Islam Offers Identity For Some Blacks


Published: Mar 4, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - He came into this world Otha Favors

Jr., named for his daddy.

From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, they called

him a black militant, a drug kingpin, an agitator.

He founded the Black Youth for Peace and Power,

organized boycotts, protested police harassment,

demanded black studies courses at the University of

South Florida. Federal authorities kept a file on him.

Local police arrested him, although he never was


The studious St. Petersburg native doesn't deny his

colorful past, but he says it has little to do with

the man he is today.

In 1976, after much reflection and research, he cast

aside his Christian upbringing and embraced Islam.

Three years later, Otha Favors was gone forever when

he adopted the Muslim name Askia Muhammad Aquil.

``Being a Muslim has helped me understand what true

manhood is all about,'' says Aquil, 56, director of

the nonprofit St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing

Services. ``In my younger days, I was jousting at

windmills and trying to correct injustices and not

always doing it with the best judgment. Islam has

given me the guidelines to live a more centered, more

balanced life.''

That's a sentiment echoed by many black American

Muslim men in his age group. They were among the

disenchanted thousands who turned to the Nation of

Islam during and immediately after the civil-rights

movement of the 1960s. Nation of Islam, led by Elijah

Muhammad and catapulted into national prominence by

Malcolm X, gave them a voice and a proud, black


Although they professed loyalty to the Koran, the

Islamic holy book, black Muslims of that era were more

radical than religious. They bonded in their hatred of

the white race and envisioned building a nation of

strong, black leaders.

``I got involved more out of racial consciousness,''

says Abdul Latif Bilal, formerly Charles Hadley. ``The

Nation [of Islam] was really a nationalistic movement

disguised as religion. Most of us sympathized with the

Black Panthers, but we worked within the system. So

this gave us a more legitimate platform.''

Bilal, a 59-year-old landscaper who makes his home in

his native Tampa, recalls the despair when the

organization began to fracture from within. First came

the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X by insiders. Then,

after Muhammad's 1975 death, the power struggle

between his son, Warith Deen Mohammed (who spelled his

name differently from his father), and Louis

Farrakhan, a top NOI official.

Mohammed, who had studied Islamic doctrine and found

contradictions with NOI theology, wanted the

organization to renounce his late father's separatist

ideas and bring its practices closer to Sunni Islam.

He eventually renamed the group the American Muslim

Society, which now claims about 2 million members

nationwide, and reshaped its teachings to reflect

mainstream Islam.

Farrakhan, meanwhile, denounced Mohammed's plans and

left the organization, taking a splinter group with

him. Although the two groups have sparred publicly

over the years, they have made several conciliatory

overtures, with Farrakhan attempting to distance

himself from earlier anti-Semitic and antiwhite views.

A Moral Path

For African-American Muslims like Aquil and Bilal who

chose traditional Islam, the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere

has been a test of faith. They, too, have suffered the

anti-Muslim backlash, although they concede it's not

been as difficult for them as for Muslims of Middle

Eastern descent.

``As black men, we know about discrimination. We've

already dealt with adversity,'' Bilal says. ``So as

Muslims, we're more prepared to handle it.''

Friends of Seifuddin Akram, a community service

officer with the Tampa Police Department, might be

surprised by his initial exposure to Islam. When he

was a teenager in Connecticut, the former James Edward

Douglas Jr. used to hang out near the Black Panthers

headquarters in New Haven, intrigued by the group's

work in the community.

Despite the Panthers' reputation as radical, he saw

only the contributions they were making in the


``They were doing good things, like feeding the local

children and inspiring our people to raise our

standards, respect our women,'' says Akram, 52. ``They

mainly were talking socialist stuff, so I helped hand

out pamphlets.''

After a stint in the Army from 1969 to 1971, the young

Douglas returned from Germany to a land where blacks

still hadn't achieved equality, and racial anger still

resonated. It didn't seem fair; he had volunteered for

military service and had served his country.

Akram says he may have drifted back to the Panthers

and a more revolutionary lifestyle had a friend not

introduced him to the Nation of Islam. He believes

that his conversion to the faith in 1975 helped him

make good choices, paving the way to a career in law


``It could have gone either way for me. I'm grateful

for how Islam shaped my life,'' he says. ``I never

really felt comfortable as a Christian. That was the

faith forced on us when we were brought here as


World Acceptance

Indeed, to talk about black history without addressing

Islam is a ``serious injustice,'' says Abdul Ali, 55,

of St. Petersburg, a distributor for health and beauty

products. The former Matthew Savage converted in 1975,

attracted by Islam's message of black independence and

its healthy dietary laws, which include no drinking,

no smoking and no pork.

As he delved into the religion's history, he learned

about its connection to his African ancestors and how

many slaves were forced to abandon their Muslim

beliefs and adopt their owners' Christian theology.

For modern-day African- American Muslims, he says,

Islam is like returning home.

``We still suffer a lack of true identity,'' he says

of blacks in this country. ``The institution of

slavery has ended, but the effects of it still remain

in our psyche. Islam has done a tremendous job of

returning our self-esteem and self-worth.''

Ali acknowledges ``somewhat of a historic separation''

between blacks and immigrants in the U.S. Muslim

community. He says the perception among Muslims from

other countries was that converts from ``evil and

wicked America'' couldn't possibly be true followers

of the faith.

That division has eased since W. Deen Mohammed

redirected American Muslims to mainstream doctrine and

began representing the religion at interfaith

conferences all over the world. Ali believes the work

and example of black Muslim leaders over the last 30

years has made it easier for immigrants to practice

their Islamic faith in this country.

``We laid the foundation here,'' he says. ``This isn't

something that happened overnight.''

For Aquil, the memories of the young man who fought

for change and challenged the law in a time of unrest

are faded but not forgotten.

His first and middle adopted names - Askia Muhammad -

come from an African leader who unified warring groups

during the 15th century. His last name is Arabic for

wise and intelligent.

In his incarnation as a Muslim, he strives to live up

to his name. It's a struggle, but this struggle

doesn't make him angry or frustrated. In fact, it's

made easier by praying five times a day, a requirement

of his faith.

``I've found peace with Islam.''


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