Loving Islam on My Christian Walk

Muslim-women-prayingI’m back. After a hiatus to settle in to a new job and complete my first ghost-writing assignment, here I am. To ease back into blogging I will begin with my most familiar subject matter – growing up Muslim in America. Of course, much has changed since I began learning the doctrines of The Nation of Islam in the 1960s, then found myself immersed in learning Orthodox Islam in the 70s.

These days, when I’m invited to speak to students and teachers about this subject, they inevitably want to know, “what do you believe now?” Last week a teacher asked me, “why didn’t you turn away from religion altogether after experiencing so much heart ache from it?” I told the teacher that for a few years as a young woman I had sworn off all organized religion and considered myself, instead a mystic, tuning into nature and divine inspiration more than religious traditions and customs. I returned to religion during a particularly challenging episode in my life because religion, and its uplifting philosophies were what I found comforting when all else failed.

A high school student last month asked what religion I practice currently and I explained that I find myself loving my old Islam on my new Christian journey.

“I was on my way to church one Sunday morning when it dawned on me that I was about to join hundreds of millions of individuals around the world who would set aside this certain time on this certain day to collectively acknowledge and praise what we all consider a ‘higher power’. It was a worldwide get-together. I was thrilled,” I explained. “Then it occurred to me that hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world get together five times a day, at pre-set times every day, to reverence what they consider a higher power. Suddenly, I wasn’t resenting salat the way I had growing up. Growing up I hated – HATED – having to stop whatever I was doing to go pray at a certain time. Now, I was appreciating this ritual as an opportunity not an obligation.”

The students seemed interested – quiet and attentive, hanging on every word. So, I kept going.

“Now, I can appreciate that millions of Muslims all use a standard daily prayer schedule so that at 6:43 or 6:52 or whatever time is posted for the morning prayer, they’re all bowing down at that particular time, and all speaking in one language, saying the same prayer. That seems powerful to me now,” I explained. “Growing up I resented having to recite prayers in Arabic. I argued with my mother about it, saying it was Arab imperialism and we should reject it as much as our Muslim leaders wanted us to reject American imperialism.”

Ok, “imperialism” was too big a concept for high school students who really were not interested in world affairs, and even less rhetoric left over from the 1970s. Imperialism? Does anyone use that word anymore? Besides, who has time for world affairs when Candy Crush and all kinds of other fun games are in hand? They were interested, however, in how I adjusted to life outside the Nation of Islam, since in the book I described growing up in a very closed and close-knit religious organization. They wanted to know what, if anything, I missed about the NOI.

“I do miss the camaraderie,” I explained. “There was a certain comfort in being surrounded by a whole group of people all with the same beliefs and mission. It’s similar to church community, but it was different, a more engaging, completely involved experience. It was true what they said about Islam not being just a religion, but a way of life. Think of a woman wearing a dainty, cute little crucifix on a necklace compared to a woman dressed from head-to-toe in a Muslim outfit. The whole experience is like that.”

And, speaking of women, I love-love-love tuning in to Christian women preachers these days. OMG! As a Muslim girl I was taught that women should be “modest,” although the interpretation of “modest,” has evolved – thank God at least in westernized Muslim communities. As a Muslim girl I learned that a mother could not lead her own sons in prayer. A Muslim woman could never lead males in prayer. In fact, I vowed never to return to the Islamic Center in my native hometown, Washington, D.C., because when I was dragged there as a child for Muslim holidays, women and girls were relegated to a room in the basement. At best, when the Mosque was not crowded, we were allowed only to sit in the rear of the main prayer hall – behind the men. So, you can imagine my delight the first time I tuned into a Joyce Meyer sermon on-line. To see a woman passionately yelling and screaming scripture and her interpretation felt like heaven on earth.

Ok, this entry is getting too long for a blog. So, I will end it hear with plans to return to this space once or twice a week getting back in the blogging groove.

Send me a note. Let me know what you think. And if you’ve got questions about my Muslim-Christian experience, I promise to take time and answer them.

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Pulitzer Prize for Book on Malcolm X Stirs Fond Memories of N.O.I in D.C.

Previously published in The Washington Post

When I heard the news that Manning Marable’s book, Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented, received the Pulitzer Prize for it value as “a work that separates fact from fiction and blends the heroic with the tragic,” I was reminded of growing up in the N.O.I. here in the nation’s Capital, where much of what we learned as “fact” turned out to be philosophical fiction. Some of the teachings were little more than black nationalist non-sense.

 

At age three, I was enrolled in Muhammad’s University of Islam, a school for grades K-12, located in the temple that still stands at 1519 4th Street, N.W. There, I began memorizing what we called, “Actual Facts,” and “Student Enrollment Rules of Islam.” The indoctrination was intense. I was little Sonsyrea X at the time, one of hundreds of children in Nation of Islam schools around the country. We were little girls dressed in N.O.I. head scarfs, and knee-length dress tops over ankle-length pantaloons. The little boys sported close haircuts, dark suits, white shirts and dark bowties to school everyday.

 

Some of the “facts” we learned turned out to be harmless. “The earth is inclined at 23.5 degrees in its orbit…The average man breathes 3 cubic feet of air per hour,” we would recite in class. Standing like mini-soldiers, we recited these “facts” on command. They drilled us on the dimensions of the planets to give us an understanding of the universe and of our place in it. A noble undertaking.

 

But some of what we committed to memory was borderline dangerous. “The original man is the Asiatic black man, the maker, the owner, the cream of the planet earth, God of the universe…the colored man is the Caucasian white man, or Yacub’s grafted devil, the skunk of the planet earth,” older students recited. “Why does Muhammad and any Muslim murder the devil? What is the duty of each Muslim in regards to four devils? What reward does the Muslim receive for presenting four devils at one time?” The answer was spit rapid-fire. “Because the devil is one-hundred percent wicked and will not keep and obey the laws of Islam…each Muslim is required to bring four devils, and by bringing and presenting four devils at one time, his reward is a button to wear on his lapel, also a free trip to the Holy City Mecca.”

 

(No, this is not all from my memory. I still have the original documents my paternal grandmother, who was an original N.O.I. member in D.C. bequeathed me.)

 

Some of what was perpetrated as fact was outright foolishness. “The average original man weighs 150 pounds,” we were taught. The Nation of Islam charged members a “penny tax” for each pound they were deemed overweight during random weigh-ins. The belief was that being overweight meant taking up too much space, using too much of the earth’s natural resources. But really, tt was a fund-raiser of sorts.

 

Malcolm X led the N.O.I. during its most prosperous years – when it opened Muslim bakeries, restaurants, and schools in cities around the country. Malcolm X had left the N.O.I. before I was born, but the Nation of Islam he helped inspire and popularize was thriving when I came along.

 

In Washington, D.C., we had an N.O.I. bakery on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast, and a popular restaurant on 14th Street N.W. Several of my uncles, who were part of the N.O.I.’s famous “F.O.I.” (Fruit of Islam, the N.O.I. “soldiers” of sorts), worked in the N.O.I. restaurant. I fondly remember the carrot fluff, the bean pies, the fish burgers and fish loaves served there. The whole wheat donuts and gingerbread with chocolate icing were distinct and delicious.

 

Muslim brothers breezed through D.C. neighborhoods on “the fish truck” selling frozen fish. The popular “Whiting H&G” (Whiting fish headed and gutted) were produced through an N.O.I. connection with foreign leaders before African Americans were engaging large-scale in international trade.

 

Muslim men and women took pride in building an all-black nation at a time when Blacks were legally marginalized from mainstream America. Many of the N.O.I. members in the District and around the country later followed Malcolm X’s conversion to orthodox Islam, but they credit the N.O.I. with personal training, religious discipline, and philosophical perspectives that propelled them to excellence.

 

One of the brothers, who considered his years in the N.O.I. his “boot camp” initiation into manhood, would go on to become one of the nation’s first Muslim judges. Some of the brothers who worked in the restaurant and bakery created lucrative careers in food service. Muslim women, who attended “M.G.T.” (Muslim Girl Training) classes Saturday mornings at the temple, learned to take home-making and parenting seriously. Some of them pursued careers in education and excelled in academia. Many of my peers from the Muslim school have had successful careers in media and government and private industry despite our initial indoctrination against mainstream America. The first African American Muslim in Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, had been in the N.O.I. at one time.

 

Malcolm left the N.O.I. and denounced black nationalism in favor of a universal brotherhood after his pilgrimage to Mecca. He remains a shining exemplar of strength, courage, conviction, and independence despite controversial personal revelations in the book crowned by a Pulitzer Prize committee this week. His speeches, available on YouTube, offer timeless (yet debatable) insights: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy7M3x7Ll7g.

 

A popular YouTube video, “Stuff M.G.T. Girls Say,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVkma2U8EVg, indicate that some of the N.O.I. foolishness is still being taught, but the N.O.I. has definitely evolved. The history of the Nation of Islam is still unfolding. Minister Louis Farrakhan’s curious alliance with the predominantly Caucasian Scientology church and the increasing visibility of N.O.I. women as seen in this YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhuryC-cbqI hint at another compelling historical account just waiting to be told.

 

The Pulitzer Prize reminds me of the need to preserve the history the Nation of Islam because of its historical impact in – and on behalf of – the African American community.

 

Sonsyrea Tate is a Washington Post blogger. She is also author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (Harper) and Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam (Simon and Schuster). Friend her on facebook for more stories and insights. 

Malcolm, Marable and Me – Update

The book is just too big for me to take it all in at once. It was a novel dare. I would read Manning Marable’s controversial “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” in a week and either join the parade of reviewers and social commentators praising his thorough research, or chime in with Bro. Malcolm’s children and grandson, condemning the tome for its dusty innuendo, questioning the author’s motives. I planned to swallow the book whole. But it was too big. Besides, halfway into it I realized I had “been there and done that.” Next!

Half way into the book I was fully appreciating its exhaustive research, its discovery and disclosure of details and FBI documents I had been unaware of as a child growing up in the Nation of Islam, which Bro. Malcolm made famous, and in turn became famous for.

The book was coming up short on what I had hoped to get – a sense of the overall experience of the organization and the people in Bro. Malcom had miistered to. I had hoped it would reveal a better sense of the men, women, and children Bro. Malcolm was motivating to build what, as it turned out, would be a front-runner for the mega churches of today.

The 595-page book requires a substantial commitment of my time, mental energy, and interest. I simply did not have it to give – yet. I bought the book, full-price. Cash, thank you very much, but it would cost more than a couple of weeks of good time to read it. I love reading, but it is a slow grind for me. I have to savor a passage word-by-word, digest a chapter at a time. I’ll pick up the Malcolm-Marable “master piece” again. But right now, I am more interested in hearing from other former NOI members about their experiences in the organization in the 50s, 60s, 70, 80, 90s and now.

So far, based on just a few interviews I’ve done, no one wholly regrets their time in the Nation of Islam. The former members I have talked to, in fact, are grateful for the lessons they learned and for the motivation, self-discipline and empowerment they gained – even if they won’t send a dime to keep the organization going because of the manners of corruptions and personal distress the organization has also caused individuals and families.

However, in case you missed it, here is one former NOI brother outraged by the book – to the tune of a $50 million lawsuit filed last week: http://www.wbgo.org/newsarticle/former-nation-of-islam-minister-is-suing-writer-and-publisher-of-new-malcolm-x-biography.

Also, reading what Bro. Malcolm’s grandson had to say last week on what would have been the icon’s 86th birthday was well worth the time, and I am sooooo looking forward to the book he is writing. Check him out here if you missed this: http://newamericamedia.org/2011/05/malcolm-x-grandson-decries-marable-biography-on-86th-birthday-observation.php.

If you, or someone you know spent any time as a member of the NOI, please hit me on facebook. I would loke to speak with them.

Have a blessed day!

Malcolm X, Manning Marable, and Me

The excerpts, for starters, proved uplifting for me. Reading excerpts from Manning Marable’s new controversial biography of Malcolm X, I was reminded of some of the “lessons” we learned inside Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam Schools, Muhammad’s Universities of Islam.  We were drilled, for instance, on Muhammad’s “Lesson #10: Why does Muhammad and any Muslim murder the devil? What is the duty of each Muslim in regards to four devils? What reward does a Muslim receive by presenting the four devils at one time?”

We were called on at our desk to stand and answer these questions. One of us young charges, dressed sharp in a long dress and head scarf, would stand and respond, soldier-like, “Because he is one hundred percent wicked and will not keep and obey the laws of Islam. His ways and actions are like that of a snake of the grafted type. So Muhammad learned that he could not reform the devil. So they had to be murdered. All Muslims will murder the devil because they know he is a snake and also if he be allowed to live he would sting someone else. Each Muslim is required to bring four devils, and by presenting four at one time his reward is a button to wear on the lapel of his coat, also free transportation to the Holy city Mecca.”

Marable’s book, particularly the interviews with some of the former members, will add historical context and overview to what was my personal experience in the NOI. I will pen a review of the book as soon as I have read and digested it completely. My experience in the NOI is shared in my memoir, LITTLE X: GROWING UP IN THE NATION OF ISLAM, and some of the bitter fall-out from the experience is detailed in my book, DO ME TWICE: MY LIFE AFTER ISLAM. But my years of reflection to finally make peace with that experience is something I will share as I reflect on Marable’s book.