"Black Muslims," a name coined by C. Eric Lincoln in 1960, refers to the members of one of the most militant and separatist black religious movements in America, the Nation of Islam. Although it uses the term "Islam" as part of its official name, the Nation is essentially a "proto-Islamic" movement; it utilizes some of the symbols and trappings of Islam, but its central message is black nationalism. Although it is not a part of orthodox Sunni Islam, the Nation can be considered as a stage in the development toward orthodoxy, which is a role it has played throughout its history.
In the midsummer of 1930, a friendly but mysterious peddler appeared among the poor rural southern migrants in a black ghetto of Detroit called "Paradise Valley," selling raincoats and 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 later rented a hall that was called the Temple of Islam. This mysterious stranger often referred to himself as Mr. Farrad Mohammed, or sometimes as Wali Farrad, W. D. Fard, or Professor Fard. Fard came to be recognized in 1931 as "the Great Mahdi," or "Savior," who had come to bring a special message to the suffering African Americans in the teeming ghettos of America.
Master Fard, as he was 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 movement: The 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. Within three years Fard had established several organizations: the temple, with its own worship style and rituals; 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 Elijah Poole (1897–1975), who was given the Muslim name Elijah Karriem Muhammad by Fard. As the son of a rural Baptist minister and sharecropper from Sandersville, Georgia, Poole had migrated with his family to Detroit in 1923, and he and several of his brothers joined the Nation of Islam in 1931. Although Elijah Muhammad had only a third-grade education, his 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 among several contending factions. As a result of this severe strife, Elijah Muhammad eventually moved his family and close followers several times before settling in 1936 on the South Side of Chicago, where they established Temple of Islam No. 2, which eventually became the national headquarters of the movement. Throughout the 1940s Elijah Muhammad reshaped the Nation and gave it his own imprimatur. He firmly established the doctrine that Master Fard was "Allah," or God is a black man, and that he, the "Honorable" Elijah Muhammad, knew Allah personally and was anointed the "Messenger" of Allah. Muhammad continued the teachings of Fard but also infused the lessons with a strong dose of black nationalism, which came from earlier movements: Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association and Noble Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple.
Under Muhammad's guidance the Nation developed a two-pronged attack on the problems of the black masses: a stress on the development of economic independence, and an emphasis on the recovery of an acceptable identity. "Do for self" became the rallying cry of the movement, which encouraged economic self-reliance for black individuals and the black community. The economic ethic of the Black Muslims was a kind of "Black Puritanism"—hard work, frugality and the avoidance of debt, self-improvement, and a conservative lifestyle. This formula soon made the Black Muslims conspicuously different from most of their fellows in the same socioeconomic class in the black ghetto. Their reputation for discipline and dependability helped many of them to obtain jobs or to start their own small businesses. During the forty-one-year period of his leadership, Muhammad and his followers established more than one hundred temples nationwide, innumerable grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and other small businesses. The Nation of Islam also became known for its famous bean pies and whiting (a kind of fish), which were 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 to his followers on nutrition: "You are what you eat," he wrote in one of his books, How to Eat to Live.
Muhammad's ministers of Islam found prisons and the streets of the ghetto fertile recruiting grounds. His message of self-reclamation and black manifest destiny struck a responsive chord in the thousands of black men and women whose hope and self-respect had been all but defeated by racial abuse and denigration and by addiction to alcohol and drugs. As a consequence of where they recruited and the militancy of their beliefs, the Black Muslim movement has attracted many more young black males than any of the other black movements or institutions, such as black churches.
In his book Message to the Black Man in America, 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, through 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 he is the historic 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 future clash between the forces of good (blacks) and the forces of evil (whites) in the not too distant future, a Battle of Armageddon from which black people will emerge victorious and re-create their original hegemony under Allah throughout the world.
All of these myths and doctrines have functioned as a theodicy for the Black Muslims, as an explanation of and rationalization for the pain and suffering inflicted on black people in America. For example, Malcolm Little (1925–1965) 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 deeply affected his thinking; the chaos of the world behind prison bars became 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 spent hustling and pimping on the streets of Roxbury in Boston 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, which was repeated many thousands of times over during the forty-one-year history of the Nation of Islam under 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, he began organizing Muslim temples in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in the Northeast; in the South; and on the West Coast as well. Malcolm founded the Nation's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, in the basement of his home, and he initiated the practice of requiring every male Muslim to sell an assigned quota of newspapers on the street as a recruiting and fundraising 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 temple in the Nation of Islam after the Chicago headquarters. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad recognized his organizational talents and his enormous charismatic appeal and forensic abilities by naming Malcolm his National Representative of the Nation of Islam, second in rank to the Messenger himself. Under his lieutenancy the Nation of Islam achieved a membership estimated at half a million. But as in other movements of this kind, the numbers involved were quite fluid, and the influence of the Nation of Islam, 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 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" 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 possible." He also articulated the pent-up anger, the frustration, the bitterness, and the rage felt by the dispossessed black masses, the "grass roots."
As a result of an internal dispute with Elijah Muhammad on political philosophy and morality, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in March 1964 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 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 Haleem 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 Black Muslim 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 of Islam and moved it in the direction of orthodox Sunni Islam. Wallace dismantled the Nation and created the American Muslim Mission, which is now called the Muslim American Society, the largest movement of African-American Sunni Muslims.
The changes introduced by Imam Warith Deen Muhammad led to a splintering of the movement, especially among the hard-core black nationalist followers. In 1977 Minister 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. Minister 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 musical rap groups such as Public Enemy. Besides rebuilding the Nation, Minister Farrakhan's greatest achievement was in mobilizing the Million Man March on October 19, 1995, in Washington, D.C., the largest event of its kind in American history.
For 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 occasionally 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 alsoAfrican-American Religions; Civil Rights Movement; Fard, W. D.; Farrakhan, Louis; Islam; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Malcolm X; Muhammad, Elijah Karriem; Muhammad, Warith Deen; Muslim Brotherhood; Nation of Islam; Prison and Religion; Proselytizing; Qur'an.
Breitman, George, ed. Malcolm X Speaks. 1965.
Clegg, Andrew Claude, III. An Original Man: The Lifeand Times of Elijah Muhammad. 1997.
Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America. 1962.
Farrakhan, Louis. A Torchlight for America. 1990.
Gardell, Mattias. In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: LouisFarrakhan and the Nation of Islam. 1996.
Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. 1960.
Mamiya, Lawrence H. "From Black Muslim to Bilalian: The Evolution of a Movement." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21, 2 (1982):138–152.
Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Black Man in America. 1965.
Muhammad, Warith Deen. As the Light Shineth from theEast. 1980.
Waugh, Earle H., Baha Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi, eds. The Muslim Community in North America. 1983.
Lawrence H. Mamiya
Elijah Muhammad took over the movement on Fard's disappearance in 1934, assuming the titles ‘Minister of Islam’ and ‘Prophet’. Malcolm X became Elijah Muhammad's chief aide in 1963 before breaking away to found the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated in Feb. 1965.
When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son, Warith Deen ( Wallace D.) succeeded and endeavoured to bring the movement closer to mainstream Islam throughout the world. A splinter group, led by Louis Farrakhan (see ELIJAH MUHAMMAD), took the name Nation(s) of Islam. This continued the emphasis on separation from white people, and included a theme of anti-semitism.