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Muhammad, Elijah Karriem (1897–1975), Religious and Political Leader

Muhammad, Elijah Karriem
(1897–1975), religious and political leader.

Elijah Muhammad was the major leader from 1934 to 1975 of the Black Muslim movement, the Nation of Islam, which combined religious beliefs with black nationalism. Born Robert Elijah Poole on October 10, 1897, in Sandersville, Georgia, he was one of thirteen children of an itinerant Baptist preacher. In 1919 he married Clara Evans, and they joined the black migration to Detroit, where he worked in the auto plants. In 1931 he met Master Wallace Fard (or Wali Farrad or W. D. Fard), founder of the Nation of Islam, who eventually chose this devoted disciple as his chief aide. Fard named him "Minister of Islam," dropped his slave name "Robert Poole," and restored his true Muslim name, "Elijah Karriem Muhammad."

After Fard disappeared in 1934, Elijah Muhammad led a major faction to Chicago, where he established Temple of Islam No. 2 as the main headquarters for the Nation of Islam. He also instituted the worship of Master Fard as Allah and himself as the Messenger of Allah and head of the Nation, always addressed with the honorific title "the Honorable." Muhammad built on the teachings of Fard and combined aspects of Islam and Christianity with the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey and Noble Drew Ali into a "proto-Islam," an unorthodox Islam with a strong racial slant. Whites were considered as devils.

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad's message of racial separation focused on the recognition of true black identity and stressed economic independence. "Knowledge of Self" and "Do for Self" were the rallying cries. His followers sold the Nation's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and established their own educational system of University of Islam schools and small businesses such as bakeries, grocery stores, and fish stores. They also followed his strict dietary rules outlined in his book How to Eat to Live, which enjoined one meal per day and complete abstention from pork, drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. In his major work, Message to the Black Man, Elijah 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 nation, either in the United States or elsewhere.

After spending four years in a federal prison for encouraging draft refusal during World War II, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was assisted by his chief protégé, Minister Malcolm X, in building the movement and encouraging its rapid spread in the 1950s and 1960s. During its peak years the Nation of Islam had more than a half-million devoted followers, influencing millions more, and accumulated an economic empire worth an estimated eighty million dollars. With only a third-grade education, Elijah Muhammad was the leader of the most enduring black militant religious movement in the United States. Although he was not a charismatic speaker, he was a master manipulator, able to control powerful personalities such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975, in Chicago and was succeeded by one of his six sons, Warith Deen Muhammad. After Warith Deen Muhammad dismantled the Nation by moving the main body of followers to orthodox Sunni Islam, Minister Louis Farrakhan rebuilt it in 1977, using the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Black Muslims; Fard, W. D.; Farrakhan, Louis; Malcolm X; Nation of Islam; Muhammad, Warith Deen; Noble Drew Ali.


Clegg, Claude Andrew III. An Original Man: The Lifeand Times of Elijah Muhammad. 1997.

Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for anIdentity in America. 1962.

Gardell, Mattias. In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: LouisFarrakhan and the Nation of Islam. 1996.

Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. 1960.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1965.

Muhammad, Elijah. How to Eat to Live. 1972.

Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Black Man in America. 1965.

Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who ChangedBlack America. 1991.

Lawrence H. Mamiya

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