In Mississippi, a Muslim community fears its end
AT NEW MEDINAH, Miss. — When Abdul Hakim Shareef looks out on these hills, this mosque - this perfect embodiment of a Muslim ideal - he hopes it won’t all end with him.
Shareef, 86, was three decades younger when he pooled his money with a small group of fellow Muslims here in Mississippi and founded this community. The dream was to be able to feed themselves, educate themselves and live an Islamic life in a community all their own.
But Shareef’s grandchildren have largely moved away, and he knows New Medinah is going to need people - young people - to keep it going after he is gone.
“If we could just get them to grasp that concept and get on board,” Shareef says. “That’s what I’m counting on now. For them to step up to the plate.”
There was a time, about five decades ago, when “American Muslim” tended to mean black Muslim - native-born black Americans such as Shareef who had joined the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group that gained prominence during the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement.
But today’s image of the American Muslim largely obscures that history. The stories of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali have faded in the American memory, replaced by portrayals of Muslims as immigrants, people with foreign accents and ideologies. As a result, Shareef’s community has realized that, as the relevance of this American sect fades into the background, New Medinah’s existence might die with its founders.
The prevailing image of the American Muslim has shifted with the numbers: An influx of Muslim immigrants after 1965 quickly outnumbered the native-born black Muslim population.
About 1.7 milllion Muslims entered the United States as legal permanent residents in the two decades before 2012, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. By 2014, native-born black American Muslims made up just 9 percent of the country’s total Muslim population.
Members of Shareef’s community are followers of the late Warith Deen (W.D.) Mohammed, a son of former Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Although he broke with the Nation, Mohammed, who died in 2008, maintained some of the Nation’s cultural practices and saw American Islam as intertwined with the experience and lessons of slavery and black oppression. About 180 mosques nationwide follow his teachings.
But the country’s shifting demographics mean that fewer American Muslims link their religious identity to their racial history in the United States. The presumed mastery of Middle Eastern Muslims in the field of Islamic scholarship has in recent decades overshadowed American interpretations of the religion.
For many black American Muslims today, the legacies of the Nation of Islam and W.D. Mohammed are “not relevant anymore,” said Nicquan Church, 40, of Philadelphia, who attends a Salafist mosque, a strict Orthodox sect of Sunni Islam.
American blacks who are Muslim now constitute a diverse population of different sects, ideologies, cultures and national heritages. The brand of Islam practiced at Church’s mosque tends to have more in common with some Saudi or Egyptian mosques, for example, than it does with the W.D. Mohammed tradition - even though most of Church’s fellow congregants are black, native-born Americans. No one there thinks about Islam as uniquely linked to the black American experience, Church said.
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Shareef, his wife, Ruth Shareef, and their peers founded this community - a 64-acre spread of homes, farms and a mosque - in the mid-1980s with the encouragement of W.D. Mohammed, Shareef said. The idea was to create a space where Muslims could live, collaborate on business endeavors, and cultivate the land for vegetable plots, cattle, chickens and honey bees.
They wanted to build an Islamic community that could overcome the odds black Americans face, especially in the South.
They named it New Medinah, after one of Islam’s two holiest cities and the place in Saudi Arabia where the prophet Muhammad attracted his first followers. They set up a school so their children could learn while being immersed in the teachings of Islam and the calm of a rural lifestyle.
But by 2009, the school had closed. And the trickle of arrivals was ultimately outnumbered by the departures: kids leaving for college or jobs in urban areas and founders who died.
On a recent summer weekend, dozens of W.D. Mohammed’s followers across the South arrived at New Medinah in cars and minivans to convene for the tiny Islamic community’s 31st annual retreat. Most were retirement-age attendees who practiced tai chi at dawn, waxed nostalgic about the good old days and spent the rest of their discussion time fretting about the challenges facing the next generation.
Elsewhere, President Donald Trump was promoting travel restrictions that critics derided as a “Muslim ban,” and the deaths of two people killed by a man ranting against Muslims in Portland, Oregon, had become a national news story. But the undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country was never broached at the New Medinah retreat.
Being the target of government suspicion and public fear is not new for black Muslim Americans. During the 1960s, the FBI used informants close to the Nation of Islam to surveil the group and its most prominent members.
“We have always been under attack as African Americans and as Muslims,” said Youssef Kromah, 27, of Philadelphia. The city, a former stronghold of the Nation of Islam, is now home to a large Muslim community, the majority of which is black.
“When you have individuals like our new president threatening Muslims,” Kromah said, “the African American community isn’t afraid, because we’ve been there, done that. We suffered.”
But the targets of public suspicion have shifted.
Today’s debates about immigration, terrorism and national security have recast the American public’s sense of threat - and with it, the sense of what it means to be an American Muslim, argues Edward E. Curtis IV, a professor of religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
“It is brown Muslims whom the government, media, think tanks and other centers of interpretation construct as a potential enemy of the United States,” he said. “Institutional Islamophobia renders the brown Muslim visible and silences the voices of black Muslims.”
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Samory Rashid, a political science professor at Indiana State University, says the term “black Muslim” was coined by a journalist who was neither black nor Muslim: the CBS News reporter Mike Wallace. He used the term in his 1959 TV documentary “The Hate That Hate Produced” about the Nation of Islam, and many Muslims today dismiss the notion of an explicit “black Muslim” identity.
Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader, led his followers in an ideology that cast whites as devils and shunned the broader civil rights movement’s goal of integration. The ideology appealed to many young, working-class black people at the time.
“I was full of fire because Elijah Muhammad had made us gods,” said Shareef, who grew up in segregated Mississippi, where he was “trained to step out of the way” when he saw a white person on the sidewalk.
But the notion of black supremacy was at odds with mainstream Islam, and after Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son W.D. Mohammed broke with the Nation and its new torchbearer, Louis Farrakhan. He introduced his followers to mainstream Islam, which he portrayed as more empowering: A belief system hinging on the idea of one humanity under one God. The community learned to pray and observe Islamic customs followed by millions of other Muslims worldwide. They studied Arabic and the Koran and the Hadiths. They embraced the idea of racial equality.
Mohammed maintained the important distinction of his community’s black American roots. The Nation’s cultural practices, such as the business-minded cultivation of Whiting fish and the consumption of bean pies, carried on, as did Elijah Muhammad’s emphasis on entrepreneurship and economic success as a way to empower black Americans.
“Imam [W.D.] Mohammed gave us leadership that is indigenous to us,” said Abd’Allah Adesanya of Columbia, South Carolina, who follows the W.D. Mohammed tradition. “We’re not beholden to any sheikh in the Middle East.”
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However equipped they feel to help bridge the divide between newer Muslim communities and wider America, leaders of the W.D. Mohammed tradition say they are rarely called on for guidance.
Still occasionally stereotyped for their onetime association with the Nation of Islam, the community’s leaders say they are sometimes dismissed by other Muslims as less authentic or less authoritative scholars of the religion. And racism has kept immigrant Muslims from joining historically black mosques in larger numbers, they say.
“The only time they come to us is when the white folks whip them upside the head,” said Sameeh Ali of Newark, a bakery owner and follower of the W.D. Mohammed tradition. The black Muslims have a history of dealing with discrimination and abuse, he insisted. “We got the answer! I’ve been around white folks for 300 years. I was born understanding white folks.”
Others say the W.D. Mohammed set is simply losing relevance in a country that has moved beyond segregated lunch counters and has experienced the rise of a larger, more diverse Muslim community. In Philadelphia, where local leaders say the Muslim population is still predominantly black, only three of the city’s 37 mosques subscribe to the W.D. Mohammed tradition.
At New Medinah, which once embodied the ideal of the W.D. Mohammed community, the question today is longevity.
The community school shut down in 2009 with the departure of its last students, and similar W.D. Mohammed schools in larger cities have met similar fates. A Muslim cemetery at New Medinah now has a few dozen graves - more than the number of permanent residents.
Shareef talks wistfully about opening a boarding school - at some point - as the key to New Medinah’s future. A large sign hammered into a grassy hill on the property now reads, “Future Home of W. Deen Mohammed Boarding School.”
In an early-evening lecture during the retreat, a visiting religious scholar from Houston emphasized that the next generation must be developed if the community is to survive. Tyerre El Amin Boyd, 41, had traveled from a mosque that was regularly attracting new, young members.
As an audience of older men and women listened intently from the prayer room’s carpet, Boyd told the old leadership that they, too, must figure out a way to attract youth.
“We’re praying for Allah to raise our children,” Boyd said, “so that we don’t let the legacy of Imam W.D. Mohammed die.”