For a lot of people in the United States, the Nation of Islam is the first they were aware having individuals who identified as Muslim in their midst. Most of us have at least heard about Malcolm X, probably the most famous member of the Nation of Islam ever. Current leader Louis Farrakhan makes national news occasionally. Before I had any real understanding of what it meant to be Muslim, I would buy sweet potato pies from well-dressed Nation of Islam boys at a flea market I frequented in college. Now I wasn’t quite sure how Nation of Islam fit with more mainstream versions of the faith.
It wasn’t until Malcolm X did the Haj that he became aware of this aspect of Muhammad’s message. He famously recounts in his autobiography his surprise upon arriving in Mecca to find the full range of skin colors from pale to dark among his fellow Muslims. The experience made Malcolm X see Muhammad’s objective in a truer light: to shed individual identities in favor of unity. Not long after his return, he broke ties with the Nation of Islam and was assassinated.
What would I have said if someone had answered the phone at Mosque Number 48? I imagined the conversation might go something like this:
Me: Hello, is your worship service opened to the public?
Other person: That depends. What color is your skin?
Me: My skin is light.
Other person: As in light for a person of color, or…?
Me: White. I’m white. But my hair is black. Hello? Hello?
Instead, I would just show up in person because that was sure to be less awkward. I don’t necessarily take offense at the organization’s rhetoric. Nation of Islam dogma may be incompatible with Muhammad’s vision, but so is the society from which it arose. Many of its members have been denied access to resources based on race for generations. The realization of Muhammad’s ideal depends on those with power working to level the playing field for everyone. But what if society is rigged to keep the field uneven? It’s difficult to judge a reaction to a biased system.
I was surprised to find the mosque so easily, well-marked and on a busy street. I guess part of me was hoping it would be impossible to locate, like some back alley secret society; at the very least, I thought the building might be as defunct as the phone number. But here it was with a prominent sign and even a digital leaderboard flashing information to passers-by. I stopped in front on a Friday just shy of 1:30; at mosques across the city, people were arriving for Jummah. Number 48’s parking lot was empty. I pulled in to a space and let the car idle for several minutes while I watched for signs of life. The only movement was the leaderboard’s frantic scrolling: SUNDAY GENERAL MEETING 10:00 am…WEDNESDAY NIGHT MEETING 8:00pm…FRIDAY STUDY GROUP 8:00pm. I wondered if they even held worship services, or if it was all gatherings of a more functional nature.
After a few minutes I drove out of the lot. I had a back-up plan: a mosque just a few streets away that I knew would be holding congregational prayer. I had called its number earlier in the week and reached a recording confirming the time for Jummah and inviting me to join. The user-friendly website prominently displayed local prayer times. Under the “History” page its origins were traced back to Nation of Islam’s Mosque Number 48. At some point, a group had broken off and created this new mosque that appeared to embrace a more mainstream approach to Islam. I can only imagine Malcolm X was on a similar path when his life was cut short.