On the days I visited mosques, I never told Grandma what direction I was going. Mostly I headed to neighborhoods north of the city center, which wouldn’t have worried her too much. One Friday I went the opposite direction. My destination was not the suburbs south of downtown, an area comprised mostly of lower to upper middle class African American neighborhoods (and where my mom’s parents had lived). I had my sights set on a section of town that sits in the shadow of the skyscrapers, not far from the grounds where the Texas State Fair is held every year. Here, if one is lucky enough to have a home, it is most likely in a small house or apartment building whose exterior is suffering from years of neglect. It’s also the location of Mosque Number 48 of the Nation of Islam.
When I arrived in Dallas, I called the phone number I had for Mosque Number 48 but it was out of service. I found a website for the place, but most of the pages linked to the national organization with headquarters in Chicago. I learned about “Muhammad’s Economic Blueprint,” a program in which the small daily donations of many participants are pooled, thereby allowing land to be purchased for farming and urban renewal projects. I pushed play on a video of Farrakhan explaining the plan: if everyone gives five cents a day, it will add up to $291 million in one year—as long as 16 million people participate. It’s a solid idea in theory, though maybe not realistic. According to some estimates, the Nation of Islam has fewer than 100,000 members. Regardless, a theme song starts playing automatically with raps and a refrain—“I got five on it”—so cool I listen twice. There are also links to DVDs of Farrakhan’s lectures I can purchase including one entitled The Origin of the White Man and the Making of the Devil.
Specifics regarding Mosque Number 48 were harder to find. I did learn that it had been established in 1968. A street address was provided, but the usual details I had grown accustomed to seeing such as a prominent display of the time of Friday’s Jummah service were not in evidence. I found no mention of the five daily prayers, much less a schedule based on local times like so many mosque websites provide. However, I did see a phone number. I checked it against the number I had and found they were the same. I tried it again thinking I might have dialed incorrectly, but I got those familiar three tones and the recorded voice saying ‘sorry’.
From what I’ve read and people I’ve talked with, doubts exist about whether members of Nation of Islam are “true” Muslims. Most of the criticism stems from the fact that the organization doesn’t appear to emphasize the five pillars: saying the shahada statement of faith, daily prayers, fasting for Ramadan, the once-in-a-life time visit to Mecca called Haj, and giving zakat to the less fortunate. I suppose, if true, these are valid complaints though one might question how closely individuals from other versions of Islam adhere to these tenets. What seems to me more troubling and fundamentally at odds with Muhammad’s message is the Nation of Islam’s stance on race. White people are forbidden to join and most of the rhetoric focuses on the financial and spiritual empowerment of African Americans exclusively.
This is inconsistent with Muhammad’s ideas. In addition to issues of social justice, Muhammad advocated for the dissolution of tribal affiliations. His vision was of a single “ummah,” or community, comprised of individuals bound together by ideals that transcended earthly characteristics such as family ties or skin color or gender or wealth or age. He was able to realize the system he imagined, if only on a small scale, when he cobbled together the five tribes of his adopted hometown of Medina, three of which were Jewish, into a confederation. His was a “super tribe” whose members represented the diversity of the region.