The year 2013 marks the centenary of the reported founding of the Canaanite Temple in Newark, N.J. That was the very earliest form of an indigenous black American Islam, one completely distinct from normative Islam, the 1,400-year-old religion from Arabia founded by Muhammad. From this movement came Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.
The century divides into two main eras: inventing a new religion (1913-1975) and moving toward normative Islam (1975-2013).
Timothy Drew (1886-1929), an American black who called himself Noble Drew Ali, founded the Newark temple and then, in 1925 another, better verified organization, the oddly named Moorish Science Temple of America. His ideas derived mainly from four unlikely sources — pan-Africanists, the Shriners, Ahmadiyya Muslims and white racists.
From pan-Africanists such as Edward Wilmot Blyden and Marcus Garvey, he appropriated the notion of Christianity as the religion of whites and Islam that of nonwhites. As a practicing Shriner, Noble Drew Ali borrowed traits from this organization, such as the use of “Noble” before one’s name, the requirement that men wear fezzes and a network of lodges. From Ahmadis, he took Arabic personal names, the crescent-and-star motif, the prohibition of pork and the notion of Jesus traveling to India. From white racists came the idea that accomplished black Americans are not Africans at all, but “Moors,” “Moorish-Americans” or “Asiatics,” a mythical northwest African people, the Moabites, who migrated to sub-Saharan Africa.
From this unique mixture, Noble Drew Ali concocted the 64-page scripture of his religion, the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America (Chicago, 1927), which despite its name has almost nothing to do with the normative Islamic Koran but is largely plagiarized from two texts, one occult Christian and the other Tibetan. Even more strangely, his Koran focuses not on the figure of Muhammad, but on Jesus.
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