited to join (the local group has made few Caucasian converts), the FOI and MGT disbanded, Nation dress became modified. X's were put away, replaced by Muslim or African names. In 1977 all businesses owned and operated by the Nation were disbanded. As the new leader exhorted his fathers Nation to draw closer to orthodox Islam, Muhammad Speaks became The Muslim Journal, and ministers became imams. In January 1985, when Wallace Muhammad, by then Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, spoke at Temple No. 8, he renamed it Masjidul Taqwa, the "masjid built on God’s consciousness.”
Some believers adapted immediately. “We came right on in. We didn’t look backward,” says Jameelah Najieb. When Imam Muhammad asked the faithful to take Arabic names, “I was happy to lose the X, to get my original name,” she says.
“Wasn’t nothin’ too much behind that X anyway,” adds her sister.
“White folks already have everything. Now they want our religion too" was an immediate complaint among some believers. When several white people began to attend, some among the faithful began to drift away. In fact few whites did come. “Most of the Caucasians who came early were married to a brother,” says Abbas-Hassan.
Other believers left when Nation businesses were closed down. “Most of the businesses, locally and nationally, were running in the red. They were not properly managed,” explains El-Amin.
Some women who had been in the religion for years were confused by changes in dress and behavior. They weren’t accustomed to going into the world alone or to being “uncovered,” and so the new ways just did not seem right.
These women “still practice in their own way,” says Khalilah El-Amin. “It’s hard to go to anything else,” she adds. “One sister who is not at the masjid [mosque] anymore was telling us, ‘You ruined me. I can’t go to church, can’t eat pork.’ It is like a limbo for many of the sisters when they leave. They may party or drink, but they can't go back to a Christian church, can't eat pork.”
Maryam Rashid, the principal at the Sister Clara Muhammad School, believes that if all Afro-American Muslims in the San Diego area were active, 1000 people might crowd into Masjidul-Taqwa. She has an explanation for the loss of membership: “In the past, brothers and sisters of higher rank more or less kept you in line. Once people no longer had that strictness over them, some just couldn’t handle it. They started going into the night life, going to shows, movies, concerts. Now,” she says, “it’s on you. You realize that Allah sees what you do instead of someone looking over your shoulder.”
During Muhammad Ali Abbas-Hassan’s four years in the service, he was stationed in Japan and regularly attended Muslim services there. At that time, he began increasingly to doubt some of the Messenger’s stories. The stories seemed to Abbas-Hassan to be “fairy tales, spookish nonsense.” As he came to know white-skinned Muslims, he also began to question Nation beliefs concerning the inherent evil of all white-skinned peoples.
Nation discipline, he agrees, was sometimes extreme. But looking back at the organization's early days, Abbas-Hassan says what many who have come through years as Nation members into orthodox Islam are now saying. “For the time we were living in then, stories like this were necessary. We were so hooked up, so indoctrinated by white Christianity.” The discipline served a purpose. “You have to start somewhere.... It was necessary for many of our people at that time to be told what to do.”
In 1976 Farrakhan still gave his allegiance to Imam Muhammad. He spoke that year in San Diego, at Gompers Junior High School. The crux of his speech was a defense of the necessity for changes being made by Imam Muhammad. Then in 1977 Farrakhan made his break. Some in the San Diego group followed him out.
Among that group, many continue to hold MGT and FOI meetings in their homes. They go to Los Angeles, where a community of Farrakhan’s followers has developed, and meet with them.
Jameelah Najeib says, “As long as he [Farrakhan] is teaching Islam, he’s a Muslim. But we do not teach hate, and we do not teach violence. To my understanding, he does.”
To comprehend the Nation’s past and those who were unable to take part in its evolution into orthodox Islam, one has to remember, says El-Amin, that “our condition as a so-called black people is very peculiar, seeing as we came to America as slaves, robbed and stripped of our identity, our religion. Everything a human being needs to make him feel good about himself, we were stripped of. Then we were given a religion that also outcast us. It told us we had to accept the image of a Caucasian Jesus.... That image looked like the slave master that whupped us in the cotton Fields. We were walking around as an insane people.
“As Imam Muhammad says, it's a miracle that the black man is sane enough to still have any aspirations. It’s a double miracle for us to have survived slavery — a triple miracle — to have come into the universal nature of Islam.”
For Aqeel El-Amin, Islam fulfilled what he longed for and did not find in Christianity. He believes that those who have remained in what is now Masjidul-Taqwa did so because through the Nation of Islam they found a “spiritual alternative to Christianity.” El-Amin says what most of those who have “come right on in” are saying: “It took this evolution from Elijah Muhammad to Imam Muhammad to bring us to this stage of development.”
During the Eighties, Masjidul-Taqwa has not grown significantly. “Many people in the community have family members who are Muslims.” explains El-Amin. “So everyone has an awareness of Muslims. They may even have a secret admiration for them. But they will not openly give support, because either they are afraid we will say something that will offend white people or something that will threaten their own false sense of security.” Another reason for Masjidul-Taqwa’s paucity of converts from the black community, says El-Amin, is the conditioned response of Americans, black and white. “If it’s not Christianity, it’s not God,” he continues, explaining that “because of slave-time conditioning and in spite of all the black consciousness talk and rhetoric, the general black population still feels a need to get a seal of approval for Islam from the Caucasian master”
But Aqeel and Khalilah El-Amin, Muhammad Ali Abbas-Hassan, Maryam Rashid, Jameelah Najieb, and Kareemah Majied are hopeful. In 1985 Imam Muhammad asked each of the mosques that had grown out of the Messenger’s Nation to identify with the worldwide community of Muslims. The several hundred active American mosques are no longer connected by any national organization. In the Nation’s days, ministers were sent to a community by the Messenger and accepted because he sent them. Now, each community chooses an imam or imams. (In September Masjidul-Taqwa will choose an imam from among its brothers.) The separation from a national umbrella organization and independence of each mosque will protect American Muslims from exploitation and manipulation, says El-Amin.
Those who now follow Imam Muhammad hope to establish Islam in the United States. Those among the community who are Afro-American, as the majority are, believe themselves uniquely able to bring Islam to America. “We truly are a prophetic people,” says Abbas-Hassan.
Every Muslim who is able must make at least one trip to Mecca. Jameelah Najieb has gone twice, first in 1978 and again in 1980. “I forgot I came from the United States when I got over there, I was having such a good time ”
Her sister Kareemah Majied has never wanted to go. “Can’t take no train, no car, so you have to get up there,” she says. “I don’t want to fly that far.”