Building with a Blue-Eyed Devil
There is a little known fact about the role that Islam has played within the Hip-Hop community. In his essay from DJ Spooky's recent anthology Sound Unbound, Naeem Mohaiemen states that “Islam is hip-hop’s unofficial religion.” Noting this correlation, there is a definite need for properly putting Islam, Hip-Hop, and their interrelationship into some sort of historical context.
Mohaiemen writes, “According to research presented by the American Muslim Council, in 1992, between 5 to 8 million Americans followed some variation of the Islamic faith.” Interestingly, the organization found that the largest group of Muslims in the U.S. are not Arab but African American, at 42 percent. Only “12 percent of American Muslims are of Arab descent (the majority of Arab Americans being Christian),” contrary to the perception held by many in America today.
Though most Muslims tend to align with the Sunni denomination, there are many different takes on the Islamic faith. There is the Shi’ite sect, the Isma’ili tradition, the Ahmadiyya path – and let us not forget the Sufis. A predominant form of Islam that comes up when talking about African-American Muslims is the Nation of Islam. Founded by W.D. Fard in the early 1930s, the doctrines were brought to the public eye through the works of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Branching off from Fard’s teachings is an Islamic group known as The Five Percenters, a belief system that grew out from Harlem New York during the 1960s.
The Five Percenters took their name from a passage in Fard’s "The Supreme Wisdom Lessons," a text comprised of questions and answers that those within the Nation of Islam are asked to study. The Lessons state that 85% of humanity are “uncivilized people, who are easily led in the wrong direction, but hard to lead into the right direction.” They are essentially deaf, dumb, and blind to truth. There is 10% of the populace who know truth, but instead of seeking to awaken the 85%, they seek to enslave them and benefit from their captivity. They are known as “the blood-suckers of the poor.” Finally, there are the 5%. These are the men and women who are in touch with truth and are called to “teach freedom, justice, and equality to all the human family of the planet Earth.” The 5% are usually bestowed with the title “poor righteous teachers,” which can give you some idea of the career opportunities that arise from such a calling.
Among those few who have actually heard of The Five Percenters, they tend to be described as angry black men who advocate violence, maintaining that the white man is the devil, while the black man is god. The mainstream media usually presents those involved with this belief system as deranged, and dangerous. There has long been a lack of serious, scholarly ethnographic study on the Five Percenters, but this is finally changing.
A better understanding has arrived with the publication of Michael Muhammad Knight’s book, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York. Knight does not shy away from presenting some of the seedier elements of some persons involved with Five Percenter work; however, he also makes a strong case for the Percenters as a positive movement overall within the African American, and later Hip-Hop, communities. (A quick run-down of Hip-Hop artists who claim either allegiance to or influence from the Five Percenter beliefs will yield the following names: Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Ryhmes, Big Daddy Kane, Brand Nubian, Nas, Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, Poor Righteous Teachers, Queen Latifa, and Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets.)
The story of the Five Percenters is a complicated one. It runs the gamut from gritty tales of street life found within ghettos across the country to sublime expressions of redemption and pride. Through reading some of Knight’s books, I found that he is just as complex as the subjects he chooses to write about. Growing up as a white teenager in rural upstate New York, he was first turned on to Hip-Hop when Public Enemy broke through to the mainstream. Not long after, he found himself so inspired by The Autobiography of Malcolm X that he made the decision to convert to Islam. At the age of 17, he packed his bags and moved to Pakistan to study the faith more deeply. Since that time, the exploration of his beliefs has taken him on a cross-country trek in search of his own brand of American Islam, a journey that he describes in his book Blue-Eyed Devil: an American Muslim Road Odyssey.
Knight has transcribed his own relationship to Islam fearlessly throughout his works, and hence has been labeled both a heretic and a pioneer. His first book, Taqwacores is credited with influencing the American Muslim woman-led prayer movement, and it even spawned a nascent Islamic punk-rock scene. He has updated Islam to fit into some of the best offerings the youth culture has produced since World War Two, namely Hip-Hop and Punk. From what I can tell by reading his books, his pilgrimage was a long and arduous one, but it has definitely borne ripe fruit that should engage the mind of any serious searcher along the path of spirituality.
I caught up with Knight this past spring on 125th Street in Harlem to discuss the Five Percenters, Hip-Hop, and the hopeful power that the youth have to bring about knowledge and understanding in these interesting times.
PA: In your own journey with Islam, you identified yourself as a Sunni for a while. How would you describe your personal relationship with Islam today?
MMK: I used to believe in a very narrow definition of Islam, so narrow that when I was in Pakistan at 17 studying Islam in a Madres, Pakistani men would tell me, “You can’t learn Islam in Pakistan. It’s too diluted. You have to go to Saudi and get the real Arab Islam.” At the time I accepted what they were saying. Then later on, as I was looking at it, I said to myself, Why do these guys have such inferiority complexes about how they understand and practice Islam? Why were they in submission to Saudi power? So eventually I started looking at Islam through the lens of an American Muslim. And I would hear that same pattern repeated here, “You know it’s a diluted Islam in America. American Muslims don’t know what they are doing.”
When I look at how Islam is practiced Saudi Arabia it doesn’t seem like anything that I want to be a part of. So for me to understand myself as a Muslim, I really had to take it into my own hands.
This is an area that I got a lot out of through the Five Percenters. The Lessons break it down so that you have the 10%, who are the rich, bloodsuckers and slave makers of the poor, who teach what they know isn’t true. And then you have the 85%, who are the deaf, dumb, and blind – slaves to mental death and power. And then there’s the 5%, who are the poor righteous teachers, the ones who recognize themselves as true and living gods.
Personally, I believe in the Mystery God. The Five Percenter teaching says that there is no Mystery God, no God force beyond the human dimension. But I wouldn’t count myself in the 85%, because the Lessons say that 85% are the slaves to mental death and power – this is the way a “god” (a person who practices 5% beliefs refers to himself as a “god”) broke it down to me. So for me, the 85%, are those Muslims who submit blindly to the imams, or the Christians who just submit to the priests. You can be a Christian and have your own relationship with Christ, and not let a priest stand in your way. Or similarly, I can be a Muslim and not submit to what the Muslims in Saudi Arabia say.
Give me a brief description of how you got into studying the Five Percenters in your search for an American Islam.
Basically what I was looking for was an understanding of how Islam changes when it encounters different cultures. For instance, when Islam reached Persia and Persians became Muslim, Islam also became Persian. When Islam reached India, it became Indian. As Islam reached America, or took root in America, it became something American. It evolved its own American tradition. So, I was trying to examine all the different shapes that Islam has taken in this country.
And I saw Master Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, as summing up the whole history of Islam in America, because he was most likely coming from the immigrant experience. He ties that into the American experience, obviously. And without Master Fard and everything he did, there really would be no indigenous Islamic tradition as we know it. There would be no Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, or The Five Percenters. I see Fard as the source of all this.
So in my struggle to know and understand Master Fard, that’s what brought me into the Five Percent. And what really started to fascinate me was the more I got into it, the more I recognized that it is its own tradition.
You can talk about Islam in America, or the Nation of Islam, or whatever, but that won’t really capture The Five Percent. You have to really start looking at The Five Percent as its own tradition – as its own system. And it really spoke a lot to me on a variety of different levels, from religious levels to cultural and historical levels. So, it's a pretty deep well.
In terms of how The Five Percent belief system can be seen as being a foundation for Hip-Hop music and Hip-Hop culture, where do you think Five Percenter thought is today?
Five Percenters were at the very beginning of Hip-Hop. They started out in New York City, and Hip-Hop started out in New York City. For much of the history, you can’t separate the two. On the one hand, as Hip-Hop expanded it may have diluted the Five Percent influence, because Hip-Hop moved out to the west coast and to Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit – places where the Five Percent didn’t have as deep a history yet. That aspect may have compromised the influence a bit. But on the other hand, people all over the world are listening to Rakim and the Wu-Tang Clan. And the expansion of Hip-Hop has paralleled the expansion of the Five Percenters. Today, you can find the Five Percent anywhere. So I think just as much as the Five Percent was involved in the origins of Hip-Hop, Hip-Hop was also a way for the Five Percent to expand as well. They have helped each other.
Can you talk about the conversation you held with the RZA, founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, about the significance that Hip-Hop has played in where we are at in America’s political system?
Sure. I spoke to the RZA when I was writing the book and writing an article for Vibe, and we were talking about the legacy, not just of the Wu-Tang Clan, but also of Five Percenter MC’s and Hip-Hop itself. And he said to me, “In this day and time, to have a serious discussion about the possibility of a black man being president. The Wu-Tang has a lot to do with that.”
And when he said that, at first I thought, “This is some crazy rock-star self-promotion type of thing.” But then when I really reflected on it I said, you know, that’s true. That’s actually true. Because when I was 13 and I was growing up, where I come from its cornfields, square dances, and demolition derbies. I grew up in the sticks. And Chuck D said that rap was “the Black CNN,” and that was true for me, because rap was my source of information to a world that I had no connection to.
My whole intellectual and spiritual trajectory for the last 15 years has been completely impacted by Public Enemy. If it weren’t for Public Enemy I wouldn’t have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As a white kid growing up in a farm town, I never would have walked into a mosque. I never would have gone to Pakistan. I never would have had the life that I had. So I really think that Hip-Hop has built more bridges and opened more doors than almost anything in American culture. And people talk about how this year’s election is potentially a generational shift in politics; it really is an election in which the Hip-Hop generation plays a part. So what the RZA said really wasn’t that far off the mark – Hip-Hop has had that kind of impact.
The story of Clarence 13X (ALLAH) seems almost a myth, to some degree. The stories that some people tell about him, and those you’ve transcribed in your book, show a character that many have drawn a tremendous amount of inspiration from. Where would you chart him in the tradition of W.D. Fard, Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad?
Well, during his lifetime he pretty much was just the guy on the corner in Harlem. He became significant in local politics towards the end of his career, when Mayor Lindsey began engaging with actual community leaders and not just elected officials. He didn’t really reach a national level because he was taken out before he could go that far.
His real influence came after his death, when he really did become a kind of mythic figure. The young gods (these were the young men who learned from ALLAH/Clarence before he was killed) held him in such awe that when they carried on the teachings, the way they communicated the teachings to the next generation made ALLAH larger than life. So I’d say that he’s much more relevant now than he ever was when he was alive – which is true for a lot of historical figures.
I see in your work (probably more so in Blue-eyed Devil than The Five Percenters) an exploration of Sufism. I am curious to know, in your own words, how does Sufism fit into all this, and perhaps is it related to the founder of The Moorish Science Temple, Noble Drew Ali?
There have been attempts to reconcile the Five Percent teachings on God, and Sufi teachings on God. I personally don’t go there, but I can see why it works for some. Honestly, sometimes it’s not such a leap, because if the Quran says, “God is closer to you than the vein in your neck” – well, what’s the vein in your neck? The vein in your neck is you. What’s closer to you than you? So, on some levels I can see a relationship there. And Noble Drew Ali drew upon many mystical sources, and people have found parallels with Sufism. I don’t necessarily know if he himself interacted with Sufism. Some of the stuff reads the same across the board: Christian mysticism, New Age Theosophy, Sufism, you have a lot of similar themes. So I think there is a place; if you have an interest in Sufism and you have an interest in Noble Drew Ali, you have enough to work with to connect the two. But I don’t necessarily know that Noble Drew Ali himself had any connection with Sufism.
One thing that Ali seemed to speak a lot about was the culture of the Moors. Have you looked into Moorish culture? Any interesting discoveries that you’d like to share?
Well what Noble Drew Ali was trying to do was offer a national identity to Black people that was a preferable alternative to what America offered, because America offered no identity. America offered second-class citizenship. So what Noble Drew Ali was saying was, “You are not Negroes (which was the term at the time). You are Moors. And you have a nationality.” And this was at a time when you had all kinds of European immigration coming in, and white people coming off the boat weren’t white. They were Irish, Polish, Italian, German, whatever – whereas Black people were just Black. And Noble Drew Ali was saying, “No. You also have a nationality.” So that’s where he was going with that.
The Moorish Science Temple still lives on. There are people who still cling to that. But if you look at the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Noble Drew Ali, The Five Percent, it’s all about taking a greater identity than what America offers. Talking about something greater than what America says that you are, something greater than America itself even.
In Blue-Eyed Devil and The Five Percenters you write a little about Hakim Bey, aka Peter Lamborn Wilson. Can you tell me some positive things you’ve taken from his works?
Well, Peter was really influential for me in terms of seeing Islam as something that can be flexible and diverse and creative. Because Islam in my previous experience really had no room for creativity. And when Peter spoke about heresy in a positive way, that really blew my mind and opened me up to appreciate things like the Five Percent in a way that I really wouldn’t have been able to before, when I was caught up in issues of what’s authentically Islam. So that’s definitely the good that I’ve gotten from him.
I’d like to clarify some ideas and terms that are used within the Nation of Islam and The Five Percenter movement. First, could you explain the story of Yacub and the 6-ounce brain of the white race. and the idea of the white man being the devil?
Basically the history taught by the Nation of Islam, which is shared by the Five Percenters, is that what you would call the white race is the creation of a scientist named Yacub. And Yacub created – engineered – this race of devils that were physically weaker, mentally weaker, and predisposed to wickedness. And these devils would cause destruction and oppression on the earth until their time ran out basically.
I got a lot out of that mythology, however I did not treat it as physical history. I don’t believe that there was actually a man named Yacub six thousand years ago that fled to the island of Patmos and started a eugenics government to graft a pale skin race of devils. Like I said, I don’t view that as physical history. I think the main purpose of mythology and religion is to explain the presence of evil in the world, and that is a very viable and worthwhile way of explaining evil in America, and perhaps the rest of the world.
But for me, what I personally got out of it was a way to understand myself as an American. I don’t believe myself to be genetically disposed to wickedness, or that I was born inherently inferior to anyone, but if you are white in a white supremacist culture you’re going to have the same pins and needle stuck in your head that you need to take out. You’re going to be receiving hardcore cultural messages that can become so deeply ingrained in you that you don’t even know you are perpetuating a white supremacist culture, and in that respect that makes you a devil. You are doing things without even knowing the wicked ramifications of it.
There’s this story about a professor who got his PhD in Slavery, a white man who spent a decade of his life studying racial oppression. You might consider him to be the most politically and socially aware and enlightened white man on the planet, you know what I mean. But one day he was walking down the street with a Jewish student who had a Star of David medallion around his neck, and two African American men walked up to them and one of them touched that medallion. He took it in his hand, and this white professor and his Jewish student both become paralyzed in fear. And the dude just says, “That’s beautiful. That’s a really cool chain.” And they just walk on. And this white professor, with his PhD in Slavery was confronted with this ugliness inside himself that he didn’t even know was there. That’s how deeply ingrained that devilishment is.
“The Lessons” of W.D. Fard say that it takes the devil 35 to 50 years of study to even be allowed to trade among the righteous, original people, just to be considered a Muslim son. I think what this really offered me was the challenge to own up to it. I was born in this culture and I have those pins and needles in my head. (“Pins and Needles” is a metaphor used within Five Percenter beliefs to show how untrue messages cloud peoples’ thinking.) And to take those pins and needles out is just a process of civilization, and civilizing yourself. When someone is educating oneself and learning to push aside fabrication for fact, the process is referred to as “pulling pins and needles.”
I’m really thankful for encountering that. It gave me a whole new understanding of my place in American history. And what it meant for me to be born in the place that I was.
Ok, can you give a brief description of “The Lessons”?
The Lessons was the Nation of Islam’s process of initiation. There were these texts that you memorized upon your entry into the mosque. Basically, the structure of the Lessons was as transcribed question and answer sessions between Fard and Elijah Muhammad. So Fard, the teacher, would ask the question, and Elijah Muhammad, the student, would give the answer. And so these questions and answers are how the Nation of Islam taught its beliefs to new members.
And ALLAH, he mastered those lessons and eventually, when he broke with the Nation, he took them out on the street. These secret lessons that were so fiercely guarded within the mosque were now on the street corners, they were on the basketball courts, in the parks, and teenagers were teaching them to kids even younger than themselves. And that’s really how the Five Percent got started, from the liberation of these lessons birthing a whole different culture.
Now can you explain the literal definition of “Knowledge of Self” as taught by the Five Percent? Also, I’d like to hear you break down some science on the Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabets and the 120.
The Knowledge of Self is for the black man to recognize that there is no Mystery God up in heaven. That he is his own god, that he’s the god of the universe. The Mathematics and the Alphabets is what ALLAH, the former Clarence 13X, added on. That was his understanding and a system the he revealed, you can say.
They compliment the understanding of the Lessons. A lot of gods consider the Mathematics and the Alphabets to be the key to unlocking the lessons. Here’s an example: today is the fifth of the month. In Mathematics, that would be Power. So today’s Mathematics would be Power, and the day’s degree asks you, “How do we take Jerusalem away from the devil?”
If I wanted to understand that lesson, I might try to relate that to the day’s Mathematics of Power. So we can talk about Jesus being a teacher of Freedom, Justice, and Equality. And people taking his message, distorting it, corrupting it, using it as a shield for dirty religion. And that’s how they got what? Power.
So, for you to get Power, you have to take Jerusalem back from the devil.
And I’m just a baby in that culture. If you talk to a god that’s been in this for forty years they would add on a whole depth that is beyond my reach. That’s just a quick break down.
Respect. If a black man can call himself god, then why can’t a white man do the same?
I think that you have take it to the historical context of the Lessons. Like, why are the Lessons important? Why is the culture important? Why is the value system important? I think that the meaning of “god” there is for the original man to lift himself up rather than waiting for a supernatural power to do it for him. So, I get it on that level.
The way I was taught, it’s not claiming to be a mystical creature that other people cannot be. It’s more of a social and political statement about what you are doing in your community. I’ve been told all kinds of things within the Five Percent community. I’ve even been greeted with “Peace, black man.” I’d go to a Parliament, a monthly Five Percenter meeting, and be greeted with “Peace, black man.”
And I’ve got my blue eyes, and I’m not fooling anybody. I am what I am. But, you’ll hear all kinds of things with that. There are even some Five Percenters who teach that white people can be gods, and I’m not sure how seriously that’s taken.
I never was treated as the devil. That’s one thing I can say about the Five Percent. I was never treated as something inferior or as the devil. My ways and actions was how I was understood. If I came in with respect, I was treated with respect. And that’s how I took it.
It was explained to me this way by a Jewish man who worked for City Hall in the 60s, a man who was very familiar with ALLAH and the Five Percenters. I asked him, “Do you see this as black supremacy? Do you see this as racism?” And he said, “Well, you know, it’s just like the Jews believing that they are the chosen people.” The way that he phrased it was, “This is just a way to take some pretty bad kids and teach them self-respect.”
So, to me, you really have to look at the history of where this came from and then look at the mythology and value system celebrating the specific struggle of a particular people. So I respect the Five Percent very much. I can’t go in there and claim it as my own, and say “Yes, I’m god. I’m on the same level as you are in this culture.” There is a very specific historical place for this, and I don’t want to step on that.
When I go to Parliaments it’s kind of like going to dinner at somebody’s house, or when you are staying at someone’s house. I take what’s offered to me, respectfully. If they offer me the couch, if they offer me the guest bedroom, I accept what I am offered there.
I know Elijah Muhammad has written at least one book about Freemasonry. Did the Freemasons come up at all in your research?
Noble Drew Ali was definitely influenced more by Freemasonry than by traditional Islamic sources. Like I said, I couldn’t find any evidence that he was directly involved with Sufism or any other kind of mainstream Islam. But his imagery of Islam was shaped more by the Shriners, and the way that he structured his organization and his texts and stuff was influenced by Freemasonry.
That’s also part of the genealogy of African American religious tradition that I’ve been getting into lately, because Freemasonry really is the starting point in a way for Islam into this country. And that ties into Egyptology, like what Dwight York builds on now. So I was trying to say that going to Islam, to going to spaceships, to Egyptology to Judaism – to the outsider these seem like very unrelated things. But within the tradition that York was working with, it doesn’t seem to be so unrelated. He wasn’t going from Islam to Buddhism, or something which hadn’t really taken that much of a hold in the African American religious tradition. There were definitely historical relationships between all of those things.
[Ed. Note: Dwight York is the founder of Ansar Pure Sufi, which blended Five Percent teachings with those of Elijah Muhammad, Sufism, Judaism, and the Sudanese Mahdi movement. Through the late 1960s and early 70s, York’s movement went through a series of name changes. He is currently is prison for the sexual molestation of many children within his community, though there are still people who claim that he was set up.]
What are you researching and writing about these days?
I’ve been doing a lot of research into Nuwabu, one of the communities York began. I’ve always had kind of peripheral encounters with it. Getting into the history of the Five Percent, Nuwabians started out in Brooklyn. So they were there for a lot of that early history, too.
What I am interested in right now is kind of a genealogy of York’s teachings, looking at the whole tradition from which it draws from. A lot of people say that he was this and then he switched over to that, and then he was this and then he switched over to that.
And these were complete 180s. If you really look at the history of African American religions, you might see that the shifts really did have a connection with each other. And that’s what I’m interested in now. The genealogy in how this unique reality system became constructed. There has been limited writing on it, and it’s basically playing within the cult paradigm. And that’s really not the game I’m trying to play. I’m just looking at the historical courses that shaped that particular tradition.
A few questions to end on: Where do you think the positive potential for all this is going? Are you encountering more people like yourself, those of the white class really taking on all this stuff with a sober mind, and who are really trying to do something positive in collaboration with those from the communities like the Five Percent? Are you optimistic about the future trajectory concerning race relations and the potential for peace and real understanding in America?
I think that the worst today is as bad as it’s ever been, but the best may be better. Here we are, two white guys talking about the Five Percenters and Hip-Hop up in Harlem. I think that end of the spectrum has expanded. I don’t know if you saw, after the West Virginia primary, people in West Virginia talking about if they would vote for a black man, or how they feel about someone with a middle name Hussein – stuff like that. That is still there, and I don’t know if that’s going anywhere.
But, I think that there is more on the other side than there were in previous years. Still, I don’t think that that kind of evil is ever going to be gone completely. But I do believe that there are more enlightened people now than ever before. I hope so.