By Renée K. Gadoua, The Post-Standard on July 26, 2011 at 7:05 PM, updated July 27, 2011 at 7:27 PM Editors’ note: This story was originally published on Feb. 22, 2008.
Syracuse, NY — Jakada Makkah Bey begins Friday prayer services for Syracuse’s Moorish Science Temple of America by raising all five fingers on his left hand and two on his right.
“Seven is a perfect number, ” he says. “Our goal is to perfect our ways. Our ultimate goal is to be at peace.”
Bey is the spiritual leader – referred to as governor or sheik – of Moorish Science Temple No. 4, which has met in Syracuse since 2001.
The group is one of 15 Moorish Science temples in the country, said Chief Minister Ra Saadi El, who is based in Atlanta. The Syracuse group attracts as many as 20 people to its Friday services, Bey said. There are about 200 members nationwide in the group known as the Moorish Temple of America (1928 Portion), officials said.
The sect is considered the oldest African-American Islamic group in America, founded in 1913 by the Prophet Noble Drew Ali.
“Our core belief is there is no God but Allah and Prophet Drew Ali is his prophet in these days, ” Bey said. “He is the prophet sent to us to alleviate the ills of the Asiatic people. He is the savior of the world.”
Other Muslims consider Muhammad their prophet. Muhammad is said to have received the Quran, the Islamic holy book, through the angel Gabriel in the seventh century. Members of the Moorish Temple follow a version of the Quran attributed to Ali.
Beginning around 1913, Ali taught that blacks are descendants of the Moors and their return to Islam will redeem them from racial oppression. He taught that people brought to America as slaves were denied their names, religious practice and culture.
Moorish Temple members often wear fezzes or turbans and add “Bey” or “El” to their names as signs of their Moorish heritage.
Ali was born in 1886 and died in 1929. Biographical accounts differ. One describes him as the son of former slaves; another says his father was Moroccan and his mother Cherokee.
Ali was influenced by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican black nationalist, and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. When Ali died in 1929, Wallace D. Fard became a leader of the movement, which splintered into several groups. Fard, also known as Wallace Fard Muhammad, founded the Nation of Islam in 1930.
El said Moorish Science Temple members pay dues, follow the religion’s precepts, pray and fast. “You must be mindful. You must be respectful to others and to the government, ” he said. “We give everybody a fair shake regardless of race, creed, gender or whatever. We’re friendly to anyone who is friendly to us.”
Robert L. Harris, professor of African-American history at Cornell University, said the Moorish Science Temple of America was considered radical in the 1920s and’30s. “In that day, they sought to differentiate from people who had a slave mentality, ” he said. “They were considered quite rebellious. I don’t think they are viewed in that way today.”
The group is neither very visible nor influential, he said. “They are earnest people who are proud of their heritage, ” he said. “This is a variant of Islam.”
On a recent Friday, Bey preached to three adults and one child in the storefront of a kung fu studio on West Onondaga Street in Syracuse. “Islam, ” he said, explaining later that the group interprets the word to mean “peace.”
“Islam, ” the group responded.
“We give honor to Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, ” Bey said.
“We give honor to Marcus Garvey, ” he said.
“Love, truth, peace, freedom and justice must be proclaimed, ” he said.
For nearly an hour, Bey read from texts of the Moorish Temple and talked about topics including characteristics of Muslims (the group prefers the spelling “Moslem”), scientific and cultural contributions of Muslims, and similarities between Islam and other religious traditions.
“We take joy in walking the straight path, ” he said. “It’s a hard path. We take joy in following the path of our father and the tenets of our national creed.” As he spoke, his eyes often focused on photos of Drew Ali on the wall.
Shante Harris El joined the Moorish Temple in 2005. “The teachings of nationality and how they relate to the prophet drew me, ” she said. “You need to know your nationality to connect with your God.”
Her parents are Christian, she said. “This was definitely where I felt at home, ” she said.
Bey said up to 20 people attend Friday services; about eight people were at a Jan. 8 celebration of Ali’s birthday.
Bey volunteers at Auburn Correctional Facility and teaches for the University of the Muslim Science Temple of America, an online and correspondence school. He wouldn’t say how much he earns but said he ministers and teaches full time.
El, the chief minister, said Bey’s job is to set an example and build up the Moorish community. “A true Moorish American way of life is worship, ” he said. “Everything we do is a consciousness that we are serving God and making the world better.”