Think you know everything about the Black followers of Islam in America? Think again. Before the Nation of Islam, a separate group of Black Islam members was created by the son of North Carolina slaves. It was a religion called The Moorish Science Temple of America.
A History Forgotten by Many
The Moorish Science Temple of America was created in 1913 in Newark, New Jersey by Timothy Drew. Although there is still discussion about where Drew originated from, he is believed to have a slave background, mixed with Cherokee ancestry and perhaps Moroccan roots. Drew, who changed his name to Drew Ali, created the religious organization based on his belief that African Americans were descendants of the North African Moors, and should identify with them.
While Drew referenced Morocco many times, it is believed that he wasn’t referring to the current day country of Morocco, but rather an area of Northwest Africa that surrounds it. He required his members to declare their nationality as such. Members of the organization carried identity cards that listed them as part of the Moroccan Empire and considered their race, “Asiatic” rather than “Black.”
Competition for Race Identity
The Moorish Science Temple of America was most active in the 1920s with its headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. By the 1930’s many African Americans had joined, looking to build a stronger identity and race pride. At the same time, the Nation of Islam was formed, creating competition for the popular group. After the World Wars, membership steadily decreased, until it was nearly erased from most people’s memories. While the group is rumored to have as many as 30,000 members at one time, it is now believed to have fewer than 1000.
A Magical Reincarnation
While much of Drew’s teachings were heavily rooted in black nationalism, some were not. Similar to other American–based religions, Drew claimed he was given a sacred text based on either magic or reincarnations. Some say he was the reincarnation of Jesus or Buddha while others say he was rewarded with knowledge by Egyptian magic. His temple had its text called the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America, and it is not the same as the Quran followed by mainstream Islam practitioners.
Similar Traditions; Different Beliefs
While quite different from any other form of Islam, The Moorish Temple of America had some familiar practices. Men wore a Fez and women wore Turbans. This mirrors some of the traditions of ancient Moorish dress. Similar to the Nation of Islam, members removed their slave names and replaced it with Islamic surnames, such as Ali, Bey or El. He also permitted the practice of having multiple wives.
A Deadly Split
By the end of the 1920s, turmoil within the group led to power struggles and murder. Although Drew Ali was not attacked, the business manager of the group was murdered after threatening to leave the group. Drew Ali was arrested on suspicion and died in his home shortly after being released. Following his death, the group further debated who would lead them. Many Black Muslim groups appeared in its wake.
One of the most popular groups to break off was the Nation of Islam, led by Wallace Fard Muhammad. Previously, he was named David Ford–El. Some members believed he was the reincarnation of Drew Ali. While the Nation of Islam officially denies this claim, many believe it to be true.
Left Out of the History Books
The history of the American Black Muslim is one that is frequently left out of the history books, although it had a significant impact on Black culture including introducing a religion that embraced race pride, educational and business opportunities for African American families and healthy living. The founding of this movement and those that follow happened in the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, a period that ushered in new ways of thinking in the arts and rewrote American culture.
Although you probably won’t read much about Noble Drew Ali (previously known as Timothy Drew), his impact on Black America is one that can still be felt today. He is considered by some to be as important to Black nationalism as Marcus Garvey.