Nation of Islam

views updated May 18 2018


NATION OF ISLAM . The first several decades of the twentieth century marked a continuing challenge for African Americans. Attempting to carve out a viable socioeconomic, political, and cultural space was difficult in light of disenfranchisement, mob violence, and the scarcity of good jobs. Hearing rumors of increased opportunities, many African Americans participated in the "Great Migration" that marked the movement of African Americans into northern and southern cities in search of better life options. However, in places like Chicago and Detroit, African Americans quickly came to realize that racial discrimination could not be escaped through migration.

Master Fard and the Beginning of a Movement

W. D. Fard (Master Fard Muhammad; 1891?1934?) appeared in Detroit in 1930, selling scarves and other goods, and engaging eager listeners in conversations that involved a history lesson concerning their true status as Asiatics, originally from Mecca. His teachings perplexed and intrigued listeners and, while his theories seemed fantastic, his audience grew as blacks in Detroit gained from his teachings a new sense of self-worth and a way to critique oppression encountered during the course of daily existence.

To secure the greatness blacks were meant to exhibit, it was necessary to reject the teachings, or "tricknology," of whites, and embrace Islamthe black community's true religion. Black Americans were lost within the wilderness of the United States, but Master Fard had been sent to restore them to their former glory through his teachings and written materialsthe Supreme Lessonsa blending of basic educational skills and metaphysics.

This, of course, was not the first time an articulation of Islamic teachings was expressed within the context of African American communities. Scholars have recently recognized an early Muslim presence in North America that might represent roughly 10 percent of the African population in North America during slavery. Diary accounts, autobiographies, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) documents all attest to such Islamic practices as prayer while facing east, dietary restrictions, and Islamic names given to children in early African American communities. This early Islamic presence serves as a cultural memory upon which more recent practices developed. For example, the Moorish Science Temple, developed roughly a decade before the Nation of Islam, espoused doctrines that combined Islamic teachings with other theological orientations. Members of the Moorish Science Temple believe Noble Drew Ali (18861929), the organization's founder, is reincarnated in subsequent leaders. Some suggest that Master Fard was Noble Drew Ali reincarnated, an argument rejected by the Nation of Islam. Master Fard maintained a degree of mystery by suggesting that he was from the East, sent on a special mission, with more information to be revealed in time.

Some estimates suggest that Master Fard's temple grew to roughly eight thousand members, one of the most important being Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole; 18971975). As part of the Great Migration, Poole came to Detroit from the South. But with a limited education, Poole found it difficult to secure employment that met the needs of his growing family. This economic situation, combined with his unfulfilled interest in church ministry, left him frustrated but open to the inspiring teachings of Master Fard. Upon first hearing Master Fard, there was a quick connection between the two that culminated in Poole's name change to Elijah Muhammad and his being called to minister in Fard's movement. With the mysterious disappearance of Master Fard in 1934, a power struggle emerged, centered on Elijah Muhammad. Forced to leave Detroit for a period, he traveled to cities such as Chicago, presenting the teachings of Master Fard.

Elijah Muhammad's Teachings

The conversion of new members did not involve an emotional response as happened in so many black churches. It entailed an intellectual and psychologically deliberate acceptance of the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The completion of this transformation, this acceptance of the black person's true nature and destiny, was presented by the convert in a letter to Elijah Muhammad's headquarters in Chicago. In this letter, the person seeking membership indicated participation in several meetings and a firm belief in the doctrines. The letter included a request for full participation in the life of the Nation and asked the Honorable Elijah Muhammad to provide the writer with the person's original name. Until a new name was given, members made use of X, which represented the unknown. The old name represented the white race and the damaging effects of slavery (and a slave mentality) on the identity of black Americans. The X involved a rejection of the former self and the embrace of a new identity associated with a new relationship with Allah and his messenger, Elijah Muhammad.

Self-sufficiency was one of the Nation of Islam's mantras, and it was expressed practically through the organization's various business ventures, which included restaurants, bakeries, and a farm. This attention to economic self-determination as a step toward complete knowledge of self is in keeping with the organization's push for separation from whites through the development of an independent black nation comprised of several states with rich farming land. In order to finance this new nation, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad called for the U. S. government to provide enough funds to sustain the black nation for twenty to twenty-five years. From the Nation's perspective this was neither a loan nor a handout. It was overdue wages for centuries of uncompensated slave labor. According to the Nation of Islam, it was a small price to pay when one considered the institutions and accumulated wealth that resulted from centuries of chattel slavery.

In lectures Elijah Muhammad proclaimed that Fard was God (Allah) incarnate and that he, Elijah Muhammad, was the messenger of God commissioned to teach black Americans about their true nature as the original people of the earth, godlike and destined to rule the universe. The most troubling dimension of this teaching was the reference to white people as devils who were made by a wise, yet mad, scientist named Mr. Yakub as a predestined part of the 25,000-year cycle of history in which we currently live. This actual and historical devil race, the story goes, will rule blacks for a set number of years. Such a period of domination and destruction, the Nation taught, serves as a pedagogical tool by which blacks, who strayed from their original religion of Islam, are corrected and prepared for their future glory. The Nation of Islam would ultimately soften the more harsh dimensions of its theology, arguing that the devil doctrine entailed a metaphorical attack on white supremacy and discrimination as opposed to an attack on white Americans. While remaining controversial, this rethinking of the Nation of Islam's more charged view is most notable as of the 1990s.

The Nation of Islam's task entailed enlightenment, the presentation of the true nature of blacks and whites, and the tools necessary for blacks to transform themselves. Once blacks in Americathe Lost/Found Nationgained knowledge of self and accepted the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as the "Spiritual Head of the Muslims in the West," judgment would occur through which whites would be punished and the earth purged by fire, and blacks would then regain control over the universe. The faithful of God (i.e., the Nation's members) would construct a new civilization guided by principles of truth, freedom, justice, and equality.

Nation of Islam doctrine fluctuates between the complete destruction of whites and a measure of hope for the redemption of whites. The Nation's concern with issues of justice begs the question concerning an inherent contradiction: Should a community be punished for fulfilling its destiny, even when this involves the oppression of other groups? Is it proper, as a matter of justice, to condemn a community for its actions when it has no choice but to behave in a certain way because it has no free will?

Inconsistencies in the Nation's theology and rhetoric did not prevent growth and the alteration of the organizational framework to accommodate new members of various economic classes. For example, each local temple contained a minister who spread the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's teachings. To facilitate increased work and opportunities, the local minister was assisted by the captains of the Fruit of Islam (the collective of men who handed down discipline and provided security) and the Muslim Girl's Training and General Civilization Class, and so on. In addition, Elijah Muhammad expanded his network of ministers to maximize national exposure made available through television, including documentaries such as The Hate That Hate Produced (broadcast in 1959), and also the Nation's radio broadcasts and newspaper.

Aggressively seeking out members of the black community and the prison system, a process called "fishing," provided the Nation with its greatest source of growth and visibility. Through personal contact with black prisoners, the Nation gained one of its best-known leadersMalcolm X (19251965)whose charisma and media appeal benefited the Nation of Islam as both its national and international profile increased in importance and prominence within popular imagination. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad's personal moral failures, combined with the Nation of Islam's lack of participation in the civil rights movement, resulted in Malcolm's break with the Nation and his conversion to Sunnī Islam in 1964. Malcolm X embraced racial equality as a basic element of Islam in light of his encounter with Muslims from various ethnic and racial groups during his pilgrimage to Mecca. This perspective would result in new strategies for the obtainment of social justice as a dimension of human rights discourse. He established the Organization of Afro-American Unity and Muslim Mosque Incorporated shortly before his death in 1965.

The Nation of Islam Transformed

After the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, his son, Wallace Deen Muhammad (Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, b. 1933), was named head of the Nation of Islam. Attempting to bring the Nation into line with the larger, worldwide Islamic community, he rethought the aesthetics of the temples. He removed the Christian church trappings, such as pews (or chairs), and he replaced framed sayings by Elijah Muhammad with more Islamic ornamentation. Of more significance, the organization's practices were altered radically through a quick effort to enforce the five pillars of Islamic faith, the practices and attitudes embraced by all orthodox Muslims. In keeping with this shift, the presentation of Master Fard as Allah and Elijah Muhammad as the final Messenger was removed because of conflict with the orthodox understanding of Allah and the role of the prophet Muammad as the final prophet. In place of his more exalted role, Elijah Muhammad was presented as someone who, although misguided at points, sought to help black Americans achieve better life options. As a symbol of theological and aesthetic change, the name of the organization was changed to the World Community of Islam in the West, and changed again in 1982 to the American Muslim Mission. Imam Warith Deen Muhammad ultimately established a council of religious leaders, known as imams, to assist with religious and organizational questions, and members were told to consider themselves as simply members of the world community of Islam.

The Nation of Islam had been prone to schism. Notable among these various organizations is the Five Percent Nation (also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths), founded by Clarence 13X (19281969) in 1964 among young New Yorkers and based on a radical interpretation of the Nation's theology that presented blacks as gods with special knowledge based upon divine wisdom, often revealed through mathematics. However, the most visible and perhaps important of these splinter groups developed in 1978, when Minister Louis Farrakhan (b. 1933) formed a new organization named the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan affirmed the doctrines presented by Elijah Muhammad, including the teaching that Fard was Allah, and that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was the messiah, with one significant addition. Farrakhan argued, based on a vision, that he himself was the prophet carrying on the work until the return of the messiah and judgment.

With time, the theology of the Nation of Islam under Minister Farrakhan would again change to include the institution of fasting during the month of Ramaān, as opposed to the more limited restriction instituted by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Furthermore, members of the Nation are currently encouraged to play a role in politics. Farrakhan modeled this through his participation in the Reverend Jesse Jackson's first run for the U.S. presidency in 1988, as well as his encouragement of Nation of Islam members to run for political office. This is clearly a break with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's rejections of political involvement in a society that is marked for destruction.

While relations with the Jewish community remain tense at best, Farrakhan has worked to improve connections to the larger Islamic world. For example, his participation in the ājj (the pilgrimage to Mecca made by all financial and able-bodied Muslims) in 1985, as well as the availability of membership in the Nation without regard to race and ethnicity, speak to important shifts that make possible a repositioning of the Nation of Islam within the religious and political landscape of the United States and the world. However, this repositioning is not without significant tensions, as expressed, for example, through the Nation of Islam's sympathetic relationship with Libya's Muammar Qadhafi and the Libyan leader's efforts to provide the Nation with financial assistance.

Periods of tension and questionable allegiances have been mixed with more productive moments. Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, for instance, have sought to maintain a high level of viability through efforts such as the Million Man March in 1995. This was a gathering in Washington, D.C., of black men from various religious, social, and economic backgrounds. The purpose behind the gathering was repentance for misdeeds that have damaged the unity and vitality of black America, and a commitment to restoring themselves to their proper role as black men within the black community. While this event was successful, with participation estimated by some to have reached well over one million, the Nation of Islam has not been able to sustain positive attention. To some extent it remains a marginal religious tradition with a membership that is difficult to state with accuracy. Membership estimates typically range between thirty thousand and seventy thousand. By contrast, there are roughly four million African American Sunnī Muslims in the United States.

See Also

Elijah Muhammad; Islam, article on Islam in the Americas; Malcolm X.


Ansari, Zafar Ishaq. "Aspects of Black Muslim Theology." Studia Islamica 53 (1981): 137176. Ansari provides a brief discussion of major theological themes within the teachings of the Nation of Islam, based on a concern with understanding its development within the context of the larger Islamic community.

Austin, Allan D. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York, 1997. Austin presents the early Islamic presence in North America through biographical portraits of African Muslims enslaved between 1730 and 1860.

Clegg, Claude Andrew. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. Boston, 1996. This book provides an analysis of the Nation of Islam's development through a biographical discussion of Elijah Muhammad, highlighting the manner in which Nation of Islam doctrine grew out of his personal convictions and struggles.

Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for an Identity in America. Chicago, 1962. This is one of the early studies of the Nation of Islam. It provides analysis of nationalism within black communities through attention to the Nation of Islam's method of conversion, doctrine, and social location.

Gardell, Mattias. In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farra-khan and the Nation of Islam. Durham, N.C., 1996. Using social history as a framework, this text explores the Nation of Islam. It moves from Elijah Muhammad through the alterations to the Nation's doctrine and platform initiated by Louis Farrakhan.

Gomez, Michael A. "Muslims in Early America." Journal of Southern History 60, no. 4 (1994): 670710. This article is a history of Muslim practices in the United States, beginning with the presence of African Muslims early in the slave trade. The author discusses this history within the larger context of African American religious and cultural life.

Lee, Martha F. The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement. Lewiston, Maine, 1988; reprint, Syracuse, N.Y., 1996. This book explores the Nation of Islam's development in light of its rhetoric regarding the eventual destruction of whites and the coming greatness of blacks.

Lincoln, C. Eric. Black Muslims in America. 3d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1994. Using a sociological lens, Lincoln provides the first detailed treatment of the Nation of Islam from its initial presence through the beginning of Farrakhan's leadership.

Mamiya, Lawrence H. "From Black Muslim to Bilalian: The Evolution of a Movement." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 4 (1982): 138152. Mamiya outlines and discusses shifts in African American Islamic identity from the Nation of Islam to the presence of African American Sunnī Muslims seeking connection to Muslims across the globe.

McCloud, Aminah Beverly. African American Islam. New York, 1995. This book is a survey of various African American Islamic communities. It also addresses such key issues as the role of women within the Islamic community.

Nuruddin, Yusuf. "The Five Percenters: A Teenage Nation of Gods and Earths." In Muslim Communities in North America, edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane Idleman Smith, pp. 109132. Albany, N.Y., 1994. This article provides a concise history of the Five Percent Nation, highlighting its connections to and impact on popular culture.

Pinn, Anthony B. "The Great Mahdi Has Come!" In Varieties of African American Religious Experience, pp. 104153. Minneapolis, 1998. Pinn provides a theological history of the Nation of Islam, giving primary attention to its development in light of its depiction of and response to moral evil.

Tate, Sonsyrea. Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam. San Francisco, 1997. Tate's book is a personal reflection on the Nation of Islam's doctrinal shifts as Warith Deen Muhammad took over. Using the story of her family, Tate explores the impact of the Nation's changing teachings.

Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African American Experience. Bloomington, Ind., 1997. Turner provides a history of the Islamic presence in North America, beginning with West Africa and moving through the Nation of Islam and African American involvement in Sunnī Islam.

White, Vibert L., Jr. Inside the Nation of Islam: A Historical and Personal Testimony by a Black Muslim. Gainesville, Fla., 2001. White uses his personal history with the Nation of Islam as a means of critique, pointing out the Nation's flaws and inconsistencies.

Wormer, Richard. American Islam: Growing Up Muslim in America. New York, 1994. Wormer discusses Islam from the perspective of young Muslims and the challenges they face growing up in the United States.

Anthony B. Pinn (2005)

Nation of Islam

views updated May 21 2018

Nation of Islam


In his classic work The Black Muslims in America (1961), religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln (19242000) argued that originally the Nation of Islam was less a religious movement than a protest movement against centuries of racial oppression. Founded in 1930 by W. D. Fard (pronounced Far-rod ), the Nation of Islam borrowed heavily from the teachings of Marcus Garvey's (18871940) United Negro Improvement Association and Noble Drew Ali's (18861929) Moorish Science Temple. Built around Islamic symbolism and a philosophy that challenged white supremacy, the Nation of Islam encouraged members to work toward economic and social independence from the white community. Far more radical than protest organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Nation of Islam espoused racial segregation as a solution to institutional racism.

The Nation of Islam began in Detroit, Michigan. W. D. Fard, a peddler possibly of Arab descent, began teaching small gatherings of so-called Negroes about the glorious history of Afro-Asia. Fard warned his followers that ignorance of their past weakened them to the tricknology of whites, namely white supremacy. Fard argued that ignorance of history produced in the Asiatic community a sense of intellectual and moral inferiority. Education, he reasoned, preceded liberation, and therefore it is the responsibility of black men and women to seek knowledge and then to use that knowledge to inform daily practices. Fard, for example, admonished blacks to live and eat as their ancestors had in order to reclaim their birthright and to reestablish a system of equality, justice, and freedom. Fard also instituted Muslim Girls Training Classes, which taught girls and women the domestic arts, and the Fruit of Islam, which was a form of military training for men. These gender-segregated programs were designed to promote a sense of dignity, self-discipline, and social order.

Fard chose Elijah Muhammad (18971975), formerly Elijah Poole, as his lieutenant in the Nation of Islam. Born in Sandersville, Georgia, Poole was the son of William, a pastor, and Mariah, a domestic servant. With his wife Clara, Elijah Poole joined the great migration north in 1923 to flee the racial violence, poverty, and the boll weevil infestation that had destroyed crops in the South. The Pooles settled in Detroit with their two children (three more children would follow). In Detroit, Elijah Poole became a devoted follower of Fard, and eventually cast away his slave name to become Elijah Karriem and eventually Elijah Muhammad in 1933. Following Fard's disappearance from Detroit in 1934, Elijah Muhammad fought to maintain his position as the Minister of Islam. In his capacity as leader, Elijah Muhammad deified Fard as the embodiment of Allah. This decision effectively positioned Fard as the last Prophet of Allah, a heretical notion for Sunni and Shiite Muslims. After serving three years at MCI Prison for failure to register for selective service during World War II (19391945), Elijah Muhammad resumed leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1946. Following his release, Muhammad continued to reach out to black prisoners.

While serving time at Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts, Malcolm Little (19251965) was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm Little identified strongly with the idea that his past behavior was the result of having been brainwashed by white supremacy. In response, Little spent his time in prison studying history, philosophy, and religion. He also maintained an ongoing correspondence with Elijah Muhammad, and eventually converted and changed his name to Malcolm X. Following his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm X began a journey that would eventually lead to his becoming the most articulate, powerful, and controversial spokesman for the Nation of Islam.

Unlike the other protest organizations at the turn of the century that fought for the full benefits of citizenship in an integrated United States, the Nation of Islam espoused a philosophy that whites were blue-eyed devils created by an evil black scientist named Yacub. Slavery, de jure segregation, the epidemic of lynchings, and institutional racism were offered as proof by followers that even if whites were not devils, they acted like devils. The militant and antiwhite rhetoric of the Nation of Islam made the organization unpopular even within the black community, and until the 1960s the philosophy appealed almost exclusively to southern migrants living in the urban Northeast and Midwest. Membership levels grew and shrank from 1930 to 1942, probably never rising above one thousand. In the 1950s, membership in the Nation was possibly as high as five thousand. With a large recruitment drive in the 1960s, Nation membership most likely reached its highest level of about twenty thousand. The number of members is not, however, indicative of the influence of Elijah Muhammad's and Malcolm X's teachings. There were thousands of African-Americans who sympathized with the Nation's philosophy of self-sufficiency and Afrocentrism, and with the Nation's declared willingness to physically defend their community.

There were two major tensions within the Nation of Islam following Malcolm X's rise as the organization's most charismatic spokesman. The first tension surrounded the relationship between Nation of Islam philosophy and orthodox Islam. With greater media attention came greater scrutiny, and a number of Sunni Muslims were more than willing to highlight the differences between Nation teachings and traditional Islam. In the press, Elijah Muhammad was characterized as a phony by Sunni Muslims who knew that the leader's beliefs were a syncretic blend of Christianity and black nationalism layered with Islamic symbolism. By the 1960s, Elijah Muhammad's son Wallace Muhammad and Malcolm X were pushing their leader to adopt traditional Islam, but Elijah Muhammad held firm to the original tenets of his organization. The second tension had to do with the question of race. The Nation of Islam was characterized in the press as a black supremacist organization that preached hate. Black leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall (19081993) castigated the organization. The Nation's anti-integration stance and tolerance of self-defense was seen as a threat to the current gains of the civil rights movement. Beyond the political repercussions, many blacks thought that the philosophy of the nation was cynical and untenable.

Major changes occurred in the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. Scandals surrounding Elijah Muhammad, integration following civil rights legislation, and the assassination of Malcolm X (renamed El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz before his death) all contributed to the slow delegitimization of some of the beliefs and practices of the Nation of Islam. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, he passed leadership to his son Wallace Muhammad. Wallace Muhammad subsequently dismantled the Nation of Islam and built the World Community of Islam in the West, now the American Muslim Mission. The American Muslim Mission continues to promote Sunni Islam within the African American community. In 1977 Minister Louis Farrakhan rejected the leadership of Wallace Muhammad and rebuilt the Nation of Islam in order to continue the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. While still focused on the mission of black empowerment, Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam continues to incorporate traditional Islamic practices.

SEE ALSO Black Power; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Islam, Shia and Sunni; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Malcolm X; Muhammad, Elijah; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)


Clegg, Claude Andrew. 1997. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. New York: St. Martin's.

Curtis, Edward E. 2002. Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Evanzz, Karl. 1999. The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad. New York: Pantheon.

Lincoln, C. Eric. 1993. The Black Muslims in America. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Malcolm X. 1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ed. Alex Haley. New York: Grove.

Tate, Sonsyrea. 1997. Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam. San Francisco: Harper.

Carolyn M. Rouse

Nation of Islam

views updated May 23 2018

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

Nation of Islam

views updated May 08 2018


NATION OF ISLAM. The Nation of Islam (NOI), whose members are widely referred to as Black Muslims, was founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace D. Fard. An enigmatic figure with mysterious origins, Fard surfaced in the city in 1929 and attracted the attention of poor blacks as he walked the streets selling fabrics and expounding novel religious and political messages. Fard skillfully blended tenets of traditional Islam with anti-white preachments that resonated with the psychological and social needs of economically strapped blacks. This group, frustrated by the inability of traditional religions to generate change in their lives and keenly aware of the impact of racism on their opportunities, was drawn to Fard's message.

The cosmology of the NOI was exotic but carefully crafted to offer a millenarian vision to African Americans, promising a future apocalypse for the evil (whites) and salvation to the true believers (blacks or "Original People"). According to Fard's theology, an insane scientist, Yakub, who lived 6,000 years ago, grafted a new human species from the Original People. Over time, the grafted species mutated and became white. An angry God looked with disfavor on the manipulations of Yakub and decreed that the white race of people he created would rule for 6,000 years and then be vanquished. At that point, the Original People would inherit a world where true nirvana would reign.

Early Leadership

Researchers in the 1990s who examined state and federal records concluded that Fard was born Wallace Dodd Ford on 25 February 1891. Despite the uneven quality of record keeping in the period, most researchers conclude that he was white. Public records reveal that he grew up in southern California and became involved in petty crime at an early age. In 1926 he was sentenced to serve time in San Quentin prison for selling narcotics to an undercover policeman. FBI records show that after his release from San Quentin in 1929 he headed east, spent a brief period in Chicago, then settled in Detroit.

As Fard began constructing his religious and political message, one of his most ardent followers was Elijah Poole. After repeated clashes with white officials in his hometown of Sandersville, Georgia, Poole joined the thousands of blacks who fled the South to search for greater freedom and economic opportunity. Elijah was a tireless and loyal lieutenant to Fard and slowly gained authority within the mosque. He established the South-side Mosque in Chicago in 1932, and in 1933, Fard granted Elijah the surname "Muhammad."

The Muslims, with their antiwhite rhetoric, soon became prime targets for law enforcement. In 1933, Fard abruptly told his followers that God had preordained that he leave Detroit, and that he was passing on the mantle of leadership to his faithful student, Elijah. Despite Fard's claim of divine direction, evidence since disclosed suggests that the worsening relationship with Detroit police officers was the primary impetus for Fard's departure. Under Elijah Muhammad's direction, the NOI survived, but grew slowly in northern cities. Bitter contests over leadership and finances plagued the NOI's viability through the depression years.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Muhammad was drafted into the army but refused to serve, citing his Islamic religious beliefs and expressing sympathy for the nonwhite Japanese. He was convicted of draft evasion and served three years in the federal prison at Milan, Michigan. His bold antigovernment stand earned him martyr status among the faithful and helped solidify his position in the Muslim community, where competition for standing was constant. While in prison, Muhammad noted that through inmate labor and cooperation, the facility was able to produce food to meet the needs of the prison population. Elijah expanded this insight into an economic strategy for the Nation of Islam. When released in 1946, Elijah returned to Chicago, and with enhanced personal authority he began rebuilding the NOI, which had languished during his detention. Consistent with the goal of racial self-reliance, Elijah established farms, dairies, retail food outlets, and a number of small Muslim-owned businesses.


In 1948, Malcolm Little, serving time in a Michigan prison for petty larceny, became attracted to the Muslim ideology and from prison began a correspondence with Muhammad. Shortly after his release in 1952, he visited the leader in Chicago; soon afterward he converted and was designated "Malcolm X." The frail and diminutive Muhammad was not a formidable presence on public podiums; however, he recognized Malcolm's talent as a spokesperson and organizer. Malcolm X's skill and unwavering dedication to Muhammad led to a swift ascent within the Muslim organization. In succession, he revitalized and headed mosques in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Malcolm was responsible for a slow but steady upsurge in membership. However, in July 1959, the television documentary The Hate that Hate Produced propelled the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X into America's consciousness.

The CBS network and the show's producers, Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax, calculated that sensational publicity about the antiwhite ideology of the Black Muslims would prompt hostile reactions in the black communities and arrest the development of the NOI. Instead, the show sparked a sharp upsurge of black interest in the Muslims and their eloquent spokesman, Malcolm X. Soon, Malcolm was a sought-after commentator on America's racial morass. The media cast him as counterpoint to the moderation of civil rights leaders. Essentially self-taught, Malcolm became skilled in public debate and held his own against political and intellectual adversaries on campuses and in broadcast studios. He consistently expressed views ridiculing civil rights leaders and their integrationist assumptions. Malcolm was contemptuous of nonviolence and distrustful of a constitutional system that had coexisted for centuries with bigotry and black oppression.

Malcolm X's effectiveness as a national spokesperson was key in the growth of the NOI to approximately 20,000 members by the early 1960s, though estimates vary. Importantly, the NOI founded a nationally distributed newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, that offered news and opinion consistent with the Muslim program. With a circulation of 600,000 (largely through street corner sales by members) by 1966, it was the most widely read black newspaper in the United States.

The most notable Muslim convert was the heavyweight boxing champion (1964–1967) Cassius Clay. Recruited by Malcolm X, Clay converted to the NOI in 1964, and Elijah gave him the name Muhammad Ali. The charismatic and loquacious celebrity gained fame internationally when, in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, he refused to be inducted into the army, claiming conscientious objector status. His lawyers argued unsuccessfully that as a Muslim minister he had the same rights as other religious leaders. In explaining his decision, Ali further politicized the dispute by remarking, "no Vietcong ever called me Nigger." Under pressure from congressional powers, U.S. boxing officials stripped Ali of his championship title. Thus, at the height of his pugilistic prowess he was effectively banned from the sport. The actions of officials generated broad sympathy for Ali among African Americans as well as among critics of the war. Ali's position was vindicated when in 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his 1967 conviction for draft evasion.

Tensions grew within the NOI between Malcolm X and the venerable Elijah Muhammad. In 1963, Muhammad disciplined Malcolm when he characterized the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a case of "chickens coming home to roost." Malcolm accepted Muhammad's sanctions but bridled under what he thought were unnecessary niceties in the face of federal government inaction in the civil rights arena.

The conflicts exploded into violence when Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom on 21 February 1965. Three men with ties to Elijah Muhammad's faction were arrested, tried, and sentenced to long prison terms. Speculations about the motives behind Malcolm X's murder centered on his increasingly public statements about his longtime mentor's morality. Elijah had fathered at least ten out-of-wedlock children with Muslim women.

The public perception of the NOI as a radical and aggressive group finds little support in its social and cultural practices. The group was fundamentally conservative in organizational structure, economic outlook, and political matters. Muhammad functioned as an autocratic leader, issuing direction from the top of a rigid hierarchy. Women's roles in the NOI were restricted and subordinated to those of men. The NOI was thoroughly capitalistic in economic matters, holding out hope that its small business initiatives could provide jobs and subsistence needed by poor African Americans. The failure of

an all-black group to actively participate in the black liberation struggles that were taking place in the United States helped reinforce the suspicions of many that the Muslims' antiwhite rhetoric was never coupled with action. Muhammad deferred to what he believed to be God's divine scheme and discouraged his followers from voting and taking any direct action on behalf of other blacks. Malcolm X cited the NOI's political passivity as a factor in his separation from the organization.

More Transformations

When Elijah died of heart failure on 25 February 1975, the group did not undergo the disruptive factionalism that NOI had experienced in the 1930s and 1960s. Muhammad had named his son Wallace Muhammad as his successor, and the Muslim faithful coalesced around his leadership. Wallace soon announced a new direction for the Nation of Islam, one more closely aligned with orthodox Islam. The organization downplayed the antiwhite theme that for years had been an important drawing card for NOI recruiters. Voting and political participation was endorsed. In 1976, Wallace changed the name of the group to the World Community of Islam in the West (WCIW).

In 1979, the minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the New York Mosque, announced his departure from Wallace's WCIW and his plans to establish a group under his leadership, reclaiming the name "Nation of Islam." Farrakhan had become skeptical about the reforms instituted by Wallace and vowed that the new NOI would resuscitate the ideology of Wallace's father. Farrakhan's fiery public preachments reflected the style of Malcolm X and attracted the attention of many non-Muslims (especially young people) who admired his bold critiques. During the 1980s and 1990s, few African American leaders stepped forward to express the anger shared by millions of blacks suffering from racial oppression.

Farrakhan's comments about Jews led some critics to accuse him of anti-Semitism, but the charges had little impact on his core constituency. In 1995, Farrakhan spearheaded the drive for a "Million Man March" in Washington, D.C., to encourage black males to acknowledge and atone for past failings and rededicate themselves to social and family responsibilities. Contrary to the predictions of black and white officials, approximately one million black men participated in the demonstration and heard Farrakhan deliver the keynote address.

From the brief tenure of W. D. Fard though the Farrakhan period, the Nation of Islam rhetorically highlighted the drama of black racial identity in the United States. However, Black Muslims held that the tension could only be resolved by racial separatism and group self help—not civil rights and integration. Although the encompassing demands of formal membership in the NOI assured that the organization would remain small, the fusillades against white supremacy launched by figures like Malcolm X and the philosophy of group self-help earned Black Muslims the respect, if not allegiance, of millions of black Americans.


Clegg, Claude Andrew. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Evanzz, Karl. The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad. New York: Pantheon, 1999.

Gardell, Mattias. In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

Lee, Martha F. The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

William M.Banks

See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Black Nationalism ; Islam .

Nation of Islam

views updated May 21 2018

Nation of Islam

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Nation of Islam was the longest lasting black militant and separatist movement in the history of the United States.


In the summer of 1930, a mysterious peddler appeared in a poor black ghetto of Detroit, Michigan . He was selling raincoats, silks, and other items, but he spoke persuasively about a religion for black people. He referred to himself as Mr. Farrad Mohammed, or sometimes as Mr. Wali Farrad, W. D. Fard, Wallace Fard Muhammad, or Professor Ford, and he was born sometime around 1891.

Fard said he was an Islamic prophet and that redemption would come to American blacks only through the religion of Islam. Fard quickly gained a following of a few hundred area residents. He was especially popular among recent black immigrants from the South who were undergoing severe economic hardship. In time, he established Temple No. 1 of the Nation of Islam. His preaching focused on self-knowledge as the path to individual salvation and black liberation. Fard explained that black people were members of the lost Arabic tribe of Shabazz and that they owed no loyalty to a white-dominated country that had enslaved and continuously persecuted them. Fard asserted that blacks were superior to whites, whom he called devils. He called for separation of the races and for an independent black republic within U.S. borders.

Establishing a movement

In Detroit, Fard wrote two manuals for the Nation of Islam movement and established its major organizations: the University of Islam, an unconventional elementary and high school that Muslim children attended instead of public schools; 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 select male members to provide security for Muslim leaders and to enforce the rules. Fard began the practice of substituting X for Nation of Islam members’ last names to eliminate their identities as slaves.

After converting an estimated eight thousand Detroit blacks to the Nation of Islam, Fard disappeared in late 1933 or 1934. His followers explained the mysterious circumstances of Fard's disappearance by maintaining that he was Allah (or God) and had returned for a short time to deliver hope to his people.

Elijah Muhammad

Fard's most trusted officer was Robert Poole, who took the Muslim name Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975). After Fard's disappearance, there was a struggle for the leadership of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad split from the Detroit movement and moved his family and followers to Chicago, Illinois , in 1936. There he established Temple of Islam No. 2, which eventually became the national headquarters of the movement. Throughout the 1940s, Muhammad reshaped the Nation of Islam. He firmly established the doctrine that Master Fard was Allah. He also proclaimed that he, the “Honorable” Elijah Muhammad, knew Allah personally and was his chosen messenger.

Under Muhammad's guidance, the Nation of Islam strove for two major goals: the development of economic independence and the recovery of an acceptable identity for blacks. “Do for Self” became the rallying cry of the movement, which encouraged economic self-reliance for individuals and the black community. This required of each individual hard work, avoidance of debt, self-improvement, and a conservative lifestyle. During his forty-one years of leadership, Muhammad and his

followers established more than one hundred temples nationwide. They built innumerable grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and other small black-owned businesses. The Nation of Islam also became famous for the foods it peddled in black communities to improve the nutrition and physical health of African Americans. It strictly forbade alcohol, drugs, pork, and an unhealthy diet. In the 1960s, the members of the Nation of Islam came to be called Black Muslims.

Elijah Muhammad believed that white racism had caused self-hatred among the black community. He felt the only solution to the problem was the formation of a separate black nation. According to Muhammad, the white man is a “devil by nature,” unable to respect anyone who is not white. He foretold a clash between the forces of good (blacks) and the forces of evil (whites) in the not-too-distant future from which black people would emerge victorious.

Malcolm X converts

In 1947, Malcolm Little, a petty criminal also known as “Detroit Red,” was serving a prison sentence when his brother told him about the Nation of Islam. Little, like thousands of other African Americans at the time, found in Muhammad's doctrine an explanation for the injustice and suffering he and his family had faced, as well as a solution to white racism. He converted to Muhammad's movement and changed his name to Malcolm X (1925–1965).

After getting out of prison, Malcolm began organizing Muslim temples throughout the country. He founded the Nation of Islam's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, in the basement of his home and initiated the practice of requiring every male member to sell an assigned number of newspapers on the street as a recruiting and fund-raising device. Malcolm X rose rapidly through the ranks and was eventually rewarded with the post of minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem, New York , the largest and most respected of the temples after the Chicago headquarters. Muhammad recognized Malcolm X's organizational talents and enormous appeal, and named him national representative of the Nation of Islam, second in rank to himself. Nation of Islam membership soared to an estimated five hundred thousand.

Malcolm was a powerful critic of American society, including the African American civil rights movement . He challenged revered civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. 's (1929–1968) struggle for integration (the incorporation of black people into the mainstream society) and his nonviolent methods. (See civil disobedience ). Malcolm X felt that the recovery of black self-identity and independence was more important than the right to sit in a restaurant or even to vote. In contrast to King's nonviolence, Malcolm urged his followers to defend themselves “by any means possible.” He expressed the pent-up bitterness and rage felt by blacks throughout the country. His views became the basis of the American black power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

After Malcolm X

Malcolm X eventually ran into major disputes with Elijah Muhammad. He left the Nation of Islam in March 1964, and was assassinated the following year. Minister Louis X of Boston, Massachusetts , also known as Louis Farrakhan (1933–), replaced Malcolm X as the national representative and the head minister of Temple No. 7. During this period, the Nation of Islam continued to strive for economic independence, acquiring a modern printing press, cattle farms in Georgia and Alabama , and a bank in Chicago.

When Muhammad died in 1975, one of his sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad (later Imam Warith Deen Muhammad; 1933–), was named supreme minister of the Nation of Islam. Wallace shocked his followers by declaring that whites should no longer be viewed as devils and that they could join the movement. He began to make radical changes in the doctrines and the structure of the Nation of Islam, moving it in the direction of the orthodox (traditional) Islam religion.

The changes introduced by Wallace Deen Muhammad led to a splintering of the movement. In 1978, Farrakhan formed a new group based

on the old Nation of Islam. The only major difference between his doctrines and those of Elijah Muhammad was that while Farrakhan did call for economic separation for blacks, he did not call for a separate black nation. Farrakhan was an outspoken leader and ran into considerable controversy by making hateful comments about Jews. Nevertheless, he drew a large following, particularly among poor and disillusioned urban blacks.

The Million Man March and beyond

During the 1990s, Farrakhan sought to broaden the appeal of the Nation of Islam. In 1995, he organized the Million Man March, calling for one million black men to come together in a demonstration of unity in Washington, D.C. , with the goal of strengthening the black community. Part of the march's message was that black men would take up a fight against drug use, unemployment, and violence and at the same time assume responsibility for themselves and their families. Though the march brought positive attention to the Nation of Islam, it also brought increased attention to Farrakhan's anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) statements and his refusal to allow black women to participate in the march, causing further controversy and division.

In 2000, Farrakhan and Wallace Deen Muhammad reunited their organizations. Then in February 2007, an aging Farrakhan stepped down as the Nation of Islam's long-time leader. It was not immediately clear who would take his place. During the 2000s, many orthodox Muslims had immigrated to the United States, bringing significant worship of traditional Islam to the country. Many orthodox Muslims opposed the Nation of Islam's unorthodox doctrines, and the Nation of Islam membership dwindled.

Nation of Islam

views updated May 21 2018

Nation of Islam

According to accounts of the origins of the Nation of Islam (NOI), in the 1930s in "Paradise Valley" in Detroit, a silk peddler named W. D. Fard began to explain to small groups of Americans of African descent their history.

The Nation of Islam emerged on the American scene in 1931—the Depression years, at the time of the demise of the Garvey Movement and of the inaction of the black church. It arose in an era when the number of Ku Klux Klan members was increasing, immigrants were competing for jobs, and segregation was the social order. Even though it was known for political ideology and rhetoric against white racism, the NOI laid a firm religious foundation. Elijah Muhammad, the inheritor of the nascent movement of W. D. Fard, wanted to lift the "so-called Negro" out of the deteriorating social circumstances that segregation and the absence of jobs were creating. Using both the Bible and the Qur'an as sources, he wove a cosmology that included themes such as the union of God and humanity—God in man (black); the notion that thought transcends both time and space; heaven and hell as being on Earth; and a final judgment. The original homeland was Mecca, Arabia, not Africa; and above all, God's name was Allah.

The goal of reconstruction was achieved, but the Nation of Islam was very much aware of "mainstream" Islam in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and of its emphasis on the Arab or Indian worlds, with the result that mainstream Islam demonstrated little interest in the problems of Americans of African descent. The central focus of the NOI was to reorient the spiritual vision of the black community away from peace in the hereafter to an understanding of God's favor and support for justice in the here and now, and to promote a united front of black men.

The "Ten-Point Program" underscored the difficulties of the black community in its emphasis on justice and equality for the "so-called Negro." Sustaining this program is a belief system that has twelve "testimonies" in which mainstream Islamic beliefs are expanded to focus on the plight of Americans of African descent. These include belief that judgment will first take place in the United States; belief that Muslims should not participate in wars; belief that black women should be protected and respected as other women are; and belief that Allah (God) appeared in the person of W. D. Fard in July 1930.

The Nation of Islam, under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad, used this belief system to encourage its followers to abandon their slave surnames, pool their resources, make neighborhoods safe, build factories, purchase and run farms, and, in effect, build an economic system. Knowledge of self (black people's history), Arabic, math, science, and English formed the core of the NOI educational system. Without self-discipline, however, the economic and education systems would have no foundation.

Self-discipline plus abstinence from alcohol and drugs, a strict dietary regimen of one meal daily, and cooperative buying led the NOI into prosperity. Modest dress and behavior and sex segregation coupled with self-reliance and a sense of mutual responsibility formed the moral pillars of the community. The community kept itself from the mass consumerism and debt of Christmas by fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of December. The apparent success of this regimen of self-help, austerity, and commitment was seen in the NOI's rapid expansion.

By the 1960s it was clear that the only written reference to a black theology on the American scene was the one articulated by the Nation of Islam. Also by the 1960s, the FBI's campaign to destroy the NOI surpassed the intensity of its surveillance of any other single group in the United States. The Nation of Islam won the hearts and total commitment of many, including Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Farrakhan. It also won the total commitment of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI to its surveillance. The fiery rhetoric of Malcolm X and the apparent unwillingness of the government to cease police brutality against the nonviolent civil rights movement brought even more Americans of African descent into the NOI. The year 1963 saw the assassination of Malcolm X and internal strife, and the position of national spokesman for the NOI went to Louis X, later to be known as Louis Farrakhan.

Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975, at the age of seventy-seven, leaving behind him a wealthy organization with national recognition. His son Wallace Muhammad became the elected leader of the NOI. Wallace Muhammad immediately began what was almost a complete dismantling of the philosophies and beliefs of the NOI that did not comport with mainstream Islam. Three years later the NOI had a new name, the World Community of Islam in the West. This symbol of a decisive new direction for the NOI caused the departure of its national spokesman, Louis Farrakhan, who launched what is now the largest of the splinter groups from the World Community of Islam in the West; he named it the Nation of Islam in 1979. Presenting a strong challenge to the black church, Farrakhan revived the theme of black unity by espousing the mainstream Muslim understandings of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism "as more or less expressions of the One True Faith." On June 13, 1993, a Christian pastor delivered the keynote address at Mosque Maryam for the first time. Despite his reputation in the Jewish community as an anti-Semite and his refusal to tame his rhetoric on the alleged misdeeds of that community, Farrakhan gave a musical performance for a Jewish audience in 1993. The Million Man March to Washington, in part sponsored by the NOI, was one outcome of the attempts of leaders of many black communities toward black unity.

The Nation of Islam at this time is working on several fronts. It has moved decisively into the political arena, not choosing sides but educating black voters and getting out the vote. It is also moving, cautiously, to engage mainstream Islam on its own terms. Women are now ministers, with some degree of support. The NOI is also involved in a number of interreligious dialogues and in rebuilding its economic bases.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Civil Rights Movement; Fard, W. D.; Farrakhan, Louis; Malcolm X; Muhammad, Elijah Karriem.


Lincoln, C. Eric. TheBlack Muslims of America, 3rd ed. 1994.

McCloud, Aminah Beverly. African American Islam. 1995.

Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman. 1965.

Turner, Richard. Islam in the African American Experience. 1997.

Aminah Beverly McCloud

Nation of Islam

views updated May 23 2018


The Nation of Islam (NOI) is a religious and political organization whose origins are somewhat mysterious. Wallace D. Fard, later known as Master Wallace Fard Muhammad, established the NOI in Detroit during the 1930s. Fard Muhammad, a traveling salesman who sold African silks and advocated self-sufficiency and independence for African Americans, taught Elijah Poole the history of what Fard Muhammad called the Lost-Found Nation of Islam—descendants of the tribe of Shabazz from the Lost Nation in Asia. Fard Muhammad taught Poole in part that Mr.Yacub, a black mad scientist, created what was called the devil race—the white race—approximately six thousand years ago, and that the devil race would rule the world for the next six thousand years.

Elijah Poole was born in Sandersville, Georgia in 1897. His father, who was a Baptist preacher, had been a slave. At the age of twenty-six, Poole moved to Detroit with his family. In 1930 in Detroit, he met W. D. Fard, the founder of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. When Fard disappeared in 1934, Poole—then known as Elijah Muhammad—moved to Chicago, where he organized his own following and established the headquarters of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad remained the spiritual and organizational leader of the NOI from 1934 until his death in 1975. During that time, the NOI became recognized as a black nationalist religious organization that advocated racial separatism and self-sufficiency for African Americans. Often called Black Muslims, the NOI's members are required to adhere to a strict moral and disciplinary code. Men members typically wear suits and ties, and women members are required to wear modest clothing, typically white gowns or saris. The NOI's teachings forbid the eating of pork and the consumption of alcohol or tobacco.

In the early 1950s and 1960s, the NOI called for racial separatism in the United States, and at times protested against police brutality and filed suit against various police departments in response to alleged police brutality. It also frequently recruited members in large cities and prisons. In 1947, Malcolm Little—who later became Malcolm X—converted to Islam and joined the NOI while incarcerated in a Massachusetts prison. As a national minister and spokesman for the NOI, malcolm x was a fiery speaker and proponent of the organization's concerns. However, during the early 1960s, ideological differences developed between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and in 1964, Malcolm X formally left the NOI.

Shortly after Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, his son Warith Deen Muhammad renounced black separatism and the origins of Black Muslims and established the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, later called the American Muslim Mission. NOI minister Louis X, who later became Louis Farrakhan, initially supported Warith Muhammad but soon reestablished the NOI. Other organizations and factions also split off from the original NOI, including the more militant Lost-Found Nation of Islam, which publishes the weekly newspaper Muhammad Speaks. In the mid-1990s, Farrakhan's organization was generally known as the NOI.

Like Malcolm X, Farrakhan is a fiery orator and skilled leader. Yet, he and the NOI have been criticized for anti-Semitic and antiwhite statements as well as conspiracy theories concerning Jewish American business leaders. Khalid Muhammad, a former NOI spokesman, was especially known for the excoriating statements and speeches he gave at many U.S. colleges in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the NOI later expelled Khalid Muhammad, his speeches contributed to a continuing debate as to whether so-called hate speech should be punished or regulated by U.S. universities.

During the early and mid-1990s, Farrakhan and the NOI appeared to be shifting their political focus away from black separatism and toward a more universalist or mainstream approach. The NOI also has begun to develop various major business ventures, including the operation of a restaurant in a poor neighbor-hood on Chicago's South Side. Its security arm—the Fruit of Islam—has been involved in providing security for housing projects in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., under contracts with public agencies such as the Chicago Housing Authority. In October 1995, the NOI and Farrakhan were instrumental in organizing the Million Man March, bringing together hundreds of thousands of African American men in Washington, D.C.

further readings

Carson, Clayborne. 1991. Malcolm X: The FBI File. New York: Carroll & Graf.

Karim, Benjamin, with Peter Skutches, and David Gallen. 1992. Remembering Malcolm: The Story of Malcolm X from Inside the Muslim Mosque. New York: Carroll & Graf.

Lee, Martha F. 1996. The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ. Press.

Tsoukalas, Steven. 2001. The Nation of Islam: Understanding the "Black Muslims." Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R.


Hate Crime; Civil Rights Movement.

Nation of Islam

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The Nation of Islam in concept was founded in the teachings of Master Fard Muhammad in 1930 with the lectures of this urban trader to the "so-called Negro" community in Detroit, Michigan. At the center of these lectures was the teaching that a large number of Africans enslaved in the Americas were Muslims and that Islam was the "true religion" of these people. With knowledge of their Islamic heritage, clean living, and a demand for freedom, justice, and equality, these Muslims would regain their humanity that had been lost in slavery. In practice, the Nation of Islam was cemented as a religious community under the leadership and guidance of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad by 1934.

Members of the Nation of Islam believe in "the One God whose proper name is Allah, in the Holy Qur˒an and in the Scriptures of all the Prophets of God," according to Elijah Muhammad (Message of the Blackman, 1965). Initially there was a belief in a mental resurrection of the dead to which has been added the Islamic belief in the Day of Judgment. Concurrent with these beliefs the leadership aims at the reformation of the character of the African-American community. As with all Muslims, members refrain from drinking alcohol, gambling, and eating pork. Additionally, they avoid narcotics, cigarettes, slang, and profanity and use language that encourages courtesy and good manners.

Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam from 1952 until his ouster in 1964. Malcolm X was known as a charismatic national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. His unauthorized comments on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy precipitated his ouster. Pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, inspired him to permanently leave the Nation of Islam to become an orthodox Sunni Muslim. Warith Deen Muhammad inherited the leadership of the Nation of Islam upon the death of his father, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, in 1975. He moved the majority of the community from a black nationalist philosophy into orthodox Sunni Islam. Since that time he has become a well-respected leader in American Islam. In the 1990s Louis Farrakhan led the Nation of Islam toward stricter observance of Islamic rituals and practice. In the twenty-first century this development complements a continuing focus on the plight of African Americans.

See alsoFarrakhan, Louis ; Malcolm X ; Muhammad, Elijah ; Muhammad, Warith Deen ; United States, Islam in the .


Muhammad, Elijah. The Message to the Blackman. Chicago: Muhammad's Temple No. 2, 1965.

Muhammad, Elijah. How to Eat to Live. Chicago: Muhammad's Temple No. 2, 1972.

Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Aminah Beverly McCloud

Nation of Islam

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Nation of Islam (African-American movement): see ELIJAH MUHAMMAD.

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