Moorish Orthodoxy is not a new religion. Historically it began with the message of the American prophet Noble Drew Ali
, born Timothy Drew
in North Carolina in 1886, raised by Cherokee
Indians and adopted into that tribe. At sixteen Drew began his wanderings as a circus
magician, which took him to Egypt
where he received self knowledge and direction from a priest, the last of a cult of High Magic
practiced for centuries in the pyramid
. This magus
recognized the young American as a reincarnation of a former leader of the cult, and saw him for the prophet he was.
From him Drew Ali learned the messages of The Circle Seven Koran, as well as much higher truths; he returned to America where he was told in a dream to found a new religion "for the uplifting of fallen mankind." He began the first mosque, or temple, in Newark --- but because he and his followers refused to fight in World War I he was forced to move to Chicago, where his movement, the Moorish Science Temple, began to grow. The Moorish Science Temple attracted mostly Black Americans. Noble Drew however was no racist, though he held certain racial theories. Blacks, he said, are Moabites or Moors, and under this identity he taught pride to a race of oppressed sufferers. Moors are an "Asiatic Race" --but so are many others. For example, Noble Drew identified Celts as an Asiatic Race; later, when Whites of various sorts became interested in Moorish Science, he identified all such as "Persians", a sort of spiritual rather than factual identity. For Moorish Americans Morocco is a "promised land"; this shows the influence of Garveyite "Return" teachings, and provides an interesting link between Moorish Science and Rastafarianism. Moorish Orthodoxy (despite its name) gives all these teachings an esoteric significance. For us, "The Asiatic Nation of North America" includes all who embrace some form of the Oriental Wisdom, whatever their other affiliations, and "Morocco" signifies their goal, "illuminated" consciousness.
In Chicago Noble Drew issued many Moorish Passports, and it is said that some new converts, in the zeal of their newfound nationality, began to grow less and less subservient in their dealings with the oppressor empire ("Pharaoh" or "Babylon"). This culminated in a full scale attack on the Science Temple in which (despite the secret escape route, an essential feature of all Moorish Science temples) many of the faithful were martyred, including the Enforcer of the Law, a man whom Noble Drew had recognized as a reincarnation of Jesus.
Shortly thereafter (in 1929) Noble Drew prophesied the hour of his death. He was "taken for questioning" by the Chicago Police, brutally beaten, and died soon after his release.
After this, the Moorish Science Temple began to split into sects or factions, one headed by Noble Drew's chauffeur another by Elijah Muhammed, who abandoned his Moorish Science origins and taught a pseudo-science of race hatred disguised as the "Nation of Islam". Until Elijah's death, many Moors expected him to recant.
In the 1950's in the Baltimore/DC area, some white poets and jazz musicians came into contact with the Science Temple and acquired passports. They formed another offshoot of Moorish Science, the Moorish Orthodox Church of America. At that early stage, the M.O.C. was seen as partly Moorish and partly Eastern Orthodox, and there existed certain ties with "Errant Bishops" of the Old Catholic Church, Syrian Orthodoxy, etc. Some of these founding fathers drifted eventually into Sunni Islam, others remained faithful to the M.O.C. and friendly to the Science Temple.
In the early 1960's on Manhattan's Upper West Side, one of the youngest of these, Walid al-Taha (Warren Tartaglia), jazz saxaphonist and author of "The Hundred Seeds of Beirut", initiated some friends into the Church shortly before his tragic death (in his early 20's). A new temple was established in a basement on 103rd street off Broadway, along with a head shop "The Crypt", and a Moorish Science Reading Room. The Church maintained a M.O.C. Motorcycle Club at various neighborhood garages, and a campsite of 123 acres was acquired in northern New York. Close ties were formed with the Ananda Ashram in upstate NY. Members in Baltimore renewed ties with elders and missionaries of the Moorish Science Temple, including the Moorish Governor of Maryland, who ran a junk shop that smelled of rose attar and woodstove smoke, and talked like a Persian poet from Alabama -- an echo, no doubt, of Noble Drew's own perfect Moorish Voice. Ties were formed with the M.S.T. in Brooklyn, which provided copies of The Circle Seven Koran, Catechisms, etc.
When the Ananda Ashram moved into Milbrook NY with Timothy Leary's League for Spiritual Discovery commune, the M.O.C. also established a presence there. The M.O.C. is proud of its heritage in the Psychedelic Churches Movement of the 60's, when we shared many adventures at Milbrook till the Empire banished its Celtic guru into exile and prison. We still have a temple in Duchess County, where the church is legally incorporated.
At that time the Church more or less abandoned all "Orthodoxy" (though not the name) and found its true spirit in Sufism. What interested us most was Sufism of various unorthodox varieties, including Ismailism (the teachings of the Assassins). But many other strains were woven into the M.O.C. in the 60's, including Advaita Vedanta, Tantra, Neo-American-style psychedelic mysticism, Native American Symbolism, and insurrectionist activism.