Elijah Muhammad was the most important early leader of the Nation of Islam, leading the organization for over forty years. Muhammad taught that blacks were the original human race and that whites were evil beings who had conspired to oppress blacks out of jealousy.
The division between the races was a distinction between good and evil, and although whites might currently seem to hold the advantage, the day was soon coming when blacks would, with their superior intelligence and ingenuity, destroy their white oppressors.
His mixture of religious zeal, black militantism, and use of conspiracy theories to offer compelling explanations for the plight of disadvantaged blacks played a key role in the growth of the Nation of Islam as an important social movement. He was also central to the development of later influential individuals such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.
Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah Poole in 1897. As he was the son of a sharecropper, Muhammad’s early life was dominated by poverty. In 1923, he moved to Detroit and began working at an automobile factory. In 1930 Muhammad came into contact with Wallace Fard.
Fard claimed to be from the “East” (although his actual personal history is obscure and filled with conflicting accounts of his early life). Preaching a mixture of Islam and black separatism, Fard found a large number of converts among the African American community in Depression-era Detroit.
Muhammad attended one of Fard’s meetings and became a convert to the Black Muslim movement. Muhammad soon became a trusted deputy of Fard, and it was from Fard that Muhammad received his Muslim name. When Fard suddenly disappeared from Detroit in 1934, Muhammad assumed leadership of the Black Muslim movement.
He moved the headquarters of the organization to Chicago and made several spiritual and practical changes in the organization. Muhammad preached that Fard had been an incarnation of Allah, and claimed himself to be Allah’s messenger. He also freely mixed ideas of traditional Islam with those of black nationalism, particularly as outlined by Marcus Garvey.
During World War II, Muhammad was sent to prison for avoiding the draft. He also openly expressed sympathies toward the Japanese, whom he felt were allies in the fight to end white power in the United States. After his release from prison in 1946, Muhammad continued to build the Nation of Islam’s reach and membership. Chief among his aides in this task was Malcolm X, who became second only to Muhammad himself in his influence in the movement.
After returning from his trip to Mecca in 1964, however, Malcolm X broke from the Nation of Islam, asserting, among other things, that Muhammad had fathered several illegitimate children with young staff members of the Nation of Islam. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and the conviction of three Black Muslims for the crime cast a shadow of suspicion over Muhammad, along with his new chief aide, Louis Farrakhan.
Throughout his life, Muhammad preached strict separation of the races and couched these beliefs in a cosmology that drew on imagery ranging from the Old Testament to science fiction. He taught that whites were a race who had been bred by an evil scientist 6,000 years ago. Whites were without the intellectual, physical, or moral qualities that were seen in blacks.
He often spoke in apocalyptic terms about a future battle in the sky in which the “Mother Plane,” a gigantic spaceship built and manned by blacks of superhuman intelligence, would effortlessly destroy the supposed power of the white man. After this battle, a new world would be created according to Allah’s will in which blacks will hold dominion.
Muhammad died in February 1975. His son became the new leader of the Nation of Islam, but he discarded the name as well as some of his father’s beliefs. After he formed the Muslim American Community, several members of the Black Muslim movement left to follow Farrakhan’s reestablished Nation of Islam, a group devoted to reinvigorating the message of Muhammad.