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Nation of Islam

Nation of Islam

In the midsummer of 1930, a friendly but mysterious peddler appeared among rural southern immigrants in a black ghetto of Detroit called "Paradise Valley," selling raincoats, silks, and other sundries but also giving advice to the poor residents about their health and spiritual development. He told them about their "true religion," not Christianity but the "religion of the Black Men" of Asia and Africa. Using both the Bible and the Qur'an in his messages, he taught at first in the private homes of his followers, then rented a hall that was called the Temple of Islam.

This mysterious stranger often referred to himself as Mr. Farrad Mohammed, or sometimes as Mr. Wali Farrad, W. D. Fard, or Professor Ford. Master Fard, as he came to be called, taught his followers about a period of temporary domination and persecution by white "blue-eyed devils," who had achieved their power by brutality, murder, and trickery. But as a prerequisite for black liberation, he stressed the importance of attaining "knowledge of self." He told his followers that they were not Americans and therefore owed no allegiance to the American flag. He wrote two manuals for the movementThe Secret Ritual of the Nation of Islam, which is transmitted orally to members, and Teaching for the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in a Mathematical Way, which is written in symbolic language and requires special interpretation. Fard established several organizations: the University of Islam, to propagate his teachings; the Muslim Girls Training, to teach female members home economics and how to be a proper Muslim woman; and the Fruit of Islam, consisting of selected male members, to provide security for Muslim leaders and to enforce the disciplinary rules.

One of the earliest officers of the movement and Fard's most trusted lieutenant was Robert Poole, alias Elijah Poole, who was given the Muslim name Elijah Muhammad (Perry, 1991, p. 143). The son of a rural Baptist minister and sharecropper from Sandersville, Georgia, Poole had immigrated with his family to Detroit in 1923; he and several of his brothers joined the Nation of Islam in 1931. Although he had only a third-grade education,

Elijah Muhammad's shrewd native intelligence and hard work enabled him to rise through the ranks rapidly, and he was chosen by Fard as the chief minister of Islam to preside over the daily affairs of the organization. Fard's mysterious disappearance in 1934 led to an internal struggle for the leadership of the Nation of Islam. As a result of this strife, Muhammad eventually moved his family and close followers, settling on the south side of Chicago in 1936. There they established Temple of Islam No. 2, which eventually became the national headquarters of the movement.

Throughout the 1940s, Muhammad reshaped the Nation and gave it his own imprimatur. He firmly established the doctrine that Master Fard was "Allah," and that God is a black man, proclaiming that he, the "Honorable" Elijah Muhammad, knew Allah personally and was anointed his "Messenger." Prior to 1961, members of the Nation of Islam were called "Voodoo People" or "People of the Temple"; Professor C. Eric Lincoln's study The Black Muslims in America (1961) established the usage of the phrase "Black Muslims" in referring to the Nation of Islam. Under Muhammad's guidance, the Nation developed a two-pronged attack on the problems of the black masses: the development of economic independence and the recovery of an acceptable identity. "Do for Self" became the rallying cry of the movement, which encouraged economic self-reliance for individuals and the black community. The economic ethic of the Black Muslims was a kind of black Puritanismhard work, frugality, and the avoidance of debt, self-improvement, and a conservative lifestyle.

During the forty-one-year period of his leadership, Muhammad and his followers established more than one hundred temples nationwide and innumerable grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and other small businesses. The Nation of Islam also became famous for the foodsbean pies and whitingit peddled in black communities to improve the nutrition and physical health of African Americans. It strictly forbade alcohol, drugs, pork, and an unhealthy diet. Elijah Muhammad was prescient in his advice on nutrition: "You are what you eat," he often said. In his Message to the Black Man in America (1965), Muhammad diagnosed the vulnerabilities of the black psyche as stemming from a confusion of identity and self-hatred caused by white racism; the cure he prescribed was radical surgery, the formation of a separate black nation.

Muhammad's 120 "degrees," or lessons, and the major doctrines and beliefs of the Nation of Islam elaborated on aspects of this central message. The white man is a "devil by nature," unable to respect anyone who is not white and the historical and persistent source of harm and injury to black people. The central theological myth of the Nation tells of Yakub, a black mad scientist who rebelled against Allah by creating the white race, a weak hybrid people who were permitted temporary dominance of the world. But according to the apocalyptic beliefs of the Black Muslims, there will be a clash between the forces of good (blacks) and the forces of evil (whites) in the not-too-distant future, an Armageddon from which black people will emerge victorious and re-create their original hegemony under Allah throughout the world.

All these myths and doctrines have functioned as a theodicy for the Black Muslims, as an explanation and rationalization for the pain and suffering inflicted on black people in America. For example, Malcolm Little described the powerful, jarring impact that the revelation of religious truth had on him in the Norfolk State Prison in Massachusetts after his brother Reginald told him, "The white man

is the Devil." The doctrines of the Nation transformed the chaos of the world behind prison bars into a cosmos, an ordered reality. Malcolm finally had an explanation for the extreme poverty and tragedies his family suffered, and for all the years he had spent hustling and pimping on the streets of Roxbury and Harlem as "Detroit Red." The conversion and total transformation of Malcolm Little into Malcolm X in prison in 1947 is a story of the effectiveness of Elijah Muhammad's message, one that was repeated thousands of times during the period of Muhammad's leadership. Dropping one's surname and taking on an X, standard practice in the movement, was an outward symbol of inward changes: it meant ex-Christian, ex-Negro, ex-slave.

The years between Malcolm's release from prison and his assassination, 1952 to 1965, mark the period of the greatest growth and influence of the Nation of Islam. After meeting Elijah Muhammad in 1952, Malcolm began organizing Muslim temples in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and in the South and on the West Coast as well. He founded the Nation's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, in the basement of his home and initiated the practice of requiring every male Muslim to sell an assigned quota of newspapers on the street as a recruiting and fund-raising device. He rose rapidly through the ranks to become minister of Boston Temple No. 11 and was later rewarded with the post of minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem, the largest and most prestigious of the temples after the Chicago headquarters. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad recognized his organizational talents, enormous charismatic appeal, and forensic abilities by naming Malcolm national representative of the Nation of Islam, second in rank to the Messenger himself. Under his lieutenancy, the Nation achieved a membership estimated at 500,000. But as in

other movements of this kind, the numbers involved were quite fluid and the Nation's influence, refracted through the public charisma of Malcolm X, greatly exceeded its actual numbers.

Malcolm's keen intellect, incisive wit, and ardent radicalism made him a formidable critic of American society, including the civil rights movement. As a favorite media personality, he challenged the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s central notions of "integration" and "nonviolence." Malcolm felt that what was at stake, at a deeper level than the civil right to sit in a restaurant or even to vote, was the integrity of black selfhood and its independence. His biting critique of the "so-called Negro" and his emphasis on the recovery of black self-identity and independence provided the intellectual foundations for the American Black Power movement and black-consciousness movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. In contrast to King's nonviolence, Malcolm urged his followers to defend themselves "by any means necessary." He articulated the pent-up frustration, bitterness, and rage felt by the dispossessed black masses, the "grass roots."

As the result of a dispute on political philosophy and morality with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in March 1964 in order to form his own organizations, the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization for Afro-American Unity. He took the Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz after converting to orthodox Sunni Islam and participating in the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965, while he was delivering a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

From 1965 until Elijah Muhammad's death in February 1975, the Nation of Islam prospered economically, but its membership never surged again. Minister Louis X of Boston, also called Louis Abdul Farrakhan, replaced Malcolm as the national representative and the head minister of Temple No. 7 in New York. During this period, the Nation acquired an ultramodern printing press, cattle farms in Georgia and Alabama, and a bank in Chicago. After a bout of illness, Muhammad died in Chicago, and one of his six sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad (later Imam Warith Deen Mohammed), was named supreme minister of the Nation of Islam. However, two months later Wallace shocked his followers and the world by declaring that whites were no longer viewed as devils and they could join the movement. He began to make radical changes in the doctrines and the structure of the Nation, moving it in the direction of orthodox Sunni Islam.

The changes introduced by Imam Warith Deen Mohammed led to a splintering of the movement, especially among the hard-core black-nationalist followers. In 1978, Louis Farrakhan led a schismatic group that succeeded in resurrecting the old Nation of Islam. Farrakhan's Nation, which is also based in Chicago, retains the black-nationalist and separatist beliefs and doctrines that were central to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan displays much of the charisma and forensic candor of Malcolm X, and his message of black nationalism is again directed to those mired in the underclass, as well as to disillusioned intellectuals, via the Nation's Final Call newspaper and popular rap-music groups such as Public Enemy. During the mid-1990s, Minister Farrakhan sought to broaden the appeal of the Nation of Islam and improve the organization's shaky finances. In 1995, Farrakhan organized the Million Man March. Farrakhan's leadership and his keynote address at the March brought him new legitimacy as a black leader. Shortly afterward, he was forced to discipline and later dismiss a chief assistant, Minister Khallid Muhammad, after Muhammad gave a series of excessive nationalist and anti-Semitic speeches at Howard University. In 1996, Farrakhan announced that the Nation of Islam would receive a one million dollar contribution from Libyan president Moammar Khaddafi. During this period, the Nation of Islam gained some notable new members, including boxer Mike Tyson and ousted NAACP leader Rev. Benjamin Chavis (who officially converted to Islam in 1997).

During his struggle with prostate cancer in the late 1990s, Farrakhan claimed that he had a "near death experience," which led him to draw closer spiritually to orthodox Sunni Islam. He directed that members of the Nation should learn how to do the formal prostration and ritual prayers in Arabic. He also instituted the traditional Islamic Friday afternoon Ju'mah prayer service in all of the Nation's mosques. Members of the Nation were also instructed to follow the lunar calendar for their Ramadan fasting period instead of performing the fast during the month of December as a counter to the Christmas celebration in the wider society as taught by Elijah Muhammad. At the Savior's Day meetings in Chicago in 2000 and 2001, Minister Farrakhan and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed held joint Friday Ju'mah prayer services together with their followers. Imam Mohammed called Farrakhan a "true Muslim" because of the adoption of the Friday services. While both leaders have reconciled their differences from the past, they intend to keep their movements separate. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Million Man March, Farrakhan is inviting African-American men, women, and children to Washington, D.C., in October 2005.

However, despite the Nation of Islam's nationwide visibility and the continuing popularity of its nationalist message in inner-city communities, its membership has remained small. Through more than sixty years, the Nation of Islam in its various forms has become the longest lasting and most enduring of the black militant and separatist movements that have appeared in the history of black people in the United States. Besides its crucial role in the development of the black-consciousness movement, the Nation is important for having introduced Islam as a fourth major religious tradition in American society, alongside Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism.

See also Islam; Malcolm X; Muhammad, Elijah


Breitman, George, ed. Malcolm X Speaks. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1965.

Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Farrakhan, Louis. Seven Speeches. Chicago: WKU and Final Call, Inc., 1974.

Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Mamiya, Lawrence H. "From Black Muslim to Bilalian: The Evolution of a Movement." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21, no. 2 (June 1982): 138152.

Mohammad, Warith Deen. As the Light Shineth from the East. Chicago: WDM Publishing, 1980.

Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Black Man in America. Chicago: The Final Call, 1965.

Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1991.

Waugh, Earle H., Baha Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi, eds. The Muslim Community in North America. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1983.

lawrence h. mamiya (1996)

charles eric lincoln (1996)
Updated by Lawrence H. Mamiya 2005

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