The man police say killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday reportedly identified with black power groups. Many trace their lineage back to the Moorish Science Temple of America, a quasi-Islamic religion founded in the early 1900s. Even before the shooting, the temple’s current leaders were already frustrated by so-called sovereign citizens who cite its influence in their rejection of U.S. government authority.
WASHINGTON (RNS) Up on a dais, several men -- all black, each clad in a colorful robe and fez -- take turns acknowledging the assembled congregants with a raised right hand and the greeting “Islam.”
Those participating in this esoteric worship service are not ordinary Muslims. They belong to the Moorish Science Temple of America, established almost a century ago around principles of self-reliance.
“We got to get together, Moors!” a congregational leader tells the roughly 250 attendees at a festival earlier this year, where people laugh and hug one another, exchanging gifts and dancing to funk and soul tunes.
One of them is Donald Draffin-El, an Uber driver. It’s been 40 years since he became a Moorish Scientist.
“I found a part of myself I hadn’t known until then, something that felt more right than anything else had,” he says. Other black movements are “just like potatoes or bread -- it’s just starch for people. It’s not protein, not something you can grow with.”
In contrast, he says, Moorish Science, with its message of personal dignity and connection to one’s roots, continues to give him sustenance.
“We are not black!” says R. Jones-Bey, whose title is grand sheik, repeating a theme he comes back to often. “Black people have no rights. No one who is without a nationality is recognized in America.”
In recent years, reports have surfaced around the country of people -- including Gavin Eugene Long, the man police identify as being the Baton Rouge gunman -- claiming to be Moorish nationals and therefore “sovereign citizens” immune to U.S. laws. Though their claims have been debunked, the phenomenon has tainted Moorish Science’s name.
“We’ve put out statements and taken legal actions, asking people to cease and desist from using the name of the Moorish Science Temple of America,” Phillip Chase-El, the grand sheik’s deputy, said in an interview several months ago.
What Moorish Science followers do assert is that racial labels -- black, Negro, colored – were given to them by others. And they feel that losing their fundamental identity, with its traditions and roots in the past, has meant a loss of power for African-Americans.
The founder, Prophet Noble Drew Ali, aimed to make up for that loss. Born Timothy Drew in 1886, he started what was first known as the Canaanite Temple in 1913 in Newark, N.J. Twelve years later, he moved to Chicago and renamed it the Moorish Science Temple of America.
Observing the indignities of African-American life at the time, as well as the ease with which immigrant groups of that era assimilated into mainstream culture, Drew set about creating a new identity for black Americans based on ethnicity, not race. Those who joined his religion were called Moorish-Americans, or Moors, a word historically used to describe Africans and their descendants.
“In the mid-1920s, Noble Drew Ali was articulating a spot-on critique of race and racism, and laying out a religious explanation for the possibility of full citizenship for African-Americans,” says Spencer Dew, a professor of religious studies at Centenary College of Louisiana who is writing a book on the history of the MSTA. He adds, “I'd argue that it was an ethnic model, that he patterned Moorish-American identity and social and political possibilities off of immigrant ethnic communities in Chicago.”
Ali’s religion came with a wide swath of rituals, holy days, ceremonial clothing, songs and titles, as well as its own sacred text, which bears little resemblance to the standard Islamic Quran. Influences came from far and wide -- from esoteric religions popular during Ali’s time to Christianity and Freemason customs. Together, they grounded MSTA’s followers in a framework of culture and meaning.
Moorish-Americans say the religion’s main tenets are love, truth, peace, freedom and justice. But at its heart, they say, Moorish Science is about hard work, self-empowerment and civic responsibility rather than blaming others for one’s troubles.
It’s the politics of respectability, says Dew -- another facet of Ali’s effort to give blacks a new identity. “He didn't just say, ‘Respect yourself and display yourself in all ways with dignity, as deserving of full citizenship,’ but he also said, ‘Put on a fez and change your name, and explicitly be something other than black, colored, Negro, etc.’”
In the late 1920s, Moorish Science had tens of thousands of adherents, many of them newly urbanized migrants who were seeking fresh starts after fleeing the South. But after Drew Ali’s death in 1929, the group began to struggle. There was infighting, with at least three men calling themselves his successor. It’s rumored that Wallace Fard Muhammad, who later founded the Nation of Islam, was an early member of the group. And the FBI began investigating the religion for subversive activities, as it did other Afrocentric organizations, despite little proof that the group had malicious intent.
The leader of one of the factions, Charles Kirkman-Bey, eventually earned the official stamp of leader and became a grand sheik -- one of only five who’ve existed since Drew Ali. However, the others continued to practice and their followers also call themselves Moorish Scientists today, though they utilize slightly different principles. That’s one reason it’s almost impossible to get a sense of the religion’s current size and also why it has been easy for people to identify with it.
Another, says Patrick Bowen, who is writing a book on conversion to Islam in the United States, is that Moorish Science “is extremely fragmented and there is no central record system.”
Indeed, the temples operate democratically, with adherents voting directly for their leaders, rather than decisions being made from the top down. Though the internet has numerous web pages about Moorish Science, there isn’t a single, authoritative site representing the whole group.
“There are temples up and down the East Coast, in the Midwest, on the West Coast -- all over. We get inquiries on a daily basis,” said Chase-El. “We have thousands of followers.”
In Washington, as in many other large cities, MSTA leaders proselytize in jails. And, they say, there are many people who attend services only rarely who profess to be Moorish Scientists.
(Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.)