GOATMILK introduces its original and exclusive month long series entitled “Facing Race: Muslims and Islam” featuring diverse Muslim writers from around the world discussing race, ethnicity, prejudice, stereotyping and multiculturalism in the post 9-11 world.
YES, WHITE PEOPLE ARE DEVILS. YES, THAT INCLUDES ME.
By Michael Muhammad Knight
No, I don’t believe in Yacub, the evil scientist who grafted the devil from the Original Man, or the 23 wise scientists who trained Master Fard Muhammad to end the devil’s 6,000-year rule; nor do I believe that Elijah Muhammad is alive on the Mothership. These are myths, like our myth of the Prophet flying into space on a horse. But they’re true in a way that runs deeper than facts.
I didn’t see it at the time, but my teen conversion to Sunni Islam was, in part, an attempt to undo whiteness. I loved Malcolm’s righteous anger, the way that he damned everything in my world, making Islam my teen rebellion. While immersed in Malcolm’s autobiography and Public Enemy lyrics, I met my father for the first time. When he turned out to be a white supremacist who threw around the N-word and professed racial separatism, it proved to me the truth of Malcolm—which was, of course, the truth of his teacher, Elijah Muhammad.
I could only access Malcolm, however, through his short life after breaking with Elijah—when he went to Mecca, experienced transcendent brotherhood with Muslims of all colors, and joined the larger Islamic tradition. Islam, Malcolm promised, was the only solution to America’s race problem. Inspired by his autobiography, I formally became Muslim at a Sunni mosque in Rochester, New York, and in my senior year of high school spent two months studying at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Absorbed in Sunni Islam, I would not have accepted Elijah Muhammad or Louis Farrakhan as Muslims, but eventually found cracks in Malcolm’s fairy tale. In terms of racism, the Middle East lagged a century behind America. Bahrain had only abolished its slave trade in 1937; Kuwait, 1947; Qatar, 1952; Yemen, 1962; the United Arab Emirates, 1963; Oman, 1970. Saudi Arabia had officially abolished slavery just two years before Malcolm’s pilgrimage, but still possessed a slave population of 300,000 and executed its captured runaways. In July 1965, less than six months after Malcolm’s assassination, a United Nations report revealed that King Ibn Sa’ud still possessed hundreds of slaves.
More challenging than the crimes of kings and nation-states was the existence of racial inequality at the very core of our tradition, with narrations of the Prophet himself owning black slaves. Classical Shi’a texts quoted Ali as warning against marriage with black people, since they were a “distorted creation,” and an 18th-century Maliki jurist had said that only unbelievers would claim that the Prophet was black. In stories still included in the Saudi books today, pre-Islamic goddesses such as al-Uzza are portrayed as deranged black women, pulling out their hair in grief when their idols are smashed.
When it came to the disease of racism, I learned that Islamic authenticity was not attached to moral authority. Louis Farrakhan has something for the “real” Muslims, if they’d listen to him. In summer 2008, I returned to Pakistan, and learned from the billboards and my own reception on the streets that Pakistan remains a white supremacist country; I could be God there if I wanted it. In December, I made my own hajj to Mecca, and overheard an Arab mocking a black man as “Abd” (slave) outside the Haram on a Friday afternoon. Sorry, Malcolm, the fairy tale’s dead. The answer to white supremacy isn’t Arab supremacy.
If a religion’s purpose is to explain the presence of evil in the world, Elijah Muhammad has done his job, even teaching some devils. Reading whiteness as a social construct, the Nation of Islam’s teachings become an appropriate response to American history. If you’re born white in a white supremacist society, and you inherit that privilege and negative culture, then yes, you’re the devil. Take out the Yacub stuff and the spaceships, and Elijah Muhammad makes perfect sense. The myths just dress it up, telling the truth with fiction.
Elijah’s son, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed touched on this when, during his reform of the Nation towards mainstream Islam, he spoke of white devilry as a “mindstate.” Islam, Malcolm told me in his autobiography, removed the “white” from Caucasians’ minds. Minister Farrakhan has also stated that the problem was not white skin, but a mentality that created real devils when used as the basis for a social order.
For some time, I’ve been dipping into the Nation of Islam’s initiatory text, the Supreme Wisdom Lessons, a series of question-answer dialogues between Elijah Muhammad and his teacher, Master Fard Muhammad. And I build with the Five Percenters, a movement that began in 1960s Harlem with a man named Allah. A former member of the Nation of Islam, Allah left the mosque and began sharing the Lessons with youths on the streets.
Though the Lessons taught that devils could not be reformed, Allah took a white student under his wing, a teenager who he named Azreal. According to Five Percenter tradition, Allah gave Azreal the “keys to heaven and hell,” allowing him to come and go as he pleased. Nearing 60 and still in the movement, Azreal loves to tell stories about Allah. After watching civil rights demonstrators on TV getting sprayed with fire hoses, Azreal came crying to Allah that he was ashamed of being white. Allah told him that he could not be blamed for his skin. “Allah loved everybody,” Azreal told the New York Times in 1969, after Allah’s assassination.
Whiteness studies pioneer Noel Ignatiev famously called to “abolish the white race.” He didn’t mean physical genocide. The way that I read him, Ignatiev comes off like a Muslim Son putting in his 35-50 (read your Lessons). Allah had reportedly said that when god and devil walked hand in hand, there was no longer a devil. A respected elder of the Five Percent once told me that if I was righteous, I couldn’t be called a devil. In his own Mecca, Harlem, Allah had experienced a rebirth similar to Malcolm’s hajj experience. Like Malcolm, he gave the snake a chance.
Ignatiev declared, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” My engagement of the Five Percenters sometimes feels like a ritualization of that treason, the surrendering of this devil’s head. It’s also my own heritage as an American Muslim, a gift that I wish I could give to the rest of the Muslim world: here, take Master Fard Muhammad. Take the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Take this man named Allah. You need them as much as us.
Michael Muhammad Knight is author of The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-hop, and the Gods of New York.