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Excerpted From: Spearit, Raza Islámica: Prisons, Hip Hop & Converting Converts, 22 Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 175 (2012) (164 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SpearitHip hop culture's very birth in the United States coincided with an incarceration explosion in the 1970s that persists to the present. The rebirth of the prison would become an ever-present menace to the hip hop generation, which would feel the first-hand effects of losing someone to the prisons. This trend in growth would go on to make the U.S. prison population the largest in the globe--a multi-billion dollar industry with two million inmates and counting--at roughly the same time hip hop grew into a multi-billion dollar industry of its own. The growth of prisons and hip hop culture was both coterminous and coextensive.

In the current era of mass imprisonment, minorities bear the burden of this dramatic increase in penal trends. Prison demographics across the country have become darker and darker, to the point that the majority in prison today are either African-American or are designated “Latino” or “Hispanic,” both of whom are a minority in society at large. In prison, Islam draws these minorities, perhaps unlike any other religion, as the history of Islam can represent to them a reclaiming of historical roots and access to a glorious past and resurrection from the stigma of being a criminal. For example, many Latinos draw on Spain's connections with Islam through the Moors, whose presence in Spain lasted several centuries. They create historical links between popular expressions like ole and ojala (may God will) as derivations of allah. Likewise for African-Americans, history teaches that Muslims captured from West Africa were among the African slaves brought to America, as seen in characters like Kunta Kinte depicted in the TV series Roots. For these captive minority groups, the inspiration of Islam, along with the influence of Malcolm X's cultural legacy, can be significant.

The lengthy history shared by American Muslim movements and U.S. prisons was notable by the 1920s, when prison outreach efforts were well underway. Malcolm X's prison conversion took place in the 1950s, however, before him Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam (NOI), had spent time incarcerated. Muhammad's spiritual predecessor W. D. Fard also had a case file with the FBI and was arrested several times. Similarly, Five Percent Nation of Islam founder, Clarence 13X, was incarcerated for two years. Thus, the study of Islam in the United States will likely simultaneously lead to the examination of the country's jails, prisons, and other institutions of confinement. One cannot examine Islam in America without examining the interconnectivity and self-discovery of oppressed and confined people, and Islam's unique historical significance in both pan-African and Latino contexts.

For many, the path to Islam's more traditional forms begins with a step that mirrors Malcolm X's membership in the NOI. Ironically enough, the first turn to the faith begins with hip hop or behind bars with a marginal strain of Islam, such as the Moorish Science Temple or NOI, and eventually leads to the ideal ummah. As Malcolm X models, the convert can shed his racist views for a new understanding. The concept Raza Islamica, literally “Islamic race,” attempts to theorize this revolution in consciousness; it describes a state in which color and nationalism are relegated to merely mundane concepts. The term derives from Jose Vasconcelos' La Raza Cosmica, a work that prophesized of a new utopia, one where humanity moves beyond color and nationality. This race-less future will be the by-product of racism itself as the forces of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism work to undermine white superiority, as biological miscegenation inevitably flows from these forms of exploitation. The biological mixing blurs racial characteristics and ethnic features, leaving all people merely shades of brown. In Vasconcelos' scheme, color is literally removed from the social equation; it is a colorblind consciousness--a cosmic consciousness where the meaning of “race” evolves beyond the materialistic question of color or geographical origin, and onto the spiritual plane. Raza Islamica develops a dialectical approach to this state of colorblindness, but the result is not that people look alike in shade and appearance, as Vasconcelos has it, the impetus to colorblind consciousness is ideological--it is about thinking alike. Here, color of skin takes a backseat to allegiance to Islam, the primary factor of identification. Raza Islamica is a postmodern term for the vision of the Prophet Muhammad--a society in which Islam, not tribe, color, nor clan, is the mark of one's identity.

This Article begins with Origin Stories, which traces the presence of Islam in American history. Beginning with African slaves brought over during the slave trade, this part outlines the two major strands of Islamic development, indigenous and immigrant movements. In The Greening of America, the Article describes general trends in the growth of Islam and specifically how prisons and popular music have become perhaps the most important factors for conversion to Islam among minority groups. Part IV, Faith in Prisons, Music, examines the dynamics among Islamic and prison culture and hip hop music. It includes exegesis of lyrics, musical poetics, and commercial packaging that shows prisons and Islam as inextricable to hip hop. Islam Incarcerated: Religion as Rehabilitation focuses on conversion in prison and describes how religion has proved more effective than prison programming in rehabilitating inmates. Finally, Conclusions: Facing a New Direction demonstrates that conversion to Islam is often followed by a second conversion, a trend that carries broad implications for Muslims in America.

[. . .]

The color-blindness of the Muslim world's religious society and the color-blindness of the Muslim world's human society: these two influences have each day been making a greater impact, and an increasing persuasion against my previous way of thinking.

-- Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The available research on conversion to Islam in America features a significant and repetitive story: how quickly each individual makes it on the path will vary, but the steps are generally the same. The initial turn to Islam often starts with groups which many Muslims would deny as authentic. It is a journey that begins with movements and organizations that are considered at least unorthodox, if not fully heretical from the mainstream point of view. In due time, however, the convert engages in another bout of soul-searching and moves beyond the racial trappings to embrace every Muslim, no matter the skin color. In the transition to mainstream Islam, just how many adopt Sunni, Shia, or Sufi forms, in particular, awaits further study.

For Sunni Muslims, Malcolm X set the paradigm by changing his religious views after returning from Mecca, forever recanting his previous racism and asserting that all men could be peaceful under the one true god, Allah. As he put it, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases for its society the race problem.” Accordingly, “'The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ is actually a story of two conversions. Just as it bears Malcolm's Nation [of Islam] self-portrayal, it suddenly breaks into the story of Malcolm's conversion to traditional Islam.” It is from this final step that the Raza Islamica comes into being. When the rage of youth that brings minorities to marginal Islam wears off, they begin to see more spiritual allies waiting in the wings. For many who tread the path, Malcolm X towers as the trailblazer, whose “eventual embrace of orthodoxy in the form of Sunni Islam paved the way for many to follow.” Malcolm X's entry into the mainstream “would be the signal event in the movement of thousands of others, over time, into the same habitation.”

The gravitation toward orthodoxy has also been felt by other high-profile Muslims. Malcolm X once preached to the boxer Muhammad Ali, a follower of Elijah Muhammad, who later embraced Sunni Islam. Elijah Muhammad's own son W.D. Muhammad, like Malcolm X, has helped pave the way for many of the NOI's followers to convert to Sunni Islam. The popular Imam Zaid Shakir's life has taken a similar trajectory:

Imam Zaid pulled himself out of the ghetto, but his past influenced his future. When he looked for religious guidance, he discovered Malcolm X, an influential member of the NOI . . . . Imam Zaid moved beyond viewing Islam through the prism of black oppression. He didn't share the resentment felt by some African-American Muslims who believe that immigrant Muslims from the Islamic world have stolen the identity “Muslim American” from them, the first Muslims in America. Sheikh Hamza described him once as an imam who has transcended his blackness to a colorless Islam.

The African-American imam, Siraj Wahhaj, is another high-profile Muslim who is described as “a star in American Islam. He travels the country extolling the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, a rare crossover luminary, an African-American popular among immigrant Muslims.” Born Jeffrey Kearse, his initial plunge into the NOI transformed him into Jeffrey 10X and a minister for the Brooklyn temple. Eventually, however, Wahhaj's enthusiasm for NOI doctrine faded, and appropriately enough, “with the encouragement of Elijah Muhammad's son Warith Deen Muhammad, Jeffrey and others groped their way toward the traditions and beliefs of Sunni Islam.” Equally compelling is the story of Warith Deen Umar, one of the first Muslim clerics hired in the New York prison system. Although Umar started his career in Islam in the NOI as “Wallace 10X,” trips to Saudi Arabia led him to adopt a shift in ideology and he converted to the Sunni fold. Later, the Imam received much critical attention for his speeches to inmates and was removed from his post as Administrative Chaplain for the state and banned from entering any New York prison.

Another prime example is Imam Muhammad Abdullah, a legendary prison-preacher, with whom this author has had personal contact for nearly a decade. “Brother Muhammad,” as he is affectionately known, is a firebrand preacher whom prison officials barred from prisons for his radical sermons. As a Los Angeles TV evangelist, Brother Muhammad's scathing attacks on the American and Israeli governments aired weekly on public access television. Prison officials in Texas confiscated tapes of his program called A Message to the Oppressed for their inflammatory content and potential to incite jailhouse jihad. Monster Kody Scott describes Muhammad Abdullah's prison-style ministry in his autobiography, recounting how men who had killed with impunity converted to Islam under Brother Muhammad's watch. Although today, the Imam has moved to the mainstream, he initially was a motivated member of the NOI.

One can see the pattern of double conversion in other academic studies. In Mark Hamm's study of radical recruitment in prisons, examples of the Raza Islamica thesis lace the ethnographies, including individuals who find their way both to Shia and Sunni Islam. Perhaps none of the cases is as dramatic as that of would-be terrorist Kevin Lamar James. James arrived in California's Tehachapi prison late in his teens as a gang member and came under the influence of the NOI. James eventually became dissatisfied with the NOI and turned to Sunni Islam, adopting the name JIS (Jam'iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh). James' inner cohort included a Pakistani national, and their goals included attacks on military recruitment centers, synagogues, and the Israeli consulate. Like many models of this theory, the prison was instrumental in James' transition from a particular vision of Islam to embrace orthodoxy, if not fundamentalism. Dannin describes numerous cases of similar testimony about how this double conversion occurs. One subject recounts how the heterodox rap of the Five Percent first drew him into Islam. He first became a Five Percenter and Malcolm X devotee who called himself “Allah God Walik Supreme.” Later, however, he would abandon these beliefs and join a Sunni mosque. After officially taking his vows, he remembers being deeply satisfied with his decision, proclaiming, “[t]his is where I belong. This is what I've been looking for. This is what I wanted to do.” Abdo offers a similarly candid look at this phenomenon. In one profile she describes an African-American woman who is ready to move beyond what she claims is “watered-down Islam,” “I asked her why she came to the madrassa. She is much older than many of the students, and had once been a member of the NOI . . . . I realize she must be pretty determined to reach a new understanding of Islam.”

Such testimony points to a process by which the marginal movements of Islam are hard at work in the service of the mainstream, priming their converts for the second conversion to Islam. That is, many who join these groups eventually seek to become a part of the broader Islamic world, which causes them to abandon an ideology, but they never abandon Islam. Instead, orthodox African-American Muslims often go through two conversions in their Muslim spiritual lives. Thus, as the Muslim population continues to grow in the United States, it must be recognized that this is partially due to organizations like the NOI and the Five Percent, groups which have brought many to Islam, even if to a “watered-down” version, eventually leading these believers to join the ranks of Raza Islamica.

Alongside the individuals who experience a double conversion to Islam, the NOI parallels the transition on an institutional level. The movement has come a long way from the days of the “White devil” and “Black God” philosophy of the past. Today, the NOI of Louis Farrakhan is “ready to embark on a reconversion of Black Muslims to Islamic orthodoxy.” Members today share more beliefs and practices with the wider Islamic community than ever before, and by all likelihood the movement will continue adopting more traditional practices, integrating them through African forms of orthodoxy. Although there is always the chance that a newcomer could do as Farrakhan did and reestablish Elijah Muhammad's racialist doctrines, under Farrakhan, himself an example of the Raza Islamica thesis, the institution is likely to continue reflecting a movement that is in the process of conversion.

In tracing this unique phenomenon, this article makes a case for the study of marginal groups in American Islam. These groups are relevant to more traditional belief and practice, despite that the two sides have had little in common, save for mutual dislike. Although animosity between Sunni Muslims and Five Percenters is legendary, the Raza Islamica thesis points to a process that augments the mainstream population; in other words, Sunnis may view the NOI as something other than “true” Islam. The truth is, however, that many converts eventually become Sunni by virtue of such marginal groups--they are responsible for arousing interest in Islam, which later leads to adoption of more traditional forms. At the very least, available data point to marginal groups as gateways to mainstream Islam, a reality that may afford intra-faith grounds to groups which are otherwise antagonistic to one another.

Assistant Professor, Saint Louis University School of Law.

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