American Caliph: The True Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC
One of Publishers Weekly’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2022 | A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
The riveting true story of America’s first homegrown Muslim terror attack, the 1977 Hanafi siege of Washington, DC.
On March 9, 1977, Washington, DC, came under attack. Seven men stormed the headquarters of B’nai B’rith International, quickly taking control of the venerable Jewish organization’s building and holding more than a hundred employees hostage inside. A little over an hour later, three more men entered the Islamic Center of Washington, the country’s biggest and most important mosque, and took hostages there. Two others subsequently penetrated the municipal government’s District Building, a few hundred yards from the White House. When the gunmen there opened fire, a reporter was killed, and city councilor Marion Barry, later to become the mayor of Washington, DC, was shot in the chest. The deadly standoff brought downtown Washington to a standstill.
The attackers belonged to the Hanafi movement, an African American Muslim group based in DC. Their leader was a former jazz drummer named Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, who had risen through the ranks of the Nation of Islam before feuding with the organization’s mercurial chief, Elijah Muhammad, and becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s spiritual authority. Like Malcolm X, Khaalis paid a price for his apostasy: in 1973, seven of his family members and followers were killed by Nation supporters in one of the District’s most notorious murders. As Khaalis and the hostage takers took control of their DC targets four years later, they vowed to begin killing their hostages unless their demands were met: the federal government must turn over the killers of Khaalis’s family, the boxer Muhammad Ali, and Elijah’s son Wallace so that they could face true justice. They also demanded that the American premiere of Mohammad: Messenger of God—a Hollywood epic about the life of the prophet Muhammad financed and supported by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddhafi—be canceled and the film destroyed. Shahan Mufti’s American Caliph gives the first full account of the largest-ever hostage taking on American soil and of the tormented man who masterminded it. Informed by extensive archival research and hundreds of declassified FBI files, American Caliph tracks the battle for control of American Islam, the international politics of religion and oil, and the hour-to-hour drama of a city facing a homegrown terror assault. The result is a riveting true-crime story that sheds new light on the disarray of the 1970s and its ongoing reverberations.
Praise for American Caliph: The True Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC
"Ambitious and commendable . . . Mufti’s ticktock of the siege, the book’s climactic centerpiece, is a tour de force. Using police records, an F.B.I. report and government wiretaps, he recreates the two days of terror and violence in tense, vivid detail." —Jonathan Mahler, The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
"[American Caliph] adeptly weaves together narratives of the hostage negotiations, of feuding American Islamic groups, and of Khaalis’s life, which was shaped by race, theology, and the faulty 'machinery of American justice.'" —The New Yorker
“[American Caliph] packs a lot into its fast-turning pages . . . Shahan Mufti pulls out all the stops to tell the extraordinary but largely forgotten tale of a man deranged by grief and ambition . . . Mufti artfully weaves wider historical events into his story . . . These elements supply the rich context of a saga that builds in tension until the last gripping moments.” —The Economist
"Meticulously detailed and fluidly written, [American Caliph] mixes terrifying scenes from the hostage-taking sieges with sophisticated explications of the sectarian feuds among rivalrous Muslim black nationalists." —Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal
"[American Caliph] tells the extraordinary story of a dramatic hostage incident . . . Mufti does a terrific job of putting [the Hanafi siege] in the context of the times, of events and tensions both national and international." —Claire Messud, Harper's
"Fascinating and meticulously researched . . . American Caliph provides a nuanced portrait of Khaalis . . . A haunting book." —Jonathan Darman, Air Mail
"Mufti immerse[s] himself in the story . . . [His] efforts add up to the most complete picture yet of what happened—and why it mattered." —Andrew Beaujon, Washingtonian
"[American Caliph] richly recounts an event that was years in the making, unearthing new information and masterfully tying together multiple storylines stretching from D.C. to the Middle East and involving everyone from local police to a Libyan dictator . . . Mufti meticulously builds the story of the 1977 siege through the different threads that led to it." —Martin Austermuhle, DCist
"[A] gripping, meticulously researched history . . . Expertly drawn from FBI files, wiretap transcripts, and interviews, this captivating history fascinates." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"In crackling prose, journalist Mufti delves into Khaalis’ connections to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam . . . Mufti deftly weaves America’s cynical Middle East policy, the star quality of Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the tortured production of a biopic about the prophet Muhammad into this real-life thriller." —Booklist
"Mining thousands of documents from FBI files and Department of Justice records, trial transcripts, and interviews . . . journalist Mufti fashions a tense, often grisly account of the events leading up to the two-day standoff and the arrests, trial, and aftermath . . . [An] engrossing work of investigative journalism." —Kirkus Reviews
"Mufti skillfully explains what led to the 1977 attack and three-building hostage situation that shut down Washington, DC, for days . . . The hostage siege is narrated in nail-biting detail." —Library Journal
“American Caliph is a kaleidoscopic and utterly enthralling tale of an audacious crime that forever transformed our national conversations about race, terrorism, and Islam. Shahan Mufti elegantly weaves together the stories of a slew of fascinating characters, ranging from petty tyrants to legendary athletes, to create a stranger-than-fiction saga that will make you gasp and marvel. This is one of the mightiest feats of journalism I’ve ever had the good fortune to savor.” —Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us and Now the Hell Will Start
"A fast-paced thriller that reads like the best John Le Carre novels . . . except this story isn’t fiction. American Caliph is a wild whirlwind of a book with a crazy cast of characters—some of them familiar, all of them unforgettable—and a plot that would be hard to believe if it weren’t all true. Shahan Mufti is a terrific writer." —Reza Aslan, author of Zealot and An American Martyr in Persia
"American Caliph is a fascinatingly detailed retelling of one of the most mystifying American dramas of the 1970s. Occurring in the early days of the Carter presidency, the violent Hanafi Muslim hostage crisis that took place in the nation’s capital transfixed American society, only to be forgotten again as left-right Cold War confrontations flared and were replaced by new showdowns with militant Islam. With a cast of characters that includes Malcom X, Elijah Muhammad, and the self-proclaimed American “Caliph,” Hamaas Abdul Khaalis himself—along with superstar athletes Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar—American Caliph reveals how the struggle for Black civil rights also nourished the rise of an American Islamic movement, and how, to an uncanny degree, its early ructions offered a foreshadowing of things to come, in America and beyond. A necessary, immensely readable book for troubled times." —Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of Che and The Fall of Baghdad
"American Caliph is a meticulously reported and gripping account of one of the more bizarre chapters of U.S. history. In this unforgettable tale, Mufti weaves together different threads of American Islam that emerged in the 60s and 70s, and intersected in a harrowing stand-off in Washington, D.C. Mufti brilliantly brings to life a part of our country's past that has been largely forgotten, but whose reverberations are felt to this day." —Rozina Ali, contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine
"Shahan Mufti’s account of this harrowing crisis over religious identity and communal alienation is as timely today as ever. In compelling prose, the author renders the life of Hamaas Abdul Khaalis and his uniquely American journey to Islam, exploring vivid, overlapping worlds of music, spirituality, and activism. It is at once a tragic history of how the global forces of sectarianism can inflame local hatreds and a window upon the social dynamics of US society that produced some of the most important figures of the African American Islamic tradition."—Claude A. Clegg III, author of An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad