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Friend of Malcolm X, former Negro League player is Muslim of the Year

Devoted disciple

Saturday, January 03, 2004

By Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

His roster of famous friends alone would be enough to have Mustafa Hassain named Muslim of the Year.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Mustafa Hassain -- "I've been everywhere except beer gardens, not inside a bar or nightclub."

As an apostle of Islam in 1950s Detroit, Hassain met and befriended Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

Now 83, Hassain, of Verona, a former professional boxer and Negro League baseball player, has for more than 54 years worked to dispel the mystery of Islam.

Raised by Christian parents in LaGrange, Ga., Hassain was known as Robert Davenport when he moved to Detroit in 1931.

He was 30 when introduced to the messages of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, at the time a small but growing nationalist movement of black Muslims.

Part of what attracted Hassain were the rumblings against racism, which reminded him of the laments of his grandmother, a former slave in Georgia.

As a Muslim, Hassain gave up gambling, boxing and playing secular music.

"I've been everywhere except beer gardens," he said, "not inside a bar or nightclub."

Observing his devotion, Elijah Muhammad dispatched him to Pittsburgh in 1956 to establish a mosque. As an imam, or Islamic spiritual leader, Hassain built the mosque in Homewood. At its height, it had more than 300 worshippers and operated a string of five businesses.

In honor of his years of service, Hassain was named Muslim of the Year in September by the American Society of Muslims, a Chicago-based organization of mostly African Americans.

Once exclusively an organization of Nation of Islam members, the group has aligned itself with more orthodox Islam and is more integrated into Muslim society.

Hassain is among 6 million Muslims in the United States and an estimated 10,000 who make their homes in the Pittsburgh region.

He lives with two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Though he is hard of hearing, his stories of yesteryear flow freely.

Hassain recalled that his friend Malcolm X adopted Islam in prison. When he was released in 1952, he found fellowship at a mosque in Detroit. Because of his reputation as street tough "Detroit Red," many in the mosque shied away from the tall, thin man who would go on to be one of the most charismatic figures in Islam.

Not Hassain. He invited Malcolm X into his home.

For three years he lived with Hassain, who then went by the name Robert X.

"Malcolm was like a family member. He paid no room or board and he lived as my brother in one of the spare bedrooms."

Hassain recalled young Malcolm as mannerly with a beautiful personality. "He was deep-voiced but soft-spoken -- until he got on the rostrum," said Hassain.

Sitting in his dimly lighted room, Hassain shows off his snapshots of a young and fit Muhammad Ali. He met the boxer in Detroit when Ali was still known as Cassius Clay. The Polaroids show a trim Ali with dark eyes greeting Hassain at his Pittsburgh home and chatting with him at the boxer's cabin.

He met Ali in Detroit "and every time he came to Pittsburgh, he would visit my home."

Hassain said he introduced Ali to Elijah Muhammad after the boxer came to his home and saw a photo of Muhammad. "I dialed Elijah and told him I was with loud-mouthed Cassius Clay and he said to put him on the line."

Hassain is four years older than Malcolm X would have been had he not been assassinated in 1965; and 20 years older than Ali. He saw both as younger brothers.

"I helped them to learn to pray," said Hassain, who reminded both of the proper prostrate position for prayer and how to wash, or make ablution, before prayer.

Ervin Dyer can be reached at or 412-263-1410.

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