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
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 century.’1
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’.2
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
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 1934.3
The major exception of this lack of outreach, according to E. S. Gausted,
was ‘the special case of the Black Muslims.’4
African-American Status in the Early Twentieth Century
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.5
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.’6
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.7 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.8
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.’9
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.10
These stereotypes reinforced the prevailing
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.11
The Klan-sponsored reign of terror included riots, intimidation, and lynchings.12
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.13
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.14
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.’16
He also started a newspaper, The Negro World, that featured Black authors
and articles about the achievement of Black men and women.17
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 Temple.
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
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 1929.19
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.20
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.’21
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’.22
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’an. 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.23
Other sources for his doctrine included Freemasonry and Jehovah’s Witnesses.24
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 organisation.
Gradually Fard’s position changed.
He began as a teacher but came to be known as the Mahdi,
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.’25
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 substantiated.
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 Bible.
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 that
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.26
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.27
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 African-American community.28
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.29
He established a para-military corps, the Fruit of Islam to carry out his
instructions and to provide discipline for the community.30
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 Islam.31
Under the leadership of Muhammad,
the Nation of Islam prospered. By 1960, membership in the organisation
had reached eighty thousand.32
By 1975, the year Muhammad died, seventy temples had been established with
over one hundred thousand members.33
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.34
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.35
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
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
Joseph Gudel and Larry Duckworth described
Malcolm as ‘the St. Paul of this movement.’36
In 1959, he founded Muhammad Speaks, a newspaper that spread the Nation’s
message, achieving a circulation of over five hundred thousand.37
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 Malcolm wrote:
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
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.39
Six days later, while delivering a speech, Malcolm X was assassinated by
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.40
They only man arrested at the scene of the crime, Talmadge Hayer, denied
any link with the Nation of Islam.41
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.42
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.43
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 successor.’44
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
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.45
He also claimed that only a few ministers left the organisation with minimal
impact to the overall membeship.46
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 music.
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 non-Whites.47
Following Malcolm’s defection from the
Nation, Farrakhan was selected to replace spokesman for Elijah Muhammad.48
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
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.49
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 1990.50
Because of his economic plan and his
drug rehabilitation programmes, Farrakhan’s followers have ‘quietly established
themselves as welcome presence in Black neighbourhoods.’51
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 Muhammad.
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.