What I Learned from the Five Percenters
Jan 8 2013
Five Percenters say that the black man is Allah and the white man is the devil. I am a white man, and also a Muslim, and Five Percenters exist for the pleasure of neither white people nor Muslims, but I have been a friend of this community for roughly a decade now. This relationship has transformed the ways in which I see the world and also myself.
I first encountered the Five Percent during the cross-country wanderings that became my American Muslim road book, Blue-Eyed Devil. Though most Five Percenters do not consider themselves to be Muslims, I saw this community as a necessary component of the story of American Islam. So I went to their headquarters, the Allah School on Seventh Avenue in Harlem, and ended up having a pretty good time. Because the Five Percenters were critically under researched and misrepresented, I embarked on a project entirely devoted to them: The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York.
In the course of collecting texts, interviewing community elders, decoding Wu Tang lyrics, and hanging out at Five Percenter gatherings (parliaments), something changed. As an amateur ethnographer, I was not prepared to be affected by the materials that I was ingesting. Spending thousands of hours thinking about the Five Percenters, I actually began to internalize their narratives, symbols, and ideas. Though I wasn’t entirely inside, I was no longer outside. My position became a strange in-between space that I would examine in another project, Why I am a Five Percenter.
The first lesson I learned from the Five Percent was simple: Fuck white people. Seriously. White people are devils. I don’t mean this as a statement on biology, because the category of “race” is only political fiction and bad science. I’m using the term more in the sense of what it means to be marked as white in an unjust society. The fact is that I benefit from being white in several ways that I recognize, and many, many more that I usually fail to see. Because I am so often blind to the benefits of my whiteness, it is possible that I unintentionally reenforce those benefits, no matter how vehemently I say that I oppose racism or shower white affection on groups like the Five Percenters. When people want to sound like they’re theoretically sophisticated, they describe this phenomenon with the term, “white privilege.” I call it Satan.
Malcolm X returned from Mecca with a belief that classical Islam’s allegedly transracial brotherhood could help white Americans to move beyond the race poison that has been so deeply injected into their brains. However, I’ve also seen white Muslim converts use this claim to color-blindness as an excuse to avoid talking seriously about race. Mix white privilege with the privilege of religious orthodoxy, and you get a white Sunni who doesn’t have to consider why Elijah Muhammad was so absolutely necessary for this country.
There have been numerous white Five Percenters throughout the community’s history, and I have ironically found a greater fulfillment of Malcolm’s experience in Mecca through the Five Percenters than in my Sunni conversion. A Five Percenter elder told me that if I rejected white supremacy and strove for righteousness, I could not be called a devil; though he believed in the Five Percenter doctrine of white devils, he would not hold that against me as an individual. The answer was not for white people to instantly stop being white, as Malcolm had claimed that Islam would do for them, but to directly confront their whiteness and everything that whiteness does in the world. To be white in America means that I have been groomed to be a devil. The Five Percenters allowed me a space in which I could confess that and work to transcend it.
Five Percenters also gave me some useful ways for thinking about myself as a Muslim. Their claim to personal godhood offers, among many other things, a statement on organized religion. At a time when I was unsure of my own identity as a Muslim, Five Percenters—who generally reject the term “Muslim” for themselves—empowered me to claim ownership of my Islam. The Five Percenter disdain for religious hierarchies actually rescued my Muslim-ness. It was through the ability to make choices about my tradition that I could have any relationship to it at all. The Five Percenter breakdowns of “Allah” as “Arm Leg Leg Arm Head” and “Islam” as “I Self Lord And Master” gave me everything that I had sought in taqwacore.
Five Percenters study the Supreme Wisdom Lessons, the initiatory texts of the Nation of Islam, without blind adherence to the NOI institution or authorities such as Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan. In that way, they’re kind of like Salafi Muslims, who advocate a “straight to the texts” approach and see themselves as above Islam’s established legal schools. But unlike the Salafis, who seek to minimize the role of creative interpretation, Five Percenters emphasize the power of the individual reader to draw meaning up from the text. For Five Percenters, the truth of the Lessons is less about what they “really” say than the understanding that you, as the reader, produce from them. I’ve done my own work with the Lessons, but have also applied a Five Percenter approach to my relationship with the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions.
I’m not god and I’m not the devil. I am a human being, and the Five Percenters have helped me along the road to full humanity and peace within both my mosque and my own skin.
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