By Jehron Muhammad
Philadelphia has such a rich and diverse Islamic community. "Many of them have their roots, or some connections, to the Nation of Islam," said Louis Massiah, executive director of Scribe Video Center located in West Philadelphia.
Generally when one looks at the origins of the local Nation of Islam, known originally as Temple #12, emphasis is put on the early contributions of Minister Malcolm X or Elijah Muhammad's son, Wallace D. Muhammad, who later changed his name to Warith Deen Mohammad.
Until Scribe produced the segment of its 11-part documentary titled, "Seeds of an Awakening: The Early Nation of Islam in Philadelphia," there had been very little documentation of the contributions of the actual believers that had made up Temple #12. Even less is known about how the Nation of Islam (NOI) has contributed to the lives of some of Philadelphia's most recognized citizens.
Philadelphia's first poet laureate, author, poet, activist and retired Temple University professor Sonia Sanchez and the new NAACP president, Minister Rodney Muhammad come to mind. Sanchez, Muhammad, the former Philadelphia police commissioner Sylvester Johnson, Will Smith confidant Charlie Mack, and Delfonics lead singer William Hart Muhammad are probably Philadelphia's most recognized citizens with the distinction of having gone through the ranks of the NOI.
Until Louis Massiah's organization launched its Muslim Voices of Philadelphia project, no one had sought to capture and share with the wider Philadelphia community the various local Islamic voices. Scribe Video not only created a mechanism to document the local history of Islam, it allowed for a seat at the table for Islam.
The project started with each group submitting a proposal that included subject material and archival information.
"We put a filmmaker and a humanities scholar with each group. The filmmaker [was assigned] to teach people how to use a camera, lighting, sound and editing, Massiah said. "The humanities scholar, or social scientist discussed things like oral history techniques and [how to] access archives and how to shape a narrative about the history [of the group]."
There were two pilot projects. "Lijna Ima'illah (The Women's Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community)," Massiah added. "We also worked with the New African Center Islamic Cultural Preservation and Information Council."
The segment produced by the New African Center gives substance to the Nation of Islam as one of the foundational forces for much of Islam's local development. Two of the segments, including "Masjid Freehaven: The Struggle, the Sacrifice and the Gift" and "Masjidullah: Struggle for Human Excellence," show the growth of two Islamic communities with roots in the NOI.
Something that could enhance the NOI segment is the organization's emphasis on contributing to individual human development.
A case in point is when many African Americans went to study Islam abroad, specifically in Saudi Arabia. According to Imam Abdul Aleem Muhammad of Philadelphia's Masjidullah and Imam Siraj Wahaj of New York's Masjid Al-Taqwa, they took on many of the cultural practices of their Arab teachers and didn't stay true to their African and African American heritage.
Being grounded in the NOI, with its focus on internalizing African and African American culture and history, Imams Muhammad and Wahaj both have said that their upbringing in the Nation helped keep them grounded in a "knowledge of self" and their role and responsibility to give back to the wider African-American community. Both imams have studied in Saudi Arabia.
Muslim Voices had a big premier in June of 2014 at the International House in Philadelphia. It has since had 19 local screenings at libraries, at the African American Museum, and a joint screening that included the Reconstruction Rabbinical College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy. Each showing is followed by a discussion with the audience.
"We have taken the show on the road," Massiah said. Muslim Voices has been shown in Newark, New Jersey and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Upcoming soon are showings in Detroit and Atlanta.