The story of African Americans and their encounter with Islam in the twentieth century is a fascinating American story featuring some celebrated names, like the great champion Muhammad Ali and the political leader Malcolm X. When Elijah Muhammad started teaching what he learned from Fard Muhammad in the 1930s, it was not the first time African Americans encountered Islam. Many Africans who were brought to the new continent as slaves were Muslims, but just as their names were changed, so, too, did their cultural codes endure a huge transformation over the centuries. This was why Malcolm X dropped his surname, Little, which was given by former slave masters, and started using “X” instead: to signify his lost identity and tribal name.
The teachings of Elijah Muhammad, which were based on Black Nationalism, were different than the more widespread teachings of race-free Islam, but he was able to introduce new horizons to a mistreated community. He provided African Americans with a new way of forming community bonds and finding one’s personal identity. As the black community has gained more respect and opportunity in the larger American community, the popular understanding of the Nation of Islam has begun to change. One of the major changes came when W. Deen Mohammed became the movement’s new leader in 1975. By referring to the universality of Islam, Imam W. Deen worked to embrace all races. Visiting the Vatican for a meeting with the Pope was one of many signs of this significant shift in the Nation’s views. Around the same time the Nation of Islam was growing and changing, the Hizmet movement was growing and developing in Turkey.
Inspired by Fethullah Gülen in the 1960s, the Hizmet movement was slowly expanding and spreading its message of intercultural dialogue and education. The two organizations first overlapped in the 1990s. After the tragic developments in Bosnia, there was a great meeting in front of the White House. Many Muslims had gathered, exhorting the US to intervene in the tragedy. The address of Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of the Taqwa mosque and a member of the Nation of Islam, caught my attention. I visited and met with him. I told him that they could send their children to our high schools, if they wished. At first he was surprised. But I told him, “There are students of every color and nation at our schools in Turkey.” He was hesitant and said, “We need to get to know you guys first. Let us pay a visit to Turkey.” After coming back from his one-week trip, he told his community, “This Hizmet is very different. They do everything with wisdom. Though I did not see any signs in their schools or dorms that said Islam or mosque, I never doubted that all of the hands I shook made ablutions and that their foreheads came to the ground in prostration for God. I played basketball together with the students at their schools. I also talked with them. From the questions they asked, I understood the depth of the faithful consciousness in them. You know, I receive invitations and make different visits all over the world. In most of the places I visited, the white people treated me very kindly but I always felt I was black. However, I did not feel that way in Turkey. I felt like a piece of them, and even like a true brother to them.”
That relationship continued to grow. About a decade ago, both Imam W. Deen Mohammed and some important personalities from Nation of Islam visited Turkey. It was an honor to have them, as both Imam Deen and Minister Farrakhan are deeply honorable, respectable men. Minister Farrakhan is a great orator and has helped moved the Nation of Islam closer to the larger Islamic community. In the July 12th issue of the Nation’s newspaper The Final Call, a photograph of Farrakhan caught my attention. While attending the Friday Prayer at the Mosque Maryam, he wore a fez, which I took as a sign of his wish to embrace Islam’s centuries-long heritage. In addition, the Nation’s service centers are now named “mosques,” a change welcomed by all Muslims. While traveling in Turkey, this group met Prof. Yunus Serin in Kayseri. They asked him about Fethullah Gülen. As a person who spent many years as an academic in the city of Erzurum, where Gülen was born and raised, Serin told them what he knew about Gülen and his family. Then they asked about any difference between the financial situation of Gülen’s brothers in the past and present. Dr. Serin told them, “At the beginning, they used to run a printing house they inherited from their father. They earned their life as the owners. Now they still work at the printing house, but as ordinary workers. They are not the owners anymore.” The visitors found this fact remarkable. Dr. Serin added, “I recently came across Gülen’s brother, Salih. He humorously told me, ‘Yunus, I heard that my brother supplicated to God after his five daily prayers, asking that we stay poor. I wish he forgets to pray about it, so that we can benefit a bit from worldly means.’”
One of the visitors was Imam Farook. After his visit, he wished to take two persons from the Hizmet movement to visit with Imam W. Deen, in 2007. The imam was hesitant. He stated that he had also visited Turkey, but he returned to the US early for he was disturbed by people whose main concern was politics. When Imam Farook told him that Hizmet was very different and had no political concerns, Imam W. Deen agreed to accept the visitors. Imam Deen told them, “Two Turks had grown close to my father near the end of his life. You are also like them. If my health allows, I would like to come with you (to Turkey).”
Unfortunately, his health didn’t improve, but he still met with them in the US. At this meeting I learned that Imam W. Deen Mohammed told his imams, “You should not take a salary from mosques. You should earn a living through other means and serve the religion of God for the sake of God.” This is similar to Hizmet’s stance. The imams that we met were all educated people with good jobs. Their community of around three million people is a living example of service for the sake of God, not money or power. Another imam from the group later had a chance to meet Fethullah Gülen at his residence in Pennsylvania. After the visit, he said, “During my visit to Gülen, I was very excited. I was sitting close to him. He must have felt my excitement, for he gave me a glass of water, and I took it. As I was about to drink from it, I was startled when I heard a voice from within the glass reciting the name of God. It was the first time I experienced such a thing. He smiled at me and said, ‘There is a chip inside. The voice is coming from that.’ So I smiled and my excitement instantly disappeared. “Then I began to tell him, ‘We used to be down in trash and mud, but W. Deen Mohammed raised us up and purified us…’
While I was speaking, I realized that tears were streaming down Mr. Gülen’s cheeks. There was nothing to make him cry in my story. Actually, he was crying about something beyond my talk… about a person who lived like himself with a concern for others... Now, after having personally witnessed that, how can I see him as equal with a politician, one who looks down on everybody around him and tries to oppress everyone?” About five years ago, we went to Baltimore to visit those who had made the trip to Turkey. We learned that some of them were hosting reading sessions where they studied the works of the Risale-i Nur, by Said Nursi. One of them even asked me a question with reference to the 31st Word. It was about the fact that each Divine name has 70,000 degrees of manifestation.
From this question, I recognized that they paid serious attention to the Risale-i Nur. I saw the same attention in another member, named Abdullatif. He was telling one of his friends’ son, who was an imam, “My son Amin! I have twice read Said Nursi’s books from beginning to end, and I underlined his sentences. I understand that he zoomed into the immensities of the Qur’an like a telescope, and like a diver, he took out deep meanings from its treasures and put them to the page. As an imam, you must definitely read his books!” On August 6th, 2016, a group of us, along with Laila Muhammad, and his nephew, Imam Sultan Rahman, went to Marquette Park in Chicago. In August 1966, Martin Luther King and 700 protesters had gathered in the park, and they were pelted with stones. Laila Muhammad was a little girl then, but she was among those stoned.
Now there is a monument to Dr. King in the park. I want to write briefly about what an extraordinary person Laila Muhammad is. Before the last Ramadan, she made a trip to Bosnia and Turkey together with Dr. Hameed, Dr. Yasin, Linda al-Amin, and Nuurah Muhammad (86). In Bosnia, she visited the Ahmici village, where Croatian attackers had filed all the males into the village mosque and burned it to the ground. Upon seeing the site, she was unable to move. She was so deeply shaken that she could not attend the scheduled trip next day. On the day we visited Marquette, there was a commemoration event. From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., celebrities and famous speakers took part in the program. At the center of the event was the monument, on which Laila Muhammad’s father, W. Deen Mohammed, and Martin Luther King are depicted in relief. Their inspiration words are inscribed on the ground and the walls. It was a reminder that injustice cannot last, and even when things seem darkest, the world is becoming a more just, peaceful place. It’s important that, in these troubling times, we all remember this message of hope and unity.