"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
Mufti (journalism, Univ. of Richmond; The Faithful Scribe) skillfully explains what led to the 1977 attack and three-building hostage situation that shut down Washington, DC, for days. Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, leader of the Hanafi movement and former Nation of Islam member, was tried and convicted of engineering the takeovers to demand that the movie The Message—about the prophet Muhammad, possibly the most expensive and elaborate film many have never heard of—be destroyed. He also wanted those who had assassinated Malcolm X, along with the men convicted of the gruesome murders of several members of his family (including children and grandchildren) in 1973, be turned over to his group. He believed the Nation of Islam sent his family's murderers and that the judge had ignored that. The life story of Khaalis, born Ernest Timothy McGhee in 1921 in Gary, IN, gives insight into intradenominational differences in Islam in 20th century America. The story behind The Message is also fascinating. The hostage siege is narrated in nail-biting detail from accounts of negotiators and hostages. VERDICT Those interested in fundamentalism, Islam in the United States, Middle East politics, and film will especially appreciate this book.—Laurie Unger Skinner
The story of a hostage takeover that shocked the country.
On March 9, 1977, nearly 150 people were taken hostage at B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington, D.C., “the largest and oldest Jewish service organization in America,” and two other sites, an attack orchestrated by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, the Sunni leader of the Hanafi movement. Mining thousands of documents from FBI files and Department of Justice records, trial transcripts, and interviews with five of the hostage takers and more than a dozen hostages, journalist Mufti fashions a tense, often grisly account of the events leading up to the two-day standoff and the arrests, trial, and aftermath of “the largest hostage taking in American history and the first such attack by Muslims on American soil.” Born Ernest Timothy McGee in 1922, Khaalis changed his name when he joined the Nation of Islam. After serving as a close aide to the organization’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, Khaalis derided the Nation as a corrupt “self-serving family oligarchy.” Aligning himself with a new spiritual master, he formed a rival group, which attracted support from basketball star Lew Alcindor, whom Khaalis renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mufti recounts violent conflicts and fractured leadership both within and among American Muslim groups. In 1973, the Nation’s wrath against Khaalis led to the gory massacre of seven members of his family, including children. Even after some perpetrators were convicted, Khaalis felt “spurned by American justice.” One of his hostage demands was that the men who killed his family be brought to him for justice. Another was that the release of a biopic about the life of Muhammad be stopped and the film reels destroyed. Although Khaalis’ anger, desire for revenge, religious convictions, and psychological demons fueled the siege, Mufti places the event in the larger context of America’s involvement in the tumultuous history of the Middle East, South Asia, and northern Africa.
A brisk, engrossing work of investigative journalism.