Now, he's retired, his hair's white, and he's been asked to sing in Mississippi again. So he takes off his shoes, walks across the green carpet to the microphone, cups his hands near his ears, and begins. "Allah u akbar," he sings, his face and palms facing Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
In 1953, Watkins left Mississippi for Chicago, where he and his wife, Marjorie, converted to Islam and raised their children. "I was happy to leave and go to Chicago, and I was happy to come back," he says. To him, Mississippi is home.
Outside, Abdullah's voice is amplified through the streets of New Medinah, an Islam community located about a half-an-hour's drive west of Hattiesburg. "Allah is great," he sings in Arabic. "I testify that there is no God but Allah. I testify that Muhammed is his messenger. Onward to prayer; onward to salvation. Allah is great. There is no God but Allah."
Soon, dozens of people drive and walk to Masjid al-Halim, the town's house of worship. Today is Jumah -- Friday -- and this, the noon prayer, is considered the most important of the week. Almost 40 people attend Jumah today. All are African American.
Shoes line the hallway outside the masjid. Inside, everyone sits on the carpet with bare or stocking feet. The men and boys sit in the front, women and girls in the back. Rosa Shareef's husband, Alvin, takes the podium and greets the crowd in Arabic.
This could, in some ways, be a religious service anywhere in America. There are the late arrivals, tiptoeing in. Shareef, from his podium, leads the group in what feels like a standard liturgy -- a series of prayers, readings from the Koran, and then, in English, a sermon, called a khutba. In the back, little girls fidget, elbow each other and make faces until they get a stern look from a mother. At one point, when Shareef is trying to get the audience to respond, he asks, "Can I have a witness?" -- a line that could come straight out of the Baptist church.
Similarities like this are inevitable, says resident Rosa Shareef, especially since many of the adults in the room were, like Abdullah, raised Christian. "Just because you're a Muslim doesn't mean you lose your heritage as an African American," she says. "We believe that if it's good, keep it. Because that goodness in you helps you be a good Muslim."
Each Friday, Sulaiman and Marjorie Abdullah drive 76 miles roundtrip to be here for Jumah. They consider themselves part of the New Medinah community, he says.
Muslims all across the South and the nation feel ties to New Medinah through Rosa Shareef's regular articles in the Muslim Journal. News of the town has also traveled by word of mouth, bringing visitors from California, New York, Chicago -- even Saudi Arabia.
Still, say townspeople, most Americans don't understand their faith. American Islam is not a religion of immigrants, nor do most of its followers have Arab faces. The Mosque in America, part of a larger study of American congregations done by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, found that, of the 7 million Muslims currently living in the United States, nearly a third -- 30 percent -- are African American. Only 25 percent are from Arabic-speaking countries.
African-American Muslims are nearly invisible, even with the past two years of press coverage focusing on Islam, says New Medinah resident Dr. Rashad Ali. "People feel like we don't know anything about this religion, that they have to turn to the Arabs to get true Islam," he says.
IF ANYONE IS THE DE FACTO MAYOR of New Medinah, it's Rashad Ali, one of the original planners of the town and a busy obstetrician who, on average, delivers 350 infants a year.
New Medinah's first success, he says, is this unassuming trailer that sits a short walk from the masjid. It's the home of Abdul Raheem and Judith Halfeeza Mahmoud, the first people to pick up stakes and move to New Medinah. The Mahmouds will soon be making another move -- to a new house, which is now being built next door.
Ali walks up the trailer steps and knocks on the door. Abdul Mahmoud has just arrived home from his job on the Amtrak dining car, where he's worked for nearly 30 years. His wife, known around here as Halfeeza, is busy cooking dinner. Their young granddaughter, who's visiting, is playing with alphabet toys and watching Mr. Rogers on the television.
Ali takes a seat at the table, below the art on the wall that reads "My kitchen is Halal. Good food by permission of Allah."
The Mahmouds were living in Chicago when they first visited here in August 1987, for what's called the birth of New Medinah. More than 5,000 Muslims visited for the occasion. So did Warith Deen Muhammed, the Orthodox Muslim son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. "Imam W. D. Muhammed took a shovel and cut it into the ground," says Ali. That weekend, the Mahmouds bought one acre of land; they would later buy two more, on which they grow organic corn, tomatoes and other vegetables.
"The germ of New Medinah started with Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who said, 'Get a piece of this earth to call your own,'" says Ali. "And when I came onto the set, the Muslim Business Association had bought these 63 acres and were raising watermelon and corn to pay the note."
Ali, a Memphis native, had just finished medical school at Ole Miss and was serving in the Air Force. He wrote a plan for a place called New Medinah because, he says, "If the old Medinah could bring Europe out of the Dark Ages, what could New Medinah do for Mississippi and America?" The original Medinah, he explains, was a place of enlightenment that brought the world Arabic numerals and other innovations of math and science. "Why do you think it's called al-gebra?" he asks, slyly.
At first, the New Medinah idea was not welcomed by area landowners, who started petitions against the project. Still, in 1988, the Mahmouds and their three daughters moved here. "They were the first to make the hijrah -- the spiritual journey," says Ali.
Both Mahmouds grew up mostly in St. Paul, Minn., then moved to Chicago, where they were married in 1974. He converted to Islam in 1968; she did in 1969. Originally, both were members of Nation of Islam.
They witnessed setbacks during their first years in New Medinah. In 1988, the first masjid, begun soon after the groundbreaking, was knocked down by a tornado. They had no insurance. Then in 1995, after Ali got out of the Air Force, the community helped build his house and then started on another masjid, but the wind tore down that one too. They started hearing rumors that locals thought that, after two tornadoes, they should get the hint that they didn't belong here. "It was a real test," Abdul Mahmoud says now. At the time, it was devastating.
Since then, local farmers have actually come up to them and apologized for the petitions and initial opposition. They were afraid it was a cult, they said, and now they know it's not. In 1996, then-mayor of Hattiesburg, Ed Morgan, spoke at the town's 10th annual retreat. Before the beginnings of New Medinah, said Morgan, he had had very little exposure -- if any -- to Islam. "I don't know if I have met a group of individuals that have done as much to demonstrate their faith, to do positive things that really have to do with making a community special," he said. At the end of his speech, Morgan presented a symbolic key to the city of Hattiesburg to the weekend's visitors.
The Mahmouds are one of a number of former city dwellers who moved here from the North. Here, they found themselves in the Bible Belt, where, Halfeeza says, it's a point of reference to ask what church you belong to. For the first time, they were also living in a rural area. "When it gets dark, it does get pitch black," Abdul says.
"I do a lot of things out here I never thought I'd do," he says. The two of them help to raise pastured chickens and then butcher them in a halal manner, which involves saying a prayer and then cutting the jugular to drain the blood. His first attempts were clumsy. "I couldn't hardly do it," he says.
He also never thought he'd have ostriches. Outside their window, in a fenced-in area, are three of the birds, gifts from his father four years ago. At this point, they're basically a curiosity for him and his neighbors. "I'm keeping them until I find out what to do with them," he says.
Mahmoud plans to brainstorm about the ostriches after he retires from Amtrak in December. It took him longer to adjust to New Medinah, he says, because he was always going back and forth. "It used to be that I was glad to get to Chicago," he says. "But now I'm glad to get back here."
ABDUL PULLS INTO HIS DRIVEWAY in his blue van, with Rocky, his Rottweiler, sitting in the passenger seat. Aziz, says Ali, is his right-hand man. He is, says Ali, an expert handyman, problem-solver and streetwise diplomat who can smoothly deal with even touchy issues, like asking the young man who was dealing crack down the road from New Medinah to please move on.
Aziz and his wife, Kim Salah, moved here from Dayton, Ohio, more than three years ago. She had converted in 1983 and knew Rosa Shareef through Rosa's sister. Then in 1998, she visited during the town's annual retreat, held on Memorial Day weekend. "I fell in love with it," she says.
Aziz was a harder sell. Even after they moved down to New Medinah, he kept returning to Ohio. "I kept going back to Dayton to make money," he says. "If you make $200 a day up there, you'll make $30 a day down here." Like most New Medinah residents, Aziz is self-employed. He's a self-proclaimed "mobile merchant," hawking T-shirts, shorts, DVDs, videos, and soap at area racetracks, events and festivals.
Salah, a black belt in karate, teaches self-defense classes to the other women in New Medinah. She had been running a daycare in Dayton, but here, she's a seamstress. A long rack of her creations hangs in the living room. It's for a Muslim fashion show that the local women are hosting during an upcoming weekend.
The Muslim women seen on TV, the women who can't drive or can't become educated, are not at all reflective of American Islam, Ali emphasizes. "What's you're looking at is the culture of the East, not Islam."
In the masjid here, he notes, women sit separately and in the back of the room as a practical matter. That way, they can concentrate on prayer on their own. And the men too can focus on prayer, not on the woman in front of them.
This truly isn't about being submissive, says one woman in the masjid. "Because we sisters have a hard time being submissive."
Ali gestures over at the rack of clothing. "That right there is an American-Islamic cultural piece," he says. "We have sisters who are judges, council people. Sisters can't be the imam; that's a religious thing. But, in America, they can be anything else they want to be."
Aziz became a Muslim in 1975 while living in Ohio. "I tried everything in the street I could try, so I thought I would try the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's program," he says. Later that year, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad died. "That's when the changes came," says Aziz.
Muhammed's son, W.D. Muhammed, advocated a change away from what his father had taught, toward Orthodox Islam. Aziz looks across at his wife. Many people, says Salah, still think that all African-American Muslims are in the Nation of Islam. Yet the large majority are now practicing Orthodox Islam, known as al-Islam.
Ali, too, had joined the Nation of Islam while at Ole Miss. "They were giving me some H-E-L-L at the University of Mississippi, and so it spoke right to my situation. It was right on time." For the past few decades, says Ali, the Nation of Islam had been a "a social program fueled by social reforms -- getting people off welfare, drugs, living an upright life." Mixed in with this was civil rights.
"The Nation of Islam was not a system where we asked anybody for rights," says Ali. "We just knew we had them, and we didn't believe that no white man could free us. Only God could." That created a certain dynamic, says Ali. "We went out everyday ready to die. When you do that, you get so full of it, it becomes something else. Anything that provokes it, you react. All of a sudden, anyone fair-skinned was the devil. W.D. Muhammed cooled a lot of that off."
Aziz remembers the time. "When Elijah Muhammad died, I said that I wanted to get some Islam in me, because before I wasn't getting no Islam."
Members of the Nation of Islam were typically instructed to wrap the Koran in white cloth and put it on the highest shelf in the house, says Ali. "W.D. Muhammed said, 'It's time to take those books down.'" It was time, they were told, to start reading Arabic.
IT'S A HOT AFTERNOON AT THE Masjidur Rakeem in New Orleans -- especially for the eight men and women in the dark-colored graduation robes and hats. Two sections of chairs have been set out in the lawn next to the masjid, located near the corner of Johnson and Barracks streets. At the proper time, the graduates will march grandly down the center aisle.
They're saluting the idea of Arabic language classes more than their personal achievements, says New Orleanian Irene Salahuddin, who will be graduating out of the beginner's division today.
In the audience are several people from New Medinah. After the ceremony, they'll sell a dozen jars of New Medinah honey. They'll also chat with friends from New Orleans, who make frequent trips to the town. Just last weekend, Salahuddin and Qadriyyah Abdul-Aleem, an intermediate-division graduate, drove out to New Medinah for a workshop and dinner.
New Orleans is one of the reasons New Medinah exists today, says Ali. "We weren't nothing but four people, talking about how we're going to build a city. But they provided major support, and those cats pitched tents and worked here for weeks, cutting trees and building houses."
During the past weeks and months, Salahuddin and the other graduates have been learning Arabic phonics and grammar, an essential part of the Muslim faith, which holds that the Koran is a record of the exact words given by God to the Prophet Muhammed. It cannot be translated, and so if anyone wants to read the Koran, they must learn what's known as High Arabic or Koranic Arabic.
The graduation ceremony is short, but Salahuddin has been preparing for her portion of it for weeks. When it's her turn, she takes the podium and begins reciting, from memory, the 99 attributes of Allah. "Ar-Rahman, the Merciful; Ar-Rahim, the Beneficent; Al-Malik, the Absolute Ruler; Al-Quddus, the Holy." She pauses, and then continues, through the remaining 95.
FROM HER HOUSE ON AL QUDDUS ROAD, Rosa Shareef waves at a passing car. The ambitions of New Medinah are apparent even through its street signs, which -- it's been decided -- should be named for the attributes of Allah.
There is also a green street sign that says, simply, Ruth, which is not among Allah's 99 attributes but rather refers to Ruth Shareef, the mother of Ali's wife, Donna. Abdul Shareef, Ruth's husband of 54 years and one of the original planners of New Medinah, named it for her.
Ali takes a turn at Ruth Road, then shows two partially built houses, one built in the style of a shotgun house -- the owner is from New Orleans. At the end of the road, up a hill, he reaches the home of the town's newest residents, Rahman and Deanna Abdullah. The couple moved here with from central Kentucky nearly two years ago with Rahman's nephews, Jawan, 13, and Tyra, 10. He's a landscaper, she's a retired respiratory therapist.
Deanna grew up a Jehovah's Witness and remained so even when the two were first married. She would watch him with curiosity, she recalls, as he prayed the mandatory five times a day. "I had never seen so much praying in my life," she says. After three or four years, she joined him.
Their decision to move to New Medinah wasn't quick. They visited the town's annual retreat four years in a row before deciding to buy land here. Part of their reluctance was the idea of moving to this state, says Deanna. "When we used to reach Mississippi, we wouldn't even stop and get gas. We'd drive through with the tank on empty."
Their friends predicted that Rahman would exacerbate any existing tension. "Rahman speaks his mind," says Deanna. "Our friends thought that if he went to Mississippi, he was going to get hung the first day he'd be here."
But Rahman says that he saw something else in Mississippi. To him, it was heartening to see so many landowners. "In Kentucky, no African Americans own any land," he says. In other ways too, Mississippi seemed all right, says Deanna, recalling her shock when a white man opened a door for her at the grocery store.
But economically, things were tough. Says Deanna, "I never had hard times like that before." Their truck died on the trip down here, and all their money had already gone for a down payment. But Ali loaned them money. Others in New Medinah told them this was not unusual. "They said, 'No one has ever come here who didn't have problems,'" Deanna says.
Ali can riff on this topic -- the New Medinah economy -- for hours. Right now, he drives 50 miles to Laurel each time he delivers a baby or has an appointment with a patient. But he is an ardent believer in what he calls the "economic arm" of the New Medinah plan. There's a plot of land behind the masjid where they'll be building a spa and cabins -- a getaway where people can find a massage, a manicure and relaxation in a wooded area on the edge of town. There's also talk of a health-care complex and a halal chicken-processing plant.
Ali walks out the Abdullahs' front door and looks down the steep hill. It's dusk now, but he can still make out the outlines of the masjid-school building, the new monument that marks the entrance to New Medinah, and the Muslim graveyard where people are buried on their right side, facing Mecca.
And then there are the 11 houses. Each year now, one or two more are being built. "There was a time when we didn't have a light out here nowhere," says Ali in amazement as, one by one, the houses light up for the evening. Tomorrow, just as these lights fade into morning, the town will wake a few minutes before 5 a.m. to the sounds of the first call to prayer, amplified through these streets.