American Caliph

The True Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC

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 access to hundreds of declassified FBI files, American Caliph is a riveting true-crime story that sheds new light on the disarray of the 1970s and its ongoing reverberations.

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Late in the morning of March 9, 1977, seven men stormed the Washington, D.C., headquarters of B’nai B’rith International, the largest and oldest Jewish service organization in America. The heavily armed attackers quickly took control of the building and held more than a hundred employees of the organization hostage inside. A little over an hour later, three more men entered the Islamic Center of Washington, the country’s largest and most important mosque, and took hostages there. Two others subsequently penetrated the District Building, a few hundred yards from the White House. When a firefight broke out, a reporter was killed, and Marion Barry, later to become mayor of Washington, D.C., 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 D.C. 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 a spiritual authority to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Like Malcolm X, Khaalis had become sharply critical of the Nation’s unorthodox style of Islam. And, like Malcolm X, he paid dearly for his outspokenness: In 1973, followers of the Nation murdered seven Hanafis at their headquarters, including several members of Khaalis’s family. When they took hostages in 1977, one of the Hanafis’ demands was for the murderers, along with Muhammad Ali and Elijah’s son, to be turned over to the group to face justice. They also demanded that the American premiere of Mohammad: Messenger of God—an epic about the life of the prophet Muhammad financed and supported by the Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi—be canceled and the film destroyed. The lives of 149 hostages hung in the balance, and the United States’ fledgling counterterrorism forces—as yet untested—would have to respond.

Shahan Mufti’s American Caliph gives a full account of the largest ever hostage taking on American soil and of the man who masterminded it. Informed by extensive archival research and access to hundreds of declassified FBI files, American Caliph is a riveting true-crime story that sheds new light on the disarray of the 1970s and its ongoing reverberations.


In this gripping, meticulously researched history, journalist Mufti (The Faithful Scribe) recounts the March 1977 siege of three buildings in Washington, D.C., by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis and his Sunni Muslim group, the Hanafis. Khaalis, a jazz drummer and a former leader of the Nation of Islam, orchestrated the attack, in which 12 heavily armed Hanafi members took nearly 150 hostages and, among other demands, threatened to start beheading people if the New York City premiere of a film about the life of the Prophet Muhammad wasn’t canceled. Mufti vividly captures the 39-hour crisis and the delicate in-person negotiations between Khaalis and ambassadors to the U.S. from Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt that resulted in the hostages’ release. Also explored are Khaalis’s bitter feud with the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, whose followers massacred seven of Khaalis’s family members and disciples in 1973; the “geopolitical drama” caused by Moustapha Akkad’s ambitious movie, Mohammad: Messenger of God, which was bankrolled by Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi; violent tensions between Israel and its Middle East neighbors; and NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s loyal, deep-pocketed support of the Hanifis. Expertly drawn from FBI files, wiretap transcripts, and interviews, this captivating history fascinates.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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.

Kirkus Reviews

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2020 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Awards Ceremony