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Charmed Life

Pilgrim's Progress


By Tom Chalkley | Posted 2/25/2004

Soft-spoken yet authoritative, Imam Wali Uqdah is a pillar of his temple, the Masjid al Inshara in Woodlawn, and one of Baltimore's more visible Muslim leaders. For the past 19 years, Uqdah has served as the Islamic chaplain for the Pretrial Detention program at Baltimore City Jail. As a long-running freelance writer for the Muslim Journal and other publications, he has interviewed such African-American luminaries as Muhammad Ali, author Alex Haley, and blues icon B.B. King. Last year he and his wife, Rashidah Uqdah, published A History and Narrative of Muslim Americans in Baltimore, Maryland, a compendium of documents, biographies, photographs, scripture, and commentary spanning more than 60 years.

Uqdah's chronicle is deeply connected to his own life story. A little more than 40 years ago, he was a paratrooper with the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving in America's little-remembered 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic. The young soldier, then known as Walter Sharp, had been raised a Methodist on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Jim Crow laws--America's version of apartheid--were still in full force. Unlike the segregated civilian world, the military offered ambitious young black men like Sharp a shot at recognition and promotion, and a chance to meet kindred souls. Hanging out with other more worldly African-American soldiers, he was introduced to radical new ideas about black history, black nationalism, and black aspiration.

Upon leaving the Army in '65--just before his unit went to Vietnam--he couldn't find work with the skills he'd learned as a communications officer (Jim Crow was still alive and well in the private sector). After bouncing around a few other jobs he became a factory worker at General Motors' Southeast Baltimore assembly plant--and an angry young man. Through the recorded speeches and writings of Malcolm X, he had already discovered the Nation of Islam; within a few years, he became a member of the sect and adopted a new name.

Founded in the midst of the Great Depression, the Nation of Islam preached a homegrown version of Islam fused to an ideology of black separatism and self-sufficiency, which rejected the dominant, hostile culture of what it considered the "white devils." Like the military, Black Muslims (as they were known to the outside world) were disciplined and hierarchical, even ranking their male adherents as "captains" and "lieutenants." The sect's longtime leader, Elijah Muhammad, encouraged a cult of personality.

Walter Sharp's conversion to Islam coincided with the climactic years of the 1960s. In Maryland, more than 30 years of grass-roots organizing and legal work had succeeded in toppling one racial barrier after another. The national civil-rights movement, largely led by Christian ministers, was winning legal and legislative battles at every level of government. In 1964, the Nation of Islam's most charismatic leader, Malcolm X (aka Malik El-Shabazz) had made a pilgrimage to Mecca and returned to America disavowing the racial separatism of Elijah Muhammad; the following year, Malcolm X was assassinated by enemies within the Nation of Islam. Baltimore Muslims who had labored since the late '40s to create and maintain a stable temple found their national organization torn between philosophical and political factions.

When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son and handpicked successor, Wallace D. Muhammad, took the movement in a new direction, embracing the international, nonracial mainstream of Islamic religion and rejecting what Uqdah bluntly calls "racist teachings." But without Elijah Muhammad's iron rule to enforce unity, splinter groups formed. Notably, Muslims who clung to separatist beliefs broke off under the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan. Uqdah chose W.D. Muhammad's path of reconciliation, which adopted the name World Community of Al-Islam in the West. (The movement's name has subsequently gone through several changes, all charted in the History.)

In 1977, Uqdah was one of the first of Baltimore's homegrown Muslims to make the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. In the mid-'80s, he began his ministry at the City Jail, juggling spiritual duties with his bread-and-butter job in the GM assembly plant. Around the same time he began writing for Islamic publications and gathering the materials that would eventually form his book. In addition to his own pile of clippings, he sought out the recollections of old-timers who had converted to Islam in the '40s and '50s. In 1959, a West Baltimore garage was turned into the city's first mosque.

The portrait photos and handwritten testimonies he gathered are reproduced in the book, along with newspaper articles, certificates, and shots of celebrities speaking at local Muslim events. The History clears up more than a few mysteries for non-Muslims: the origin of the bean pies that are still hawked on street corners by men in suits and bow ties, for example, and the slogan "Remove All Racial Effects From Worship" that was promoted by W.D. Muhammad's followers.

While the many pictures, biographies, and time lines in Uqdah's book provide a lively summary of events in Baltimore's Muslim community, the author's text gently understates the drama and trauma of his times. What emerges between the lines is the bittersweet saga of a small, committed group of people struggling to find dignity and community on their own terms, in defiance of the larger society's judgments. The rifts that opened after Elijah Muhammad's death are alluded to but not examined. Farrakhan's sect, still calling itself the Nation of Islam, is scarcely mentioned in this history, although it is well- represented in Baltimore and well-known to the non-Muslim world. Instead, Uqdah focuses on W.D. Muhammad's outreach to other faiths, and on the growing social acceptance of the black Islamic tradition--such as when, in 1984, Imam Ronald Shakir of Baltimore offered the first Islamic prayer before a session of the Maryland General Assembly.

Today's society is far more open and equal than it was in the decades that shaped Elijah Muhammad's movement, but new divisions and prejudices have replaced the old. Islam's reputation has suffered from the violence and radical fundamentalism of Middle Eastern sects, and from the oft-quoted anti-Jewish utterances of Farrakhan and his followers. At the same time, more mainstream Muslims sometimes find themselves on the conservative side of social history. One page of Uqdah's History and Narrative features Muslim participation in a "New World Patriotism Day." Another shows pictures of Muslims picketing City Hall to protest a gay-rights bill in 1980.

The last two pages of the book are devoid of ideology but testify to Uqdah's belief in progress--and to his highly personal approach to history. The spread is devoted to family pictures: Wali and Rashidah Uqdah and eight confidently smiling children. The youngest, Khalil, is currently a student at the Gilman School.

"We keep looking for what's best in America," Uqdah says. "It is stated that America is a continuing experiment. We're part of that experiment, too."

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