One imam traces path of Islam in black America
Oct. 24, 2003
Paul M. Barrett
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday October 24, 2003
In the burgeoning world of Islam in America, Imam Siraj Wahhaj is a star. In 1991, he was the first Muslim ever to lead a prayer before the start of a session of the House of Representatives. Four years ago, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hosted him and other Muslim notables at a State Department banquet of lamb, lentils and saffron rice to break the Ramadan fast. One of the country’s most popular Muslim preachers, he travels widely, extolling the Quran to large crowds at immigrant Islamic centers, conventions and universities.
But to his followers in Brooklyn’s inner-city Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and elsewhere, the imam sometimes shows a different side. He has proclaimed that the “real terrorists” are the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. In another of his sermons, widely available for purchase on audiotape, he says, “In time, this so-called democracy will crumble, and there will be nothing. And the only thing that will remain will be Islam.”
Few religious leaders of any faith could rival Imam Wahhaj’s combination of militant notoriety and mainstream honors — a mix that says much about the complexity of Islam in the U.S. today. Over the past few decades, two powerful currents have come together in America: the black-separatist movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the training of Muslims, including Imam Wahhaj, in programs financed by Saudi Arabia. Today African-Americans are thought to make up about 30 percent of the fast-growing Muslim population of six to seven million in the U.S. (The higher approximations of the black Muslim population would make it about 5.6 percent of the 36 million blacks in the U.S.)
Islam is gradually becoming a significant part of the nation’s diverse social fabric. But since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that a hard-edged and intolerant form of the religion has taken root here. As African-Americans embrace Islam in growing numbers, many are moving toward a more orthodox version influenced, in part, by Saudi Arabia’s puritanical brand of Sunni Islam. These foreign ideas have combined with homegrown black experience to form a mindset that condemns alcohol and drugs and hails self-sufficiency — but one that sometimes also stresses an unsettling hostility to American government and secular society.
Imam Wahhaj’s journey from Brooklyn’s public-housing projects, where he was raised a Baptist, to his position as one of the nation’s most prominent Islamic clerics, mirrors the spiritual passages of many African-American Muslims. Their movement’s beginnings can be traced to the stirrings of black nationalism in the early part of the 20th century, and before that all the way back to the 1600s, when Muslim slaves were imported to this continent from Africa. Throughout the generations, the black Islamic odyssey has a common theme: a search for an autonomous African-American identity in an often-hostile white society. For many black Muslims, conversion opens “the road back to virtues obscured by the forces of subjugation and injustice,” writes Robert Dannin, an urban anthropologist at New York University, in his 2002 book, “Black Pilgrimage to Islam.”
Imam Wahhaj wears a full beard, tending toward white, and the sort of loose-fitting tunic-and-trouser ensemble popular in Pakistan and India. Commanding as a lecturer, he mixes Baptist cadences with plaintive Arabic chanting. In private, he has a scholar’s gentle demeanor and often carries thick religious texts under his arm. In sermons, he often denounces terrorism and encourages law-abiding behavior.
But he also praises Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who visited the imam’s mosque several years before he was was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to bomb New York City landmarks. While decrying the events of Sept. 11, the imam takes great pains to remain neutral about Osama bin Laden. He says the al Qaeda leader’s videotaped boasting about the attacks may have been a media ruse: “I’m just not so sure I want to be one of the ones who say, ‘Yeah, he did it. He’s a horrible man.’ “
He has told his followers that a society governed by strict Islamic law, in which adulterers would be stoned to death and thieves would have their hands cut off, would be superior to American democracy. Speaking of unnamed forces in the U.S. government and media, he has preached, “These people want the destruction of Islam.”
With heightened concern about Islamic radicalism in the U.S., Imam Wahhaj has become a target of critics ranging from liberal Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, to conservative activist Daniel Pipes. Mr. Pipes wrote last year in his book “Militant Islam Reaches America” that the imam represents Muslims who “both despise the United States and ultimately wish to transform it into a Muslim country.”
Others have praised Imam Wahhaj’s involvement in his community. An array of framed civic commendations, including one from a black police organization, hang on the wall behind his desk. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz proclaimed this Aug. 15 “Siraj Wahhaj Day,” in honor of his “lifetime of outstanding and meaningful achievement.”
Imam Wahhaj was born Jeffrey Kearse and raised by his mother, who was a nurse, and his stepfather, a hospital dietitian. When he was 12 years old, he won an award for perfect attendance at his church and went on as a teenager to teach Sunday school. He was a talented artist, and regularly painted portraits of visitors to his family’s Brooklyn home.
As a boy, he learned about discrimination from books, not experience. “We were kind of isolated from it,” Imam Wahhaj says. “We lived in Brooklyn among African-Americans.” To him, Martin Luther King’s campaign for nonviolent change embodied the Christian ideal.
On April 4, 1968, 18-year-old Jeffrey Kearse was playing basketball at a recreation center near his home when word spread that Dr. King had been assassinated. “He was my hero. I went home crying,” the cleric says. “When Martin Luther King was killed, that killed the dream.” Afterward, he says, he went “looking for more militancy.”
As he saw it, his options were to become a Black Panther or join the , a defiant black religious sect that had adopted some Muslim beliefs. He considered both as he enrolled at New York University on a partial scholarship and joined the basketball team. The team captain, Jerry 10X, belonged to the Nation of Islam and invited him to one of the sect’s temples.
Mr. Kearse was particularly drawn to Malcolm X, who had broken with the Nation of Islam before his assassination in 1965. “Malcolm was bodacious,” the imam says. “He was bold, courageous: ‘Look at him, talking to the white man like that!’ That’s appealing to the African-American, when usually the African-Americans are bowing to the white man.” In 1969, he joined the Nation and changed his name to Jeffrey 12X, because he was the twelfth Jeffrey in New York to become a member.
Like many black Muslims, Imam Wahhaj refers to his conversion as a “reversion” to Islam. Centuries ago, thousands of African slaves were pulled from tribes practicing varying forms of Islam and shipped to North and South America. Although their faith was submerged in slave-owners’ Christianity, some elements remained. After emancipation, Islamic motifs surfaced in the rituals of black fraternal lodges and storefront religious organizations that rejected Christianity because of its association with slavery.
Founded in 1913 in Newark, N.J., the Moorish Science Temple of America adopted the Islamic crescent and star as one of its symbols. Members attached Arabic suffixes, such as “-El,” to their names and greeted each other by saying “Islam.” Founder Noble Drew Ali called for a return to Islam as a means of deliverance from racial oppression.
The Nation of Islam emerged two decades later in Detroit, attracting black migrants from the South. Its self-proclaimed messenger of God, Elijah Muhammad, taught his followers that whites were devils and that Christianity had helped enslave blacks. He urged them to seek economic independence and help rehabilitate drug addicts and criminals.
This message resonated with Jeffrey 12X, and he quit NYU to participate in the Nation’s door-to-door businesses, selling fresh fish, bean pies and the newspaper Muhammad Speaks. “It wasn’t the theology that attracted me to the Nation of Islam at all,” Imam Wahhaj says. “It was the kind of do-for-self black pride.” Still, he took religious classes from Louis Farrakhan, the controversial minister who was then supervisor of the Nation’s New York operations, and rose quickly to become a minister himself, running Temple 7C in Brooklyn.
It was an article of faith among Elijah Muhammad’s followers that he would live for generations to come. When he died in 1975 at age 77, “his teachings began to unravel in my mind,” Imam Wahhaj says. He and thousands of other Nation of Islam members began to study the Quran. With the encouragement of Elijah Muhammad’s son W.D. Muhammad, they spent the late 1970s groping their way toward the kind of orthodox Sunni Islam followed by most of the rest of the Muslim world.
That coincided with the move by Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s holiest sites, to step up its world-wide campaign to spread the harsh version of Sunni Islam favored by its rulers. Mounting oil profits in the 1970s fueled the expanded Saudi proselytizing, which escalated further in the 1980s in response to the perceived threat to Sunni domination from the Shiite Islamic revolution in Iran. Saudi-funded Islamic teachers began arriving in the U.S. just as black Muslims began exploring their faith.
Jeffrey 12X changed his name to Siraj Wahhaj, which means “bright light” in Arabic, and stopped painting portraits, in deference to the orthodox Muslim prohibition on depicting human images. In 1978, he traveled to Naperville, Ill., for religious training sponsored by the Saudis. His class of 50 African-American Muslims received 40 days of intense instruction on the Quran and the teachings of the original Prophet Muhammad.
Imam Wahhaj and four others from the program were chosen to travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for four months of advanced training in Islamic religion and law and Arabic. Awaking each morning before dawn, he walked to the mosque under a star-filled desert sky. He says he felt “absolute awe. … I was on a spiritual high for four months.” The first to arrive at class after prayers, he sat in the front row and taped every lecture.
He started his own mosque in 1981 in a friend’s Brooklyn apartment. They moved the furniture from the living room to the bedroom so that 25 people could pray toward Mecca. Soon afterward, the congregation, known as Masjid At-Taqwa, bought an abandoned clothing store at a city auction for $30,000 and converted it into a mosque. The congregants had to chase away the junkies who were using the property.
Fighting drugs became one of the missions of Taqwa, which means “God consciousness” in Arabic. In January 1987, the imam led a group of his followers to oust crack-cocaine dealers squatting in a nearby building. The Taqwa group banged on the door, and Imam Wahhaj says he announced, “It’s the Muslims. We’re here to recover the property.” Behind the door, he could hear someone say, “It’s the Muslims. Don’t do anything stupid.”
The dealers promised to vacate, and the Muslims retreated to a car parked outside to wait. But instead of leaving, the drug dealers called the police, according to the imam. He and four of his followers were arrested on weapons-possession charges. A state court later dismissed the sole misdemeanor count of illegal possession of a knife filed against the imam.
About a year later, he led a series of well-publicized antidrug patrols that helped police put a dent in the crack trade in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The imam also maintains close relations with non-Muslim groups that protest police brutality. “He’s very effective, particularly within the Muslim community and very respected in the community at large,” says one activist, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, of Brooklyn’s Pentecostal House of the Lord Church.
Masjid At-Taqwa occupies a large corner storefront, divided into spacious, windowless rooms painted green and beige. At well-attended Friday afternoon prayers congregants wearing do-rag stocking caps and Sean John sweatshirts mingle with those who wear finely embroidered Muslim caps and flowing robes of crimson and gold. About half are African-Americans. The others are immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Worshipers range from poor Brooklynites to the occasional celebrity, such as boxer Mike Tyson.
Also attending, according to the imam, is the occasional U.S. government spy seeking incriminating evidence against him. In the mid-1980s, a man he believes was a government agent offered to help the mosque obtain hand grenades. The imam says he sent him away.
Since the mosque’s arrival 20 years ago, Islam has come to dominate the immediate neighborhood. Nearby are more than a dozen Muslim restaurants, food stores and bookshops, most run by immigrants. On the sidewalk, vendors sell body oils, incense and audiotapes of Imam Wahhaj’s sermons.
The mosque operates on an annual budget of about $200,000, the imam says, raised from weekly donations by individuals, rent from its six commercial properties and occasional checks from predominantly immigrant organizations.
His own $44,000 salary comes out of that budget and sometimes is supplemented by honoraria of $1,000 or $2,000 for giving speeches, he says. He lives with his wife, Wadiyah, a legal secretary, in part of a three-family house in East Flatbush, a mostly African-American neighborhood. His eight children, some from a previous marriage, range in age from 12 to 32, and all but two daughters are observant Muslims.
Within the confines of his mosque, the imam preaches Islam as a faith of personal responsibility but one that is sometimes at odds with mainstream life in the U.S. He glorifies hard work, even if it means sweeping the streets, and exhorts the stream of black men who adopt Islam while behind bars to avoid crime, liquor and drugs. But his preaching also suggests a yearning for the religion as it was practiced centuries ago.
He has said of thieves and adulterers: “If Allah says 100 strikes, 100 strikes it is. If Allah says cut off their hand, you cut off their hand. If Allah says stone them to death, through the Prophet Muhammad, then you stone them to death, because it’s the obedience of Allah and his messenger — nothing personal.”
And to an audience of 75 mostly black women wearing Muslim head coverings at an Islamic conference in Orlando, Fla., he lectured recently that Islam condones a man’s marrying up to four wives. He stressed that when this rule was introduced in the seventh century, it served as a restriction on arrangements involving even more wives per husband.
Mr. Wahhaj’s views are well known in the Muslim community because he has a busy speaking calendar, and tapes of his sermons are readily available in Muslim stores, at Islamic conferences and on the Internet. Many of his beliefs — such as his deep antipathy toward the U.S. authorities — are echoed by other black Muslim clerics. “We don’t trust the American government and the way that it does things and sets people up,” says Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid, the imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, a large congregation in Harlem. Imam ‘Abdur-Rashid points to slavery, generations of segregation and government investigations of Dr. King and other black heroes as the cause of the widespread skepticism.
Stephen Schwartz, author of “The Two Faces of Islam,” a book published last year, blames Imam Wahhaj for spreading an extreme form of the religion known as Wahhabism. Embraced by the forebears of the current Saudi royal family, Wahhabism was named for Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the leader of an 18th-century movement to re-create the religion of the 600s, as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Strict Wahhabis despise Western cultural and religious influences. Osama bin Laden and his followers adhere to a strain of this ideology.
“People like Wahhaj went from Nation of Islam to Saudi Wahhabism, and they preach those extreme views to their followers,” says Mr. Schwartz, who says he himself has embraced a moderate version of Islam. “Wahhabism is hostile to all ‘nonbelievers,’ to secular society, certainly to American society, and it can fit with black radical thought.”
In an interview in his tiny mosque office, Imam Wahhaj says that he isn’t a Wahhabi and that the Saudi-funded programs he attended years ago were “definitely not what you would call Wahhabism.” American Muslims, he says, “have never looked to Saudi Arabia for guidance, especially African-Americans.”
He says he regrets the tone of some of his harshest comments about democracy. His anticipation of its collapse, he says, “is similar to a Christian saying eventually God’s kingdom is going to come.” He notes that “obviously, in the American context, we can’t cut off the hands of thieves.” He says that he hopes Americans one day will be persuaded — not coerced — to embrace Islamic law.
Still, over the years, Imam Wahhaj has welcomed some significant players on the militant Muslim scene into his Brooklyn mosque. Clement Hampton-El, an African-American Muslim who in the 1980s fought with the Muslim resistance against the Russians in Afghanistan, regularly worshipped at At-Taqwa upon his return to the U.S. He was sought out by young and old for his advice as an “elder in the community,” says Imam Wahhaj.
The blind Sheik Abdel-Rahman, who became a celebrity in certain Islamic circles as he toured the U.S. in the early 1990s, gave a provocative lecture at the mosque. Standing before about 150 congregants, the sheik suggested that Muslims should rob banks to benefit Islam. Imam Wahhaj says he interrupted to point out that there were convicted felons in the audience, and the sheik, laughing, retracted the remark.
Imam Wahhaj’s worlds collided when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. The FBI investigation of the bombing led to charges not only against the bombers but also a network of anti-American Muslims who planned to destroy the United Nations’ headquarters, the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel and other New York-area landmarks.
The FBI soon figured out that two members of that network had worshipped at Masjid At-Taqwa: Sheik Abdel-Rahman and Mr. Hampton-El. In a Feb. 2, 1995, letter to defense lawyers in the landmarks-bombing case, then-U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White named about 170 people as “unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators.” Imam Wahhaj was on the list, but was never charged. Ms. White declined to comment.
Five months later, the imam appeared as a defense witness in the landmarks-conspiracy trial, held in a packed Manhattan courtroom heavily fortified against possible terror attacks. The imam testified that it had been an honor to host Sheik Abdel-Rahman at Masjid At-Taqwa, and described him as a “respected scholar” known for having memorized the Quran. “He is bold, as a strong preacher of Islam, so he is respected that way,” Imam Wahhaj testified.
The imam called Mr. Hampton-El “one of the most respected brothers” in his congregation. He also testified that he had met a third defendant, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, and that he had a favorable impression of a fourth, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny. All four were convicted and sentenced to prison terms.
In March 2001, the imam returned to the same court to testify as a religious expert at the trial of four Muslim extremists convicted in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. He testified that holy war could never justify such bombings.
In July of this year, the New York Daily News in an editorial described Imam Wahhaj as “an unindicted co-conspirator linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.” The imam appeared to relish responding to the attack. “I had dinner with Secretary of State Albright — after the list” of unindicted co-conspirators was circulated, he thundered in a sermon shortly after the editorial. “They know it’s bogus!” Ms. Albright declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
The government has never offered evidence linking him to any terrorism, the imam said. “How am I linked? Tell me?” he bellowed, as members of his congregation nodded in agreement. “They have to get me like they got Malcolm (X), like they got Martin Luther King, like they got everybody else — that’s what they do!”
He would welcome the chance, he told his followers, to give his life to serve Islam. “If they kill me,” he said, “don’t be crying.”
Some major events in the history of African-American Islam:
- Early 1900s: Islam begins to emerge as an alternative to Christianity among African-Americans, some of whom are descended from Muslim slaves forced to abandon the faith.
- 1913: The Moorish Science Temple is founded in Newark, N.J., and promotes Islamic beliefs along with black nationalism.
- 1931: In Detroit, Wallace D. Fard starts the movement that would be known as the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims. His successor, Elijah Muhammad, expands the organization, stressing the evil of white people and the need for black self-sufficiency.
- 1960s: Black adoption of Islam accelerates in Northern cities, as a divide develops between Nation of Islam members and African-Americans practicing more orthodox Sunni Islam.
- 1965: Malcolm X, who had become the Nation of Islam’s most prominent spokesman before breaking with the group to embrace Sunni Islam, is assassinated in New York.
- 1975: Elijah Muhammad dies, and his son W. D. Muhammad leads thousands of Nation of Islam members toward more orthodox Islamic beliefs. Louis Farrakhan leads another group, which retains the Nation of Islam name and gains considerable media attention in the 1980s and early 1990s.
- 1991: Imam Siraj Wahhaj becomes the first Muslim to give the opening prayer at a session of the House of Representatives.
- 1993: The investigation of the first bombing of the World Trade Center reveals that two men ultimately convicted in connection with a terrorist plot to blow up New York landmarks had worshipped at Imam Wahhaj’s Masjid At-Taqwa.
- 1995: Imam Wahhaj provides supportive testimony for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheik,” who is later sentenced to life in prison for inspiring the landmarks bombing plot.
- 1999: Imam Wahhaj, invited as an official guest, attends a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner at the U.S. State Department.
- 2001: The imam provides testimony helpful to the prosecution in the trial of four terrorists convicted for their role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa.
- 2003: African-American Muslims are estimated at two million out of a total of about seven million Muslims in the U.S.
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