Profiles in Courage - The Evolution of the Indigenous Muslim Community

Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif

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Profiles in Courage - The Evolution of the Indigenous Muslim Community

By Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif

  [Author’s Note: History will record that one of the greatest transitions or “transformations” of a cultural or ethnic group—-from a parochial or isolationist orientation to the broader ummah world view of the Qur’an—-occurred here in America with the spectacular evolution of the indigenous Muslim community.

The Climactic period of this evolution has been amply emphasized in current Islamic literature. Missing from this literature, however, has been any serious historical or objective documentation of the earlier phases of the community, which, if carefully studied, might give the serious Islamic student and/or scholar greater appreciation and insight into these modern phenomena of conversion.

By recounting and analyzing the actual sociological constraints and underpinning, one might discover those inherent and latent seeds of otherwise Qur’anic influences that ultimately paved the way for a rapid and smooth transformation. Thus the following article focuses upon those aspects which bore the “seeds” through layers of darkness until Allah, in His Mercy and Wisdom, brought them to fruition.]

On the night of December 7, 1941, most Americans were huddled in their living rooms listening to the news bulletins declaring that the Japanese had at­tacked Pearl Harbor. The mood of the entire country was grim. Not only were the Western Powers already locked in a violent struggle among themselves, but on this night the Japanese had done the unthinkable: they dared to challenge the military might of the United States.

This fateful night, placed against the backdrop of ram­pant racism, lynching, and mob violence against non-white minorities-instantaneously inflamed the climate, not only with increased racial hostility, but also with overt religious bigotry. But also on this night, in a store-front building in mid-town Washington, DC, three score or more black men and women were seated quietly listening to a small, neatly dressed man, known only as Mr. “Bogan” or Mr. “Rasoul.” This mild-mannered stranger pointedly told them that the days of white supremacy would only come to an end with the acceptance of Al-Islam as their religion. While most of them had already accepted his leadership and had renounced their previous faiths, he was warning them to expect greater persecution for the sake of their newly found faith.

The precedent had been set. Less than two years earlier, several members of this same group had borne the brunt of harassment and hostility from the local authorities when they withdrew their children from the public schools and subsequently established the “University of Islam” within the “Temple of Islam,” as the Mosque was known at that time.  An even *earlier precedent had, in fact, been set in Detroit, Michigan; some eight years prior when several Muslim parents (inspired by the example of Sister Clara Muhammad, who earlier removed her children from Detroit’s public schools), were arrested on *charges of “contributing to the delinquency of minors (keeping their children out of the public schools).”


According to the early Washington Muslim pioneers, their actions were immediately countered by the truant officers of the DC public school system, who filed charges with the District Juvenile Court. The cases were processed for hearing and resulted in trials that led to the jailing of several Muslim parents. Among them, Brother Hasan Sharif and his wife Aquillah were made the prime “example” by the courts. Although Sister Aquillah was pregnant at the time, she was made to serve seven months in a women’s federal prison in Virginia.

Brother Hasan served ten months in Lorton Reformatory, also in Virginia. The Muslims continued to resist efforts to force them to return their children to the public schools and many more were arrested in the course of time. Some Muslims served local jail terms that varied from a few days to -several weeks, while others served longer terms. One of the teachers, Sister Nancy, who was also the Mosque secretary, became ill with pneumonia after her arrest and died in the old Women’s Gallinger prison hospital.

As Mr. Bogan had warned, scores more would eventually be jailed, not only on charges of truancy violations but the more serious charge of opposition to the draft and war effort.  Federal authorities had, in fact, long contemplated some form of legal containment of this movement since the early 1930s, when it surfaced in Detroit and subsequently appeared in Chicago, Illinois, led by a former sharecropper named Elijah Pool, the husband of Sister Clara. The movement was initially met with mockery and was considered a pseudo-cult with “Islamic and Qur’anic trappings.”

The authorities, however underestimated the ultimate influence of the Qur’an on the direction and philosophy of the movement over time. Despite the fact that these authorities concluded that the Islamic world would not recognize this group as an authentic Muslim body, they were faced with the fact that more and more African-Americans Christians were abandoning Christianity for what they considered to be the Islamic religion.

In addiction to this, they had become aware that this movement was following the honored tradition in Islam of establishing an independent school system following the organization of a Masjid or Mosque.  They had, in fact, set in motion efforts to destroy the whole movement and had begun to concentrate on the leadership. Actually, Mr. Bogan and Mr. Rasoul were aliases for Elijah, who became widely known in later years as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. At the time he was, in fact, staying one step ahead of federal authorities that were seek­ing to arrest him on charges of sedition, draft evasion, and truancy laws.

In the summer of 1942 the federal authorities achieved their objective, arresting Elijah Muhammad in Washington, DC. After failing, however, to connect him with Japan’s war efforts or other sedition, they charged him with draft evasion (though he was 45, well over draft age at the time). They sentenced him to five years in Lorton Reformatory, where some of his followers had been sent earlier.Along with him the government ar­rested scores of Muslims of draft age, leaving most of the Muslim households without male support. Despite this, the at­tempts to keep the school going while avoiding more and more arrests continued for the next three years.

[History will record that Elijah Muhammad’s incarceration at Lorton spawned today’s rapid and continuous conversions of inmates to Islam. This fact is fully documented in US Penal literature]


“The curriculum,” as recalled in the Muhammad University’ of Islam yearbook (1970 Washington, DC), “consisted of arithmetic, reading, spelling, handwriting, physiology, and physical exercises.” “Actually we taught all of the basic academic elementary courses,” says Sister Hadiah, whose father, Brother Vincent, was one of the first to be arrested. “Our children were all below 10 years of age. Our Islamic teaching consisted mostly of reading copies of pages of the Our’an that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad had left with us. We could not find Our’ans at the time, so we duplicated the pages we had and used them to teach to the children. One of the favorite pas­sages we used was Luqman’s advice to his son,” she said. She ultimately spent week in the local DC jail herself.

Continued harassment from federal authorities and the lack of qualified teachers, however, forced the struggling Muslim community to curtail its efforts. When Elijah Muhammad was released from prison in 1946, the parents and laborers (as the workers were called) decided to discontinue their efforts to establish a school until a future time. Many of the children were sent back to the public schools, although a few of the parents continued to defy the authorities for much longer.

It was some 17 years later when the opportunity arose again for the Muslims to reestablish an independent school. By this time the community had grown considerably and had educational pursuits and economic prowess wide. Local and national media had begun to publish frequent reports of the Muslim activity, and although most such reports branded them as “black supremacist,” considerable credit was given to their positive achievements.

The Muslims took this climate into account immediately after the erection of Muhammad Mosque No. 4 (Now known as Masjid Muhammad in 1960. From that time until 1962 the Muslims carried out an intensive dawah (call to Islam) campaign, coupled with a strong public relations effort to defuse lingering hostility from government authorities.

In the fall of 1962 this effort was further rewarded by a transitional development, which brought one of the community’s most prominent spokesmen to Washington.  Malcolm X (Malik El-Shabazz) was appointed by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad to replace outgoing Imam (Minister) Lucius Bey, whose excellent leadership and civic diplomacy had help produce a positive climate, whereby the community was inspired to erect a Mosque in mid-town DC. [The Mosque, initially called a “Temple) has the distinction of being the first Islamic structure build in America from the ground up by indigenous Muslims.  It was to be listed somewhat later as a Muslim “tourist” attraction within the inner city for capital city visitors.]

Malcolm was elated by the ongoing efforts and suggested that a weekend Islamic educational program should be started as soon as possible. Shortly thereafter the parents and officials came together and began what was known as the “Saturday School,” or “Saturday Youth program,” which con­centrated on fundamental academic and Islamic studies for both children and adults. This group began laying the foundation for a permanent school. They had the assistance and support of many of the elders who had suffered imprisonment for this very cause. The effort had total community involvement.

In the fall of 1963 Elijah Muhammad selected Dr. Abdulalim Shabazz, head of the Department of Mathematics at Atlanta University to assume leadership of the mosque. He further developed the ongoing program and prepared the community for the support of a full-time school, a major responsibility that was to come later.

In 1967 Elijah Muhammad suggested that the school should become a full-time institution immediately and in earnest. This suggestion was heeded promptly, and within two weeks nearly all of the Muslim parents had requested transfers for their children from the public school. The demonstrable act of faith and courage meant that the children would begin classes, grades one through twelve, in the local mosque-the only facility available at the time.

It would be difficult to imagine the faith and spirit of sacrifice the parents were being asked to make, and which they chose to make without hesitation. Unlike the previous government harassments of the elders, the federal government and local officials took a “wait-and-see” attitude. There were even some who gave en­couragement to the effort in reconnection given the insurmountable problems of the public school system.

Of the scores of children who transferred to the Muslim school there were three students entering the twelfth grade at their respective schools. One of these students, Sister Juanita Rashid, says, “Yes, it was traumatic. I was a straight-A honor student and this was my last year.  I was worried about the facilities and so forth.”  Nevertheless, Sister Juanita chose to accept the decision of her parents. “ I understood what it was all about,” she said. “My father (Paul Rashid) was one of those jailed along with the elders in the 1940s. He was only 18 years old at the time.”

Having gone on to become a public relations specialist for NBC, Sister Juanita recalls the positive results of her parents’ decision. “Actually I did have individualized instructions; it was like having a private tutor, and as you know, our instruction were more advanced than the public schools at that time. We were taught advanced calculus, for instance.”  Sister Juanita and two other twelfth graders, Brother Kermit and Sister Edwina, became the school’s first graduates the next year.  Rul-Aref and Alif Ahmad Kashif, the authors children, were also among the early graduates of t his “University of Islam,” and the subsequent (re-named) Clara Muhammad School.

The list of such early graudates and alumnis will be chronicled in follow up historical renderings in the near future. Many such students have returned to the school as full and/or art time instructors.

To compensate for the lack of facilities and instructors, the school operated an advanced “no-frills” curriculum. The basic citywide curriculum was followed; however, more theoretical emphasis was used to balance out the shortfall in physical materials. Furthermore, the students were offered at least one year of advanced classes vis-?-vis the public school grade placements. Students were drilled in step-by-step fundamentals so that they would be able to quickly grasp supplementary materials should they have to re-transfer again to the public schools at some point in the future. Along with the core academic courses, the school taught Spanish and Qur’anic Arabic, as well as Islamic Studies.  The teaching philosophy was one of accelerated instructions:

“We must get away from the old kindergarten way of letting our children play and lay around for months, studying the alphabet.  We must use the faster method of advanced education in order to begin qualifying our children.  We are at the door of an advanced change of civilizations, and in order to compete we must qualify ourselves.  We cannot do this in integrated schools. We must do this alone, declared Elijah Muhammad in 1970.

This was the philosophy that lay behind all of the teaching methodology. There was no kindergarten. “As soon as it was felt that the kindergard aged child could handle the material, they entered the first grade. Some of the children started a 4 ? years,” recalls Sister Hafeeza Kashif, one of the early “founding members” and first/second grade instructor whose services along with Sister Mildred Omar and others spanned more than half-a-century.

(Along with Sister Kashif and Sister Omar, other early “pioneers/founders,” administrators and teachers included Biseemah Bey, Hanna Muhmud, Delores Hameed, Portia Pasha, Dorothy Wedad, Hadiah Muhammad;  Carl 4x, Leroy X, Elinor Rashid, Emerson Brandon, Nafeeesa Mahdi, Doris 2X, Johnny Kareem and several others. [Many “full” family names which were unavailable at the time of this early documentation, but will be obtained in an expanded history of these courageous pioneers]. (many others whose names are not listed here also ranked among these pioneers.)

Meanwhile It should be noted that the district’s school board did not resist the establishment of the Muslim school, as was the case for the earlier pioneers mentioned above. This writer, also one of the early “founders,” held early discussions with several DC school board officials regarding these matters and help to negotiate the board’s shift to a more accommodating stance. Following such discussions, it was recommended to the school that the curriculum be modeled after the DC Ammadon School’s program, which was considered the best in the city.

While the school board did not concede to accredit the school at that time, they determined that its establishment was worthwhile and offered assistance with standardized testing procedures for the students. They joined with school officials in establishing such testing procedures.  In every case it was found that the Muslim children scored significantly high on the California Achievement Test (recognized at the best in the country at that time) and ranked first or near the very top among the local schools in “discipline.”  Over the next five years, school enrollment continued to rise, and this school complemented the growing number of such Muslim schools around the country.  At this time the school was, as stated, the subject of us radio and television specials, which highlighted the academic and disciplinary achievements of the fledging institution.

By 1975 the school had developed a four-bus transportation system and had added two college level tutorial classes (engineering and architecture). The buses transported the boys and girl students to school at different hours (Boys in the morning and girls in the evening). The time spends otherwise by the students involved off school grounds educational activities (library activity, school trips, etc). The students went to school all year long, except two weeks in February, and two weeks in August.


As fate would have it, Elijah Muhammad returned to Allah on February 24, 1976. His passing ushered in a new era that would attempt to build upon the community’s practical achievements and transcend its parochial nature. The community transformed its ideals to exalt the principle of inclusion of all mankind in the universality of Al-Islam, and it declared Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah (saaw) categorically as Allah’s final Messenger to all mankind.

This latter development fell on the shoulders of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who immediately began to reor­ganize the Muslim schools, naming them “ Sister Clara Muhammad” schools. As he had begun to introduce the community to traditional Islamic standards, he emphasized the need to upgrade the Arabic and Islamic Studies classes in keeping with such traditions.

Nationally the school system underwent a series of changes designed to update curriculum, increase fiscal responsibility and improve facilities.
This process eventually required the downsizing of some schools and closing of some facilities. A brief casualty of this refinement, the Washington school also closed its door for “re-tooling” and re-opened on a full-time basis in 1980. Meanwhile the believers—-relying upon the experiences of the elders—-maintained smaller independent school facilities and encouraged “home schooling.”

The Bilalian center spearheaded by the elders and others served this purpose well. Finally, in 1980 the Clara Muhammad School reopened in a separate facility at 1851 9th Street, not far from tile site of the original Masjid where the pioneers had made their stand. Later the school re-located in a former District School building, also within blocks of the Masjid. It is now located in Southeast Washington and provides the continuing quality education envisioned for Muslims in the entire Metropolitan area.

The new generation of teachers and students continue to draw strength from the legacy of the Pioneers——truly they are most deserving as “Profiles in Courage.” They have left us an honorable legacy to uphold.

Note: The above material is soon to be expanded in depth. Consequently, while the sharing of above copyright material, with due credit by recipients (after query) is permitted, the distribution of copyright material for projected commercial use, in part or whole, (without consent of author) abridges legal rights).