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The Moorish Science Temple of America is an American religious organization founded in the early 20th century by Timothy Drew. Although presented as a sect of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple also draws inspiration from Buddhism, Christianity, Freemasonry, Gnosticism and Taoism to present a message of pride, uplift, self-determination, personal transformation, and self-sufficiency. It also intended to provide African Americans with a sense of identity in the Western Hemisphere and promote civic involvement. One primary tenet of the Moorish Science Temple is the belief that African-Americans are of Moorish ancestry, specifically from Morocco; in their religious texts, adherents refer to themselves as "Asiatics". An adherent of this movement is called a Moorish scientist.
The Moorish Science Temple of America was incorporated under the Illinois Religious Corporation Act 805 ILCS 110. Timothy Drew, known to members of the Moorish Science Temple of America as Prophet Noble Drew Ali, founded the Moorish Science Temple in 1913 in New Jersey. After some difficulties, Drew moved to Chicago, establishing a center there as well as temples in other major cities, where it expanded rapidly during the late 1920s. The quick expansion of the Moorish Science Temple arose in large part from the search for identity and context among black Americans.
Competing factions developed among the congregations and leaders, especially after the death of the charismatic Noble Drew Ali, and led to at least three separate organizations. The founding of the Nation of Islam by Wallace Fard Muhammad also created competition for members. In the 1930s membership was estimated at 30,000, with one third in Chicago. During the postwar years, the Moorish Science Temple of America continued to increase in membership, albeit at a slower rate.
By the late 20th century, demographic and cultural changes had decreased the attraction of young people to the Moorish Science Temple of America. In the early 2000s, it is estimated that presently there may be 800 adherents in four major cities, although the organization itself states it has 260 temples nationwide.
Timothy Drew was born on January 8, 1886 in North Carolina, USA. Accounts of Timothy Drew's ancestry variously described his being the son of two former slaves who was adopted by a tribe of Cherokees or the son of a Moroccan Muslim father and a Cherokee mother.
Drew reported that during his travels, he met with a high priest of Egyptian magic. In one version of Drew's biography, the leader saw him as a reincarnation of the founder, while in others, the priest considered Drew a reincarnation of Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad and other religious prophets. According to the biography, the high priest trained Drew in mysticism and gave him a "lost section" of the Quran.
This text came to be known as the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America (which is not to be confused with the Islamic Quran). It is also known as the "Circle Seven Koran" because of its cover, which features a red "7" surrounded by a blue circle. Drew took parts of his book from the Rosicrucian work, Unto Thee I Grant, and most of it from The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, published in 1908 by esoteric Ohio preacher Levi Dowling. In The Aquarian Gospel, Dowling described Jesus's supposed travels in India, Egypt, and Palestine during the years of his life which are not accounted for by the New Testament. Drew and his followers used this material to claim, "Jesus and his followers were Asiatic." ("Asiatic" was the term Drew used for all dark or olive-colored people; he labeled all whites as European. He suggested that all Asiatics should be allied.)
Drew crafted Moorish Science from a variety of sources, a "network of alternative spiritualities that focused on the power of the individual to bring about personal transformation through mystical knowledge of the divine within". In the inter-war years in Chicago and other major cities, Drew used these concepts to preach racial pride and uplift. His approach appealed to thousands of African-Americans who had left severely oppressive conditions in the South and faced struggles in new urban environments.
Drew claimed to have been anointed Noble Drew Ali, the Prophet. He launched into his career as head of the Moorish Science Temple of America. Drew taught his followers to "face east when praying, regard Friday as their holy day, and call their god Allah and their leader Prophet. Moorish-Americans are not obligated to follow Islam completely. They pray five times a day, and travel to Mecca only if they choose to do so. Many hymns sung are recognizable as adapted from traditional Christian hymns common in black churches.
Drew believed that African Americans were all Moors who he claimed descended from the ancient Moabites (describing them as belonging to Northwest Africa as opposed to Moab as the name suggests), that Islam and its teachings are more beneficial to their earthly salvation, and that their true nature had been withheld from them. In the traditions he founded, male members of the Temple wear a fez as head covering; women wear a turban.
They added the suffixes Ali, Bey or El to their surnames, to signify Moorish heritage as well as their taking on the new life as Moorish Americans. It was also a way to claim and proclaim a new identity other than that lost to slavery of their ancestors in the United States. Thus a Moor could accept that his African tribal name may never be known to him/her, and that the European names they were given were not theirs, either.
As Drew began his version of teaching the Moorish-Americans to become better citizens, he made speeches in which he urged them to reject derogatory labels, such as "Black", "colored", and "Negro". He urged Americans of all races to reject hate and embrace love. He believed that Chicago would become a second Mecca.
The ushers of the Temple wore black fezzes. The leader of a particular temple was known as a Grand Sheik, or Governor. Drew Ali was known to have had several wives. According to the Chicago Defender, he took the power to marry and divorce at will.
In 1913, Drew Ali formed the Canaanite Temple in Newark, New Jersey. He left the city after agitating people with his views on race. Drew Ali and his followers migrated, while planting congregations in Philadelphia; Washington, D.C., and Detroit. Finally, Drew Ali settled in Chicago in 1925, saying the Midwest was "closer to Islam." The following year he officially registered Temple No. 9.
There he instructed followers not to be confrontational but to build up their people to be respected. He was creating a way for African Americans to make their place in the United States by teaching them their true cultural identity and to be themselves. In the late 1920s, journalists estimated the Moorish Science Temple had 35,000 members in 17 temples in cities across the Midwest and upper South. It was reportedly studied and watched by the Chicago police.
Building Moorish-American businesses was part of their program, and in that was similar to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League and the later Nation of Islam. By 1928, members of the Moorish Science Temple of America had obtained some respectability within Chicago and Illinois, as they were featured prominently and favorably in the pages of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, and conspicuously collaborated with African American politician and businessman Daniel Jackson.
Drew attended the 1929 inauguration of the Illinois governor. The Chicago Defender stated that Drew's trip included "interviews with many distinguished citizens from Chicago, who greeted him on every hand." With the growth in its population and membership, Chicago was established as the center of the movement.
In early 1929, following a conflict over funds, Claude Green-Bey, the business manager of Chicago Temple No. 1 split from the Moorish Science Temple of America. He declared himself Grand Sheik and took a number of members with him. On March 15, Green-Bey was stabbed to death at the Unity Hall of the Moorish Science Temple, on Indiana Avenue in Chicago.
Drew was out of town at the time, as he was dealing with former Supreme Grand Governor Lomax Bey (professor Ezaldine Muhammad), who had supported Green-Bey's attempted coup. When Drew Ali returned to Chicago, the police arrested him and other members of the community on suspicion of having instigated the killing. No indictment was sworn for Drew Ali at that time.
Shortly after his release by the police, Drew Ali died at age 43 at his home in Chicago on July 20, 1929. Although the exact circumstances of his death are unknown, the Certificate of Death stated that Noble Drew Ali died from "tuberculosis broncho-pneumonia". Despite the official report, many of his followers speculated that his death was caused by injuries from the police or from other members of the Moorish community. Others thought it was due to pneumonia. One Moor told the Chicago Defender, "The Prophet was not ill; his work was done and he laid his head upon the lap of one of his followers and passed out."
The death of Noble Drew Ali brought out a number of candidates to succeed him. Brother Edward Mealy El stated that he had been declared Drew Ali's successor by Drew Ali himself. In August, within a month of Drew Ali's death, John Givens El, Drew's chauffeur, declared that he was Drew reincarnated. He is said to have fainted while working on Drew's automobile and "the sign of the star and crescent [appeared] in his eyes".
At the September Unity Conference, Givens again made his claim of reincarnation. However, the governors of the Moorish Science Temple of America declared Charles Kirkman Bey to be the successor to Drew Ali and named him Grand Advisor.
With the support of several temples each, Mealy El and Givens El both went on to lead separate factions of the Moorish Science Temple. All three factions (Kirkman Bey, Mealy El, and Givens El) are active today.
On September 25, 1929, Kirkman Bey's wife reported to the Chicago police his apparent kidnapping by one Ira Johnson. Accompanied by two Moorish Americans, the police visited the home of Johnson, when they were met by gunfire. The attack escalated into a shoot-out that spilled into the surrounding neighborhood. In the end, a policemen as well as a Moorish American were killed in the gun battle, and a second policeman later died of his wounds. The police took 60 people into police custody, and a reported 1000 police officers patrolled the Chicago South Side that evening. Johnson and two others were later convicted of murder.
Kirkman Bey went on to serve as Grand Advisor of one of the most important factions until 1959, when the reins were given to F. Nelson-Bey.
The community was further split when Wallace Fard Muhammad, known within the temple as David Ford El, also claimed (or was taken by some) to be the reincarnation of Drew Ali. When his leadership was rejected, Ford-El broke away from the Moorish Science Temple. He moved to Detroit, where he formed his own group, an organization that would become the Nation of Islam, although the Nation of Islam denies any historical connection with the Moorish Science Temple.
Despite the turmoil and defections, the movement continued to grow in the 1930s. It is estimated that membership in the 1930s reached 30,000. There were major congregations in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago.
One-third of the members, or 10,000, lived in Chicago, the center of the movement. There were congregations in numerous other cities where African Americans had migrated in the early 20th century. The group published several magazines: one was the Moorish Guide National. During the 1930s and 1940s, continued surveillance by police (and later the FBI) caused the Moors to become more withdrawn and critical of the government.
During World War II, the Moorish Science Temple (specifically the Kirkman Bey faction) came to the attention of the FBI, who falsely suspected the Moorish Americans of collaborating with Japan. The FBI created a file on the Temple; it grew to 3,117 pages. They never found any evidence of any connection or much sympathy of the temple's members for Japan.
Scholars estimate that in the 1950s, the community had 60,000 members in 35 temples. Due to its prison ministries, some temples showed a slow but steady growth in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, membership began to decline.
In 1976 Jeff Fort, leader of Chicago's Black P Stone Nation, announced at his parole from prison in 1976 that he had converted to Islam. Moving to Milwaukee, Fort associated himself with the Moorish Science Temple of America. It is unclear whether he officially joined or was instead rejected by its members.
In 1978, Fort returned to Chicago and changed the name of his gang to El Rukn ("the foundation" in Arabic), also known as "Circle Seven El Rukn Moorish Science Temple of America" and the "Moorish Science Temple, El Rukn tribe". Scholars are divided over the nature of the relationship, if any, between El Rukn and the Moorish Science Temple of America. Fort reportedly hoped that an apparent affiliation with a religious organization would discourage law enforcement.
In 1984 the Chicago congregation bought a building from Buddhist monks in Ukrainian Village which continues to be used for Temple No. 9. Demographic and cultural changes have decreased the attraction of young people to the Moorish Science Temple. Only about 200 members attended a convention in 2007, rather than the thousands of the past. In the early 2000s, the temples in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. had about 200 members each, and many were older people.
An increasing number of people claiming to follow Moorish Science have filed false legal documents in various municipalities around the United States. The documents include fake liens, deeds, and property claims. The Moorish Science Temple has disavowed any affiliation with those filing the false documents, calling them "radical and subversive fringe groups". Moorish Science has influenced or been connected to several other groups, including the Washitaw Nation and the Nuwaubian Nation.