Conversation With Shareef Nasir: Executive Producer, "The African-American’s Journey to Al-Islam"

L-R: Wallace D. Muhammad- youngest son of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and controversial Human Rights Activist- Malcolm X

Shareef Nasir, CEO of Mizan Studios, is still slightly surprised when he gets positive feedback about his groundbreaking documentary, Lost Found: An African-American’s Journey to Al-Islam. “You never know when you put something out there how the world is going to respond to it,” the Bay Area film-maker and historian says, “so I’ve been truly grateful for the overwhelming support.”

Lost Found, a striking, cinematic, masterpiece- simple in its striking artistic beauty, yet brimming with complex subject matter, has left an indelible imprint on audiences across California, and is swiftly gaining momentum across the United States.

Delving into the murky waters of the history of the Nation of Islam, and its mysterious founder, Master Wallace Fard Muhammad, Nasir shows with startling clarity the powerful role of the NOI within the African-American community, and the profound impact it had on the psyches of its members. Narrating the film in a quietly compelling voice, he takes viewers on a journey which begins on the red clay roads of Georgia, with the birth of Elijah Poole, comes to a devastating intersection with the rise to prominence- and assassination- of Malcolm X; and evolves into a spiritual journey with the transference of power from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, to his youngest son, Imam W. Deen Mohammad.

Lost Found: An African-American’s Journey to Al-Islam pulsates with tension, betrayal, ambition, and deceit; yet it is also a journey of spiritual enlightenment, honor, community, and redemption. With a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, infused with jazz and soul, serving as the landscape, Lost Found provides stark insight into one of the most pivotal periods in American history.

Shareef Nasir, in an uninhibited, in-depth conversation, speaks about the necessity of the Nation of Islam, the egotistical side of Malcolm X, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s illegitimate children, and the arrogance and deceit Louis Farrakhan. Ultimately, stressing the importance of the NOI making the transition from “political reaction to a spiritual choice,” and the limitations of a race based ideology.


What was your motivation, the driving force, behind creating Lost Found?

There were a couple of things. Many times, groups of people are one-dimensional and don’t practice what they preach. I wanted to show how multi-dimensional Africans-Americans are. I had known about the story ever since I started studying Malcolm [X] and the influence the Nation had on him; and it was a powerful story-one of human growth, development and evolution. It’s the story of a separatist movement evolving into universal human beings, a universal brotherhood, and I had never seen that before. Especially among African-Americans. Having a separatist philosophy was certainly justified when you take into consideration Jim Crow, segregation, that sort of thing. However, to evolve from, “We don’t want to be around you,” and then take another evolution- a remarkable evolution, was such an incredible journey.


How long did it take you to complete the project?

It took me about two and a half years. I started working on the first script in April of 2008, and conducted my first interview in October of 2008.


The soundtrack is stellar, and such a perfect complement to the tone and depth of the film. Tell us about that creative process. Is it original?

Thank you very much. I wanted to do something unique that complements the story. The soundtrack is original- with the exception of ‘Go Down Moses’ (Even though we re-arranged it so much, people might not recognize it!) Israel Sims is a phenomenal guitar player and we went to high school together. I had been turned down by the big names-Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke; so, initially, I just wanted him to do the instrumental.  He said, “I’ll do it with one condition; you gotta sing.” I told him, “Come on!” (laughter) But, I agreed to it, and we sat down and looked at the film without sound. We both knew we needed something very powerful; so he created a melody. The song that you hear at the beginning of the film..


“Why?”

Yes, “Why?” Exactly. Israel said, “I’m leaving town for four days (It was Thanksgiving), and you have no excuse not to write the lyrics. All the musicians came over on a Tuesday, and by Thursday, we had the soundtrack. There was just an upright bassist, piano, and a drummer, who was only 17 years old at the time. He’s actually the number one high school drummer in the US, and happened to be the nephew of one of the musicians.  I was supposed to do another song, but I chickened out at the end.


That’s so interesting, because “Why?” is such a haunting, emotional song. When it plays behind the striking footage in Lost-Found, it makes me cry every time.

Really?! Wow...thank you for that. I remember when we came out of the studio.  I dropped Israel off, and I said to myself, “This is horrible! (laughter) So, I threw it in the glove compartment and told myself, “Stop trying to sing!” When we put the first trailer on YouTube and people were commenting positively, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, but I appreciate it.


Let’s talk about the NOI. The Nation of Islam filled a vast void within the African-American community. It offered an alternative to the ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ philosophy embodied in Christianity, and brought structure, purpose, and it reawakened sense of power and community. It unified African-Americans not only because of shared pain and circumstances, but also a shared resolve to shape the future of the so-called “negro” in America. Cardinal Frances George-Archdiocese of Chicago, in Lost Found, describes the African-American’s journey to Al-Islam as the evolution from “a political reaction, to a spiritual choice”. With this is mind, do you feel that Al-Islam fulfills that same need within our community as the NOI?

I think it does...yes. I think that African-Americans who practice Islam in the United States practice the most effective and practical implementation of Al-Islam. Certain principles such as respect for yourself, and respect for others, are not always practically applied. Because of the shared history of African-Americans in the United States, how they (Muslims in the Middle East) view women, and how they treat women, is different from ours. There is a different global perspective that is different from ours. As you see in Lost-Found, there are sisters in high positions of power. Such as Saffiya Shahid, and Ayesha K. Mustafaa, she is the head honcho at the Muslim Journal. In the film, by highlighting the MGT-GCC (Muslim Girls Training & General Civilization Course), I wanted to show that women were, and still are, the foundation of the NOI, and subsequently, Al-Islam.


We do share the basic beliefs of Islam. Do for self. Belief in one God. Same belief in the principle of determining your destination. However, we, African-Americans, have a history of inferiority in the United States. We were dogged and hunted by white people throughout the history of our country. With this in mind, members of Al-Islam were able to maintain and retain the spirit of the FOI [The Fruit of Islam were the protectors and defensive force of the NOI]. There might not be an FOI in uniform, but there is definitely one in spirit. You won’t mess with their women or deface their mosque. Due to the corruption destroying the structure of business within the NOI, Imam W. Dean Mohammad had to come in and free the people. So, the structure is different. Al-Islam is more of an independent faith that is able to understand the all encompassing circumstances as presented.

We are no longer faced with an identity crisis as we were during the days of the Nation of Islam. During the days of the NOI, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad cleaned us up, helped us to find pride within ourselves, now we’ve progressed even further. I’m secure in myself as a black man, but now I’m focused on evolving and growing as a human being. Here’s where I’m going to get technical: Race is limiting. When I react to it, it’s going to be race-conscious. What Al-Islam does is focus on human development as opposed to basic racial identity.


Let’s touch on the concept of jihad for a moment-most commonly understood to be sacrificing one’s self for God’s cause, which is ultimately peace.

In Lost Found, there is footage of Cassius Clay, later given the name Muhammad Ali by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, saying that he was “ready to die” for his religion. He stated that he would face machine gun fire in support of Islam. The U.S. recently amplified attacks in Pakistan, culminating in the death of 9-11 mastermind, Osama bin Ladin, as well as spearheading atrocious attacks in Libya-bombing of a school for children suffering with Down Syndrome and the killing of  Libyan dictator, Muammar Gadaffi’s, youngest son and three grandchildren. Louis Farrakhan (leader of the restructured Nation of Islam) has expressed his support of Gaddafi and his anger at President Barack Obama.

In light of the paradoxical position many African-Americans find themselves in - being both black and Muslim in America, what do you feel should take precedence? An African-American’s spirituality, or his or her nationality?

When we see the situation in the Middle East, African-American Muslims realize that is not our fight. They (Muslims in the Middle East) believe in Islam and we believe in Islam. The parallel ends there. The relationship stops right there. We don’t feel an obligation to convert, that’s wrong. Still, we have no issues with anyone who believes in Allah, just as long as they characterize Islam correctly. We are not involved in the ruckus; we’ve never been involved the family feud between the Palestinians and Israelis. We’ve never been involved in terrorism in any form. African –Americans aren’t going to be blowing up planes, that’s not our M.O. When Muslims from the Middle East began migrating to America, they disconnected from us, they chose to pass for white, instead of trying to make the Muslim connection. See, now, the African American has found himself. Followers of Al-Islam take the same position as the NOI to fend for themselves. We’ve always had to do it alone. In the beginning when we tried to reach out a hand in brotherhood, we were rejected.  


I completely understand; but still, don’t you feel that America has been rather arrogant in its attacks of Muslim countries?

Oh, of course.  Definitely.  We did not attack South Africa when they were under apartheid. We have imposed strict sanctions on Iran for violating trade agreements, but Israel has never been punished. The U.S. was complicit in the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime-Minister of the Congo. When the Israelis invaded Palestinian land, the US allowed them.  

So, yes, we definitely have a shared victimhood, and there are distinct similarities between American foreign policy and how African Americans are treated right here, but they have not been very accepting of our hand. We’ve never shown any cowardice. Had the immigrants come and established a line of communication, we would have offered our full support; but she came to pass as white, and he came to get away from atrocities. We could have built a community, but instead we had to assimilate. Then the Twin Towers burned down, and now they know what it feels like to be on the outside. After 9-11, when America started calling them “sand niggers,” now they want to reach out a hand and profess brotherhood. We are American citizens, and we struggled with no help.


During the panel discussion at USC, Imam A.K. Hassan felt it necessary to vehemently defend Malcolm X against explosive charges found in the new comprehensive biography of Malcolm X, written by Columbia professor and historian, Dr. Manning Marable, who died within days of the book’s release.

Imam Hassan, who travelled with Minister Malcolm in the years prior to his death, was quick to describe him as “all man,” but there was an underlying hint of bitterness when he talked about Malcolm’s sense of “self-importance” ultimately being responsible for his break with the NOI.

You did an exceptional job of showing the enigmatic nature of Malcolm. How difficult was it to accurately paint the intense love/hate relationship between him and the NOI, and also to capture his continuing influence on both Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and W. Dean Mohammad’s Al-Islam?

It was difficult, but I tried to do it justice. Difficult from the standpoint that Malcolm’s departure from the NOI was complex and not based on just one thing. When Malcolm was in good standing with Elijah Muhammad, people would lay down their lives, they would kill you, or anyone with you, who wanted to harm him, but he thought that same loyalty would follow him without the Nation’s support, and it didn’t.

Malcolm was known to be slightly egotistical, over confident, and he had grown to a point in America where he believed he could independently bring people to see him without Elijah Muhammad. Old members of the Nation of Islam resented that he brought up Elijah Muhammad’s [illegitimate] children. That was old news- old news that he already knew, and had known since the fifties; but he still brought it up. Malcolm was a mover, an activist. He had some different things that he felt needed to be done, and the Nation was not doing them. They felt that if he wanted to leave, he should have just left on his own without trying to tear down Muhammad.  They loved Malcolm, and that was their only beef with him.


I’m just going to ask you straight out. You had to speak with many people, and conduct extensive research for Lost-Found. After analyzing all of your information, do you believe that the Nation of Islam is responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X?

Well... the nation had begun to resent Malcolm. We know that. The FBI had begun to agitate and aggravate within the NOI, and they blamed Malcolm. Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm both had egos and strong personalities, and it began to have a snowball effect. We know that. Five shooters from Mosque #5 in Newark, New Jersey are responsible for Malcolm’s murder, and brothers high within the Nation’s hierarchy were resentful of Malcolm, and, in communication with the FBI. We do know that. However, do I believe Mr. Muhammad ordered his death? No.


The Nation is not like the Italian Mafia. You know Lucky Luciano, John Gotti, or any of those guys. It’s not like Murder, Inc., where you made a phone call and someone gets bumped out. The Nation didn’t work that way. Once you become tagged as an enemy of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, though, you were Public Enemy #1. One could argue that there was no other organization- including the Italian mob and law enforcement, that could take you out quicker than the Fruit of Islam. The only thing, I believe, that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad could be considered guilty of, was saying nothing; even though he was completely aware of the hostility building against Malcolm within the Nation.


Ok, well let’s discuss Minister Louis Farrakhan. Many people are not aware that the Nation of Islam, as it stands today, is not the movement started by Master Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad. As discussed in Lost Found, on his deathbed, Elijah Muhammad transferred leadership to his son, W. Dean Mohammad, in 1975.

That is correct.


During a conversation with high-ranking officials within Elijah Muhammad’s NOI, it was shared with me that Wallace Muhammad once saved Farrakhan’s life. Allegedly, “he was a dead man,” who had to be removed from New York because of the ruin he made of Malcolm’s Mosque #7. So how was Louis Farrakhan able to completely hijack the legacy of Elijah Muhammad, and continue to falsely base an entire religion on archaic doctrine and philosophies publicly diluted by Muhammad himself, such as Yacub’s Theory- the belief that all white people are devils?

It’s interesting that you ask that question. Many people don’t look at it from that perspective. Allegedly, he made the statement, after Wallace saved his life, that, “I was pimped once (not being made the leader of the NOI after Elijah Muhammad’s death), but I will not be pimped again.” So, he turned around and left. He felt that if he could sell the rhetoric to a new generation of people, he could play on their emotions like an old Baptist preacher. He sells that the Black man is God, and taps into the same emotions that Muhammad tapped into years ago, but with very different motives. When they compare and contrast what Muhammad did, and what Farrakhan is still teaching, it’s like watching an Academy award winning performance.


So how did W. Deen Mohammad deal with the blatant theft of the Nation of Islam’s name?

He wanted to do away with the Nation of Islam all together, but he chose not to enter into a battle with Farrakhan. He didn’t want it to be like the hostility between the Shiites and the Sunnis in the Middle East. Imam W. Dean Mohammad felt that people would be able to make the distinction, and see the ridiculousness of what Louis Farrakhan was still trying to teach.

They knew Farrakhan, and what he was about. The old people recognized that it was all about his ambition. The Farrakhan you see on television, that’s not him; but now he’s finally what he has always wanted to be, and that’s a leader with prestige. Something that he never attained within the original NOI.


It is widely believed that Farrakhan was also, in some way, responsible for Malcolm’s death. He’s even apologized for any words he may have spoken that created an environment which made Malcolm’s assassination possible. Do you believe, after all the information you obtained during your research for Lost Found, that Farrakhan had anything to do with Malcolm X’s assassination?

He had nothing to do with his assassination. Keep this in mind... Louis Farrakhan was irrelevant as a leader of Mosque #12 in Boston. He couldn’t even speak at Savior’s Day in 1963, that’s how unimportant he was. He was a nobody.  High-ranking officials within the NOI at that time did not trust him. He was considered an opportunist.


So why do you think that Quibilah Shabazz, who was four years old at the time of her father’s assassination, attempted to hire a hit-man to murder Louis Farrakhan?

Dr. Betty Shabazz [widow of Malcolm X] has always maintained that the NOI is responsible for creating the atmosphere surrounding Malcolm’s death, especially Farrakhan. Remember, how close he was with Malcolm. Betty possibly passed that resentment and anger on to her daughters as well.


You had to do extensive research to complete Lost Found. You mentioned during the panel discussion at the University of Southern California-where I first saw the film- that you had to stay in rundown hotels and hoods across America in your quest for information. How has your journey to document the transition of the Nation of Islam to Al-Islam changed your perspective? What have you learned through this process?

I most definitely have a new found respect for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as a man. He was able to tap into the fear and apprehension and hurt that black people have wanted to suppress. Black people felt that we couldn’t compete in society. Elijah Muhammad knew that the Black man in America was so sick, that he believed that a white man named Jesus, sent by a white God, had purposely created him inferior. So the Honorable Elijah Muhammad said, “I got another white man (Master Fard Muhammad) that says, ‘You’re not inferior; that you’re not a nigger.’” He knew that the only way that black people in America would believe they were not inferior, was if it came from a white man.

He knew that the so-called ‘”negro intellectual” still felt inferior, even with their PhDs, and he tapped into that. It took a young man from Georgia, with nothing but a 5th grade education, to tap into that fear and how much the so-called “negro intellectual” resented himself. He said to them, “This is what your real problem is:  It’s the way that you feel about yourself.” By calling the white man a devil, it made them resentful, but it also shocked black people, and exposed their self-perceived inferiority to themselves.

We can say Yacub’s Theory is ridiculous, and it is. But it’s no more ridiculous than how white America used a white Jesus to justify a black person being a negro. That same white man justified them being inferior to everyone, and they accepted that. But they will not call ridiculous how the white man in America used Jesus to make them feel inferior about themselves. The way in which a racist white America used a white Jesus to justify black inferiority is just as ridiculous as Yacub’s Theory, and if you can believe one, then the other is not so ridiculous.  

Ernie Terrell, [in February of 1967] refused to call Muhammad Ali by his name, and persisted in calling him Cassius Clay. Ali called Terrell an “Uncle Tom,” and asked him, “Why won’t you call me by my name?”  You know what Terrell did? He backed off. See... people can call the Honorable Elijah Muhammad racist, but when Terrell refused to say the name Muhammad Ali, then that’s the equivalent to saying that the slavemaster, the white man, was right, and I am what they say I am. Inferior. To attack the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is to believe that what the white man taught us to be is truth.


The so-called “negro intellectual” (and I use that term because that‘s what Minister Malcolm called them), has to make Muhammad out to be some kind of crackpot. Because to admit to all the good he did, to admit his true purpose, to discuss how he cleaned the black man up, and opened businesses, and taught us how to love ourselves again; to admit those things would be admitting to their own internal sense of inferiority

That’s what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad did. He exposed the fear in the so-called “negro intellectual”. When I really understood how he utilized Master Fard to get mentally sick black people to listen... he was a genius.  He told black people, “You feel inferior, but it’s not your fault. I got something and I’m going to turn this thing around.” And he turned that thing around.


You’ve already tackled one of the most controversial and ambiguous periods in American history. What can we expect from you next?

I’m working now on a new film strictly about Malcolm X and his assassination.


When can we expect to see it?

Hopefully, by the end of the summer. I begin filming next week. I’ve been able to speak with some people who first spoke with Manning Marable [Columbia professor and author of ‘Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention] and none of them liked him. He drew a conclusion first and went out of his way to support that conclusion, and what he ended up doing was a lot of lying. One of the people he and I both interviewed told me that the first thing Marable said to him was, “I want you to know that I already know a lot, so don’t think I don’t know a lot.”


So, he was condescending?

Absolutely, and people who he could have gotten some excellent information from ended up clamming up on him.  Some of them have called me asking me for lawyers; telling me that the things Marable said they said are not true. One of the people in question has a video and a written transcript of their interview, which is unbelievable. They don’t want money; they just want the truth to be told, so I’m pretty excited about speaking with them.


There have been accusations made that Dr. Marable had his own agenda, most damaging perhaps, by Malcolm’s own daughters.  Still other critics claim that he was more concerned with his own legacy, and creating a work that surpassed Alex Haley’s, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” than writing a definitive biography of his subject .

Exactly. For instance, Marable claims that there was hanky-panky going on with Malcolm’s security detail on the day of the assassination. That’s not true; there’s no evidence. He wanted to make the book more than what it was, so he lied.   What I’m going to do is try to understand as best I can, the rift and tension between Mr. Muhammad and Malcolm X. The context is what you and I spoke about earlier, and as you now know: You cannot understand Malcolm without first understanding the NOI.

I have the last interview with Thomas 15X Johnson, who wrongly served 26 years for the assassination of Malcolm X, among other valuable documents, to paint an honest picture of events.  Questions I asked are: Who was Malcolm X an enemy to? Had he broken any laws? Was he violating any rights? The answer is no. I have documentation right now from the United States Attorney General’s office during the Johnson administration to J. Edgar Hoover, telling Hoover that Malcolm X could not be silenced because he had the freedom to speak.

So what was he working on? What was he saying in his speeches? Malcolm’s goals had far outreached the boundaries of the United States. He wasn’t marching for toilets [like some Civil Rights Movement Leaders], he wanted to bring the United States before the world and reveal them as the hypocrites they were. While they were conquering the world, telling countries how they should change, Malcolm wanted people to look at the United States and expose how they were treating citizens in their own country.


I’m sure this film will be just as revealing and comprehensive as Lost Found. Have you decided on a name?

The day they shot the Minister.


To order Lost Found: An African-American’s Journey to Al-Islam, and to learn more about Shareef Nasir and his future projects, visit the Mizan Studio website.



Kirsten is an independent journalist based in Los Angeles. Connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter: @KWestSavali