This African American former
Catholic found spiritual peace and fulfillment in
orthodox Islam having investigated and rejected the
racist ideology of the Nation of Islam.
By Steven Barboza
American former Catholic found spiritual peace and
fulfillment in orthodox Islam having investigated and
rejected the racist ideology of the Nation of Islam.
of Roman Catholicism was spawned by a premature death,
my mother's at age 49, on the day before my 22nd
birthday. I prayed like crazy for God to spare her,
and when He did not, I established a new line of
communication. I called God Allah and prayed with my
palms cupped and my eyes wide open. Given the irony
and absurdity of events in racially torn Boston, where
I lived, Islam was a godsend. A few months after my
mother's death, whites assaulted a black man in front
of Boston City Hall, using as one weapon a flagpole
with an American flag attached. With that attack and
my mother's death, a lifetime of frustrations reached
the breaking point.
My odyssey 26
years ago was not unlike that of hundreds of thousands
of blacks in the United States. The journey became my
jihad--literally "struggle"--waged not for political
power or economic enfranchisement but for control over
my own soul.
not offer a complete way of life the way Islam did.
Attending mass once a week and calling it religion
failed to satisfy my spiritual needs. Islam offered a
code of conduct on how to run my daily life and how to
communicate with God. Prostrating in prayer five
times a day as a Muslim offered me more solace than I
had ever found kneeling before a crucifix.
In 1974, as now,
in the Roxburys and Harlems across America, only
liquor stores outnumbered churches in vying for
blacks' attention, and in my opinion, both stupefied
millions of black Americans.
Islam, as I was
familiar with it, seemed the perfect way to fight
back. As a religion, it offered clear-cut guidelines
for living; as a social movement, it stood for a pride
born of culture and discipline.
Before my mom
died, I had dipped into Malcolm X's autobiography.
After she passed, I plunged into it. Malcolm had
undergone a metamorphosis: from hoodlum to cleaned-up
spokesman for the Nation of Islam and finally a
convert to orthodox Islam, and through his own
transformation he had shown that change, even from the
most miserable beginnings, was possible.
Malcolm's life and mine were very different. He had
discovered Islam in prison. I discovered it in
college. He was the spokesman for a black theocratic
visionary. I held down a mid-level white-collar job
in a Fortune 500 company. Still, I felt a kinship
with Malcolm and the Black Muslims. The color of our
skin made us all cargo in a sinking ship, and Islam
beckoned like a life preserver.
Two and a half
decades ago in Boston and New York, however, there
were few orthodox mosques. In black neighborhoods,
one institution, the Nation of Islam, dominated in the
teaching of Islam, or, rather, a homegrown version of
it. Many blacks who converted took to the Nation's
teachings--its admonitions to self-love and racial
solidarity, its belief in productivity and
entrepreneurship. And with equal ardor, they also
took to the Nation's other teachings--its racial
chauvinism and belief that white people were
genetically inferior, intrinsically evil "blue-eyed
devils" who had been created to practice "tricknology"
Using the twin
motivators of myth and pride, Elijah Muhammad built
the Nation into one of the largest black economic and
religious organizations American had seen. It claimed
a heavyweight boxing champion the whole world adored,
Muhammad Ali. Its women looked like angels in their
veils, crisp white jackets, and ankle-length skirts;
its men cut no-nonsense yet gallant figures in their
smart dark suits and trademark bow ties. But sitting
in the Nation's Roxbury temple was like being on a
jury listening to a closing argument. The defendants
(in absentia): white folks. The prosecutor: a dapper
minister who practically spat, saying whites were so
utterly devilish that their religion was grotesquely
symbolized by a "symbol of death and destruction"--the
crucifix. The charge: perpetrating dastardly deeds on
blacks "in the name of Christianity." The verdict:
I barely lasted
my one visit. To me, demonizing the "enemy" as the
Nation did hardly seem the best way to learn to "love
thyself." Anyway, I abhorred the idea of colorizing
God, or limiting godly attributes to one race. And
though Elijah deserved credit for redeeming legions of
blacks from dope and crime when all else, including
Christianity, had failed them, I didn't believe that
earned him the title of Allah's "messenger."
So I moved to
New York and became an orthodox Muslim in the manner
all converts do: I declared before Muslim witnesses my
belief in Allah and my faith that the Prophet
Muhammad, may God praise him, was His very last
messenger. I entered a Sunni mosque and prostrated
myself on rugs beside people of all ethnicities.
Here was what I
deemed a truer Islam--the orthodoxy to which Malcolm
had switched, the one most of Elijah's followers opted
for when the Nation of Islam waned after his death,
the Islam to which most of America's 135,000 annual
converts, 80% to 90% of them black, belong.
On a plane to
Senegal I sat next to a black American wearing a
traditional Arab robe. The man was headed to meet an
imam, his spiritual leader, a black African Muslim. I
later met other black Americans who had spent years in
Africa studying Islam. Through research, I found that
up to 35 percent of enslaved blacks brought to the New
World were Muslim. In converting, many black
Americans may have been simply returning to the
religion of their forefathers.
Over the years,
I have come to understand what should have been
obvious long ago--that Jesus had not forsaken my
mother. She died because God had willed it,
regardless of what form my prayers took.