The Man I Call Allah
I wear his face on my lapel pin.
that?” a desi kid asked me outside the mosque. I pointed to the pin, which gave the name in bold black letters.
“Allah,” I said.
“How can you call a man Allah? Are you Muslim?”
“Yes, I’m Muslim. I call him Allah because that was the man’s name.”
Allah was born on February 22, 1928. His mother named him Clarence.
When he was a teenager, she moved Allah from their home in Danville, Virginia, to Harlem, where he eventually joined the Nation of Islam. Allah dropped his family name, Smith, because it represented the white men who owned his ancestors. He became known as Clarence 13X, because he was the 13th man named Clarence to adopt X as his name.
Back when he was Clarence 13X, Allah ate up the Nation catechism, the Supreme Wisdom Lessons. The Lessons taught him that there was no god, at least not in the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense, an unseen Creator somewhere in the clouds. That god was only a “mystery god,” a prop used to keep the masses from rising up against their kings and slavemasters. Don’t waste your time searching for a phantom who does not exist, said the Lessons; the only true and living god, the only force that will change your condition in this present life, is you.
The masses—eighty-five percent of society, according to the Lessons—have been made blind to this reality by a ten-percent ruling class, the bloodsuckers of the poor, the priests who enslave through “mental death.” This left only a sliver of humanity, the Five Percent, to reject the lies of the ten percent and awaken the eighty-five percent to the divinity within themselves.
Allah’s study of the Nation’s Lessons led him to question the Nation itself. Even if he was a god, according to the Nation, he was not yet Allah; the title belonged only to the “best knower,” the self-perfected scientist, Master Fard, whose picture hung on the mosque wall. In the Nation’s theology, each Allah was a mortal man who experienced birth and death like all men. After one Allah died, he was replaced by another.
The Lessons warned that the evil ten percent would enslave the masses with invisible gods, while using the names of righteous prophets to shield their “dirty religion.” But the Nation itself was starting to look dirty. The Nation was supposed to be the enlightened Five Percent; but within that Five Percent, Allah observed a further division of five, ten, and eighty-five. While the common believers labored for the Messenger, Elijah Muhammad’s inner circle indulged in luxury cars and mansions. Elijah Muhammad based his authority on Master Fard’s designation of him as the Messenger, but Master Fard had disappeared in 1934 and had not been seen or heard since. Fard had become, as far as Allah could see, just another mystery god. Adhering to the essential truth of the Lessons—that instead of submitting to unseen deities and their priests, a man had to be his own god—Allah realized that he had no use for Fard or Elijah Muhammad. Allah became Allah.
After just three years as a Muslim, he dropped his X and left the mosque. But he took the Lessons with him, sharing the Nation’s secret teachings with kids on streetcorners: the drop-outs, throw-outs, and young hustlers who never had a chance in the devil’s kingdom. Respecting him as the best knower, they called him Allah; but whatever power they were willing to give him, he gave back to them. When the kids were ready, Allah told them, “You are Allah. Never let anyone tell you that you are not Allah, because it is only your doubt that keeps you from being Allah.” The name Allah, he taught, only stood for “Arm Leg Leg Arm Head,” representing the human form.
The kids made new names for themselves. A teenager named Leslie Stanley became Prince Allah; another, who had called himself Hakiem, became Born Allah, and later Allah B. Among hundreds of teen Allahs, the original Allah was recognized as the Father. He encouraged them to pursue education and vocational training, and was given his own street academy by Mayor Lindsay’s administration. The academy still exists today, now known as the Allah School in Mecca. Though Allah’s texts from the Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils, Allah warned his movement against the dangers of racial hatred. On the night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Allah and Lindsay walked together through Harlem in an effort to keep the peace while cities across the country burned.
Just one year later, Allah himself was assassinated, filled with bullets in the project elevator; but his nation of young gods, known as the Five Percenters, held fast to his teachings. By the start of the 1980s, the Five Percenters were an established fixture on the streets of all five boroughs. Their beliefs, texts, and language lent influence to another product of New York: hip-hop. Counted among the Five Percent are numerous classic emcees, including Rakim (who refers to himself as Rakim Allah) and the Wu Tang Clan (RZA breaks down his name as Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard used the righteous name Unique Ason Allah). Lyrics often hold extra meaning for the initiated—such as Method Man’s line, “I fear for the 85 who don’t have a clue,” and Erykah Badu singing, “Most intellects do not believe in God, but they fear us just the same.”
Quoting the Lessons in “A Better Tomorrow,” the RZA asks, “Can the devil fool a Muslim nowadays?” Today, Five Percenters make no claim on the religion of Islam. Allah himself is said to have declared, “My Five Percenters are not Muslims, and will never be Muslims.” In Arabic, Islam means “submission”; how does Allah submit to Allah? Allah broke down the word in English, revealing Islam to mean “I Self Lord Am Master.” Allah only called himself Allah, I was taught, because he had realized his divinity within the Islamic tradition. Allah had reportedly said that you could join any religion you wanted, as long as you understood that you were the one they talked about. If you’re in a mosque, you’re Allah. If you’re in a Buddhist temple, know that you’re Buddha.
I am a Muslim. When I say “Allah,” I’m usually referring to the mystery god, the one that places me in the eighty-five percent. But the other Allah gave me something crucial: the idea that Islam belongs to me. His name is a devastating and dead-on critique of organized religion. His name is religious anarchy, answering anarchists who say “No gods, no masters” with “I God, I master.” His name breaks the chains of authority, because the imams and ulema are no more Allah than me.
I’ve found a place for the Five Percent within my Islamic tradition. When I was in Pakistan, I visited the shrine of Bulleh Shah, a Sufi poet-saint in the Punjab. Bulleh Shah used to mock the mullahs and Qur’an-memorizers, and he said, “My forehead is worn out doing the sujdah. Whoever has achieved Him has achieved Him from within. Nobody has ever found Him from outside or elsewhere and nobody will ever find Him from anywhere except from within.” Bulleh Shah died in 1752, but I call him a Five Percenter. I could picture the saint in 1960s Harlem, building on a street corner with Allah. They wouldn’t agree on everything, but I imagine that it’d be peace.
I wear the Allah pin not as a tribute to his power, but to my own—my power to use the symbols and forms as they suit me, because this is all that anyone has ever done with religion. Even so-called “fundamentalists” who strive to follow the texts literally are only being their own Allahs. We might as well be honest about it. Yes, I treat Islam as a buffet. Allah’s name is my Islamic reform; if the disease is conservative mullahs, the cure is not a liberal mullah. No mullahs, no bloodsucking Ten Percenters making me a slave to “mental death and power,” as the Lessons say. My ethics become my authority. If a verse of the Qur’an says to beat your wife, I’m not waiting for the liberal mullahs to change what it means. The Lessons have taught me to take the best part and leave the worst part—as Allah had done with the Lessons themselves, crossing out a description of white people as skunks, and some Five Percenters have done with the orthodoxies of their own culture. And I cross out the verse.
For normative Islam, calling a man Allah is a sin that throws you out of the religion. But I am a Muslim, because I say that I am. Last year I made the pilgrimage to Mecca, where the dynamics of five, ten, and eighty-five played out before me. The Saudi kings, basing their claim to power on their custodianship of the holy city, have placed their names on the Ka’ba itself. Religious police trolled around the holy cemeteries and the Prophet’s tomb, barking at pilgrims for their improper practice. Imams told us to make supplications in Arabic, even if we did not speak the language, because it was preferred by Allah. There were times in Mecca when I’d remember the other Allah, the one who called Harlem his Mecca, the Allah who refused greetings of “as-salamu alaikum,” but said only “peace.” The Allah who told kids on the streetcorners that it was all within them. And I thanked one Allah for the other.