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The era of African American Islam

Retrospective on Mosque City NY, Part 4

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Masjid Malcolm Shabazz at 116th Street and Malcolm X Blvd. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Masjid Malcolm Shabazz at 116th Street and Malcolm X Blvd. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

In 1946, the Nation of Islam (the “Black Muslims”), founded in Detroit in 1930 and headquartered in Chicago, established their Black-centric Temple No. 7 at the YMCA in Harlem. In 1954 Malcolm X became the leader of the mosque and electrified audiences with his brilliant, articulate and unnerving sermons. As an ex-criminal, he also exemplified the powerful pull that militant Islam with its Black pride and military-like discipline was beginning to have among some incarcerated African Americans. For example, the boxer Cassius Clay (later assuming the name Muhammad Ali) said that he heard about the Nation of Islam (NOI) during a Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago in 1959 and attended his first NOI meeting in 1961. In 1962, Clay met Malcolm X, who soon became his spiritual and political mentor.

Malcolm X at prayer, New York City, c1963. Photo: Richard Saunders/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

Malcolm X at prayer, New York City, c1963. Photo: Richard Saunders/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

After World War II, there were also a small number of Muslims entering the United States from other lands. In 1953, for example, a new mosque in upper Manhattan at 1 Riverside Drive served mainly Muslims from India, Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

Starting in the late 1950s and 1960s, the radical brand of Black Muslim became very visible in African American communities.

Fueled by a rising economic success while facing off against racist barriers, African Americans had a mixture of aspirations and anger that found a congenial channel both in the reformist movements like civil rights and revolutionary Black-centric movements like the Nation of Islam.  The tensions between civil rights’ ideology of racial integration and Black separatism blew apart the Nation. Some like Clarence 13X thought the Nation was too pacifist and started even more militant groups. He established in 1964 the Five Percenters which still have a mosque in Harlem.

The Five Percenter Mathematics is Islam poster

Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

The 5 Percenters have varied in their closeness to Islam, ranging from claims to being the true Islam to denying that they are Islamic. Clarence 13X Smith dropped his Nation of Islam name in favor of calling himself “Allah.” He claimed that Islam had been taken over by White Arabs to justify a denial of the divine dignity of Black men. He was assassinated in 1969. Later names for the movement were 5%NOI, Nation of Gods and Earth, The Allah Team, and True Islam.

Five Percenter school in Harlme. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Five Percenter school in Harlem. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

A group of African Americans in the State Street Mosque wanted more support for the poor African Americans and a radical critique of the United States. At first they started a study group around the concept of “Dar ul-Islam” (House of Islam) which they said meant the “uplifting force for the poor and downtrodden within the New York slums and ghettos.” Finally, in 1962 they established a center for Dar ul-Islam at 1964 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, soon moving to Downing Street. After some more moves, the group collapsed in internal conflicts. Their ideas continued to circulate.

The tensions between civil rights values and Black separatism also ended up with Malcolm X leaving the Nation in favor of a racially integrated Sunni Islam.

Nation of Islam assassins (the organization denies that they sanctioned the action of these men) took revenge on Malcolm X by assassinating him on February 21, 1965 at a meeting hall near Presbyterian Hospital in the upper part of Manhattan.

In 1965 the immigration laws were changed allowing more immigrants from more countries, This would eventually usher in a new phase of Islamic mosque growth, but at first the results were not so noticeable. Instead, most of the action of mosque creation continued to be in the African American community.

Muslim Restaurant on 7th Avenue, Harlem. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

The late Mookie's restuarant on 2065 7th Avenue, Harlem. Slogans at other nearby restaurants are: "No ham on my pan;" and "No swine on my mind."  Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

One of Malcom X’s allies Khalid Ahmad Tawfiq established the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem in 1967. Tawfiq was the son of a follower of Nobel Drew Ali and brought into his mosque themes that were Afrocentric and Back-to-Africa. The mosque was famously decorated with a flag that he designed with black, red and green colors with a crescent, star and sword with the words "There is no deity but God and Muhammad is his prophet." The mosque continues today.

In the summer of 1967 the United States suffered massive racial conflict with forty riots and more than one hundred incidents, according to a government report. Radical African Americans formed militant groups, some of them modeled after the Fruit of Islam, the paramilitary unit of the Nation of Islam. Mosques that were led by non-African Americans became riven by tensions which lead to splits a a wave of founding mosques with a militant culture.

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In 1968 a group of Muslims broke away from the State Street Mosque to found another Darul Islam (House of Islam) at 240 Sumpter Street in Brooklyn. This brand of Islam had utopian aspirations of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth ruled by Islamic law. However, this movement also split up in 1982.

In the late 1970s Black Panther radical leader H. Rap Brown became a Muslim in Rikers Island prison. Subsequently, he changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and became an imam. He established the Community Mosque Movement which at one time had 30-40 mosques with one or two in New York City.

There were other splinter Muslim-like groups like the Ansar Allah movement with its mosque Masjidu’l-Mukhlasina. It shifted religious ideas like clothes, changing names along the way: “Hebrew Israelites,” "The Ancient Mystic Order of Malchizedek"; "AMOM"; The Nuwaubians; "The Nuwaupians"; "Right Knowledge"; "The Yamassee Native American Tribe"; "The Washitaw Tribe"; "The Egiptian Church Of Karast"; "The Holy Tabernacle Ministries"; "The Holy Seed Baptist Synagogue" and "The Ancient Egyptian Order.” The religious rivulet finally settled as a veritable village in Bushwick under the name The Nubian Nation, also called Nuwaubians, and then went looking for UFOs in Georgia.  In 1989 Jaz-Z bundled all these things into his rap video “The Originators.”

In New York City there was a brief outburst of organizational activity after the founding of Alianza Islamica in East Harlem in 1975 by a group of fifty or so people, mainly Puerto Ricans. It was the first Latino Muslim association in the United States and besides Puerto Ricans included Dominicans, Panamanians, Spaniards and African Americans. The Iman was Ramon Omar Abduraheem Ocasia and met at a townhouse at 106th Street and Lexington Avenue. The director was Jajj Yahya Figueroa.

Influenced by the Nation of Islam, this group was politically active, which also led to internal tensions. Part of the group relocated to the Bronx and formed a “dawah,” a proselytizing center.

Starting in the 1970s Islamic themes in hip-hop swayed some to try out Islam. Afrika Bambaata put on the early beginnings of hip hop gatherings called Universal Zulu Nation with African and Muslim themes at a public school and community center in the Bronx. Afrika Bambaata mixed different religious and African elements into what he called the "use of sonic sounds" to reach peaks of of "soul sonic force" so "that you feel God is in you." Some Hispanic Muslims recall this gathering and other hip hop gatherings as a signpost on their way to conversion to Islam.

In this video at 3:13 minutes a brief glimpse is given of the Islamic themes in Afrika Bambatta's events.



After the leader of the Nation died in 1975, his son Warith D. Mohammad shifted toward Sunni Islam and established schools like the Clara Muhammad School in Brooklyn to help Black Muslims leave many of the Nation’s tenets behind. Notable Nation personality boxer Muhammad Ali followed Imam Warith into Sunni Islam. In 1976, Imam Mohammed renamed Muhammad’s Temple of Islam #7 at 116th Street as Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in honor of Malcolm X and to indicate its change toward Sunni Islam.


Iman El Haff Izak-El Mu'e Pashah, imam of Masjid Malcolm Shabbaz since 1993. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Iman El Haff Izak-El Mu'e Pashah, imam of Masjid Malcolm Shabbaz since 1993. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

However, not everyone followed the new path. Mohammad asserted control over the Nation of Islam by moving potential rivals around. He moved an heir apparent, Louis Farrakhan Muhammad, from the strategic Harlem mosque to “a dirty little place” in the west side of Chicago, he told interviewer Mattias Gardell. On November 8, 1977, Farrakhan announced that he was reestablishing the Nation of Islam. He said that the founder Elijah Muhammad had intended an update to the Islam as previously practiced by most Muslims. This meant that Warith Mohammad’s turn toward Sunni Islam was retrograde.

A few years later Farrakhan had a vision in which Elijah Muhammad's voice gave him the mission to bring out the Black man to safety from the coming Armageddon. If Orthodox Sunni Muslims wished to be saved, they needed to accept the guidance of the Nation of Islam. Since his reception of the vision, Farrakhan focused upon rebuilding the Nation by founding mosques, including two in New York City.

Some previous adherents to the Nation of Islam became disillusioned and dropped out all together. Several of the people whom we have interviewed in Brooklyn pointed to this period as the time that they left practicing Islam.

African Americans who continued as Muslims mostly followed Warith D. Mohammad into Sunni Islam.


Next: Retrospective on Mosque City NY, Part 5. The immigrant era

Also read:

The period of New York Muslim experimentation, 1893-1939. Restrospective on Mosque City NY, Part 3.


Mosque building is pretty recent but Muslims have been here since the beginning of the city. Retrsopective on Mosque City NY, Part 2.


Mosque City New York, Part 1. All-time record number of mosques in New York City.


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