Nations of Islam at War
When firebombers lobbed an arsenal of molotov cocktails into a tiny mosque in Washington, D.C., last month, officials in the Atlanta-based Lost-Found Nation Of Islam a splinter group vying for control of the black Muslim movement feared the worst. A battle over a newspaper route between followers of Lost-Found leader Silis Muhammad and members of the rival and more powerful Nation of Islam led by Minister Louis Farrakhan had erupted in all-out war.
Arson investigators with the Washington, D.C., Fire Department and agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are investigating a motive behind the bombing.
Black Muslim insiders, however, speculate that Silis, the reclusive 59-year-old publisher of Muhammad Speaks, the Lost-Found's official organ, has been attempting to boost sales in black neighborhoods since it was rumored two months ago that the cancer-stricken Farrakhan who publishes the more popular Final Call newspaper was dying. Farrakhan's failing health has reignited a power struggle among splinter groups such as the one led by Silis.
But the roots of the current conflict are much deeper. A controversy surrounding an extraordinary meeting 20 years ago between Silis and Farrakhan still rages. Some say a defeated Silis left a faceoff in disgrace. And that, in addition to Silis's relentless quest for political rehabilitation, remains the catalyst for tension between the two sects.
In 1979, Yusef Bey, a captain in the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, arranged a long-sought meeting between Silis and Farrakhan, then the emerging, charismatic chief minister of the NOI.
Many arguments divided the factions: Elijah Muhammad, patriarch of the Nation of Islam, had been dead less than four years when his own son, Wallace, denounced him; declared that the NOI's white founder, W.D. Fard, was not Allah; rejected separatism; and decentralized the theocracy, moving it toward orthodox Islam.
A "holy war," as Silis would later put it, ensued. Farrakhan, who joined the NOI in the 1950s and played a major role in creating the atmosphere that led to the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, broke away from Wallace in 1977 and organized a new Nation of Islam, which returned to preaching Elijah's anti-white philosophy. Farrakhan, who was Elijah's spokesman until "the Saviour" 's death, began to project himself as Elijah's undisputed heir. That angered Silis, who, in a counter measure, proclaimed that not only was Elijah Muhammad Moses but that he, Silis, was "the prophet like Moses [who] came for war."
When Silis wasn't trying to convince a skeptical Farrakhan that he was divinely inspired, he was waging war against Wallace. Under NOI teachings, Wallace is regarded as the "false prophet" sent to test 144,000 of Elijah's followers, who, according to Abass Rassoull, leader of the United Nation of Islam faction, would be "genetically coded to become the actual new rulers" of the world.
For several months in 1979, Silis taunted Farrakhan, accusing him of being afraid to openly condemn Wallace. With tension increasing between the two groups, it was only a matter of time before the spiritual sons of Elijah Muhammad sat down.
Although Farrakhan felt he was being set up by Bey (who is now dead) and Silis, aides recall that he nevertheless appeared at a now defunct Muslim-owned bakery in California. What transpired during several hours of acrimonious debate that dragged on past midnight has evolved into years of internecine violence, allegedly culminating in the attack four weeks ago on the Lost-Found mosque.
Around 1:30 a.m. on April 25, Molotov cocktails crashed against a steel-reinforced door of the mosque, located in the 2900 block of 12th Street in northeast Washington. A janitor, who was inside cleaning, extinguished the flames with a bucket of water, mosque captain Hasan Al-Jihad told The Washington Post.
Al-Jihad charged that two days before the incident, Farrakhan's men had harassed some of Silis's people as they were selling special editions of Muhammad Speaks in a black neighborhood and at a mall. The Nation of Islam did not return phone calls for comment. Minister Khalid Hadi, Silis's representative in New York, says that the firebombing of the mosque "raises suspicion that . . . Farrakhan and his followers may be acting as agents of the government of America to thwart the aim and purpose of Silis," who has criticized Farrakhan for urging his own followers to vote and for considering bringing whites into the NOI.
"We will not be intimidated or moved by acts of aggression and terrorism," vows Hadi, whose organization itself was linked to violence in the early 1980s after several followers were convicted on charges ranging from beating travelers along Interstate 75 to murder. (Says Hadi: "It has never been confirmed that they were members.")
Shortly after the attack, Silis, who lives in east Cobb County about 10 miles from Atlanta, proposed "a treaty of everlasting peace between all factions, branches, and sects" of the black Muslim movement.
"We have no jealousy of Minister Louis Farrakhan's greatness, and there is nothing in this proposed peace agreement that impairs it," Silis said in a statement. "We do not wish to fight him with arms or hostile words," he added.
Farrakhan, according to Minister Hadi, has not acknowledged Silis's call for an end to the violence. Some say that after all these years Farrakhan hasn't forgotten an alleged stunt that Silis pulled under the pretext of unifying the Nation against Wallace Muhammad.
At their vituperative meeting in California, Silis Muhammad threw down the gauntlet. He opened up the meeting by rebuking a participant who tried to take his picture. "[T]here are many people who would like to take my life," he charged, "and perhaps some of you here would like to do that."
Silis went on to deliver a rambling speech infused with NOI religious dogma and laced with not-so-subtle attacks on Farrakhan, who, in reality, was being challenged for leadership of the Nation.
"I am sick of this treachery, this deceit you practice, this evilness," Silis said. "You have heard about a war, a holy war," he added. "I want you to know that you are walking right inside of it. And do not expect me to be the one running from it. Look at my conduct and you will see that I ran to it, not from it."
NOI followers who have studied the speech say Silis sounded like an Islamic extremist. In his speech, he continually referred to Elijah as Moses, one who would have been proud to see him and Farrakhan in the same room.
"I believe Moses would be proud if he could see Silis Muhammad submit to Farrakhan," Silis asserted. "He would be happy today to see us join together and defeat Imam Wallace D. Muhammad if we can settle our differences."
Silis argued that there was only one issue in dispute between the two leaders. "You don't believe that Silis Muhammad is a prophet like Moses," he contended. "I know that this is your thinking that is the central theme that divides us today."
Silis claimed that he was closer to Elijah than Farrakhan or many of Elijah's followers believe. "I lived around him for about four years," he claimed. "I had dinner with him daily, almost, during that four-year period." (One Farrakhan loyalist says, "Silis was no more than Elijah Muhammad's houseboy.")
Farrakhan, Silis suggested, did not reflect Elijah's essence and had misrepresented his teachings. "We're tired of you talking about what you think you heard Moses say," he scoffed.
Ultimately, he accused Farrakhan of being jealous of him "because Moses sent me on to school.
"Envy me if I'm telling a lie, envy me if I'm misusing or mistreating our people," he said. "In fact don't envy me," he paused. "Chop my head off!"
Silis then portrayed himself as the only leader with the backbone to confront Wallace.
"[N]ow the ministers once again are standing up," he sneered. "If these ministers were so heavy, these supreme captains and these lieutenants, where were they when Wallace was doubting the Honorable Elijah Muhammad? Where were they when he was doubting our God and Saviour? Where were they when Wallace was tearing down the NOI? Why didn't they stand?"
Louis Farrakhan walked into "the holy war" proclaiming that Elijah had warned him but at the same time had assured him that his enemies in the Nation "would dig ditches for me, but I wouldn't fall in them.
"I ain't bowing or begging a damn soul to walk behind me," he added. "I want us to walk behind the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and refill the house that a devil and hypocrite have torn down."
Farrakhan said he had weighed the pros and cons about attending the meeting and its impact on his crusade to win back Elijah's followers from Wallace. "If I hadn't showed up here tonight, what would the result be?" he asked. "Would I read in the Messenger's magazine, 'Farrakhan Reneges on a Debate With Silis Muhammad'? Would I read that I backed down from Silis Muhammad? That's my brother. I ain't backing down from him, but I'm not fighting him. What is this set up for? What is behind the mind that set it up?"
If Bey's intention was to force the two leaders to air their grievances, he apparently succeeded. Silis wound up portraying Farrakhan as a carpetbagger and Farrakhan depicted Silis as a religious madman. "I didn't come here tonight with all of the ammunition because I didn't know that I would be having to prove this tonight," Farrakhan said.
About Silis's claim to be like Moses, Farrakhan said, "I want to be a prophet like Moses too, but I don't want to call myself a prophet." In his irate response, Farrakhan said he had advised Silis not to refer to himself as a prophet but as an apostle or messenger.
"I said, 'Brother, if you want to be successful, don't say you're the prophet like Moses because the believers only know the Messenger [Elijah]," Farrakhan recalled. "That was my advice."
Although he frowned on Silis's portrayal of himself as a prophet, Farrakhan defended his nemesis. "Brother Muhammad feels this deeply and he has every right to go before the world if he believes this," he argued. "Nobody got no right to stop him. And we will stop anybody that try to stop him."
But as to Silis's claim that he was nowhere to be found when Wallace was raiding the Nation, Farrakhan declared, "[Elijah] Muhammad didn't make me no faggot; and I didn't shut my mouth [on] February 26, 1975 [the day Elijah died], because I was afraid." He told Silis, "I applauded your courage, but Brother Muhammad, you don't know what I was doing behind the door, because you and I never talk."
Over the years, Farrakhan and Silis would communicate by phone and by letter because both leaders rarely agreed on the terms for a face-to-face meeting.
They finally met at a hotel in Atlanta on September 9, 1995, about a month before the historic Million Youth March. Farrakhan had invited Silis to attend, but Silis opted out, saying that he was troubled by Farrakhan's philosophy that black men should atone for their past behavior. Relations worsened. Farrakhan's followers in Atlanta demanded a meeting with Silis.
When that did not occur soon enough, a group of men allegedly invaded Silis's home on January 25, 1996. In a statement released after the incident, then Lost-Found supreme captain Dhoruba Asadi quoted former NOI Minister Jeremiah Shabazz (a guest of Silis's at the time), as saying, "I was highly suspicious of the huge bulges in their pockets."
With Farrakhan's recuperation from cancer in doubt, no one expects Silis and the minister to be meeting any time in the near future. "It is our own corruption which caused the NOI to fall," Silis declared during his 1979 meeting with Farrakhan. "It is our own corruption today which keeps the NOI from rising. What corruption? Your selfishness," he told Farrakhan and the other Muslims, "your envy, your jealousy, your greed for money, fortune, and fame. This is what keeps the NOI from rising. But the NOI will rise."
Additional reporting by Karen Mahabir
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