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NATION OF ISLAM. The migrations of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North after World War I provided the background for the development 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 movement is essentially “proto-Islamic” in that it utilizes some of the symbols and trappings of Islam, and its central message is one of black nationalism. The Nation of Islam, however, has had an important role in the development of Islamic orthodoxy among African Americans.

In the summer of 1930, a friendly but mysterious peddler appeared among the impoverished southern migrants in Paradise Valley, a black ghetto of Detroit, selling raincoats, silks, and other sundries but also giving advice on health and spiritual development. He told the poor residents that their true religion was 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 began teaching in the private homes of his followers, later renting a hall that became known as the Temple of Islam. This mysterious stranger often referred to himself as Farrad Mohammed, but he was also known as Wali Farrad, Wallace D. Fard, Professor Ford, or, to the faithful, Master Fard. In 1931, Fard was recognized by his followers as the Great Mahdi (“savior”), who had come to bring a special message to the suffering African Americans in the teeming ghettos of America.

Fard 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. 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 state. 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 (Lincoln, 1961), which is written in symbolic language and therefore requires special interpretation. By 1934, Fard had established the Temple of Islam, which had its own worship style and rituals; a school, the University of Islam, to propagate his teachings; the Muslim Girls Training group, which taught home economics and proper Muslim behavior to female acolytes; and the Fruit of Islam, an elite group of male members that provided security for Muslim leaders and enforced disciplinary rules.

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. One of the earliest officers of the movement and Fard’s most trusted lieutenant was Robert Poole (1897-1975), also known as Elijah Poole, who was given the Muslim name Elijah Muhammad (Perry, 199i, p. 143). The son of a rural Baptist minister and sharecropper from Sandersville, Georgia, Poole migrated with his parents’ family to Detroit in 1923, and 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, presiding 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 the severity of this struggle, Elijah Muhammad moved his family and close followers several times. In 1936, Muhammad’s group settled on the south side of Chicago and established Temple of Islam No. 2, which would become the national headquarters of the movement. Throughout the 1940s, Elijah Muhammad reshaped the Nation of Islam and gave it his own imprimatur. He established firmly the doctrine that Master Fard was Allah, proving that God is a black man, and that he, the so-called Honorable Elijah Muhammad, knew Allah personally and was anointed the Messenger of Allah. Muhammad continued the teachings of Fard, but he infused the lessons with a strong dose of the black nationalism voiced by such earlier movements as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and Noble (Timothy Drew) Ali’s Moorish Science Temple.

Under Muhammad’s guidance, the Nation of Islam 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. The economic ethic of the Black Muslims was a kind of African American puritanism-hard work, frugality and the avoidance of debt, self-improvement, and a conservative life-style. The reputation of Black Muslims for discipline and dependableness helped many of them to obtain jobs or to start their own small businesses. During the forty-one-year period of Elijah Muhammad’s leadership, more than one hundred temples and innumerable grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and other small businesses were established nationwide. The Nation of Islam also became known for its famous bean pies and whiting fish, which were peddled among African Americans to improve their nutrition and physical health. The movement also strictly forbade the use of alcohol or drugs and the eating of pork or an unhealthy diet, and Elijah Muhammad was prescient in his nutritional maxim, “You are what you eat,” which he wrote in his book How to Eat to Live (1972). He also introduced his followers to the ritual of fasting, and he established December as the Nation’s month of Ramadan in order to challenge the hegemony of the Christmas celebration among African Americans. In such small steps Muhammad’s teachings had the unintended consequence of paving the way toward Islamic orthodoxy.

Muhammad’s ministers of Islam found the prisons and the streets of the ghetto a fertile recruiting ground. The message of self-reclamation and black manifest destiny struck a responsive chord in the thousands of African American men and women whose hope and selfrespect had been all but defeated by racial abuse and denigration. As a consequence of where they recruited and the militancy of their beliefs, the Black Muslims attracted many more young black males than any of the other black movements or institutions, such as the black churches.

In his book Message to the Blackman in America (1965), Muhammad diagnosed the vulnerabilities of the African American psyche as stemming from a confusion of identity and from 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 he is the historic and persistent source of harm and injury to black people. The central theological myth of the Nation tells of Yacub, 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 recreate their original hegemony under Allah throughout the world.

Minister Malcolm X. All of these myths and doctrines have functioned as a theodicy for the Black Muslims, an explanation and rationalization for the pain and suffering inflicted on black people in America. Malcolm X (1925-1965), formerly Malcolm Little, for example, 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. He finally had an explanation for the extreme poverty and tragedies his family suffered and for all of the years he 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, which has been repeated many thousands of times over during the fortyone-year history of the Nation of Islam under Muhammad’s leadership (Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965). 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, exslave.

The years between Malcolm X’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 X began organizing Muslim temples in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, 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 he 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 Temple No. I I in Boston 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. Elijah Muhammad recognized his organizational talents and his enormous charismatic appeal and forensic abilities by naming Malcolm X 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 500,000. But like the 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 X’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 X felt that the integrity of black selfhood and its independence was at stake, rather than the civil right to sit in a restaurant or even to vote. His biting critique of the “so-called Negro” and his emphasis on the recovery of black self-identity and independence provided the intellectual foundation for the “Black Power” and black-consciousness movements of the late 1960s and 1970S in American society. In contrast to King’s nonviolence, Malcolm X urged his followers to defend themselves “by any means possible.” He also articulated the pent-up anger, frustration, bitterness, and rage felt by the dispossessed African American masses, the “grass roots.”

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

From 1965 until Elijah Muhammad’s death in 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.

Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. After Elijah Muhammad died in Chicago on 25 February 1975, 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 Muhammad shocked his Black Muslim followers and the world by declaring that whites were no longer viewed as devils and 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.

Warith Deen Mohammed dismantled the elite groups in the Nation, the Fruit of Islam and the Muslim Girls Training, and he lifted the dress code so that men would no longer have to wear suits and bow ties, and women did not have to wear long gowns and cover their heads. He also dispensed with the mythology of Yacub and opened the movement to white and immigrant Muslims. The traditional Muslim creed, the Shahadah, was restored, and the Qur’an and the sunnah tradition were followed. The group’s name and the name of its newspaper were changed several times: from the Community of al-Islam in the West and the Bilalian News to the American Muslim Mission and the American Muslim Journal and finally to individual mosques and masjids with no single name (or central organization) and the Muslim Journal. Although there is no longer a central organization, the followers of Warith Deen Mohammed still form an identifiable movement, studying Mohammed’s teachings and attending his nationwide lectures. The movement still has not chosen a theological school of thought with which to align itself despite its gradual move to Sunni orthodoxy. It is Mohammed’s view that an American school of thought will eventually be developed in the United States, encompassing the contributions of both indigenous African Americans and immigrant Muslims. It is estimated that there are several hundred thousand followers of Warith Deen Mohammed, the largest group of orthodox African American Muslims.

Minister Louis Farrakhan. The changes introduced by Warith Deen Mohammed in 1975 led to a splintering of the movement, especially among the hardcore black nationalist followers. For example, Elijah Muhammad’s brother John Muhammad formed a Nation of Islam group in Detroit, publishing a newspaper called Muhammad Speaks. Silas Muhammad set up another Nation of Islam in Atlanta. But the largest and most successful group was led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, a serious contender for the leadership post after Elijah Muhammad’s death. After losing the post to Wallace Deen Muhammad, Farrakhan succeeded in resurrecting the old Nation of Islam in 1978. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, based in Chicago, retains the black nationalist and separatist beliefs and doctrines that were central to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1933, but raised in Boston by his West Indian mother, Louis Eugene Wolcott, a calypso singer and musician, was recruited by Malcolm X to the Nation of Islam in 1955 at the age of twenty-two. On successful completion of his trial period, Elijah Muhammad gave Louis the Muslim name Abdul Farrakhan. After serving a nine-month apprenticeship with Malcolm X at Temple No. 7 in Harlem, Louis X was appointed the head minister of Temple No. I i in Boston.

Farrakhan displays much of the charisma and forensic candor of Malcolm X, and they have had similar career paths in the Nation. When Malcolm X defected from the Nation in 1964, Farrakhan was appointed head minister of Temple No. 7 and National Representative. Both men also founded newspapers for their movements. Malcolm X began Muhammad Speaks, and Farrakhan established the Final Call. In building his movement since 1978, Farrakhan has placed his imprimatur on the resurrected Nation of Islam by introducing changes, such as allowing his members to vote and to run for elected office. Under Elijah Muhammad the Black Muslims did not vote or participate in politics, since they felt that they did not owe any allegiance to the United States.

Farrakhan and the Nation gained national notoriety by their participation in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign and by Farrakhan’s sharp and controversial criticisms of the role of Jews and whites in the oppression of black people. Under Farrakhan’s leadership, the Nation of Islam has provided security patrols for drug-infested areas, and it has set up its own AIDS awareness program. He has encouraged his followers to reestablish the economic base of the Nation through small businesses, such as the Nation’s Power Pac cosmetics. He also repurchased the building of the former Temple No. 2, the old Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago, from Warith Mohammed and renamed it Mosque Maryam.

With the growth of urban poverty, Minister Farrakhan’s message of black unity, self-knowledge, and independence and his critique of American society have struck a responsive chord among the African American masses. His message of black nationalism is again directed to those mired in the underclass, as well as to disillusioned intellectuals, through his lectures, the Final Call newspaper, and popular musical recordings by such rap groups as Public Enemy and Prince Akeem.

For more than sixty years, the Nation of Islam in its various forms has become the most enduring of the militant and separatist movements that have occasionally appeared in the history of black people in the United States. In addition to its crucial role in the development of the black-consciousness movement, the Nation of Islam is important for helping to build Islam into a fourth major religious alternative in American society, alongside Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. More than 90 percent of the converts to Islam in the United States have been African Americans.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in the Americas; United States of America; and the biographies of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.]


Elijah Muhammad. Message to the Blackman in America. Chicago, 1965. Contains the central message of the Nation of Islam ac cording to Elijah Muhammad.

Elijah Muhammad. How to Eat to Live. Chicago, 1972. Dietary advice and regulations for members of the Nation of Islam. Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America. Chicago, 1962. Empirical case study of the Nation of Islam in Chicago.

Farrakhan, Louis. Seven Speeches. Chicago, 1974. The only collection of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s speeches when he was National Representative and head minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, ed. The Muslims of America. New York and London, 1991. Diverse collection of essays on individuals, organizations, and issues for Muslims living in the United States. Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. Boston, 196o. The best social history of the Nation of Islam available, particularly on its early phase.

Lincoln, C. Eric. “The American Muslim Mission in the Context of Social History.” In The Muslim Community in North America, edited by Earle H. Waugh et al. Edmonton, Alberta, 1983. Based on interviews with Warith Deen Muhammad; deals with the emergence of the American Muslim Mission.

Malcolm X. Malcolm X Speaks. Edited by George Breitman. New York, 1965. The best collection of speeches by Malcolm X. Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, 1965. Classic autobiography and the best source for Malcolm’s views. Some of the best descriptions of religious conversion. Mamiya, Lawrence H. “From Black Muslim to Bilalian: The Evolution of a Movement. “,journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21.2 (June 1982): 138-152. First scholarly analysis of the schism in the Nation of Islam movement, relating the socioeconomic position of its followers to the religious ideology of Louis Farrakhan and Warith Deen Muhammad.

Mamiya, Lawrence H. “Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Final Call: Schism in the Muslim Movement.” In The Muslim Community in North America, edited by Earle H. Waugh et al. Edmonton, Alberta, 1983. Contains the first interview with Minister Farrakhan after he formed his own group.

Mamiya, Lawrence H., and C. Eric Lincoln. “Black Militant and Separatist Movements.” In Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, edited by Charles Lippy and Peter W. Williams, vol. 2, PP- 755-771. New York, 1988. Overview of groups like Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple, Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, and Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.

Marsh, Clifton. From Black Muslims to Muslims. Metuchen, N. J., and London, 1984. Deals with Warith Deen Muhammad’s attempt to move the Nation of Islam to Islamic orthodoxy, but completely misses the countermovement of Minister Louis Farrakhan. Muhammad, Warith Deen. As the Light Shineth from the East. Chicago, 1980. Warith Deen Muhammad’s criticisms of his father Elijah Muhammad and the reasons for his new path to orthodox Islam.

Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. Barrytown, N.Y., 1991. The only biography of Malcolm X, based on numerous interviews. Provides a corrective to aspects of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, but is neither as well written nor engaging.

Waugh, Earle H., et al., eds. The Muslim Community in North America. Edmonton, Alberta, 1983. Collection of essays on the Islamic experience in the United States and Canada.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/nation-of-islam/

  • writerPosted On: June 11, 2017
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