When Shaw Citizens Against Drugs and Crime rallied at the drug-infested corner of l4th and W streets NW last week, they were mocked by some who mumbled irreverently through the prayer service. "Y'all better stop making noise or somebody gonna catch a pellet," one man uttered from a decrepit building nearby.
Then came speaker Sultan Muhammad, 32, the newly appointed local imam of the American Muslim Mission, the group formerly known as the Nation of Islam or, to others, the Black Muslims.
"This drugs is something that we know is killing people," Muhammad said. "As a Muslim, I'd like to see the pushers cut up, put them on national TV and cut their asses up. All you have to do is take one of them and cut his hands off," Muhammad said, making a slashing motion with his hand, first across his wrists, then his neck. "Cut their heads off, then you wouldn't have any more drug problem in Shaw," he said.
The crowd of about 200 marchers first applauded, then winced when they realized Muhammad was not talking figuratively. Even City Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), who recently introduced what many thought was an ultra-conservative "antinarcotics loitering zone" bill, hung his head in disbelief.
Few seemed to notice, however, the jests from the peanut gallery had ceased. By the time Muhammad concluded his remarks with, "I wish we could execute Islamic law here," the rowdy hecklers were gone.
If there was any doubt about what direction the new American Muslim Mission had taken following the death in 1975 of its founder, Elijah Muhammad, Sultan Muhammad, his grandson, was making it clear. It is the way of Islam, with government founded on religious law.
This was a profound change in the philosophy of this group of Muslims, and while traditional Christians think some of their new principles are even harsher than some of the old ways, at least the imam knows one way to get some respect at 14th and W streets NW.
From its inception in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam held beliefs based on the teaching of "Yacub's History," which had it that Yacub was a black scientist, from the tribe of Shabazz, who fell out of favor with Allah and tried to get even by creating a devil race of people--the whites. For this, blacks were punished.
The teacher was a man out of Detroit named Wallace Fard, who called himself the supreme ruler of the universe--in other words, Allah. He soon teamed up with the son of a Georgia preacher, Elijah Poole, deemed him the "divine prophet" and made him spiritual head of the Lost-Found Nation of All Islam in the West. Poole became Elijah Muhammad.
The Nation of Islam remained in relative obscurity until the early 1960s when it attracted a former convict who took the name Malcolm X. Embittered by racism, and highly articulate, Malcolm X brought in thousands of converts.
When Malcolm learned more about Islam, however, he changed his attitudes about whites and his name to El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. For this, apparently, he was assassinated.
But the change was under way, and when Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his successor, his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, announced the group was also changing its name and aligning itself with traditional Islam as taught by the Koran and practiced by Malcolm in his final years.
Whites were no longer considered devils, thus the "Myth of Yacub" was renounced. Under Islam, there could be no other prophets but Muhammad, so Elijah Muhammad's title as "Messenger of God" was taken away.
Today, the conflicts continue because some members have refused to make the change and the old Nation of Islam, although much smaller, continues under another protege' of Elijah Muhammad--Louis Farrakan. It is a mistake to change the teachings of Elijah Muhammad because whites are still devils, Farrakan insists.
But it is Warith Deen Muhammad along with masjid leaders, such as Sultan Muhammad, who have taken control of this powerful, 1 million member organization. When they talk, even dudes at 14th and W listen.