A Look Back at the Evolution of Al-Islam in Cleveland’s Black Community

Imam Ivan G. Nassar

“Muslim leader’s anti-Christian speech draws fire from ministers and laymen.”

This was the headline above an article published in Cleveland’s influential African-American newspaper, the Call & Post, on Oct. 11, 1958. The editor stated that the publication was responding to letters and phone calls it had received, protesting the use of historic Cory Methodist Church for a speech by Elijah Muhammad, leader of thousands of African-American Muslims, on Sept. 23, 1958.

As Minister Malcolm X made his way to the podium to introduce the Muslim leader to the audience, no one suspected that in a matter of a few years all America, would get to know his name — or that Malcolm X would make one of his most memorable speeches from the same podium six years later.

The social climate of the turbulent 1960’s presented a perfect backdrop for the black supremacy doctrine offered by the Nation of Islam. This was the era of the Civil Rights Movement, mass boycotts, and riots that raged for days on the streets in black communities throughout America. As the Nation of Islam received regular exposure in the media, its teachings began to move through the streets of black America like a giant tsunami.

Elijah Muhammad’s representative in Cleveland was a minister (Theodore X) Tariq Hamzah, who arrived in Cleveland in 1957. Soon after that time, a small gathering of Muslims began holding meetings at the Muhammad Temple of Islam in a storefront at 11005 Ashbury Road. Outgrowing that facility, in 1961, the community moved into the auditorium of an old neighborhood movie theater on East 124th Street and Superior Avenue. The enterprising spirit of the Muslims was visible, as a cluster of thriving Muslim-owned businesses sprang up around their place of worship.

In the years that followed their 1958 joint appearance, the tension between Malcolm and the Muslim leader led to Malcolm quitting the Nation of Islam. Malcolm became a Sunni Muslim, made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In a strange turn of events, six years after Malcolm’s first visit to Cory Methodist Church, he would return on April 3, 1964, and deliver his now-famous speech, “The Ballot or The Bullet.”

Following the death of his father in 1975, Imam Wallace D. Mohammed, assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam. The new leader navigated a change of philosophy for the Nation of Islam in directing the community to embrace the true meaning and message of Al-Islam as taught from the Holy Al-Qur’an and the traditions and practices of the Prophet Muhammad – Peace be Upon Him.

The widespread acceptance of the religion of Al-Islam by African-Americans has served to enrich the diversity of religious culture in Cleveland. Masjid Bilal of Cleveland at 7401 Euclid Avenue, has the distinction of being the first African-American Muslim community to build a masjid from the ground up in Greater Cleveland. Imam Shafeeq Sabir is the current Imam.

Al-Islam is as much a part of black history as black history is a part of Al-Islam, and its deep roots and history in the black community deserve to be honored.

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