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But the boy who didn't like the spotlight put himself square on the road toward it when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at the age of fifteen. "When I saw it, I joined," he says. "I didn't have to think about it. When I want something, I go for it. It's like wanting a dirt bike--when you get it, you're all geeked up. I felt connected with something bigger than me."
Like Malcolm X, he began challenging teachers in class. He recalls just passing time in a tenth-grade political-science class, never bothering to raise his hand, until the teacher had the class read a chapter on the civil-rights movement that glorified Martin Luther King Jr. at length but wrote off Malcolm X as "someone who preached hate."
"I took umbrage," he says. From that point on, the self-described "vegetable" began going toe-to-toe with the teacher. "After that," he notes, "she always called me 'Mr. Jamal,' with sarcastic respect."
Muhammad finally joined the Nation in 1984, while living in San Diego. That's when he took the name X, a symbol of the Nation's rejection of African-American surnames obtained during slavery. In the early days, "I was just a foot soldier," he says. "I didn't know anything. I was nobody. I was green as you know what."
A year later he met Farrakhan, who was on a visit to the area. The minister suggested that Jamal should begin speaking on behalf of the Nation. It was six months before he tried his hand at talking to crowds, and he hated it. "I didn't want to get in front of people," he says. "I didn't like it. I never wanted to be a preacher."
It was another several months before he worked up the nerve to speak in public again. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987, and over the next six years worked his way up the ranks in the Nation, finally gaining the title of first officer, a job that made him assistant to the region's second-ranking individual. He was married in 1984 to his longtime sweetheart, whose name he declines to give; they divorced in 1994. "Just didn't work out," he says, clearly uncomfortable talking about his personal life. "People grow apart. I was really gung-ho in the Nation--that had something to do with it. I'm ballistic like a missile."
Despite his reluctance as a public speaker, he found inspiration in one of his musical heroes, Miles Davis. He says the speaking style he began to develop is modeled after Davis's improvisational patterns: precise, spare phrases punctuated by silence. "He was always adding elements and pulling things up, rephrasing things," he says of Davis. "He'd play notes, stop, then play them in a different way--play behind the beat, play ahead of the beat."
Inside Jamal Muhammad is a man who must reconcile the rational world of philosophy and history with the more mystical world of the Nation of Islam. For all his wide-ranging intellectual interests, he is bound by the controversial truths preached by Farrakhan, who, despite toning down his black nationalist rhetoric in recent years and distancing himself from past anti-Semitic comments, continues to find new ways to raise the hackles of the American mainstream.
The Nation, Muhammad admits, is saddled with the bureaucracy and cronyism of any large organization. But he defends its version of history--an Afrocentric account of black achievement juxtaposed with white savagery. "It's for a reason, for a season," he says.
Like Farrakhan, Muhammad is also a believer in the superstitious science of numerology. He says the obtuse, numbers-laden diatribe Farrakhan launched into during his speech at 1995's Million Man March referred to the belief that white Masons will at some point come to aid of black Muslims. But he hesitates to delve too deeply into the subject. "Empiricism has its limits," he says. "Rationalism has its limits. I kind of look at it the same way. Some things can't be explained."
The death of another spiritual mentor, Malcolm X, is one example. Despite his respect for the slain leader, Muhammad seems to gloss over Malcolm's much-publicized split with the Nation in 1964, spurred in part by allegations that its leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, was committing adultery. "That never registered with me," he says. "Getting older and wiser, Malcolm is a history lesson. Don't speak out against your teacher in public. He did it the wrong way. Don't walk away from the man and blast him. Go directly to the man."
Similarly, he finds the notion that Malcolm X was murdered by Nation members--or by Farrakhan himself, as has often been rumored--preposterous. His allegiance to the Nation was reaffirmed in February 1996, shortly after the Montbello speech, when Farrakhan awarded him the name Muhammad, which means "elegant and praiseworthy." Muhammad says he doesn't mind it when people accuse him of being the minister's "mouthpiece." "That's good," he says. "I can't speak for him, but as someone who defends his position, that's good. He's the one blowing, not me."
Farrakhan ordered Muhammad to take over Denver's Mosque 51 in 1994. Given Denver's relatively small black population, a non-confrontational approach was recommended by Nation leaders in the Mile High City. With Muhammad at the helm, though, that policy didn't last long. "When you're a public person dealing with an issue like race," he says, "it's like kicking dirt in someone's eye."