The Nation of Islam is an American
synthesis of traditional Islam, urban Christianity, and Black Nationalism. The
organisation was founded in 1933 by W. D. Fard in Detroit, Michigan and was
directed by Elijah Muhammad until his death in 1975.
Following the death of Elijah Muhammad,
his son, W. Deen Mohammed, took over the organisation and over the next decade
gradually disbanded it. He led the majority of his followers into traditional
Islam. Later, several groups were reorganised around the teachings of the
original Nation of Islam. The largest of these groups is currently under the
leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Membership figures for the Nation of
Islam are difficult to determine – estimates vary between several hundred
thousand to one and a half million. The influence of the organisation far
exceeds its actual membership.
The membership periodically surfaces in
the news through the actions of its outspoken leader, Louis Farrakhan, and the
conversion of well-known African-Americans like Mike Tyson (reminiscent of the
conversion of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in the 1960s) and former director of the
National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Benjamin Chavis,
now Benjamin Chavis Muhammad. Aside from these sensational reports, however, the
history of the movement is rarely reported.
No movement, religious or otherwise,
develops in a vacuum. The Nation of Islam is no exception. The purpose of this
article will be to examine four of the most significant foundations of the
organisation: Islam in America prior to 1934, the role and status of
African-Americans in early twentieth century America, Marcus Garvey’s Universal
Negro Improvement Association, and Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple.
Islam in America Prior to 1934
No reliable record of the first Muslim
immigrant to enter the United States has been found. Strong evidence does exist,
however, that Islam was the religion of many of the Africans who entered the
country through the slave trade. Akbar Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad,
reported ‘a continuous flow of African Muslim captives well into the nineteenth
In the middle of the nineteenth century,
Muslims began to immigrate voluntarily to the United States, especially from
Lebanon. Faced with the difficulties of adapting to the American lifestyle,
however, immigrant Muslims did not begin to share their faith actively until the
middle of the twentieth century. The first American known to convert to Islam,
according to Akbar Muhammad, ‘seems to have been a rather obscure European
American, the Reverend Norman, a Methodist missionary in Turkey who embraced
Islam in the 1879s’.
Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, the second recorded American convert also
accepted Islam in the late nineteenth century. Webb, an American diplomat
working in the Philippines corresponded regularly with a diplomat from India who
eventually led him to accept the Islamic faith. After resigning his post with
the American government, he returned to the United States and founded a
magazine, The Moslem World, and the American Islamic Propaganda Movement.
Although Islam is a missionary religion
and expanded rapidly in other areas, outreach in the United States was extremely
limited prior to World War II. In fact, the first mosque was not built in
America until 1934.
The major exception of this lack of outreach, according to E. S. Gausted, was
‘the special case of the Black Muslims.’
African-American Status in the Early
Edgar Toppin summarised the life of the
average African-American at the end of the nineteenth century:
American blacks were a rejected and
despised people. They were almost completely isolated from the mainstream of
American Life. Jim Crow laws, lynching, denial voting rights, and other forms of
racism pointed to the failure of American whites to extend to all Americans the
freedoms guaranteed under the constitution.
The beginning of the twentieth century did not offer much
hope for progress. African-Americans were faced with unemployment and
underemployment, unfavourable treatment from the entertainment and news media
and physical violence.
Following the American Civil War, many African-Americans
began to leave the South in search of job opportunities. As they attempted to
enter the work force they discovered that racism, lack of experience and lack of
education kept them from high paying jobs. Hopes were destroyed as they
discovered they ‘were confined to jobs as porters, maids, and errand boys.’
During the First World War, hopes for equality were raised
in the African-American community. When Americans went to Europe to fight for
freedom and democracy, Black-run newspapers began to promise positive race
relations and equal opportunity in the United States.
However, with the return of White soldiers, African-Americans found jobs even
more scarce. The Depression in the thirties caused conditions to worsen. In
1932, approximately thirty percent of the White work force was unemployed; for
African-Americans the figure was sixty percent.
As African-Americans moved into the northern United
States, the media often exploited racist attitudes and fears. Newspapers carried
false accounts of crimes committed by African-Americans. Forrest Wood wrote,
‘Exaggerated and sometimes fabricated descriptions of Negro violence were
frequent in the Democratic press.’
The entertainment industry also damaged the image of
African-Americans. Minstrel shows travelled in the North and West where many
people had no personal knowledge of African-Americans. According to Toppin:
In the singing, dancing and joke telling, blacks were
shown as lazy, stupid, chicken-stealing, razor carrying people ... These shows
convinced many Americans that blacks were a comical, inferior people who were
unfit for first class citizenship.
These stereotypes reinforced the prevailing racism.
As the economy continued to decline, some Whites began to
look for a scapegoat. The Ku Klux Klan, which had declined after Reconstruction,
was reorganised during World War I. National membership exceeded five million.
The Klan-sponsored reign of terror included riots, intimidation, and lynchings.
The hardships confronting the African-American community led to the rise of the
Black Nationalist movements in general and the Universal Negro Improvement
Association in particular.
Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement
Although his contributions to American and global society
are only now beginning to be recognised, Marcus Garvey was one of the most
influential leaders of the African-American community in the early twentieth
century. Garvey was born in
Jamaica in 1887. As a young adult, he held jobs that took him through Latin
America, Europe and the United States. He was depressed by what he saw as the
plight of his race.
In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica and established the
Universal Negro Improvement Association. The international headquarters were
moved to Harlem, New York in 1919. That same year the organisation claimed a
membership of two million.
Garvey’s purpose was to demonstrate to all men and women of African descent
their essential oneness in the struggle for survival in a hostile White
Garvey’s programme was centred around building self-esteem
and a sense of empowerment. He wanted African-Americans to be proud of their
heritage and to be independent of White society. He encouraged parents to give
their children Black dolls and told his followers to worship a black Jesus
within the African Orthodox Church.
Garvey did not think that Jesus or the angels were Black
or White, but said, ‘if they are going to make the angels beautiful white
peaches from Georgia, we are going to make them beautiful black peaches from
Africa.’ He also started a
newspaper, The Negro World, that featured Black authors and articles about the
achievement of Black men and women.
In order to free his followers from economic dependence on
Whites, Garvey launched the Black Star Line. The company was a shipping line
that Garvey hoped would be larger than any other Black-owned enterprise.
Instead, the Line proved to be his downfall. Pictures of a ship that the Line
had not yet purchased were used in flyers sent to shareholders. Although no
evidence was produced that indicated Garvey was intentionally dishonest, he was
convicted of mail fraud, and on 10 December 1927 he was deported.
Following his deportation, Garvey went to Europe. He
continued to promote his ideas but never regained the popular support he lost in
America. He died in London on 10 June 1940.
Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple
One of the people influenced by Marcus Garvey’s attempts
to promote the rights of African-Americans was Timothy Drew. Born in North
Carolina on 8 January 1886, Drew converted to Islam during a visit to Saudi
Arabia and changed his name to Noble Drew Ali. In 1913 he started the Moorish
Science Temple, a Black Nationalist organisation and an Islamic sect. After
Garvey was deported in 1927, many of his followers joined the Moorish Science
Ali taught that African-Americans were actually Asiatic,
or ‘Moors’, who would never be free until they acknowledged their true identity.
He also taught that the Moors were superior to the White race, which was doomed.
Jesus, according to Temple teaching, ‘as a black man who tried to redeem the
Black Moabites, only to be executed by the white Romans.’
As the Temple gained popularity some of the leaders saw an
opportunity to profit financially. Against Ali’s orders, potions, charms and
literature were sold. In March 1929, while Ali was out of town, Shayk Claude
Greene, one of the leaders who sponsored the sales, was killed. Ali was arrested
for the murder and, while in police custody awaiting trial, died to mysterious
causes on 20 July 1929.
In the early 1930s a mysterious figure. W.D. Fard, was
able to take these foundations, and give birth to the Nation of Islam. We will
now look at his role and that of four men in contributing to the growth and
development of the Nation of Islam: Elijah Muhammad, the prophet of the Nation;
Malcolm X, the chief spokesman from the early 1950s until 1964; W.D. Mohommad,
who disbanded the original Nation of Islam, and Louis Farrakhan who recreated
the Nation of Islam.
Contributions of Wallace Fard
With Marcus Garvey in Europe and Noble Drew Ali dead,
there was a vacuum in the leadership of the Black Nationalist movement. Among
those who attempted to fill that vacuum was Wallace Fard.
The details of Fard’s life remain a mystery; he appeared in Detroit in 1930
claiming to be the reincarnation of Noble Drew Ali.
Many theories have been advanced to explain Fard’s
background. C. Eric Lincoln has catalogued several of them:
One such legend is that Fard was a Jamaican Negro whose
father was a Syrian Arab. Another describes him as a Palestinian Arab. Some of
his followers believed him to be the son of wealthy parents of the tribe of
Koreish – the tribe of Muhammad … Others says that he was educated at a London
university in preparation for a diplomatic career … Fard announced himself to
the Detroit police as ‘the Supreme ruler of the Universe’… At the other extreme,
a Chicago newspaper refers to Fard as ‘a Turkish-born agent [who] worked for
Hitler in World Ward II.’
The final answer to the question of Fard’s background has
yet to be documented.
After Fard arrived in Detroit he began selling silk
clothing and artifacts to African-Americans. He claimed that the items were
traditional in Africa and encouraged his customers to adopt the customs of their
homelands. Once he was welcome in a home, he would begin to tell his customers
stories of their national origin. He used the Bible to instruct people in Islam,
which he claimed was ‘the true religion of the Black Men of Asia and Africa’.
Fard’s teachings differed significantly from those of
classical Islam. Perhaps the biggest difference was in his teachings on race.
Islam promotes brotherhood between the races; Fard, however, taught that the
White race was the devil.
Few of Fard’s doctrines originated in the Qur’ān. He was
heavily influenced by the teachings of Marcus Garvey and Noble Drew Ali.
Consequently, many of his early converts came from the Universal Negro
Improvement Association and the Moorish Science Temple.
Other sources for his doctrine included Freemasonry and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The houses where Fard taught were too small to hold those
who were attracted by his teaching. In 1931 he rented a hall and the first
Temple of Islam was organised. By 1933 Fard had attracted eight thousand
followers from the Detroit area, and the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the
wilderness of North America was launched.
Fard taught that the writings of the White race were
symbolic and he alone was capable of interpreting them properly. He prepared two
primers that employed a symbolic style that required his interpretation. The
first, The Secret Ritual of the Nation of Islam, was passed on orally and has
never been written down. The second, Teaching for the Lost-Found Nation of Islam
in a Mathematical Way, was only available to registered members of the
Gradually Fard’s position changed. He began as a teacher
but came to be known as the Mahdī, the expected saviour of the Shi’ites; later
he became known as the Prophet, the Son of Man, and finally Allah, or God in
human form. In order to cultivate the image of divinity, Fard would perform
magic tricks and interpret them symbolically. Marsh recorded that ‘once, members
placed strands of their hair in a pile and Fard took a strand of hair from his
head and lifted all of them up.’
This experience was interpreted to mean that if Fard were lifted up he would
draw all men to himself.
Elijah Muhammad was the first to recognise Fard as Allah.
Fard rewarded Muhammad for his insight by appointing him Chief Minister of
Islam. Not long after Muhammad’s promotion, Fard disappeared as mysteriously as
he had appeared. Four basic theories were advanced: Fard returned to Makkah;
Fard was murdered by the police; Fard was murdered by leaders jealous of
Muhammad; or Fard was murdered by Muhammad. None of these theories has been
Contributions of Elijah Muhammad
Elijah Poole was born in Bold Springs, Georgia, on 7
October 1897. His father was a Baptist minister who supported himself by working
on farms and in sawmills. Forced to quit schools after the fourth grade, Elijah
Poole would come home after work and study his sister’s books and the family
One day, while walking home through the woods, Poole saw a
lynch mob beat and hang a member of the church his father pastored. Halasa noted
This gruesome scene would continue to haunt Elijah for
many years. Instead of fading from his memory, the nightmarish incident would
serve as a vivid reminder to him of the brutal treatment that blacks, especially
those in the South, were known to suffer.
By 1923, Poole had married and started a family. Feeling
that he could not support his family in the south, he moved to Detroit in search
of work. While living in Detroit, he joined the Universal Negro Improvement
Association and eventually became a leader in the movement. He was disturbed
when Garvey was deported.
In 1930, Poole met Wallace Fard; the next year he joined
the Nation of Islam. Fard gave Poole his ‘original’ name and thereafter Elijah
Poole was known as Elijah Muhammad. Lincoln noted that Fard would replace the
‘slave name’ given to members by their White owners with their original Islamic
name. When Elijah and two of his brothers requested names, they forgot to
mention their relationship and Fard named them Sharrief, Karriem, and Muhammad.
Fard soon selected Muhammad for a position of leadership
because of his insight into the scriptures. As the son of a Baptist Minister,
Muhammad had a special attraction for the biblically-oriented members of the
Following Fard’s disappearance, Muhammad moved to Chicago
and opened a second temple. He restructured the organisation into a tightly-knit
movement under his authority. He
established a para-military corps, the Fruit of Islam to carry out his
instructions and to provide discipline for the community.
Other contributions of Muhammad include the development of business enterprises,
a school system, and new temples across the country.
On 8 May 1942, Muhammad and two of his sons were arrested
for failing to register for the draft. While in prison, Muhammad taught classes
in English, History, Numerology, and the doctrines of the Nation of Islam. He
was released in 1946 and returned to Chicago. His experience in prison helped
him to establish prison chaplaincy as an ongoing ministry of the Nation of
Under the leadership of Muhammad, the Nation of Islam
prospered. By 1960, membership in the organisation had reached eighty thousand.
By 1975, the year Muhammad died, seventy temples had been established with over
one hundred thousand members.
Contribution of Malcolm X
Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19 May
1925. When Malcolm was four, his house burned down while White police and
firemen watched. In order, to escape persecution his family was forced to move
from Omaha to Lansing, Michigan.
Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, was born in the British
East Indies. Her father was a White man who had raped her mother. Earl Little,
Malcolm’s father, was a Baptist preacher and a follower of Marcus Garvey.
Four of Earl Little’s six brothers were killed by White
men. In 1931 he was murdered, probably by members of the Ku Klux Klan or the
Black Legionnaires, a White supremist organisation similar to the Ku Klux Klan.
In spite of the fact that Little had been beaten and his body cut into two by a
street car, the insurance company refused to pay the family’s claim, citing
suicide as the cause of death.
Left with eight children and no source of income, Louise
Little was forced to go on welfare. Malcolm recalled an important lesson learned
during that time:
I learned early that crying out in protest could
accomplish things. My older brothers and sister had started school, when
sometimes, they would come in and ask for a buttered biscuit or something, and
my mother, impatiently, would tell them no. But I would cry out and make a fuss
until I got what I wanted. I remember well how my mother asked me why I couldn’t
be a nice boy like Wilfred; but I would think to myself that Wilfred, for being
so nice and quiet, often stayed hungry.
In 1937 Mrs. Little was declared insane and placed in
state mental hospital; the children were sent to foster homes. Malcolm initially
lived with a Black family, but after being expelled from school he was moved to
a White family.
Malcolm, the only Black student in his eighth grade class,
became very popular and was elected class president. Although he excelled in his
studies and had hopes of becoming a lawyer, his teacher told him to be realistic
and prepare for a career as a carpenter. After that he lost interest in his
school work and began to withdraw from White society.
In 1941 he moved to Boston and eventually became a
hustler, a drug dealer and a pimp. He was arrested for armed robbery in 1946 and
sentenced to eight to ten years in the state penitentiary. White in prison he
heard of the Nation of Islam and was converted. He wrote to Elijah Muhammad
requesting membership in the Nation. Muhammad responded with words of
encouragement and a five dollar gift.
While in prison, Malcolm became an avid reader. Through
his reading he became convinced that the White race was responsible for all of
the problems faced by non-Whites. When he realised the inhumanity of the slave
trade, he rejected his ‘slave name’, Little, and took the name ‘X’, signifying
that he did not know his true identity.
Malcolm began debating with other prisoners and soon had a
following. When he was released from prison in 1952, he joined the Detroit
Temple and began working as a recruiter for the Nation. He was quickly promoted,
first to Assistant Minister, then Minister of the Temple. Eventually he became a
national spokesman for the movement.
Joseph Gudel and Larry Duckworth described Malcolm as ‘the
St. Paul of this movement.’ In
1959, he founded Muhammad Speaks, a newspaper that spread the Nation’s message,
achieving a circulation of over five hundred thousand.
He helped organise new temples in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Boston.
Serving as Muhammad’s messenger, he spoke to college groups, reporters and
African-American audiences across the country. A dynamic speaker, Malcolm never
failed to draw a large crowd.
In the early 1960s, Malcolm’s power was perceived as a
threat by other members of the organisation, including Muhammad. After he
confronted charges of adultery, plans were made to push Malcolm out of the
organisation. Two events furthered those efforts: Malcolm’s movement closer to
classical Islam and his response to President Kennedy’s assassination. He said
that the latter was a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ Malcolm
claimed that he meant only that a society that tolerated violence against one
segment (i.e. Blacks) must be prepared to receive violence in other segments
(i.e. Whites). His comment, in his opinion, was used as an excuse to force him
out of the Nation. Muhammad forbade him to speak in public. In his autobiography
The Muslims were given the impression that I had rebelled
against Mr. Muhammad. I now could anticipate step two: I would remain
‘suspended’ .. indefinitely. Step three would be either to provoke some Muslim
ignorant of the truth to take it upon himself to kill me as a ‘religious duty’,
or to ‘isolate’ me so that I would gradually disappear from the public scence.
His words proved prophetic:
Shortly after leaving the Nation of Islam (in early 1964)
Malcolm discovered that a leader of the Boston Temple had sent someone to kill
him. On 15 February 1965 Malcolm claimed that Muhammad had ordered the death of
any member of the Nation of Islam that joined Malcolm’s new organisation, the
Muslim Mosque Inc. Six days
later, while delivering a speech, Malcolm X was assassinated by three
Several theories have been advanced to explain the
assassination. Responsibility has been given to Elijah Muhammad, the CIA,
members of the Muslim Mosque Inc., or someone who knew Malcolm during his days
as a hustler in Harlem. They only
man arrested at the scene of the crime, Talmadge Hayer, denied any link with the
Nation of Islam.
In the brief period between his departure from the Nation
of Islam and his death, Malcolm X moved toward classical Islam. He took the
Hajj, changed his name to Malik al-Shahbaz, and began to teach the unity of the
races. He was a close friend of W. Deen Mohammed and had an influence on
Muhammed’s interpretation of Islam. Both Malcolm X and Muhammad agreed that the
only hope for the Nation of Islam was to move toward orthodoxy.
Contributions of W. Deen Mohammed
Born in October of 1933, Warith Deen Muhammed was the
seventh child of Elijah Muhammad. All of Muhammed’s elementary and secondary
education took place in the Nation of Islam’s school system. After graduating
from high school he spent four years studying classical Islam and Arabic.
Mohammed was ex-communicated from the Nation of Islam
because of his association with Malcolm X and because of his shift toward
orthodoxy. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, however, W. Deen Mohammed was
selected to head the Nation of Islam. This decision was based on a prophecy made
by Fard ‘who told Elijah that his seventh child would be a son and his eventual
Over the next ten years, the Nation of Islam experienced
drastic changes. Fard was stripped of his divinity and Elijah Muhammad was no
longer considered to be a prophet. The Yakub myths were rejected and Whites were
accepted as members. In 1976 the first female minister was named.
The name of the organisation was changed to the World
Community of al-Islam in the West and later to the American Muslim Mission. In
1978, Mohammed resigned as head of the organisation saying there is no
priesthood is Islam. In May 1985 he disbanded the organisation all together.
The changes instituted by Mohammed generally have been
accepted by the world Muslim community. Members of the mosques associated with
Mohammed are allowed to take the Hajj. Money for the construction of new mosques
has been provided from Islamic countries.
The response of members has been mixed. Mohammed estimated
membership in the group to be 1.5 million.
He also claimed that only a few ministers left the organisation with minimal
impact to the overall membeship.
Contribution of Louis Farrakhan
The most influential defector from the original Nation of
Islam is Louis Farrakhan, born Louis Eugene Walcott. During his youth in Boston,
Farrakhan was active in St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church and the high school track
team. He spent two years in a teacher’s college before choosing a career in
In 1955, Farrakhan was invited to attend a service led by
Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan abandoned his music career and dedicated his life to
the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X recalled the contributions of Farrakhan, then
known as ‘Louis X’.
Young Minister Louis X, previously a well-known and rising
popular singer called ‘the Charmer’, had written our Nation’s first popular
song, titled, ‘White Man’s Heaven is Black Man’s Hell.’ Minister Louis X had
also authored our first play, ‘Orgena’ (‘A Negro’ spelled backwards); its theme
was the all Black trial of a symbolic White man for his world crimes against
Following Malcolm’s defection from the Nation, Farrakhan
was selected to replace spokesman for Elijah Muhammad.
Although he publicly supported the changes adopted by W.
Deen Mohammad in the mid 1970s, Farrakhan disagreed with Mohammed’s shift away
from his father’s teachings. In 1977 Farrakhan was ex-communicated from the
World Community of al-Islam in the West. In 1978, he announced his plan to
rebuild the Nation of Islam according to Muhammad’s pattern.
Farrakhan succeeded in capturing national and
international attention. In 1984 he entered the media spotlight with his public
support of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. His rallies consistently drew
tens of thousands of African-Americans, many of them belonging to the middle
class. More recently he has gained attention for his relationship with Lybian
leader Mu’ammar Qaddafi, who offered to given the Nation a billion dollars.
Official membership in the Nation of Islam under Farrakhan
is only five to ten thousand according to the Encyclopaedia of American
Religions. Other estimates range
as high as two hundred thousand. But the influence of the organisation is
growing. In Los Angeles alone, more than a thousand young men joined the
organisation in 1990.
Because of his economic plan and his drug rehabilitation
programmes, Farrakhan’s followers have ‘quietly established themselves as
welcome presence in Black neighbourhoods.’
The Million Man March in 1995 demonstrated his ability to draw a crowd.
Currently, there are temples in a hundred and twenty cities, all under the
supervision of Farrakhan.
Contributions of Others
In addition to Farrakhan, two other groups have attempted
to reorganise the original Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad’s brother, John
Muhammad, broke with W. Deen Mohammed in 1978. Membership figures for his
organisation are unavailable and only one temple is associated with John
The Nation of Islam, the Caliph, also continues to follow
the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The organisation took its name from an Islamic
tradition that claims that a prophet is always followed by a caliph. Two mosques
are aligned with this movement, one in Baltimore and the other in Chicago.
Groups who follow in the spirit of black nationalism mixed
with Islamic theology also include Ansaaru Allah, under the direction of Imam
Isa and the Five Per Cent Nation.