Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York

New York City has been the birthplace of many important American cultural movements—from artistic trends, to social movements, to a wide variety of religious sects from many different traditions. One such group that combines all of these elements is The Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE), and is also the topic of study in the book, The Five Percenters—Islam, Hip-hop, and the Gods of New York by Michael Muhammad Knight. 

The Nation of Gods and Earths (also often known as the 5% Nation, a title stemming from a Nation of Islam (NOI) teaching that there are three groups of humans; 85% who are ignorant, 10% who are in control but liars and hypocrites, and a final 5% who are the “poor righteous teachers”, and know the truth) is a movement whose primary focus is on self-determination—debatably for only those of non-White descent—stemming from the knowledge that each Black man is their own God. Through the study of “Supreme Wisdom Lessons” which are intended to give the adherent “knowledge of self”, and various other practices, the members of the NGE forge a deeper insight into themselves and the world they live in. The group’s quasi-Islamic philosophy was greatly influenced by the teachings of the Nation of Islam, and the founder of the NGE, originally known as Clarence 13X (but after founding the NGE went simply by the title “Allah” or “The Father”) was an active member of the NOI until he left due to ideological differences. He took with him some of the more abstruse teachings of the NOI, morphed and reinterpreted them, and began to teach the willing youth of Harlem in the mid- to early-1960s, who for various reasons did not want to join the NOI itself. He was immediately cemented as the head and leader of the NGE, and upon his assassination in 1969 was deified by the group. 

On a darker and more troubling note, the fascinating history of the NGE is marked with a constant thread of violence, drug use, crime, and social unrest. Also its core belief—that each Black man is God—obviously brings with it race and gender issues that would no doubt be important to look at on a deep level for any type of academic study of the group to be comprehensive.

The author, Michael Muhammad Knight, is a Whiteamerican Muslim convert who has written many books and articles pertaining to more of the fringe elements within the massive domain of Islam. He comes from a traditional Sunni background (his first introduction to the NGE stemmed from a conversation with a fellow student one night while he was studying in Islamabad, Pakistan), but is a self-proclaimed “heresy friendly” Muslim. It puts him in a unique position to be able go deeply into the history and many issues surrounding the NGE. 

I will say my opinion of Mr. Knight over the years has been a mixed one. His occasional behavior of skirting a little to closely with more progressive elements of Islam to the point of mockery and offense of traditional Sunni/Shi’ah Islam has bothered me at times in the past. Nonetheless, I still have an element of admiration for him, and I read his work as neutrally as possible. It may be also good to point out that I have had my own interest and history with the NGE, as they provided me with some of my first exposures to Islam, albeit in a non-traditional form. 

It is a massive undertaking to do any type of full academic study of this movement, and it is long overdue. There are issues of religion, race and gender, and social resistance as well as Blackamerican and New York history and culture. Mr. Knight was able to tackle many of these topics, and while the main focus of the book is a comprehensive history of the movement, he manages to tie in some personal experiences and interviews with members to give a fuller firsthand perspective. The book does have a tendency to get bogged down in war stories—who shot who when, who got “knowledge of self” in what prison—making it a pretty dense read with many players and details which are at times difficult to keep track of. Also to note, Mr. Knight has been accepted as a loose member of the movement—despite his Whiteamerican heritage—and even though he does address some difficult questions pertaining to the issues mentioned above, his writing is slightly biased. 

I do think that he recognizes on a certain level that maybe there are no clear answers to many of the questions that arise upon examination of the NGE. Is it a gang? Is it a religion? Are they Muslims? What about Whites? Women? Is it racist? Why so much violence and crime? Does it condone such behavior? For certain, in a movement with no hierarchy of leadership and an ideology that is left wide open to personal interpretation (and was even promoted by the founder to be re-written), seeking clear answers to many of these questions is like chasing a ghost.

The book starts at the movement’s historical roots, touching upon Blackamerican religious traditions in the States (specifically New York), the history of Harlem and the Black Renaissance, the Marcus Garvey movement and Pan-Africanism. Even more importantly, the book explores deeply the influence of Noble Drew Ali and his Moorish Science Temple Movement of the 1920s, and the influence that they had on the founding of the NOI. He looks closely at the use of “Supreme Lessons” and numerology, which would prove a model for more of the esoteric elements of the NGE decades later. The details covered in the beginning chapters really show the extent and commitment of which he did his research.

We see the eventual split between The Father and the NOI, and the following squabbles that ensued. It is incredible to imagine this period of history in Harlem, and Mr. Knight does an excellent job painting a full image.  We have a heady blend of heretical and traditional Islamic movements, government infiltration, political assassinations, Black power and social protest, all occurring over the backdrop of the Vietnam War and a growing discontent with the government on a local and national level. What an amazing time in history!

As the history of the NGE progresses, we start to see another reality of the movement besides self-improvement and spiritual leanings. Domestic violence, drug use, gambling, womanizing and crime all seem commonplace in the early stories of Clarence 13X and his predominately male followers. I would like to have seen a more active approach in addressing these issues, and I feel Mr. Knight deemphasized the gravity of the NGE’s historical relationship with violence, crime, and drug use.

The book then sets its sights on the movement’s struggle for legitimacy within the Blackamerican community, focusing on the NGE’s attempt to clean its image from violent gang to “viable community organization.”  As a result of the NGE’s growing closeness to the New York City government, a wedge was further driven between the NGE, the NOI, and other Black power and Blackamerican religious fringe movements at the time, who began to consider the NGE as sell-outs. This led to an environment of suspicion and increased violence between these different groups in Harlem, and ultimately led to The Father’s assassination, which remains an unsolved crime to this day.

The book goes on to cover in detail the close relationship between the NGE and hip-hop over the years, from the founding days of house parties in the Bronx to its present global popularity. It also covers gang involvement and the constant evolution of the movement’s philosophy.

In the chapters “Mothers of Civilization” and “The Azreal Question”, Mr. Knight looks at the issues of race and gender within the movement. Many schools of thought within the movement are clearly misogynistic and chauvinistic. Mr. Knight gives some examples, stating how there have been members who debated “does a woman have a mind?” and others who have even taught “that woman herself is (the) devil.”

The Azreal Question follows one particular member of the NGE, Azreal—a White—who is also one of the early members of the movement. Azreal was taken under the wing of The Father during their time of incarceration at the infamous Matteawan State Hospital in the mid-60s. Azreal was taught the same Supreme Wisdom Lessons and got knowledge of self the same as everyone else (read: non-Whites) in the movement, thereby securing the possibility that Whites could be a part—although an ambiguous part—of the movement. The fact that the entire premise of the movement is founded on the idea that the Black man is God can seemingly create problems for any White wanting to be a part. Although there is an entire chapter devoted to the subject, the reader is left with without an answer whether Azreal could be considered “God” within the NGE’s ideology, or whether he has to settle with being “devil by nature, righteous by intention.” 

This chapter brought up a lot for me, as these issues are the reason I was never involved with the NGE on any viable level. Obviously, an entire essay could be devoted just to this one topic. Mr. Knight does present many facts that show how the philosophy of the NGE has racist and sexist aspects. At one point Mr. Knight says,“Sadly some Gods advocate their subjugation of women with the same defense…that was once used to justify racial oppression and colonialism.” But his lack of possible solutions to many of these issues and his continued involvement in the movement seems to condone the behavior, when even at times it is directed at him as a Whiteamerican.

As someone who is quite familiar with the subject matter, and who has a great interest in Islamic-American identity studies, hip-hop, and to coin a term from Peter Lamborn Wilson, the “margins of Islam,” I read this book with a certain amount of enthusiasm. As a Sunni Muslim, I continue to find it hard to tackle many of the philosophies proposed by the NGE in regard to their appropriation of certain Islamic ideology and terminology and found myself critically examining the movement in many ways.

That said, the book has helped me by forging a deeper sense of pluralism and tolerance. I believe in these times of increasing polarization and extreme ideology, books such as this provide an important counter-balance. Even though I may be more of a traditionalist than Mr. Knight, I also consider myself somewhat ”heresy friendly.”  The Five Percenters—Islam, Hip-hop, and the Gods of New York awakened strong reminders about my past, and helped me frame my long conversion process from those “margins of Islam” to Sunni Islam. I know for a fact that many others have had a similar process as well, showing the strong influence that the NGE have had throughout the years. Although I may not agree with the NGE in a theological manner and on other aspects of their ideology mentioned in this essay, I admire their history, self-determination, and resilience that they have shown throughout the years. Whether one agrees with the tenets and goals of the NGE or not, one thing is certain–they are an important facet of Blackamerican and Islamic-American history and are a distinct cultural anomaly.