Nation of Islam

Nation of Islam
Nation of Islam

Mixing elements of traditional Islamic belief with black nationalism, the Nation of Islam has played an important and often controversial role in racial politics in the United States since its founding in 1930.

A number of important African American leaders have emerged from its ranks, including Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan. A central tenet of the Nation of Islam is that most of the social and economic problems faced by blacks are the result of a long-term conspiracy among whites to disempower them.

Several members of the Nation of Islam have singled out Jews as playing a particularly important role in this white conspiracy. While praised for its focus on self-sufficiency and pride among African Americans, the Nation of Islam has been criticized for its calls for racial separation as well as its often racist and antisemitic teachings.

Two groups that preceded the Nation of Islam and laid much of its religious and political groundwork were the Moorish Science Temple and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The Moorish Science Temple was founded in 1913 by Drew Ali (born Timothy Drew).

Drew believed that Islam was the original religion of the Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves, and he preached that a return to Islam was a necessary step for true freedom for African Americans. The Universal Negro Improvement Association was founded by Marcus Garvey, who advocated black separatism and self-sufficiency.

The Nation of Islam itself is usually said to have begun in 1930 when Wali Farad Muhammad (born Wallace Fard) founded the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in Detroit, Michigan. Farad claimed to be an orthodox Muslim born in Mecca, but the facts of his early life are obscure and still debated. Fard preached a mixture of Islam, black separatism, and his own beliefs.

At the core of his philosophy was the assertion that blacks needed to free themselves from the tyranny of white oppression by rejecting Christianity in favor of Islam (or, more specifically, Fard’s version of Islam). Only then would blacks regain their rightful place as the most advanced people on earth.

He also preached that black people were the original race of human beings and had lived on earth for 66 trillion years. White people were the result of an experiment done 6,000 years ago by an evil scientist named Yakub, and lacked the physical, spiritual, and intellectual abilities of blacks.

After Farad suddenly disappeared from Detroit in 1934, leadership of the group he founded was passed to his trusted associate, Elijah Muhammad. It was Muhammad who built the Nation of Islam from a small circle of believers to a national, and even international, force. Muhammad founded a temple in Chicago, and after World War II, membership climbed steadily.

Like Farad before him, Muhammad preached that white people were “blue-eyed devils” who had systematically oppressed blacks. He augmented Farad’s teachings with an increased focus on practical means to improve the lot of African Americans and allow them to be self-sufficient. Under Muhammad’s leadership, the Nation of Islam owned several businesses and had significant real estate holdings.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the public image of the Nation of Islam grew through the work of charismatic members, most notably Malcolm X. In 1964, however, Malcolm X broke away from the Nation of Islam and its teachings of strict racial separation.

The break was caused by his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he came into contact with Muslims of many different ethnicities, and his discovery that Elijah Muhammad had fathered several illegitimate children with women staff members of the Nation of Islam.

In 1965, Louis Farrakhan replaced Malcolm X as minister of the Nation of Islam temple in Harlem. Farrakhan also publicly denounced Malcolm X, saying he was “worthy of death.” Later that same year, Malcolm X was assassinated.

Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the murder, and it was widely assumed that the assassination was approved of by the leadership of the Nation of Islam. Rumors about Farrakhan’s possible knowledge of or involvement in the killing persisted for decades.

In 1975, Elijah Muhammad died, and leadership of the Nation of Islam passed to his son, Warith Muhammad. The younger Muhammad moved the organization away from many of his father’s teachings, particularly his more strident views on race, and toward a more traditional version of Sunni Islam.

He also changed the name of the organization to the World Community of Al-Islam in the West. Dissatisfied with the new direction of the movement, Farrakhan reconstituted the Nation of Islam under its original name, returning focus to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.

Under Farrakhan’s leadership, the Nation of Islam has been both reviled and praised. The publication by the Nation of Islam of The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews: Volume One, in 1991, caused a great deal of controversy for its allegations that Jews had been at the center of the slave trade from its beginnings through the nineteenth century.

Coupled with antisemitic remarks made by Farrakhan and a number of other highranking Nation members, the book renewed charges that the Nation of Islam is an inherently racist organization devoted to divisiveness and conspiracy-mongering. Farrakhan’s organization of the Million Man March in 1995, however, brought praise from many for its positive message to African American men.