Becoming Muslim: Abdul Raoof’s Story
February 11, 2022
Interfaith America is pleased to share the series “Becoming Muslim” from the podcast “The Spiritual Edge.” The series explores the motivations and challenges of converts as they carve out a unique path for being Muslim in the United States. Over seven episodes, the podcast profiles eight individuals from various cultural backgrounds who offer different windows into this diverse and complex religion. A spiritual seeker travels to Cairo, a prison inmate hangs with the Muslim brothers to stay safe, a college basketball player finds the Nation of Islam, and more.
Listen to Episode 3: Abdul Raoof
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“At the end of that meeting, they asked who believes what you heard is the truth? And you stand up and they said, ‘If you want to get more information, follow that guy, right there.’”
You can’t tell the story of Islam in America without telling the story of Black Muslims.
Scholar Edward Curtis, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, says African-Americans in the 1920s — just like African-Americans in the 1800s — never thought of themselves as completely cut off from Africa or its history and heritage.
“By converting to Islam, they were indeed laying claim to a spiritual, historical, political and social resource that they that they knew had been part of their people’s history for a long, long time,” says Curtis, who is the author of several books about Islam in America.
Curtis says in the 1920s a variety of groups which called themselves Muslim became important parts of Black society. In some cases, they were inspired by Muslim missionaries, in particular from Sudan. And sometimes they were inspired simply by people who had created new denominations and completely new interpretations of Islam.
“They began to take root in Black America in particular,” he says. “And those organizations, even though they never supplanted the supremacy of African-American churches, they became very important parts of Black society.”
These are organizations like the Moorish Science Temple founded by Noble Drew Ali or the Black Sunni movement of Satti Magid.
Curtis says one movement after World War Two became so important and so pronounced that it seemed to have eclipsed all the other denominations. And that was the Nation of Islam.
A different civil rights message
Abdul Raoof Nasir was a basketball player at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s.
“We played cards a lot. We gambled. I was a gambler,” he says. “And there was a guy who used to come to the gambling table that was in a Student Union Building and he was a member of the Nation of Islam.”
By this time, the Nation of Islam was almost 40 years old and recruitment on campuses was well established.
Abdul Raoof says the man would sell them a newspaper called Mohamed Speaks. “He wouldn’t leave until we bought some,” he says. “So we would always buy the paper. It was the news of the day. News that was relevant to African American people at the time. It was defining the African American civil rights struggle in a different way than what was popular in the media. Because they were talking about separating from America rather than integrating, and they were talking about doing for self.”
This was a different message than Martin Luther King Jr’s whose rhetoric of nonviolence dominated the narrative around Black civil rights at the time.
“Many of the younger people were looking for a stronger way or a different way, a more, a more aggressive way to advance the struggle,” says Abdul Raoof. “They were pushing the older generation to do more. You know, to protect ourselves, not to follow the nonviolent path.”
At the same time, students all around Abdul Raoof were demanding change. His Black teammates were threatening to strike when one of them was suspended for allegedly wearing an afro. On the academic side, students were demanding to be taught Black Studies.
He was intrigued by all of it.
“There were many, many groups that were proposing, ‘We have a better solution to advancing our cause toward dignity, self-respect, and equality,’” says Abdul Raoof. “All these things that became more important to me as I got older. The Nation of Islam began to grab more of my attention than all those other groups.”
The Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit in 1930, by a man named Wallace D. Fard, or Master Fard Muhammad, a dynamic preacher who claimed he was the manifestation of God on earth. He gave his closest follower, Elijah Poole, the title of messenger of God, renaming him The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
It was Elijah Muhammad who led and grew the Nation over the next decades till his death in 1975. His teachings were based on Afro-centric ideas that preached Black Nationalism, economic independence, and complete separation from white people.
From a religious standpoint, they called themselves Muslims, a hearkening back, they say, to the original religion of their enslaved ancestors. They shunned Christianity as the white slavemaster’s religion. They followed the Quran though their version of Muslim teachings has been called a heterodoxy from Islamic principles, especially when it comes to the idea that God can come to earth in human form. Elijah Muhammad claimed that he was a messenger from God.
Elijah Muhammad grew the Nation from a group of fewer than two hundred followers in Detroit and Chicago in the 1930s to a nationwide network of temples. By the 1960s, the membership had grown to 100,000. The Nation advocated self-sufficiency, owning retail and wholesale businesses, schools, housing complexes, banks and thousands of acres of farmland.
During this time, Malcolm X had emerged as a charismatic minister and spokesman for the Nation.
Malcolm was a gifted communicator, but he also clashed with its leader Elijah Muhammad. They eventually fell out over stories about Elijah’s affairs with young women. Malcolm also began to have experiences that pulled him away from the central teachings of the organization.
In the spring of 1964, he left the Nation. That same year, he traveled overseas on a trip to Mecca to perform the Hajj. It was a life-changing experience, according to professor Kayla Wheeler of Xavier University in Cincinnati and an expert on Black Muslims in the U.S.
“Traveling abroad, being able to go to Egypt, having connections with non-Black Muslims—when he goes to the Hajj and he is praying next to blond-haired, blue-eyed men who he had been taught were the devil” — Wheeler says Malcom saw they were his brothers in faith.
It changed Malcolm’s ideology.
After the hajj, he denounced Black supremacy and the more militant talk of racial segregation he had engaged in. He embraced Sunni Islam, the more mainstream Islam that preached racial equality.
After that, tensions between Malcolm and the Nation escalated.
In 1965, he was assassinated. The following year, three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of his killing.
A message that resonated
By the time Abdul Raoof got to UC Berkeley in 1967, Malcolm had been dead for two years. But his presence was still prominent. Abdul Raoof began to read Malcolm’s writings and learn about his role in helping to grow the Nation alongside leader Elijah Muhammed.
“He was energetic,” Abdul Raoof says. “He was brilliant and he was full of energy to spread those teachings.”
Abdul Raoof was just one of many young people who were drawn to the Nation during this period. Its message was simple and effective: that Christianity was the religion of the white man, forced onto them by slavery. And that they needed to return to Islam as the original faith of their African ancestors. The message was instrumental to converting generations of African Americans to Islam.
At this point in his life, Abdul Raoof was watching as friends were starting to join.
“One sister, who was a good friend of mine, we used to do a lot of stuff together. She was active in student work in the movements,” he recalls. “One day, I go to her house and she’s got on this white dress. I was going there to do some of the illegal stuff we used to do together and she said she no longer did that. So that really impressed me.”
One afternoon in 1969 he decided to go to his first Nation meeting across the Bay in San Francisco.
“I went there and saw some of my other neighborhood friends,” he says. “In fact, there was a guy who was a janitor at Berkeley High School. A couple of athletes from other schools. They had converted.”
The message was appealing to a wide range of people. “Nation of Islam was a self-help organization,” Abdul Raoof explains. “So they were saying that we had the responsibility to do these things for ourselves that we allow, that we’re asking white people to do for us. This is what I’ve been reading in the paper. But now I’m hearing it live, from one of their representatives. They are very, very effective speakers.”
Abdul Raoof was entranced. He was primed and ready to join.
“At the end of that meeting, they asked, ‘Who believes what you heard is the truth?’ And you stand up and they said, ‘If you want to get more information, follow that guy, right there.’ So you follow the guy in the back, one of the representatives in the back. And then they give out these letters.”
“And so it’s a letter that says, ‘I want to get a name. I want to give back the slavemaster’s name.’”
He is given the name Abdul Raoof Nasir. And he won’t tell me his former name. He feels very strongly about what happened that day, the day he became a member of the Nation of Islam. He started coming to the meetings and learning the teachings and prayers. His transition was smooth, but some things were hard to deal with.
He recalls, “One of the key things, and one of the things that was emphasized at the time, was not eating pork. My problem was when I would go home and my mother would cook.”
He wouldn’t eat and he’d tell his mother she shouldn’t eat it either. ”I want to throw her pork out of her house and so that’s where the difficulty came in. ‘Boy, you lost your mind? You crazy? I raised you on that. You were eating it yesterday.’”
A big part of being a member was being part of the independent economy. And that newspaper? Abdul Raoof was also selling that now, helping the Nation achieve incredible sales numbers. He says they sold a million copies a week.
“Because all the men were required to sell the paper. We bought farmland, imported products. We started importing fish, millions of pounds of fish and we would take them door to door along with our other products: the bean pie.”
The iconic Black Muslim bean pies, still sold to this day outside mosques around the country.
Changes in The Nation, a time to choose
Years later, Abdul Raoof graduated with a degree in social science. In the coming years, he would witness the Nation going through a huge transformation, one that would force him to make a critical decision about what he believed. It had to do with tensions in the Nation. This time between Elijah Muhammad and his son Wallace, known as Warith Deen Muhammad. Warith Deen rejected Elijah’s idea of the nature of God.
“He rejected believing that white people have some inherent evilness to them,” says scholar Kayla Wheeler. “So he took a different, more universal approach to what race and racism could be like. It was not saying that white people were incapable of being racist, or that racism did not exist. It was rather saying that it’s a social structure. It’s not anything that is inherent in an individual.”
These ideological struggles were at the heart of the Nation’s transformation. When Elijah Muhammad died in February of 1975, Warith Deen took over, and he started to change the organization immediately. Like many at the time, Abdul Raoof was a young graduate, following all this closely.
“So Wallace Mohammed came in,” Abdul Raoof remembers. “He began to name this part of the journey to Islam as the second resurrection. That the first part of his father’s work was the first resurrection. And that this was the second resurrection. And he began to immediately make changes in the thinking. He said, ‘What The Nation of Islam was doing that agrees with what he found in the Quran, he would keep.’ What he found that was in disagreement with the Holy Quran, he will eliminate.”
Warith Deen abandoned the name Nation of Islam and began to call his organization World Community of Islam.
Kayla Wheeler says he very quickly started to move away from some of the Black nationalist principles and towards a more global perspective. And that was a big change.
Wheeler describes those times. “People are kind of confused about what’s going on. They give him the benefit of the doubt for a while,” she says.
Eventually the group splits. This is where a familiar name enters the story. Louis Farrakhan, who was a minister in the Nation. He decides to break away from Warith Deen and revive the Nation of Islam.
Wheeler says this is when families had to make decisions.
“You do see some families picking, which side do they want to go to?” Wheeler says. “Do they want to stay with Mr. Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad? Or do they want to go with Louis Farrakhan, who claims that he’s really keeping Elijah Muhammad’s ideas and messages together?”
Everybody had to make a choice, but for Abdul Raoof, he knew where his heart was. It was clear to him what Warith Deen was saying made sense to him, especially when it came to the concept of God pushed by the Nation.
“It was so unclear what that meant,” he says. “God came in the person of somebody?”
The idea that God could come down to earth in the form of a man, Abdul Raoof never believed that. He also liked the idea of moving towards a more global and traditional Islam. He started traveling. He went to Africa and Europe. He met Muslims in different countries and when he got back home in 1977 things had changed.
“They had selected a new leader in our local mosque here. He was the first non-African American. He was the first Pakistani-American and so he began to institute Jumah prayer and Arabic classes.”
Most Nation members made the same choice as Abdul Raoof, to stick with Warith Deen and his move to a more traditional Islam. A much smaller group broke off with Farrakhan.
Today, Black Muslims make up about a fifth of American Muslims. As the decades pass, many of them are now born into the faith. The majority identify as Sunni Muslim or “just Muslim.” Only two percent have stayed with the Nation, led by Louis Farrakhan.
No matter which Black Muslim group you’re talking about, scholar Kayla Wheeler says they all share something deep.
“I think the number one thing is a love of Blackness. You can’t go into an Imam Warith Deen Mohammed masjid (mosque) and not feel how Black it is in terms of what the khutba (sermon) would be, hearing call and response. Somebody is yelling, ‘takbeer’ giving you an ‘Ameeen.’ There’s just this sense of Blackness and this distinct Black Americanness that transcends that divide between Imam Warith Deen Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.”
Wheeler adds, “I think also what both organizations have been able to keep is connecting to the past, recognizing that they stand on the shoulders of so many Black Muslims and Black revolutionaries.”
As for Abdul Raoof, he worked as a social worker for many years, earning degrees in Islamic Leadership and Islamic studies. Then he found his calling in prison chaplaincy, working 20 years in California prisons as a Muslim chaplain.
He’s retired now, but he advises people on parole and holds classes at his local mosque in Oakland. He may not identify with the Nation of Islam today, but he says without it, there may have not been an American Islam at all.
“The Nation of Islam should get credit—sometimes it doesn’t—for having introduced Islam to America in a major way,” he says.
Hana Baba is the host of Becoming Muslim. She also hosts KALW’s award-winning newsmagazine, Crosscurrents, and The Stoop podcast: stories from across the Black diaspora.
Photo by Tom Levy.
Funding for Becoming Muslim comes from the Templeton Religion Trust.