Muhammad's Mosque on 12th Street NE is not a spectacular house of worship. The mosque, which serves as the local headquarters of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, is a nondescript building in the heart of a residential community. But male members of the religious group guard it as if it were the Taj Mahalall visitors are subjected to a thorough search upon entrance. Modest as the mosque may be, local members of the Lost-Found Nation say they can't afford to take chances because their home is under siege.
On a warm Sunday afternoon at the mosque, Lost-Found Nation of Islam Capt. Hasan Al-Jihad is taking aim at those who would lay his faithful low. "They mistake humility for weakness," rages Al-Jihad. "They think because you're humble and submissive, you're a weak person." At each pause in his litany, a response of "Yes, sir" emanates from the assembled.
"A crime has been committed against Silis Muhammad's followers," says Al-Jihad, invoking the head of the Lost-Found Nation. "They're telling Silis Muhammad's followers, 'You got three minutes to get off the corner.'"
On April 25, Muhammad's Mosque was firebombed in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. The Lost-Found Nation says it was a hate crime. But Al-Jihad is not worried about the usual suspectsskinheads, KKK, or the Aryan nation. He says the aggressor likely comes from within the community of Black Muslimsa member of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.
"We have no animosity against Farrakhan," says Al-Jihad. "[But Farrakhan] pledged to atone....Now we want you to pledge to leave us alone!" Al-Jihad's invective is laced with the rage of a scorned brother, a suitable warmup for Muhammad's Mosque's minister, Najee Muhammad. "That was not a brother that dropped a firebomb back here," says Muhammad. "That was a wrong-doer; that was a peace-breaker."
For over 20 years, differing factions under the splintered Nation of Islam umbrella have coexisted peacefully, with a few minor skirmishes. But that coexistence was destroyed in D.C. on April 25.
For much of its history, the Nation of Islam has been racked by a series of schisms and internal conflict. The best known example is Malcolm X, who left the religion and rejected much of its race-based ideology. But a larger split occurred when the head of the movement, Elijah Muhammad, died in 1975 and the helm of the Nation was passed to Wallace Dean Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son. Like Malcolm X, the younger Muhammad's vision differed sharply from the racially tinged ideas of his father.
He set the religion on course toward orthodox Islam and almost immediately began dismantling the business empire his father had built up. The businesses were sold, temples were renamed mosques, and the Nation's stringent dress code was scrapped. Wallace Muhammad changed his name to Warith Dean Muhammad and renamed the Nation the American Bilallian Community. Today, it's called the Muslim American Society.
While many Muslims peacefully followed Warith Dean Muhammad, others weren't enamored of the reformation. Silis Muhammad left the Nation in 1970 after being charged by Nation officials with theft. In August 1977, Silis Muhammad founded the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, which continued to follow the theology proffered by Elijah Muhammad and to publish Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper founded by Malcolm X. A year later, Louis Farrakhan founded his own group under the name Nation of Islam.
An outsider would have difficulty differentiating between the groups. Both groups emphasize a clean, well-kept look: Men are not allowed to grow beards and must always wear business suits when they are serving in an official capacity. The most obvious outward indication is that the male members of the Nation of Islam wear bow ties and members of the Lost-Found Nation wear straight ties. But the most important differences are in the political realm. While Farrakhan champions electoral politics, members of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam follow Elijah Muhammad's original edict, rejecting politics outright. The Lost-Found Nation, for most of its existence, has steadily pursued reparations for African-Americans for slaverya cause to which Farrakhan has given tacit approval at best.
The two groups have been in conflict from the beginning. Lost-Found followers say that Silis Muhammad made at least three attempts in 1977 to pull Farrakhan into his fold and that all were rebuffed. Farrakhan went on to found an organization with mosques in every major city, while the Lost-Found Nation, by most estimates, has only 18 to 20 congregations. Former Nation of Islam minister Vibert White joined the group in 1978, when Farrakhan's number were minuscule. White says that Farrakhan's power as a speaker gave him a leg up on Silis Muhammad when it came to recruiting members. "Most of us didn't know anything about Silis, because he wasn't an orator or a polemic," says White.
Yet as late as 1994, White says, efforts were being made to unite the two groups. "The person that kept breaking the meetings up was Louis Farrakhan," says White. "On most occasions [meetings would be set up] and he would just break the engagement."
White, who left the Nation of Islam in 1995, says it all came tumbling down after Farrakhan repeatedly refused to endorse Silis Muhammad's efforts to champion reparations. When 1995's Million Man March was being planned, White says, Silis Muhammad asked Farrakhan for permission to address the crowd. "Farrakhan told him he'd let him speak [but] under a condition," says White: if he agreed to not mention reparations. Unwilling to jettison his primary issue, Silis Muhammad declined to address the crowd at the march.
Lost-Found followers say that members of the Nation of Islam have always treated them like Elijah Muhammad's stepchildren. "I'm from Mississippi," say Al-Jihad. "And I haven't seen white people look at me" as harshly as Nation of Islam members do. Silis Muhammad has referred to Farrakhan as "the second beast," in a Koranic allusion to the serpent who would oppose the prophet Muhammad in the last days. In a recent issue of Muhammad Speaks, however, he published a letter asking for reconciliation.
C. Eric Lincoln, author of The Black Muslims, says that recent conflicts between the two groups could be a byproduct of the anxiety over who will succeed Farrakhan in the wake of recent reports that Farrakhan is gravely ill. Given that Silis Muhammad heads the second largest faction of Muslims who still follow Elijah Muhammad's doctrine, Lincoln says that Silis Muhammad is a possible successor. "There always is rivalry in organizations of that sort, and that is going to intensify as a result of Minister Farrakhan's illness," says Lincoln. "There isn't any clarity on who is going to succeed him."
In the District, Lost-Found members say that the two groups got along fine until a year ago, when Minister Khadir Muhammad became head of the Nation of Islam's local mosque. Al-Jihad charges that Khadir Muhammad has a history of harassing Lost-Found members dating back to when he was head of the mosque in Newark, N.J. He says that when Muslims from the Nation of Islam would see Muslims from the Lost-Found Nation selling Muhammad Speaks, they'd intentionally bump into them, scowl at them from across the street, or tell them that they weren't real Muslims. Al-Jihad claims that Khadir Muhammad would personally participate in the harassment.
Al-Jihad says he has tried to get Khadir Muhammad to sit down and talk their differences out, but a dialogue has never taken place. Last August, Lost-Found Minister Najee Muhammad sent a letter to Khadir Muhammad condemning the harassment: "Based on your conduct, we can only conclude that you are a peace breaker and a wrongdoer. From this day forward, we will view you as such until you atone."
Atonement didn't seem to be in the cards. On April 24, around 2 p.m., a contingent of Lost-Found Nation of Islam Muslims visited the parking lot of Landover Mall to sell copies of Muhammad Speaks. A member of the Lost-Found Nation, who declined to give his name, said a brawl began when Nation of Islam members began harassing members of the Lost-Found Nation. Prince George's County Police Sgt. Gary Cunningham says that two men were arrested, while the rest fled the scene. Cunningham says that one victim had been cut and another was pepper-sprayed.
But that's not where it ended. It was at approximately 1 the next morning that someone hurled two Molotov cocktails at the Lost-Found Nation's mosque and fled. The mosque suffered only minor damage.
Both groups are skittish about discussing the matter, given the negative attention they've received from mainstream press and the U.S. government in the past. Khadir Muhammad refuses to answer questions about the firebombing. "That's all alleged!...I have no comment. You could be the CIA or the FBI," he says. As insincere as the protest sounds, both groups have history working for them when it comes to paranoia. The FBI's COINTELPRO participated in systematic efforts to survey and disrupt the activities of the Nation of Islam during Elijah Muhammad's days. Old FBI memos pertaining to the Nation of Islam are posted on the Nation of Islam's Web site.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Special Agent Brad Earman says the firebombing is still an open case. "We've got some good leads," says Earman. "But we haven't made any arrests at the time." Back at Muhammad's Mosque, Al-Jihad says he hopes for a resolution soon, lest things get even uglier. "Our response is going to be to continue to sell Muhammad Speaks," says Al-Jihad. "If anyone acts against us, we're gonna do whatever we can to protect ourselves." CP