Is a mysterious black Muslim group a bona fide religion or a dangerous gang?
Lauded by Hip-Hop artists from Busta Rhymes to the Wu-Tang Clan, linked to drug dealers and prison gangs, The Nation of Gods and Earths — or, as they are popularly known, the Five Percenters — have inspired controversy for almost 40 years. But this past summer, the group received a powerful endorsement from an unexpected corner. On July 31, the Federal District Court in New York ruled that Intelligent Tarref Allah, a 27-year-old convicted murderer currently serving 19 years to life, had been denied his First Amendment right of religious freedom, and is entitled to practice his Five Percent beliefs in prison.
Immediately deemed the “5% Fraud” by The New York Post, Allah’s case is the latest installment in the ongoing tug-of-war between the predominantly black Five Percenters, prison officials, and the court system. In the 1980s the group was said to be associated with a drug ring in Queens, N.Y., and in the mid-’90s South Carolina prison officials reprimanded more than 300 inmates for refusing to renounce their Five Percent status. Last year, a New Jersey state court upheld the legitimacy of disciplinary actions taken by prison officials who had broken up an orderly meeting of inmate members.
These events are difficult to square with the self-avowed objective of the Nation of Gods and Earths: peace. For decades, the elusive group has left a bewildering combination of high-minded mysticism and street-level thuggery in its wake. One might expect no less of a movement whose members claim to be divine.
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Sometime in the 1950s, Clarence Smith, an African-American originally from Danville, Va., returned to Harlem from fighting in the Korean War. He found that his wife, Dora, had joined the North American Lost-Found Nation of Islam — that is, the Black Muslims.
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Led by Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslims centered their theology around the teachings of a mysterious, light-skinned man of purported Middle Eastern extraction who, posing as a silk peddler in Detroit in the early 1930s, had taught Muhammad and a chosen few others the true religion of the black man. Wallace D. Fard (he had many aliases, as his FBI file attests) revealed to Elijah Muhammad that he was in fact God incarnate, and bestowed upon him an array of occult, pseudo-Islamic teachings that held whites to be a man-made race of devils who bore no remnant of Allah’s touch.
The Nation of Islam’s black supremacist attitude, while off-putting to many, imbued the organization with an almost militant commitment to black self-sufficiency. It successfully rehabilitated hundreds of prisoners and street hustlers from a life of crime and drugs, most famously Malcolm X, who in 1954 became Minister of Harlem’s Temple Seven.
Around this time, Clarence Smith became Clarence 13X and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Nation of Islam’s military training unit, the Fruit of Islam. Aside from his formidable physical skills (he supposedly learned karate while overseas), Clarence 13X had a hypnotic speaking style that quickly enabled him to become the student minister of Temple Seven.
But the Nation of Islam soon entered a period of turmoil during which Malcolm X was suspended and rumors of Muhammad’s extramarital dalliances began to spread. Clarence 13X’s own teachings began to stray from doctrine and he and the Nation parted ways in 1963. Less than a year later, Clarence 13X reemerged and began teaching a revised Black Muslim theology.
“Allah,” as Clarence 13X now called himself, reinterpreted the Nation of Islam’s set of Lost-Found Lessons, a catechism that resulted from Fard’s purported conversations with Elijah Muhammad. These Lessons, which every Black Muslim had to memorize, asserted that 85 percent of humanity is mentally dead and ignorantly destroys itself through vice and immorality, while another 10 percent possess the truth but oppress the first 85 percent by convincing them to believe in a “mystery god” who cannot be seen in this lifetime. The remaining five percent constitute the “poor righteous teachers” who also possess the truth — namely, that the “Living God is the Son of Man, the Supreme Being, or the Black Man of Asia.”
Elijah Muhammad had used this lesson to prove that Fard was God. But Allah used it to prove that all men possess the potential to become gods themselves. Gykee Allah, a Five Percenter who first met Allah in 1965, explains that “the percentages represent three categories of people — not races of people. Regardless of what skin you are in, God is a level of consciousness.”
To spread his message, Clarence devised peculiar systems reminiscent of the Kabbalah and other mystical traditions, which he called the Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet. (See sidebar.) For Five Percenters, Islam is less a religion than a science that can “break down” ordinary words through linguistic gymnastics. For instance, in the Supreme Alphabet A stands for Allah, which, broken down, stands for Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head, thereby proving that the divinity of Allah is physically present in humankind.
Under Five Percenter doctrine, a member does not become fully divine until he or she has memorized every word of the Lost-Found Lessons and every serpentine twist of the divine sciences. Once this is achieved, then men take the name Allah and become Gods, and women take the name Earth — hence the group’s name.
The group’s connection with hip-hop culture goes back to its early days, when Allah “rapped” the Supreme Mathematics on New York street corners. Gone was the Black Muslim approach of gradually initiating proselytes into the mysteries of the Nation of Islam; rather, Five Percenters aimed to “show and prove,” or to immediately mesmerize listeners with their rap. “The nature of the teaching and the learning process lends itself to making really good rap poetry,” says Ted Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who testified on behalf of Intelligent Allah this past summer.
Indeed, many staples of hip-hop slang may possess forgotten origins in Five Percenter terminology. For example, the greeting, “‘Sup, G?” is said to represent “What’s up, God?” as opposed to the more popularly accepted etymology, “What’s up, Gangster?” And Five Percenters may be the source for the standard hip-hop greeting “Peace.”
Busta Rhymes, Brand Nubian, Big Daddy Kane, Mobb Deep, Poor Righteous Teachers, Rakim Allah of the critically renowned tandem Eric B. and Rakim, and many in the Wu-Tang Clan are said to be members of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Snippets of the divine sciences have also surfaced in the lyrics of Erykah Badu, Ice Cube, The Fugees, and The Roots. When Pete Rock and CL Smooth identify libraries as the places where “lies are buried,” and television as “`tell a lie’ vision,” they are echoing the Divine Alphabet. Libraries and TV conceal the truth from what Method Man of the Wu-Tang calls “the 85 who ain’t got a clue.”
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Allah, formerly Clarence 13X, was assassinated in East Harlem in 1969. Following the murder, which remains unsolved to this day, any vestige of hierarchy among Five Percenters entirely disappeared. Given Clarence’s assertion that all men and women could themselves become godlike, the idea that any God or Earth could rank higher than another came to seem absurd. Rather than formal worship services, Five Percenters conduct “parliaments” in which members speak as and when they see fit — “kind of like the Quakers,” observes Swedenburg.
And then there’s the mystery of just how many Five Percenters there are, and who really is one. (DC sniper suspect John Muhammad was briefly, mistakenly identified with the movement on the basis of his written claims to be “God.”) The official Nation of Gods and Earth’s website, www.ibiblio.org/nge (http://www.ibiblio.org/nge/), lists regular parliaments in almost three dozen cities in 17 states and Canada, and hundreds of Gods and Earths have linked their personal webpages to the site.
Whatever its size, the movement, like the Nation of Islam, emphasizes learning and self-improvement; since 1967, its de facto headquarters has been an educational institution, the Allah School in Mecca, or Manhattan. (Five Percenters refer to many geographical locales by a Middle Eastern name: Brooklyn is “Medina,” for example, while Seattle, Wash., home of a regular parliament, is “Morocco.”)
The group’s website also emphasizes its prison outreach efforts. But while the case of Intelligent Allah is seen as an opportunity to rehabilitate the image of Five Percenters, some members also acknowledge the underside of the affiliation. Gykee Allah, who is also senior editor of The Sun of Man Digest, one of the Nation’s two newspapers, insists that Five Percenters are “advocates for self-discipline, law-abiding, and ethical behavior.” Dasun Allah, a Five Percenter journalist who has written for the Village Voice, puts it more somberly: “There are many among us who are not of us.”
In their Supreme Alphabet and Mathematics, the Five Percenters follow Jewish Kabbalists and Shi’ite mystics by breaking down words and numbers to release new, spiritually potent meanings.
Yusuf Nuruddin, currently cochair of the Brecht Forum, a New York think tank devoted to revolutionary thought, has conducted interviews with group members for three decades. In his article, “The Five Percenters: A Teenage Nation of Gods and Earths,” he quotes Sincere Allah and King Allah, two teenage Gods who informed him that the number 1 in the Supreme Mathematics corresponds to the fundamental Five Percent principle of Knowledge, which itself can be broken down into “Know-ledge” or “know the ledge” — a warning to those who choose to deny the knowledge of their own divinity and thus risk falling off the ledge into the realm of the ignorant 85 percent.
This technique of “breaking down,” or “showing and proving,” extends to words outside the Supreme Alphabet and Mathematics. The word “man,” for example, can be translated into “My Almighty Name.” “Jesus” becomes “Jes’ us” — that is, “just us,” which emphasizes both the self-determining philosophy of the Nation and its rejection of traditional religion. All Five Percenters that I contacted began and ended their comments with “Peace,” which Five Percenter journalist Dasun Allah breaks down into “Proper Education Always Correcting Errors.”
For Five Percenters, showing and proving represents the underlying motions of the universe. Or as the Supreme Alphabet has it, “U-N-I-verse,” means “you and I verse” — human community is forged through discourse, or exchanging the truth.
David F. Smydra Jr., formerly the assistant editor of Boston Review, is a writer living in Cambridge.