Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America

This week’s post comes to us from Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, Edward E. Curtis IV

In May, 1939 the Moorish Science Temple advertised a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) dance in the Indianapolis Knights of Pythias Hall (click for an expanded view).

In the 1930s some African-American Hoosiers helped to establish a completely new form of Islamic religion. The Moorish Science Temple of America (MST) was one of many new religious movements of the interwar period.  Begun in 1920s Chicago by Timothy Drew, who became known as Noble Drew Ali, the MST called on African Americans to have pride in themselves, advocated for equal rights, and preached the values of hard work and self-reliance. Noble Drew Ali taught that African Americans had forgotten their true heritage as followers of Islam. According to him, they had also forgotten their true racial and national identities. There was no such thing as a Black race, Ali proclaimed, insisting instead that African Americans were part of the Asian race. He said that their true national origins were Moorish–from Morocco. As Moors and Asians, he declared, they should abandon Christianity, which he said was the natural religion of White people, and re-claim the religion of Islam, which he defined as the natural religion for all non-white people. Believing that African Americans had adopted incorrect and ultimately harmful ideas about who they were, Ali was calling for nothing less than a wholesale change in black identity.

Eventually, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Hoosiers responded to his call. Ali’s followers in Indiana and across the country sometimes changed their names after converting, usually taking what they called a Moorish tribal name such as El or Bey. For example, the 1930 Indianapolis City Directory listed fourteen people who used the last name, “Bey.” One of them, Crumby Bey, said that he was born in North Africa—which he considered to be his true home even if he was physically born in the United States.

Hoosier Moors such as Crumby Bey used a unique sacred scripture. In 1927, Ali published his own version of the Qur’an, the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple. It did not contain any verses from the Qur’an that Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Instead, it combined Ali’s original teachings about African American identity with various moral and esoteric lessons from various popular metaphysical texts including The Aquarian Gospel and a Rosicrucian manual. It adopted its Islamic names and symbols, including the red fez, from a Masonic group, the Ancient Arabic Egyptian Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, or the Black Shriners. Moors faced east when they prayed, but they did not perform the typical Islamic prayer ritual. Neither did they observe Islamic dietary norms such as the prohibitions on pork and alcohol.

In the past various scholars and community observers have criticized the MST and other African American new religious movements as inauthentic and even as cults. Today’s scholars attempt to render more accurate understandings of such movements, which were important alternatives to the dominant Black Baptist and Methodist churches. During the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban north before World War II, Pentecostal and Apostolic churches, Black Jewish and Muslim groups, and movements such as Father Divine’s Peace Mission diversified the religious options available to African Americans. The MST was one of the many movements that became, for some, a social network, a religious congregation, and a cultural institution (compare The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions During the Great Migration).

The Indianapolis chapter of the MST, called Temple No. 15, was incorporated on March 17, 1930. It was located in the heart of Black Indianapolis at 519 Indiana Avenue, where its Governess, Mrs. M. Clift Bey, also resided. Over the next decade, the location of the temple moved, as the Moors rented space at the Odd Fellows Hall at 536½ Indiana Avenue and then later at the El Amigo Club and the Knights of Pythias Hall, where in 1939 it held a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) dance, including a jitterbug contest. Admission was 15 cents.

In January, 1931 the Moorish Science Temple invited Indianapolis residents to attend services at the Odd Fellows Hall on Indiana Avenue (click for an expanded view).

In addition to holding dances, the movement held prayer services, taught its unique Islamic creed, conducted dramatic and comedic performances, held pitch-in dinners, encouraged its members to seek training and gainful employment, and specialized in producing and selling brooms. In 1943, the Moorish Voice, a movement newspaper, lauded the accomplishment of chapter member “Sister H. Johnson Bey, who recently finished a six week course in the machine shop at Crispus Attucks High School.” According to the report, Johnson Bey found “it a very interesting course and the metal roller which she made to specific measures for one of the machines of the Moorish Broom Factory shows facility in this line of work.”

Though the temple never attracted the number of congregants that African American churches did, its activities appealed to African Americans throughout the state of Indiana. By World War II, additional temples had been established in South Bend (Temple No. 17), Gary (Temple No. 22), and Anderson (Temple No. 42) (compare the 1942 FBI Files on the Moorish Temple, also here). There were even followers of the movement in the little town of Hope, as we know from the reporting of the Evening Republican in nearby Columbus. On February 4, 1938, the paper ran a front-page story about Mrs. M. Clift Bey, the Indianapolis temple leader who was now called the “Grand Shiekess.” Bey had visited the newspaper that very morning “accompanied by Mrs. Dorothy Smith, the daughter of Reuben Frazier” who lived in Hope. Bey wore “a large red turban and a fur coat.” Mrs. Smith donned a pink turban.

In January, 1946 the Moorish Science Temple invited their neighbors to join them at a birthday celebration for the Founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America, Noble Drew Ali (click for an expanded view).

The Grand Shiekess explained the teachings of Noble Drew Ali. According to the Evening Republican, she “exhibited a copy of the organization’s [State of Indiana] articles of incorporation,” which explained the purpose of the group “to teach the Koran of Mohammed, to teach, preach and live the religion of Islam; to propagate the faith of Islam, and extend its learning and truth, and also the learning and truth of the Prophet Noble Drew Ali.” She also showed them a copy of a flier that called on all African Americans to join the movement. “Come all ye Asiatics [Asians] and learn the truth about your nationality and birth-right,” it read. In addition, the advertisement encouraged Black people to learn “your forefathers’ divine and ancient creed that you will learn to love instead of hate.” Echoing the teaching of the Ahmadiyya movement and other new religious movements, the flier proclaimed that “we honor all the true and divine prophets: Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, etc.” But it was also clear that the particular path toward a strong identity and communal empowerment for African Americans lay with Islam.

Though African Americans in Columbus did not convert en masse to the Moorish Science Temple, the Frazier Bey farm in Hope played an outsized role in the development of the movement. It became a rural retreat for members of the movement not only from Indiana, but also from the entire country. Members of the movement would stop for rest and relaxation as they traveled across Indiana, often on their way to Chicago. The farm supplied turkeys to the Moorish National Home for ailing and elderly members in Prince George, Virginia. In 1948, the Frazier Beys held a three-day party to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and invited residents of Hope as well as Moors from across the country to enjoy fishing, hay rides, a ball game, a hog-calling content, refreshments, and a barn dance. Five years later they repeated the party for their 55th anniversary with another barn dance.

Like the Ahmadiyya movement, the appeal of the Moorish Science Temple lessened in the second half of the twentieth century. But the Moors continue to have a presence in Indianapolis, as they do throughout the country. They remain important as the first national Muslim denomination established and operated by African Americans.

 

References

Patrick Bowen

2011 Abdul Hamid Suleiman and the Origins of the Moorish Science Temple. Journal of Race. Ethnicity, and Religion  2(13).

 

Emily Suzanne Clark

2013 Noble Drew Ali’s “Clean and Pure Nation”: The Moorish Science Temple, Identity, and Healing.  Nova Religio 16(3): 31-51. (subscription access)

 

Judith Weisenfeld

2016 New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration. New York University Press, New York.

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4 thoughts on “Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America

  1. Pingback: Indianapolis’ Ahmadi Muslims in the 1920s and 1930s | Invisible Indianapolis

  2. I like your research. Have you visited the Hixon Cemetary? Can you tell me anything about any of the people there with Islamic headstones? You can find some of them on FindAGrave.com Mahmud Sharp is one.

    Like

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