Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"I Do Feel the Fire!": The Transformations of Prison-Based Black Male Converts to Islam in South Central, Malcolm X, and Oz

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"I Do Feel the Fire!": The Transformations of Prison-Based Black Male Converts to Islam in South Central, Malcolm X, and Oz

Article excerpt


I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man's society when-soon now, in prison-I found Allah and the religion of Islam and it completely transformed my life.

-Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Clearing a man of his past and putting him on the right road-this is a wonderful thing.

-Elijah Muhammad, Savior's Day 1974

Since the early twentieth century, Islam has served as a highly influential subculture among Black male prison inmates.1 The popular narratives of downtrodden and oppressed Black men from urban environments converting to Islam in prison is often accompanied by a lifestyle transformation, typically centered on transforming one's conduct and outlook.2 The social reform message of Islam in the Black male prison experience has its early roots in the establishment of Islam amongst prisoners by proto-Islamic movements, such as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple of America.3 The teachings of these early movements typically consisted of a hodgepodge of Qur'anic principles and biblical teachings combined with a unique sense of Black Nationalist independence and separatism that was once espoused by Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association.4 Despite the fact that Islam had a significant presence among enslaved Africans that diminished by the start Civil War, it ultimately began a process of resurgence with Noble Drew Ali's 1913 founding of the Moorish Science Temple of America and W.D. Fard's launching of the Nation of Islam in 1930.5

In addition to the profound legacies of the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple of America among Black male inmates throughout the early to mid-1900s, various Black orthodox Muslim organizations began to visibly impact the Black male prison experience in the 1950s.6 This sudden rise in orthodox Islam throughout Black communities occurred prior to Malcolm X's 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca that culminated in his conversion to Sunni Islam. Despite the large size and visibility of the original pre-1975 Nation of Islam, Black orthodox Muslims often clashed with the Nation of Islam's religious doctrine's concept of race and understanding of Tawheed (the Islamic concept of monotheism), occasionally leading up to the denunciation of Elijah Muhammad and his teachings on the behalf of major orthodox organizations.7 The largest group of Black orthodox Muslims throughout the 1960s and early 1970s was the Dar ul-Islam Movement, which established thirty masjids and Islamic centers throughout the United States, becoming one of the most prominent Islamic philosophies throughout the Black community.8 While orthodox practices based on the Qur'an, Hadith, and studies of the Arabic language were implemented, the Dar ul-Islam Movement also possessed strong Black Nationalist undertones, thus attracting the conversions of various former militants of the Black Power Movement who had been influenced by the philosophy of Malcolm X.9

By the 1960s, the Islamic scene in American prisons was characterized by the presence of various groups, including orthodox groups such as the Dar ul-Islam Movement, Hanafi Madhhab Movement, and Islamic Revivalist Movement, as well as the Nation of Islam.10 The large presence of Islamic groups behind bars ultimately led up to open worship behind bars and the introduction of prison masjids, such as Masjid Sankore, a mosque developed in New York's Green Haven Correctional Facility in the 1960s.11 Established by the Dar ul-Islam Movement's Prison Committee and named after the African Islamic educational center in Mali, Masjid Sankore was a major achievement for prison-based Black Sunni Muslims throughout the country, as it incorporated cultural heritage into religious practice, earning the title of the "Medina" of the prison system.12 The legacy of Black men converting to Islam in prison and abandoning their formerly destructive lifestyles was once made popular by Malcolm X's conversion to the Islam via the Nation of Islam. …

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