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Moorish Science Temple of America

Virtually every religion has some sort of memorable origin story, something that explains why this particular religion is so much superior to all of the other options available to today's discriminating consumer.

Some stories are more memorable than others. Case in point: The Moorish Science Temple of America, which surpasses even Scientology and Thelema in sheer weirdness.

Moorish Science was established in 1913 by a man who was born with the name Timothy Drew. Moorish Science may have the distinction of being the only religion ever to be founded in Newark, NJ. Similar to Christian Science, Moorish Science has nothing to do with science, although it does have a lot to do with Moorishness.

The basic tenet of Moorish Science is that all black people are descended from the Moors, a nomadic North African tribe whose most famous member was Othello. The Moors were Islamic when they first invaded Spain in 711; thus Moorish Science teaches that all blacks are originally Islamic. "Islamic" is being used very loosely here, as most other Muslims would tell you. The actual creeds of Moorish Science draw nearly as much from Buddhism, Christianity and Freemasonry as they do from Islam.

If you're thinking that this premise is somewhat questionable, well, let's consider the historical record. Islam was founded in the 7th century A.D. Black people have been around since before the dawn of recorded history, which goes back to about 30,000 B.C. But logic has never been much of an obstacle to religion.

Timothy Drew was born in 1886 in North Carolina. According to some accounts, he was born to two former slaves, then adopted by a local tribe of Cherokee Indians. Another telling of the story says his father was a dark-skinned Cherokee himself. Yet another version of the tale says his father was Moroccan Muslim and his mother was the Cherokee. Drew himself said the moment of his birth was marked by an eclipse; others claimed an earthquake heralded his arrival on the scene.

Whatever his parentage, young Timothy apparently joined the circus as a stage magician at age 16 and/or hooked up with a band of Gypsies. Some or all of these characters took Drew on a world tour that would change his life.

The most fateful jaunte in Drew's alleged travels was to Egypt in the early 1900s. While there, he supposedly met the high priest of an ancient Egyptian magic cult. The priest saw Drew as the reincarnation of the cult's original leader from centuries ago (or so the story goes) and initiated Drew into the powerful magic rituals of yore.

The priest also imparted to Drew a "director's cut" version of the Koran, which became known as the Circle Seven Koran. The young circus performer rechristened himself "Noble Drew Ali, the Prophet" and returned to the U.S. to spread the good word.

The Circle Seven Koran was largely based on apocryphal Christian texts that said Jesus Christ, considered an important prophet by conventional Islam, traveled to India, where he lived most of his first thirty years, with side trips to Africa and Europe.

If you could wade through the florid language of the Noble Drew's writings, you would find that the church was generally oriented around a series of elaborate racial theories, leavened with a healthy dose of Masonic-style occultism.

The centerpiece of the Moorish Science church was an elaborate and scientifically dubious set of theories regarding racial origins. The religion was the first recognizable iteration of the Black Power movement in America, but the structure of the religion was accepting of all races. Drew rejected the appellation of "negro", and said that American blacks were properly referred to as Moors, or Moorish Americans. One of his disciples was Elijah Mohammed, the founder of the Nation of Islam.

Drew taught that the Moors were an "asiatic race", as were many whites, whom he identified as Celts or Persians. Although the Moorish Temple began as a primarily Moorish organization, Drew soon began to attract significant numbers of Persians, who were welcomed into the fold.

Although the Circle Seven Koran has some of the typical bad things you would expect about the Jews, the Moorish Temple was relatively silent on the issue. Despite the fact that the Temple was open to "Persians," the book was quite specific on the racial issues at play in the story of Christ's crucifixion:

Jesus himself was of the true blood of the ancient Canaanites and Moabites and the inhabitants of Africa. Seeking to redeem His people in those days from the pale skin nations of Europe, Rome crucified Him according to their law.

While this was one of the more openly controversial claims in the Circle Seven, the main thrust of the Temple's teachings had less to do with the evils of Jews and European whites than the origins of blacks. As Moors, Drew argued, all blacks were originally Muslims. (As were many whites whose race derived from the so-called asiatic strains.) Drew said that Moor empowerment could only be found through a return to Islam.

But Noble Drew's definition of Islam didn't bear much resemblance to what you might hear from a mullah at al-Azhar University. Drew taught that Morocco was the promised land of the Bible and the Koran, symbolizing a state of illuminated consciousness that was obtained through a hodge-podge of occultist and eastern mystical practices.

The combination of ideas was sort of a Moorish spin on the European trend of theosophism, a 19th century movement that believed all religions are basically describing the same thing in different words. Critics of the Temple leveled charges of antinomianism against the sect's members, but the allegations weren't any more true than the 500 previous times someone had used that word to describe a religion they didn't like.

He drew on Buddhism and indigenous religions to guide a practice that employed the terminology of Islam, but he structured the Moorish Temple on a Masonic blueprint, including a version of their charter and initiation procedures. A Moorish Temple charter was modeled after a Masonic lodge charter:

Jurisdiction aforesaid by virtue of whose authority it exists, while acting in conformity with the laws, rules and regulations of the Home Temple and the said subordinate Temple aforesaid, being duly and lawfully organized, constituted and established, is hereby authorized and empowered to initiate and confer the degrees of said Temple in accordance with the established forms and usages upon all such persons as are duly and lawfully qualified. To promote and practice the teachings of all the true and divine prophets: Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Etc.

The officers and members who benefit under this charter, do hereby pledge themselves to act at all times in obedience to the commands and edicts of the illustrious Noble Drew Ali, the founder and head of the Moorish Holy Temple of Science, Inc.

The actual theology of the church was virtually non-existent, and what little there was had a tendency to drift alarmingly. Overall, the church was in favor of love and racial pride. Its metaphysical teachings sounded a lot more like Taoism than Islam.

"Man is a thought of Allah; all thoughts of Allah are infinite; they are not measured up by time, for things that are concerned with time begin and end. [...] But man, like every other thought of Allah, was but a seed, a seed that held within itself the potencies of Allah, just as the seed of any plant of earth holds deep within itself the attributes of every part of that especial plant."

Temple teachings about the life of Christ featured such non-standard biblical scenes as Jesus facing off against Apollo for the title of "undisputed legitimate god," with Jesus as the decisive victor. The Greek gods return later to watch over his tomb before the resurrection. Standards for behavior were generally modeled on Islam, but not rigorously, and disciples were expected to undertake a journey of self-exploration that had a decidedly gnostic flavor.

Members of the Moorish Temple were required to wear a fez; Noble Drew sported a Cherokee feather in his. They often added "Bey" or "-El" to their names, which was meant to signify Moorish descent, and members of the church could aspire to a variety of initiated titles such as Deacon, Exilarch or Papessa. The church used a flag that featured a variation of the Islamic crescent and star insignia.

The Moorish Temple and its followers refused to fight in World War I, but this was an age when the phrase "uppity negro" caused more trouble for the person it was directed at than the person who uttered it. More than 20 years before Rosa Parks, New Jersey didn't take kindly to all these Moors suddenly taking pride in their race and refusing to consider themselves second class citizens. Under intense pressure, the Moorish Temple decided it was time to move on.

Drew took the church to Chicago, where he had a stronger base of street-level support. In fiery speeches on the streets of the Windy City, he exhorted Moors to reject the white man's labels, such as negro, black and colored. The church did a brisk business in a variety of "Moorish" products, including various snake-oil style ointments, teas and other paraphernalia. He issued his followers "passports" to the Moorish Nation of America. He urged Americans of every color to reject hate and embrace love, proclaiming that Chicago would become the new Mecca.

As history has proven time and again, promoting love instead of hate is one of the most reliable ways to ensure an early death.

As the scrutiny of the Chicago police increased, the Moorish Church schismed when a member of the Temple, Claude Green, declared himself Grand Sheik and took a number of Noble Drew's followers along with him. The split quickly became extremely acrimonious, and a short time later, Green was stabbed to death by parties unknown.

Drew was arrested, beaten by police, and released on bond pending an indictment. A couple of weeks later, he died. The exact circumstances around his death are as unknown as those surrounding his birth. His body was buried in a Chicago graveyard.

After Drew's death, the Moorish Temple continued, but it had lost much of its fervor. The split among Drew's followers sharpened, and a series of gun battles and kidnappings erupted over the question of who would succeed him. One contender claimed to be the reincarnation of Noble Drew, a good trick since he was a fully grown adult when Drew died. Another claimed to hold Drew's secret last will and testament, which conveniently designated him to take over the Temple.

During the 1950s, the remaining Moorish disciples found additional reasons to look elsewhere for their spiritual succor, when the Temple's activities drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Suspecting the Moors of collaborating with the Japanese (what with all this "asiatic" stuff), the FBI opened a file on the organization and started trying to infiltrate. By the time the FBI finally dropped its investigation of the Temple years later, its file on Moorish Science had swelled to more than 3,000 pages.

Although Moorish Science continues today, in the form of various splinter groups each claiming the true succession of the Moorish ideal, the Temple was largely obscured by the rise of the Nation of Islam, which had sprung directly from one of the splinters.

Many Moorish followers turned to the Nation of Islam during the 1940s and 1950s, or to traditional Islam, a movement which started to gather steam around the 1970s. One such convert, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, gained notoriety when he later became an al Qaeda-linked terrorist known as Dr. Rashid. Today, there aren't enough Moorish followers to show up in a demographic study. The total number is estimated at somewhere between a couple hundred and tens of thousands (a generous estimate).

Barring a particularly colorful second coming by Noble Drew Ali, Moorish Science is probably destined to become a historical footnote. But thanks to the FBI's extensive documentation of the sect's every move, no matter how trivial, Moorish Science will at least be an extraordinarily well-documented footnote, and that counts for something.

Resources: 3,117 Pages of FBI Documents on the Surveillance of the Moorish Science Temple

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