The year 2013 marks the centenary of the reported founding of the Canaanite Temple in Newark, N.J. That was the very earliest form of an indigenous black American Islam, one completely distinct from normative Islam, the 1,400-year-old religion from Arabia founded by Muhammad. From this movement came Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.
The century divides into two main eras: inventing a new religion (1913-1975) and moving toward normative Islam (1975-2013).
Timothy Drew (1886-1929), an American black who called himself Noble Drew Ali, founded the Newark temple and then, in 1925 another, better verified organization, the oddly named Moorish Science Temple of America. His ideas derived mainly from four unlikely sources — pan-Africanists, the Shriners, Ahmadiyya Muslims and white racists.
From pan-Africanists such as Edward Wilmot Blyden and Marcus Garvey, he appropriated the notion of Christianity as the religion of whites and Islam that of nonwhites. As a practicing Shriner, Noble Drew Ali borrowed traits from this organization, such as the use of “Noble” before one’s name, the requirement that men wear fezzes and a network of lodges. From Ahmadis, he took Arabic personal names, the crescent-and-star motif, the prohibition of pork and the notion of Jesus traveling to India. From white racists came the idea that accomplished black Americans are not Africans at all, but “Moors,” “Moorish-Americans” or “Asiatics,” a mythical northwest African people, the Moabites, who migrated to sub-Saharan Africa.
From this unique mixture, Noble Drew Ali concocted the 64-page scripture of his religion, the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America (Chicago, 1927), which despite its name has almost nothing to do with the normative Islamic Koran but is largely plagiarized from two texts, one occult Christian and the other Tibetan. Even more strangely, his Koran focuses not on the figure of Muhammad, but on Jesus.
Noble Drew Ali hoped that by avoiding association with Africa, inventing a new identity for American blacks and urging them to be loyal to the United States, they would appear to be new immigrants and, like other newcomers, would escape entrenched racist stereotypes and avoid segregation. But such was not to be. As the historian Richard Brent Turner writes, “Noble Drew Ali did not understand that the melting pot was closed to black people in the 1920s.”
MSTA declined with Noble Drew Ali’s death in July 1929. The organization still exists with a following of about a thousand adherents. One member, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, was convicted for his part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and sentenced to 35 years. Another, Narseal Batiste, got 13 years for planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.
The Temple had a key role as precursor to the Nation of Islam (NOI), which came into existence in July 1930. MSTA began the dual tradition, subsequently picked up by NOI, of appropriating the imagery of normative Islam without its content and then using this folk religion as a vehicle to escape white racism. Both focused primarily on unchurched American blacks and served as a bridge for them to convert to normative Islam. Many MSTA traits — the term “nation,” the “Asiatic” identity, the rejection of Negro and Africa, the identification of Islam with “people of dark hue,” the prediction that all whites would be destroyed and the leader’s claim to prophethood and even at times divinity — survived in NOI.
Many of NOI’s earliest members had previously belonged to MSTA, and they often saw the Nation as the Temple’s successor. Elijah Muhammad, NOI’s effective founder, himself praised the MSTA forerunner and sometimes modestly portrayed his movement as “trying to finish up what those before us started.”
Since 1975, the momentum has been away from MSTA and NOI in favor of normative Islam, with its more than 1 billion adherents. MSTA and NOI cannot compete against the depth, gravitas and resources of this world faith. NOI has been bleeding members to normative Islam, to the point that it hangs on thanks mostly to the prominence of the elderly and sick Mr. Farrakhan (born 1933). After his passing from the scene, NOI will likely follow MSTA into a rapid decline, with black American Muslims overwhelmingly adopting normative Islam.
Despite their insignificant futures, MSTA and NOI retain their importance because nearly all of today’s approximately 750,000 black American Muslims — and a potentially much larger community in the years ahead — trace their roots to that Canaanite Temple in Newark a century ago.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.