His legacy: a message of moderation)

November 15, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Staff Writer

They were called Black Muslims. They said the white man wa the devil. The civil rights movement was a bad joke, the white man's trick.

Charles Rasheed, the first Black Muslim in Baltimore, preached the message. He listened approvingly to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the movement for more than 40 years, and later listened to Malcolm X, its most articulate spokesman.

Now Mr. Rasheed is something else.

Not Black Muslim, but Muslim. Now he is a Muslim, period.

Mr. Rasheed waves away the old sermons about white devils, much as Malcolm X did shortly before his murder, in 1965. "Today, I know better than that," Mr. Rasheed says. "Every person is a human being, and has to be treated right."

During Friday prayers, a Muslim congregation in West Baltimore brings together a former lieutenant of Malcolm X, young mothers shepherding rambunctious children, a city policeman on his lunch break, young men recently out of prison. Men arrive wearing jeans, tattered army camouflage, in long robes, in business suits. Everyone is to be regarded as a Muslim, no color attached. Everyone there belongs, in a sense, to Malcolm's extended family.

Islam in the African-American community is slowly becoming untangled from racial politics. The home-grown Islam of the Black Muslim movement, in which blacks were assured they would prevail over a white society condemned as corrupt, has lost ground to Islam in its more orthodox form, in which race plays no role.

Allah is God, neither black nor white, and Muhammad is for Muslims the last and wisest of his prophets. In the Koran are stories familiar from the Old and New Testament and rules for religious observances, morality and all other aspects of daily life.

"We are here in America, praise be to Allah," Imam Ronald Shakir says during his sermon at a mosque on the edge of Gwynns Falls Park.

"White man got everything? You think that? That's not the white man's problem -- that's your problem," he shouts. Mr. Shakir issues warnings against alcohol. He reminds the congregation that Allah does not play Lotto. Allah does not chase women. In Mr. Shakir's retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, a drug dealer is the serpent.

Much of the anger among older members of the movement has dissipated, even though economic inequalities remain or even have worsened for blacks in the U.S. Each person says, "As-salaam alaikum," offering a handshake to whomever comes through the open door of the mosque. White or black: Peace be unto you.

A reminder of the old days is about to arrive in the form of the movie "Malcolm X," directed by Spike Lee. It already has attracted more publicity than anyone could buy: Nearly 30 years after his death, Malcolm X is the cover story in glossy magazines. He is merchandisers' latest dream come true. T-shirts and jewelry decorated with an "X" have become a trademark of mildly defiant hipness. Malcolm is anger, pride, toughness; Malcolm has been resurrected as fashion.

He was a one-time thief, pimp and energetic all-around hustler who attracted a young, angry audience for the organization slowly built by Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam. In Malcolm X's standard speech in the 1950s and '60s, he said that blacks had every reason to hate whites.

"For the white man to ask the black man if he hates him," he used to say, "is just like the rapist asking the raped, or the wolf asking the sheep." Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad ridiculed racial integration as a demeaning attempt by blacks to ingratiate themselves with whites. "We are humbling ourselves," Elijah Muhammad said, "sitting-in, and begging-in."

In Malcolm X's time, members of the Nation were to act as a close-knit family. One for all and all for one. "We were a unit," Mr. Rasheed says. "If you attacked one of us, you attacked everybody." Elijah Muhammad was the leader, Malcolm one of the leader's servants.

Malcolm changed, so much so that people who knew him talk of an early Malcolm and a later one. The later Malcolm rejected Elijah Muhammad's teachings that blacks must separate themselves from whites. Malcolm adopted traditional Islam; Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam did not. The family splintered.

Malcolm X's heirs are those African-Americans who accept orthodox Islam; among them is Mr. Rasheed. Elijah Muhammad's are people faithful to the Nation of Islam and its ideology of racial separation. Led today by Louis Farrakhan, members of the Nation include the young men dressed in suits and bow ties and standing on street corners to hawk Mr. Farrakhan's newspaper. It features angrily worded stories about the presumed treachery of whites and especially of Jews.

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