Muhammad, Elijah (1897–1975)
MUHAMMAD, ELIJAH (1897–1975)
From the 1930s until his death, Elijah Muhammad was the leader of the Nation of Islam, the most prominent African-American Muslim organization of the post–World War II era. A black migrant from Georgia who settled in Detroit and then Chicago, Muhammad became known among thousands of followers as the "Messenger of God." He spread his ideas through popular public lectures, the widely distributed Muhammad Speaks newspaper, and works like The Supreme Wisdom (1957) and Message to the Blackman in America (1965). His teachings combined Sunni Islamic elements with traditions of black self-determination and black closeness (the idea that blacks, like the ancient Israelites, were God's chosen people). Elijah Muhammad encouraged African Americans to convert to Islam, follow a strict moral and ethical code, and work for economic and political self-sufficiency. He also taught that blacks were the earth's original inhabitants who had become enslaved by a devilish race of white men. God, he said, had chosen him to "mentally resurrect" black people and prepare them for Judgment Day, when God would dispense with whites and reestablish a golden age of black splendor. This doctrine, called the Myth of Yacub by some outside the movement, drew criticism from many black civil rights leaders and Muslims, who deemed it un-Islamic. Elijah Muhammad's separatist Islam nevertheless found a sympathetic ear among members of the urban black working class, especially black men in prison. His emphasis on black self-determination and pride during the postwar period foreshadowed and inspired the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
After his death in 1975, his son, Wallace D. (or Warith Deen) Muhammad, took over the Nation of Islam, leading the movement toward a more Sunni interpretation of Islam. But in the late 1970s, Minister Louis Farrakhan, a former aide to Elijah Muhammad, broke with the younger Muhammad, reconstituting a Nation of Islam that continued to rely on Elijah Muhammad's original teachings.
Clegg, Claude Andrew, III. An Original Man: The Life andTimes of Elijah Muhammad. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Reprint. Newport News, Va.: United Brothers Communications Systems, 1992.
Edward E. Curtis IV