Devil in Deep Space: The Birth of Azrael Wisdom


The following is excerpted from Why I am a Five Percenter, available from Penguin Books.

DON'T GET ME WRONG -- before my first trip to the Allah School, they had me scared shitless. According to 50 Cent's old fence-man, there was a time when Five Percenters owned the streets like the Bloods and Crips. According to a State Senate subcommittee, Five Percenters were the ones who ran things during the 1971 Attica prison rebellion. In newspapers from the 1960s, I found references to the Five Percenters as terrorists who trained in martial arts with ambitions to kill white people at random. "If the Nation of Islam is a religion that finds converts in prison," Russell Simmons once remarked, "Five Percenters find their converts under the prison. That's how street it is." It all contributed to an image of Five Percenters as half-gangster, half-revolutionary, quasi-Muslim cultists, maniacs with names like Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. It was said to be a convict's religion or a rapper's religion or not even a religion, but they had their own wild mythology of mad scientists blasting the moon from the Earth and believed that they were all gods and spoke in a secret language that somehow incorporated numbers. How does anyone work their way through that scene? In a tight situation, would this white boy even have the vocabulary to plead for his neck?

I remembered these thoughts while backstage after the Wu-Tang Clan show at Manhattan's Webster Hall, interviewing Brand Nubian's Lord Jamar in his dressing room and choking on the smoke from a passing blunt, Jamar telling me how he came into the knowledge. By that point, I had been building with the gods for a few years; if the Five Percenters were anything like their reputation, I should have been dead several times over. Lord Jamar introduced me to other gods in the room, and it was all peace, everyone smiling and shaking my hand, no one calling me a devil or putting swords to my neck. "I like your shirt," said one, pointing to Elijah Muhammad's portrait on my chest, rhinestones making the fez sparkle.

Searching the darkness backstage, navigating between orange-robed Shaolin monks and groupie girls, I found the Wu-Tang's "abbot," Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, better known as the RZA, and he said that we could build outside. Following him down the crowded stairwell, passing Masta Killa, I thought about art's intersection with spiritual authority. If this was medieval Iran, I'd be hanging around Sufi orders, chasing after poets. Sometimes the line between poet and prophet gets thin, and sometimes it's not there at all. In the Qur'an, God tells Muhammad to remind his people that these words aren't mere poetry -- but with a battle-MC's bravado, God also challenges poets to match the Qur'an's verses.

The RZA toes that line, but only if you know what the hell he's talking about, and most don't. "The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum," says his cousin, the GZA (also known as the Genius or Allah Justice). Encoded in the Wu-Tang's body of lyrics, buried deep under layers of references to Mafia culture of kung fu flicks, is a metaphysical matrix that never gets fully explained; you have to know before entering. At one point during this Webster Hall show, the RZA stopped the music and told the crowd that amidst hedonism and crime in the streets, one could also find wisdom. He then launched into an a cappella version of his song "The Birth." People didn't know how to take it. "Six is the limitation of the devil," the RZA recited, "and the million square miles of land that he settles." Unless you're in enough to get what that means, it means nothing. So his fans threw up the Wu hand sign and waited for the drums.

I couldn't have been the only one in the room to pick up on the verse, but it felt good to pretend that I was. That's a common experience in both art and mystical orders: the desire to search between the master's words, to know him better than any of the other disciples or fanboys. We believe that through our heavy intellectual and emotional investment, we earn greater intimacy with the poet or saint. Knowing that not everyone was qualified for the wisdom, classical Sufi masters such as Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) would present their doctrines with deliberately complex language and arcane symbolism, offering privileged knowledge only for those who were willing and able to dig deep. In hip-hop, this approach also provides balance between two audiences. The RZA's specialized code allows him to address the initiated without alienating most of his fans.

If the RZA founded his own Sufi order, I'd probably join it. Over the years, he has cultivated an authoritative, semimystical charisma, as though we should look to him for much more than music. Not many other MCs could write books on the philosophical underpinnings of their lyrics (there's no The Tao of Lil Wayne coming out). I had once heard that the RZA was taking time off from music to find a cure for brain cancer; for at least a few minutes, the idea seemed reasonable. It wasn't hard to imagine him in the lab -- not the lab where he makes beats but an actual laboratory -- wearing a white coat and goggles, mixing smoking liquids between test tubes.

As we walked down the street, I asked the RZA questions and jotted down his answers in my notepad. I was writing a book on the Five Percenters, I told him; excerpts had already appeared in the notes for Lord Jamar's new album. The RZA shared his thoughts and we parted ways with "Peace" at the corner, in front of a giant tour bus with Method Man's face splashed across the side. The East Village was quiet at that hour, and I walked alone down Fourth Avenue reciting lyrics that most failed to catch:

Understand the equality, God in the bodily form

Letting my knowledge be born

You have to know the code; in the Five Percenters' system of Supreme Mathematics, "Understanding" corresponds to the number 3; "Equality" corresponds to 6. "Born" corresponds to 9, so Understanding your Equality (3+6) leads to your knowledge being Born (9). Also, "Knowledge" corresponds to the number 1; to go from 1 to 9 or to make "Knowledge Born" means to make your Knowledge manifest in the world. Thought it doesn't factor into the number play here, "God" happens to be the attribute for 7.

Here's how it would read mathematically:

3+6, God in the bodily form

Lettin' my 1 be 9

Hip-hop is filled with these secret Five Percenter references, even from MCs who aren't Five Percenters. Listing to Jay-Z's freestyle with Big L, I would geek out on the part where Jay says, "Just like the gods, I start with Knowledge and follow with Wisdom, for greater Understanding." Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding correspond to 1, 2, and 3. In "Jigga my Nigga," when Jay-Z boasts, "The god, send you back to the earth from which you came," there's a double meaning for Five Percenter ears, since "Earth" represents woman.

Five Percenter code appears most often with New York MCs of a particular generation, but even Lil Wayne uses it in "Tha Heat," when he says, "I'ma shoot your Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head," playing on the Five Percenter understanding of A.L.L.A.H. I don't think the gods liked that one.

The Knowledge was first born in 1964 with Clarence Smith, a decorated Korean War veteran doing his best in Harlem.

Near the start of the 1960s, Clarence's wife, Dora, joined the Nation of Islam and convinced him to follow her. The Nation's mosque in Harlem was headed by Malcolm X. Registering as a Muslim under Malcolm's instruction, Clarence Smith dropped his "slave name"; as the thirteenth man named Clarence to do so, he became Clarence 13X. The Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad, presented himself as the Messenger of Allah, but his Allah was not the unseen, unknowable Creator worshipped in normative Islam. Such a being was only a "mystery god," a spook used by slave masters to deceive and control the masses. All black men were gods, taught Elijah; among them, the "best knower" was designated Allah. The Allah who taught Elijah was a living man with a physical body, who had come to Detroit from the holy city of Mecca on July 4, 1930. He was known by numerous names, most commonly W. D. Fard and Master Fard Muhammad. Because there was no "mystery god," Fard was not a "manifestation" or "incarnation" of a spiritual being's essence; Allah was a mortal man. Before Fard, another man had been Allah; and after him, someone else would take his place.

By 1964, Clarence 13X's intense study of Nation of Islam doctrine had led him to a breakthrough: not only was he a god, but he had every right to claim the name Allah for himself. The man that Elijah called Allah had disappeared without a trace exactly thirty years ago; at that point, Fard himself was only a mystery god, a ghost used to place Elijah on the throne. Clarence recognized himself as Allah, with no need for divine intervention by Fard or his Messenger.

Legend depicts Clarence as proclaiming his newfound understanding in the mosque leading to his swift exile, but it's hard to say exactly when and why he left the Nation of Islam. Some have speculated that Clarence, a known lover of gambling, women, and marijuana, had a hard time with the Nation's strict moral codes. Akbar Muhammad, a high-ranking official in the contemporary Nation of Islam, has alleged that Clarence had been suspended for domestic violence. One of the Muslims who ditched the mosque with Clarence has said that they left to pursue street hustles.

The year 1964 was a chaotic one for Elijah Muhammad's followers, especially in Harlem, with Malcolm X's exodus from the Nation and rebirth as a Sunni Muslim in Mecca. The FBI, which had been monitoring the Nation, initially believed Clarence 13X to have followed Malcolm after the split. In the summer of 1964, however, Clarence appears to have drifted between his former minister and the Messenger, hanging around Malcolm's organizations and also attending Nation of Islam rallies. Caught between sides in Harlem's Muslim Civil War, Clarence had no place to go. Dropping his X, he was back to living "in the grave" as far as the Nation was concerned; but he couldn't get into the Islam that Malcolm had found overseas, the old Islam in which God was back to being a spirit, not the black man. Hanging around Harlem's basement pool halls, Clarence continued to study the "Supreme Wisdom Lessons," a series of transcribed question-answer exams between Master Fard and Elijah Muhammad. Though the Nation guarded the lessons, allowing access only gradually to new converts, Clarence shared them with non-Muslims, the young hustlers and dropouts who might appreciate the main gist of Elijah's religion but weren't likely to wear bow ties and abstain from music or girls. Clarence added his own flavor, interpreting the lessons through his unique algebra, "Supreme Mathematics," upon which he'd expound while shooting dice on the corner.

He told the kids that there was no god in the sky; the only god who could save them was waiting to be found in the mirror. "Islam" as he gave it to them was not merely the name of a religion but an acronym for "I Self Lord and Master;" the powder to change their world could be found within them. The black man is God, always has been, always will be. As the man who unlocked the secret for New York's runaways and throwaways, Clarence had proven himself as the best knower; the kids called him "Allah."

The new Allah and his cluster of teen disciples emerged in the local underworld as a growing sect, named for a breakdown of society in the Supreme Wisdom Lessons: as 85 percent of the population remained deaf, dumb, and blind to the truth, having been deceived by 10 percent, the "slavemakers of the poor," the remaining 5 percent consisted of "poor righteous teachers" who would liberate the masses from "mental death." Allah told his young gods that they were these messianic "Five Percenters" who would bring knowledge of self to "all human families of the planet earth," destroying religion and racism.

In December 1964, Allah was shot at one of his usual gambling haunts. For many of Harlem's fatherless kids in search of a black superhero, his survival bolstered his claim to be Allah. After a disciple named Bilal made the hijra from Harlem (which Allah referred to as Mecca) to Brooklyn (which he called Medina) to teach his friends, the movement spread like wildfire through Fort Greene and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Five Percenters had not yet fully distinguished themselves from their Nation of Islam heritage; in that early period, they would greet each other as Muslims with as-salmu alaikum ("peace be upon you"). One day, Allah asked Bilal what it meant, making the youth repeat his answer three times. Allah then asked him, "Why don't you say it in a language that you understand?" From that moment on, Five Percenters greeted each other with a simple "Peace."

As the Five Percenters began to set themselves apart from the Nation of Islam and Sunnis, Harlem's Muslim civil war was still raging. On February 21, 1965, as Allah was still recovering from his wounds, Malcolm X was assassinated just two miles uptown. With a can of gasoline, unknown arsonists then brought down Mosque No 7. In May, Elijah Muhammad named Louis X (Farrakhan) to Malcolm's former post. Allah led a handful of Five Percenters on a march from the mosque's remains to the Hotel Theresa, former home to Malcolm's Organization of Afro-American Unity and Muslim Mosque, Inc. Along the way, they allegedly smashed windows and assaulted a man. Taken into police custody and brought before a judge, Allah identified himself only as Allah, and declared that no one could put Allah on trial. Unfamiliar with the complexities of Nation of Islam doctrine and what the term "Allah" would have meant in this context, the judge suspected Allah of having delusions of grandeur and sent him to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric examination.

While Allah waited for his trial, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to take an interest in his movement. Allah's name was added to J. Edgar Hoover's Security Index, meaning that in the event of a national emergency, he could be transferred to a special prison camp without regard for the Constitution. After five months in Bellevue, Allah was found mentally unable to comprehend the charges against him, and sent to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane -- New York State's darkest pit of institutional torture, a "hospital" used to train prison guards, where inmates/patients were routinely beaten, raped, and murdered. Allah's classification as insane was better for the authorities than a guilty verdict; without a fixed sentence, he could be held at Matteawan "for his own good" until the end of time.

Prior to his incarceration, Allah's views on race had followed the Nation of Islam's doctrine: white people were devils, wicked by nature and beyond redemption, having been created by an evil scientist named Yakub to take over the world. At Matteawan, however, Allah took pity upon a white teenager who had been beaten and drugged into a coma by the guards. When the youth regained consciousness, Allah revealed himself as Allah, proclaimed the kid to be a "righteous man," and taught him the Supreme Wisdom Lessons and Supreme Mathematics. Allah named him Azreal, after the Islamic angel of death, and told him that his duty was to get the "wrongdoers,"

Back in New York City, officials expected the Five Percenters to wither away without their Allah, but Allah's message was so brilliantly packaged that it could thrive on its own. The lessons traveled from basketball courts to housing projects to city parks to school yards and street corners, with every new convert pledging to teach ten others younger than himself. The Five Percenter message was at once simple enough to be easily digested by anyone -- the black man is the God of the universe -- and complex enough, through its call to rigorous study of the lessons and Supreme Mathematics, to promise a challenging life of study and inner growth. It offered both freedom and discipline, politics and spirituality, salvific manhood and then more salvific manhood. By the time of Allah's release after more than twenty months at Matteawan, there were thousands of young gods waiting to welcome him home. They were willing to put the whole solar system on his shoulders, but Allah refused; he told the kids that hey were not Muslims or Christians but true and living gods, each of them entitled to his name.

"Sun," he told a youth who would later be called Allah B, "Know you are Allah, never deny yourself of being Allah. Even if the whole world denies you, never deny yourself, because it's your own doubt that can stop you from being Allah."

This was around the time that Mayor John Lindsay sought alliances with informal neighborhood leaders, local figures apart from elected officials and clergymen, who could help him prevent riots and improve relations in the worst parts of the city. Lindsay's generals reached out to Allah, at the time the most feared militant in New York. Allah told them that he'd work with City Hall in exchange for his Five Percenters getting free bus trips to the beach, plane rides above the city and their own school.

Through the Urban League Street Academy program, a Five Percenter storefront school was opened on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, and Allah became one of Lindsay's most important street ambassadors. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Allah and Lindsay marched arm in arm through Harlem to keep the peace. Afterward, a life-size photo of them hung in the school's front window, signed by each man to the other: "To Mayor Lindsay, the greatest Mayor we've got"; "To Allah, thanks a lot."

Lindsay felt a real affection for Allah, the mayor's former aides told me, but Allah had more than enough enemies: the Nation of Islam hated him for putting their secret lessons on the streets and elevating himself above Elijah, the Sunnis hated him for calling himself Allah, the Black Power scene hated him for working with City Hall, the drug dealers hated him for preaching against drugs, the gangs hated him for preaching against gangs, the NYPD hated both Allah and Lindsay, J. Edgar Hoover viewed the Civil Rights movement as a communist conspiracy; and there were always gambling beefs. When Allah was shot again, this time in an elevator shaft, one could pick from a crowd of suspects. The assassination was never solved.


Teaser image by Acizane, courtesy of Creative Commons license.