Remembering Master Fard Muhammad
February 26 is Saviors’ Day, the birthday of the founder of the Nation of Islam. Master Fard Muhammad will probably never get his due for his contribution, for a few reasons: 1) after more than eight decades, white people still aren’t ready to be called devils; 2) Sunni Muslims might love the Sunni fruits of Fard’s tree (most famously Malcolm X, but hundreds of thousands more), but they don’t want to see the tree that produced them; 3) in all honesty, Fard might have spoken the truth, but he also dressed it up in stories that many will have a hard time taking seriously.
The biggest challenge to fully appreciating Master Fard Muhammad may be that he so effectively escaped history. For decades, no one had any idea where he had come from, and even if we can now trace his origin to a town called Shinka in Afghanistan, or possibly Pakistan, we still have no idea where he ended up after his disappearance in 1934. For the most part, our source on Master Fard Muhammad is his student, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for whom Fard was literally, physically God—not a “manifestation” or “incarnation” of God, but God. While working with the bare skeleton of biographical details and much more hagiography, it’s hard to make authoritative statements on Fard. But this is also part of the master teacher’s usefulness. In escaping history, Fard can become almost whatever people need him to be.
His public mission began in 1930, when he walked the poorest black neighborhoods of Detroit with an armful of silks, going door-to-door and trying to sell them to people with no money to spend. Even when he couldn’t make a sale, he regaled his customers with tales of the silk’s origin in what he called their “homeland,” a utopia across the ocean where people lived longer because they lived better—they had not been brainwashed by living in the Devil’s kingdom into eating the wrong foods and praying to a blue-eyed Jesus. People often invited Fard into their homes to tell them more about Africa. When he stayed for dinner, Fard always ate what he was offered, but then told his hosts that they should not eat such food, because people in their homeland did not eat it.
Islamophobes, Go to Sleep
When I agreed to write a column for VICE, I was granted this space, and I am responsible for what happens in this space. Today, I’m going to use this space to rub your racist and bigoted shit in your own faces.
By many scorecards, I’m not a legitimate Muslim. I have repeatedly violated the boundaries of appropriate behavior and belief. What’s worse, I have published accounts of these transgressions, and therefore risk misleading my sisters and brothers. I proudly associate with communities that are condemned as “heretical.” I write about contextualizing drugs within my practice of Islam. I attempted a William S. Burroughs-inspired cut-up project using the Qur’an. I’ve been called the godfather of Muslim punk rock, whatever that means. And ten years ago, I wrote about stink-palming Cat Stevens. I’m not trying to play the good Muslim/bad Muslim game here, but some of you might appreciate a pro-queer, pro-drug, stink-palming Muslim heretic. If you’re one of those people who squint when you look, and you have this uninformed view of “Islam” as universally, fundamentally rigid and oppressive, there’s a chance that I can challenge the uncompromising monolith that you imagine Islam to be. At the very least, I complicate the picture and make it harder for you to say that all Muslims think and act alike, right?
But it doesn’t really matter. Some of you see that my middle name’s Muhammad and automatically decide that I’m out to circumcise your daughters. The comments on my VICE columns have illustrated the same reality that I experienced while being detained and molested at the US/Canada border because of Shi’a literature in my trunk: Muslims are Muslims. Regardless of my own positions, every column draws comments like, “At least we don’t cut people’s heads off in a cave.” I’ve learned not to read the comments, because this is what you come up with:
“Islam is the armpit of the world. They treat women like dogs and cattle. They believe in honor killings of their own family and hate their enemies more than they love their kin – Fuck Islam and the camel it rode in on.”
“The notion that such an apocryphal and hateful cult such as Islam could solve anything much less racism is ludicrous.”
“Islam is a very destructive and backwards ideology. Just read their scriptures.”
“This book [the Qur’an] is dangerous to our survival and to human cooperation in general. This is why there are Muslim martyrs. This is why martyrs are ‘true Muslims.’ To say they are not is foolish.”
“How old was that kid that Muhammad slept with again?”
“Islam doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for a long time.”
“What kind of insane person (I’m guessing from America) converts to Islam?”
“Islam is not compatible with freedom…it is not a religion but is a political agenda with religious undertones.”
“What do you call an abortion clinic in Mecca? Crime fighters.”
What I Learned from the Five Percenters
Five Percenters say that the black man is Allah and the white man is the devil. I am a white man, and also a Muslim, and Five Percenters exist for the pleasure of neither white people nor Muslims, but I have been a friend of this community for roughly a decade now. This relationship has transformed the ways in which I see the world and also myself.
I first encountered the Five Percent during the cross-country wanderings that became my American Muslim road book, Blue-Eyed Devil. Though most Five Percenters do not consider themselves to be Muslims, I saw this community as a necessary component of the story of American Islam. So I went to their headquarters, the Allah School on Seventh Avenue in Harlem, and ended up having a pretty good time. Because the Five Percenters were critically under researched and misrepresented, I embarked on a project entirely devoted to them: The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York.
In the course of collecting texts, interviewing community elders, decoding Wu Tang lyrics, and hanging out at Five Percenter gatherings (parliaments), something changed. As an amateur ethnographer, I was not prepared to be affected by the materials that I was ingesting. Spending thousands of hours thinking about the Five Percenters, I actually began to internalize their narratives, symbols, and ideas. Though I wasn’t entirely inside, I was no longer outside. My position became a strange in-between space that I would examine in another project, Why I am a Five Percenter.
The first lesson I learned from the Five Percent was simple: Fuck white people. Seriously. White people are devils. I don’t mean this as a statement on biology, because the category of “race” is only political fiction and bad science. I’m using the term more in the sense of what it means to be marked as white in an unjust society. The fact is that I benefit from being white in several ways that I recognize, and many, many more that I usually fail to see. Because I am so often blind to the benefits of my whiteness, it is possible that I unintentionally reenforce those benefits, no matter how vehemently I say that I oppose racism or shower white affection on groups like the Five Percenters. When people want to sound like they’re theoretically sophisticated, they describe this phenomenon with the term, “white privilege.” I call it Satan.
Malcolm X returned from Mecca with a belief that classical Islam’s allegedly transracial brotherhood could help white Americans to move beyond the race poison that has been so deeply injected into their brains. However, I’ve also seen white Muslim converts use this claim to color-blindness as an excuse to avoid talking seriously about race. Mix white privilege with the privilege of religious orthodoxy, and you get a white Sunni who doesn’t have to consider why Elijah Muhammad was so absolutely necessary for this country.
There have been numerous white Five Percenters throughout the community’s history, and I have ironically found a greater fulfillment of Malcolm’s experience in Mecca through the Five Percenters than in my Sunni conversion. A Five Percenter elder told me that if I rejected white supremacy and strove for righteousness, I could not be called a devil; though he believed in the Five Percenter doctrine of white devils, he would not hold that against me as an individual. The answer was not for white people to instantly stop being white, as Malcolm had claimed that Islam would do for them, but to directly confront their whiteness and everything that whiteness does in the world. To be white in America means that I have been groomed to be a devil. The Five Percenters allowed me a space in which I could confess that and work to transcend it.
Being the Muslim at the Christmas Party
As a Muslim from a Christian family, Christmas has historically been complicated for me. Converting to Islam as a teenager, part of what I wanted from my religion was a new identity; the differences between Christians and Muslims held more value for me than the similarities, so I abstained from my family’s Christmas celebration. The boundaries between religions were crucial to my personal reinvention. I believed that there was no way of interpreting Christmas other than through the theological lens in which Christ was the son of God; because this violated my understanding of Islamic monotheism, tawhid, I had to stay as far from Christmas as I could.
In later years, I gave up on my Christmas boycott. I now join in my family’s annual party—with a discreet trip to Denny’s first, because everything at the family dinner has pork in it and Denny’s is the only thing open—and apparently celebrate the birth of someone’s savior, but not mine. I’m now confident enough in my own Muslim selfhood to not let it be won or lost by a holiday. Anyway, the boundaries don’t always mean to me what they once did; but for numerous Muslims with Christian families, Christmas can be a difficult choice. Besides the theological question of whether celebrating Christmas means that you join in the worship of a human as God, there’s the matter of what constitutes proper Muslim behavior. Celebrating Christmas could be classified asbida’a, “innovation,” the corruption of an Islam that’s imagined to be otherwise pure and pristine through mixture with the practices of other communities.
For pro-Christmas Muslims, the esteemed place of Jesus in Islam might offer a rational defense for sharing in a Christian holiday; the Qur’an not only recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but also supports the story of his miraculous birth from a virgin mother. Some Muslims might take part in their families’ Christmas celebrations with the intention to honor Jesus as a Muslim prophet. This can even connect to Muslim traditions regarding Muhammad. Not all Muslims believe that it is appropriate to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday, but those who do might consider the celebration of other prophets’ birthdays as well.
Paris Hilton in Mecca
For years now, people have been complaining about how the Saudi government is ruining Mecca with its obnoxious renovations. Thanks to runaway consumerism, the ancient city is overrun with luxury hotels, an awful clock-tower looming over the Ka’ba, and numerous malls and public toilets where holy sites used to be. The latest news is that Paris Hilton’s fashion empire has opened up a store in Mecca, and Muslims worldwide are again disgusted at the apparent poisoning of our holy city.
There are plenty of reasons to despise the Saudi custodianship of Mecca. Their ruling brand of extreme Sunnism, enforced by police squads of skinny teenagers in khaki uniforms, oppresses any Islamic traditions that fall outside its approval, including not only Shi’a but in fact many Sunni practices. The holy city isn’t a bastion of gender equality, and the ongoing development has only exacerbated its economic inequality. For poor pilgrims who have saved their entire lives to make hajj, it’s impossible to find accommodations anywhere close to the Great Mosque.
I’m all for the struggle to make Mecca a truly holy city of peace and justice; this fight matches the struggle of hajj, our own efforts to perfect our character and do better in the world. My problem is when people frame their opposition to the present Saudi version of Mecca as a call to restore a more just past, a return to an imaginary innocence that Mecca supposedly lost in the 20th century. I’m sorry, but that innocence never existed. Apart from the Ka’ba, Mecca is just another city. The people of Mecca—the pilgrims, the authorities, and the regular folks who just live there—have never been anything other than people. Whatever rottenness you can find elsewhere in the world exists in Mecca, and it’s not a Wahhabi invention. Long before Islam and throughout Islam’s history, Mecca has always been a host to unjust power, poverty, greed, racism, sexism, and intolerance. Paris Hilton doesn’t bring anything new to the city.
At this moment in the Islamic calendar, we stand between two holidays in which truth is performed with the spilling of blood: Eid al-Adha, which was celebrated this past week, and Ashura, which will take place late in November. In both cases, the annual observations are accompanied by debate over the meaning of this blood and how “religion” is supposed to look.
Last week, Muslims around the world observed Eid al-Adha, which marks the completion of the hajj. The central character in the story of hajj is not Muhammad, but Abraham, whose willingness to sacrifice what he loved most in the world—his own son—is imitated when pilgrims throw stones at walls representing the devil. In honor of Abraham’s absolute submission to God, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha with the slaughter of a goat or lamb.
Towards the end of November, Shi’a Muslims will commemorate another sacrifice: the martyrdom of Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson, on the day of Ashura. Husayn gave his life in an impossible war against the unjust powers of his time. In a controversial practice, many observers of Ashura will mark their love for Husayn on their own bodies, whipping their backs with blades or lacerating their heads. Even within Shi’a communities, the practice’s Islamic appropriateness is debated. The image of men parading through the streets, drenched in their own blood, has become ammunition for more than one polemical agenda: Sunnis might use the practice to say that Shi’as are not legitimate Muslims, and Islamophobes look at the scene as evidence that Islam at large is fanatical and violent.
During my last reading in Berlin, a man told me that my novel’s fantastic reception in Germany was proof that Germans were open-minded and tolerant of Muslims. I answered that my book was populated with Muslims who drank, smoked, fucked, abandoned their communities, and insulted the Prophet; it only offered Europeans their own fantasy of what Muslims needed to become. I told the guy that if Germans wanted to prove their open-mindedness, they could find much more challenging Muslims to welcome into their society. He did not quite understand; but he also suggested to me that Muslims were all anti-Semitic. He said this in Germany, without a sliver of self-awareness. Germany. Then he asked if Muslims could “de-Arabize” enough to become “modern.” Because apparently, there will be no Arabs in the future.
Confessions of a Muslim Psychedelic Tea Drinker
The place of drugs in Islam is much more complicated than most people recognize. Because the Qur’an only speaks specifically of wine, Muslims have had to figure out Islamic positions on other substances. The absence of a Qur’anic verse or authentic statement from the Prophet on weed, for example, allowed for a number of possibilities. Some thinkers used qiyas (analogical reasoning) to make a ruling on weed derived from rulings on alcohol: If wine is intoxicating and forbidden in the Qur’an, then all intoxicants belong in the category of wine. Because wine is haram (prohibited), then so must be hashish (which, lacking our modern distinctions, included pot).
Other Muslims, based on a more literal reading of the Qur’an, argued that no one has a right to forbid what the Qur’an itself does not. They felt that for wine and hashish to share one quality does not mean that they are automatically in the same class of substance. The Qur’an’s silence on weed empowered both the herb’s opponents and defenders.
Muslims invented the coffee house as we now know it, and were responsible for coffee finding its way into Christian Europe. But when coffee first made its way from Ethiopia into Yemen and up the Arabian Peninsula, some Muslims challenged its appropriateness. It was clear to early observers that coffee had an effect on people, but legal thinkers had to decide whether these effects qualified as intoxication. More threatening than coffee’s impact on the body, however, was the drink’s social consequence. Like wine drinkers, coffee drinkers tended to assemble in groups. Could the coffee house invite the same troublesome activities that surrounded taverns? Moreover, coffee appeared to assist Sufis in their all-night gatherings, leading some to consider that prohibiting coffee would also aid in the suppression of controversial religious practices and subversive teachings.
So there have been times and places in which Islam seemed to be OK with weed, and also contexts in which Islam condemned coffee. The Muslim position on a given substance, therefore, is less about what “Islam” says than the interpretive choices that Muslims make. These histories informed my forthcoming book, Tripping with Allah, in which I attempt to place Islamic tradition in dialogue with ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea made from the Amazon’s Banisteriopsis caapi vine. My friends who drank ayahuasca said that it had healing qualities; the vine is supposed to pull out all the poisonous shit that’s inside of you.
The book’s dialogue takes place within my own self, as a Muslim drinking ayahuasca. I had no expectations for what would be said to me by the weird insect creatures, flying jaguars, or whatever people saw on ayahuasca, but I brought my own materials to the sacred vine. I came to ayahuasca as a Muslim, with the scriptures, myths, ritual acts, and historic personalities of multiple Islamic traditions in my head. Ayahuasca worked with these things, shaking them up to be reprocessed. Inside me, the chemicals met the texts and their mashing together gave me some useful craziness.
I understand why the self-appointed protectors of my chosen tradition might oppose ayahuasca. Jumbling up your consciousness can rip holes in the fences that keep a scripture’s meanings stable. Tripping with Allah could be the most heretical and blasphemous material that I have produced in roughly a decade of writing crazy books, but it brought me to an entirely different place. I drove straight for the edge of the cliff, but I ended up flying.