Randy Muhammad’s involvement with the Nation of Islam began almost by happenstance, when, as a 16-year-old, he bought a cassette tape of one of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s speeches and was Intrigued by Farrakhan’s message of self-empowerment.
Muhammad first heard of Farrakhan in the music of Public Enemy MC Chuck D.
“He had a complicated lyrical flow,” Muhammad said of Chuck D. “He kept dropping the name of Farrakhan in his lyrics.”
The Farrakhan cassette further piqued the teen’s interest.
“I had never listened to a sermon before,” he said. “I wasn’t religious. But I was captivated by him. He had this message of unity, of Black, brown and red people working together. As a Puerto Rican of African descent, that appealed to me.”
It wasn’t a likely fit — the Nation of Islam’s insistence on clean living contrasted with the teenager’s admittedly dissolute lifestyle. The eighth child of parents who were born in Arroyo, Puerto Rico, Muhammad said he and his brothers began running the streets after their father left home. Living in what was then the Orchard Park housing project, Muhammad was a founding member of the Trailblazers gang that operated in the development.
“I was out there doing what the young brothers were up to — selling drugs and getting high,” Muhammad said in a Banner interview last week, sitting in a carpeted office next to Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11 in Grove Hall, wearing the standard NOI uniform — polished black shoes, crisp charcoal-gray suit, bowtie, and gold star-and-crescent ring.
Oddly enough, some of the skills Muhammad displayed in his teenage years — the lyricism of his rapping and his ability to be a leader, albeit in a youth gang — helped him move up through the ranks of Mosque No. 11. In 2018, he was tapped to replace Minister Don Muhammad as the leader of the local NOI community.
It’s a position Muhammad said he doesn’t take lightly. The mosque was among the first opened by the late Elijah Muhammad. Founded as a study group in 1952, the chapter opened its first temple on nearby Intervale Street in 1957.
Don Muhammad, who led the mosque from the late 1970s, served as an advisor to Farrakhan and served as a leader of the Nation of Islam on the East Coast.
While Randy Muhammad was still a teenager, Minister Don put him to work in the Mosque’s prison ministry, a line of work that eventually led to his becoming a chaplain in the South Bay House of Correction.
Randy Muhammad learned to look up to Minister Don, who excelled as a peacemaker, helping to broker truces between warring gangs and to build bridges between the mosque, the community and the police.
“As the leader of the mosque, Minister Don always had a healthy and good working relationship with everyone,” he said. “He was very diplomatic, but in such a beautiful way that he never compromised our core beliefs and principles.”
While Minister Don preferred to use diplomacy to settle squabbles, anyone who knew the Nation knew his followers were willing to use their hands when needed. In one incident that became legendary in the lore of the local NOI chapter, in the mid-1980s, Muhammad and his fellow NOI members disarmed and beat members of a New York gang that had insisted on selling drugs in the vicinity of the Grove Hall mosque over the minister’s objections.
Now occupying the seat Minister Don long held, Randy Muhammad said he is humbled.
“Coming behind Minister Don, who was one of the greatest men in the Nation of Islam, is a daunting task,” he said. “These are very big shoes to fill.”
As the leader of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11, Randy Muhammad oversees the chapter’s various ministries and study groups. In non-pandemic times, he delivers the Sunday sermon, Wednesday evening lectures, Friday night study groups and Saturday prayer services. The mosque has ministries in nine state prisons and runs a food pantry that distributes produce and dairy from local farms.
The mosque also runs a science, technology, engineering, arts and math program for teens and has launched a new initiative to reach out to people experiencing homelessness and substance abuse in Nubian Square.
Randy Muhammad and others in the mosque also have continued their outreach to gang members in an effort to reduce violence and negotiate truces.
While crime is down and the days when New York gangs tried to turn Grove Hall into an open-air drug market are long gone, Randy Muhammad said the NOI members remain committed to keeping the area clean.
“There are those who test us and have to be corrected,” he said. “We’re not going to tolerate things happening on our property or in our community.”
But the main work of the mosque, he said, remains one of uplifting members of the community.
“What gives me the most satisfaction is seeing people transforming their lives,” he said. “I’ve been in the prison ministry for more than 27 years. You see people who you’ve met in maximum-security facilities, or even in solitary, transform from being aggressive and violent to being caring, successful citizens. Men are able to become husbands, fathers and mentors. To me, that’s the greatest.”