John Cody Roedel
The Nation of Islam: The Chosen People
One of the largest movements of Muslims in America has been the Nation of Islam. When this name was mentioned, many Muslims used shy to away from associating with it. This is due to a lot of their actions since their foundation in 1930. Originally created by Wallace D. Fard in Detroit and rising in status by Elijah Muhammad in 1934, the organization’s goal was the advancement of the underprivileged African American in social status (Owens, A.1). Since then, their actions show them as more of a supremacy group than an Islamic sect. This is an organization that many Americans associate Muslims with, leading to a very large number of misconceptions. The biggest problem that arises with the Nation of Islam being an Islamic group is that they haven’t always practiced Islam to its fullest extent, making it difficult to be called a Nation of Islam.
In order to understand how this straying from Islam happened, it is important to look how it began. Founder of the Nation of Islam Wallace D. Fard made his living as a travelling salesman, selling silks from Africa; he also spread his beliefs of Black independence and segregation while he worked (Owen, A.1). One individual Fard met during this time was Elijah Poole, who was interested in Fard’s “Lost-Found Nation of Islam” (Owen, A.1). “Their mission was to have the black man love himself, lift himself up, and end ‘white world supremacy’” (Laremont, 38). This was in 1930, a time where African Americans were still struggling due to racism and lack of rights as well as being poor and unemployed from the Great Depression. Therefore, the idea of Africans being the chosen people of God (or Allah) was something positive to cling on to. It provided a path of hope. A truth Fard revealed to Elijah was that Yakub, an evil scientist of the tribe of Shabazz created the white race, and that all white individuals were evil (Austin, 57-58). This is the first time the Nation of Islam deviates from traditional Islamic beliefs on two accounts: Yakub and his synthesis of the original white people does not ever appear in the Qur’an and racism is forbidden (Laremont, 38). By using the story of Yakub of the lost Tribe of Shabazz (where all men originated from) creating all evil in the form of white men, Fard appealed to “science “ to persuade his audience (Allen, 10). Oddly enough, Fard was not even of African descent, for he was Arabian (and a light skinned Arabian at that!) (Austin, 57).
While Fard was the one who initially created the Nation of Islam, Elijah Poole is the one who stoked the flames. He changed his last name to Muhammad and became the ‘Messenger of Allah’ (Laremont, 39). When Fard disappeared in 1934 (an event surrounded in controversy), Elijah became the new leader of the Nation of Islam. Under Elijah, temples were set up across the nation, small businesses were created and acquired, and the plight for economic independence from whites continued to grow; this made the Nation of Islam the richest, solely black organization in America (Ogbar, 79). It targeted recruitment from prisons and poor African American communities in order to give those individuals a feeling of empowerment and loyalty (Laremont, 34). Elijah Muhammad spread the Nation’s beliefs that all of mankind originated from Africa and were all born under the Islamic God (Laremont, 35, 36). He made sure to emphasize that mankind originating from Africa meant that the message of the Nation of Islam was solely for those of African descent. Again, this is a complete misrepresentation of the teachings of the Qur’an and the Islamic faith. The Qur’an was written to be universal to all races in order for everyone to be enlightened.
One of the most well known proponents of the Nation of Islam was Malcolm X. He joined the Nation upon his release from prison in 1952 and rose through the ranks quickly (Claude, 56). He became one of Elijah Muhammad’s most trusted ministers and helped raise the Nation of Islam to the highest status it would achieve in the 1950s and 1960s, from 400 members to over 40,000 (Ogbar, 80. Allen, 11). One of his most prevalent beliefs, which differed from Elijah’s views, was that Allah would restore to black race to the prosperity that they deserved. (Laremont, 40). In Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the theme of God’s justice is always prevalent. Malcolm X had used the Bible story of the Hebrews’ liberation to explain why African Americans needed separation from whites (Laremont, 40). By doing this, he is actually violating the first pillar of Islam: he is giving credence that there is another God.
Continuing on the subject of race, Malcolm taught Elijah’s message about the Original People. The Original People were the Asiatic Black Nation who originally was what most people would say resembled Arabians; they went into the jungles of Africa, which led to their decline in civilization (Austin, 57). The Asiatic Black Nation included all races (except white people, who were created by Yakub as was stated previously) and they were all originally born as Muslims (Austin, 58). However, the Nation of Islam did not allow Middle Easterners or Asians into their temples (Austin, 62). Once again, not allowing an entire race of people to enter an Islamic temple when they are themselves Muslim is clearly an act of racism and such actions are not allowed by the teachings of the Qur’an.
Interestingly enough, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in 1964 due to its radical nature and began to practice something that is more recognizable, Sunni Islam (Allen, 14). One specific reason was due to the racial exclusion and discrimination Elijah demanded from the Nation (Laremont, 37). Shortly after his departure, he started the Muslim Mosque Incorporated and the Organization of Afro-Americn Unity (Allen, 14). Malcolm was not really recognized for his newfound religious practices; however, he still was a huge influence on the black pride movement, even after his death in 1965 (Ogbar, 80). The minister that took Malcolm X’s place was Louis Farrakhan, a huge supporter for Elijah Muhammad.
When Elijah Muhammad died ten years later in 1975, his son Wallace Muhammad assumed the role of Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam. (Owens, A.1) After renaming the organization several times (and eventually settling on American Muslim Mission), he set the organization on a new path; He disliked the racial segregation his father dreamed of. He set out to make his organization what appears to be a more orthodox version of Islam than the Nation of Islam was. This new mission only lasted a short while before minister Louis Farrakhan broke off from the American Muslim Mission and rebuilt the Nation of Islam as it was (Owens, A.1). Farrakhan was not the only one and other organizations formed by renegade American Muslim Missioners were the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, the United Nation of Islam, The Fiver Percenters, and a Nation of Islam founded under John Muhammad (Elijah Muhammad’s brother) (Allen, 3). Wallace Muhammad changed his name to Warith Deen Muhammad and is evangelical, essentially disappearing from the secular world after a period of time (Allen, 2)
Farrakhan was the only deserter who found success, which most likely was because he focused his beliefs to match the original Nation of Islam as best he could. There were 12 principles upon which he rebuilt the Nation around. Two of these principles are in direct violation of Islamic beliefs. “We believe that this is time in history for the separation of the so-called Negroes and the so-called white Americans” (Laremont, 44). Once again, the Qur’an forbids racism, so separation based upon race is forbidden (Laremont, 37). The second principle in violation is, “We believe that Allah appeared in the person of Master W. Fard Muhammad, July 1930; the long awaited ‘Messiah’ of the Christians and ‘Mahdi’ of the Muslims” (Laremont, 44). This is wrong for Muslims to believe for multiple reasons. First, there is only one Allah; claiming Fard is Allah is a huge deviation from orthodox Islam and the Qur’an. Secondly, it implies that Elijah Muhammad was then Fard’s/Allah’s last messenger. This violates Islamic beliefs because Muhammad is supposed to be the last messenger; this is stated within shahada, the first Pillar of Islam (which is then restated as part of salah, the second Pillar of Islam).
While the Nation of Islam was a Muslim group for the advancement of African Americans, it falls very far from orthodox Islam. As pointed out multiple times, the Nation of Islam was very selective in its membership for a very long time. They had specifically called for segregation from white Americans and then didn’t allow other races to join the organization. The Qur'an (49:13) says:
“Oh Mankind! We made you
From our thoughts into a couple and
We made you
Into Nations and Tribes so that you would know one another
But the most honoured among you
Will be those who have God and who are righteous
Because God knows all and is well informed.”
The Muslim Scholars conclude that this forbids racial discrimination (Laremont, 38). Another instance where the Nation of Islam falls far from orthodox Islam is in their goal. The ‘white world supremacy’ mentioned earlier begins with the myth of Yakub, which was also touched on earlier. It is entirely a myth since it does not appear in the Qur’an at all and it is heretical for its blatant racism that is forbidden in the Qur’an. The very core message of the Nation of Islam is therefore unjust and forbidden based upon the Qur’an, the staple and backbone of the entire Muslim faith.
The Nation of Islam has actually recognized that they aren’t fully Islamic in practice and have been trying to change this image, especially during the expansions by Malcolm X (Allen,12). One issue that they really focused on was adhering to the 5 Pillars of Islam. Members of importance in the Nation were becoming more educated as leaders and educated about Islam, including Elijah himself; Elijah specifically became more acquainted with the Qur’an (Allen, 12). In the 1950s, Elijah had instructed the Nation to pray 5 times a day and to read the Qur’an and then in 1959, Elijah completed the fifth Pillar of Islam by taking the hajj to Mecca (Austin, 59). Since the inception of the Nation of Islam, charity to the Nation of Islam was accepted (Clegg, 51). In 1970, the Nation began practicing sawm during the month of Ramadan (Austin, 59). However, they do not follow the Pillars of Islam as the rest of the Islamic world does or as Elijah had suggested. While recitation of the first Pillar is stated in daily prayers, it is still flawed due to their beliefs on Fard and Elijah. According to the second Pillar, prayer must be conducted five times per day. While Elijah encouraged five times a day, the Nation of Islam requires only three times per day (Laremont, 47). The Nation of Islam also doesn’t adhere to the lunar month of Ramadan and instead practice ‘December fast,’ which is not observed in any other form of Islam (Laremont, 47). While Elijah did complete the hajj for his lifetime, it is not a requirement of the Nation of Islam (Laremont, 47), rather unlike the rest of the Islamic world. Afterward, Elijah no longer believed that “the Arab material world as a fit example for black Americans” (Allen, 13).
However, in the Nation of Islam’s unorthodox and un-Islamic beliefs, they have had benefits for those who followed their practices. As with many other Muslim groups, drinking was seen as a sin. Elijah also declared dancing, smoking, and swearing as impermissible and had to be given up (Clegg, 51). Part of their goal was to improve the lifestyle of its members, which it effectively did. The Nation saw education as a weak point in skills for low-income African American Muslims and began teaching the basic subjects of schools (minus what was accepted as history) in the temples (Clegg, 51). Farrkhan even made a “non-harassment” agreement with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s in the South and even received praise from other white supremacist groups in the 1980s (Allen, 5-6).
In 1947, Elijah even pushed the Nation to provide job opportunities to African American Muslims through a grocery store, restaurant, and bakery that they had opened (Clegg, 50). By 1976, the Nation of Islam had reached a worth around $46 million, which sadly didn’t last long before the Nation of Islam was out of cash (Allen, 15). When unable to get money from Arab nations on terms both parties could agree to, Farrakhan eventually accepted contracts from the American government (Allen, 19). While this seems insignificant since the Nation of Islam is in America, the government was one of their main enemies. The United States government was controlled by the white men and was the very thing were seeking segregation from (one of their main beliefs, as previously discussed). This cooperation marked a large turning point in the way the Nation of Islam operated but also presented Farrakhan with the problem of not eliciting a negative response from old members while conforming to orthodox Islamic practices (Allen, 20). In the end, Farrakhan has been moving further from Fard’s messages for the Nation of Islam and has been working to make it into an economic empire (Allen, 20).
“A sizable number of Blacks, even those who never joined the Nation, nevertheless depended on the Nation to voice out loud what many of them could only afford amongst themselves” (Owens, A.1). While the methods of the Nation of Islam may be racist and heretical in the eyes of the rest of Islam as well as the United States, it is hard to argue that the end result has not been positive for African Americans since the 1930s. While they might deviate from Islam in many ways, the Nation of Islam is still a sect of Islam in its own eyes and has changed the face of the United States since its inception for the better in its advancement for minorities.
Allen, Ernest. “Religious Heterodoxy and Nationalist Tradition: The Continuing Evolution of the Nation of Islam.” The Black Scholar. 16.3-4 (1997): 2-34.
Austin, Algernon. "Rethinking race and the Nation of Islam, 1930-1975." Ethic and
Racial Studies 26.1 Jan. (2003): 52-69.
Clegg, Claude A. "Rebuilding the Nation: The life and work of Elijah Muhammad, 1946-1954." The Black Scholar 26.3-4 (1996): 49-59.
Laremont, Ricardo R. "Race, Islam, and Politics: Differing visions among Black
American Muslims." Journal of Islamic Studies 10.1 (1999): 33-49.
Ogbar, Jeffrey. “An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad.” The
Journal of Negro History 83.1 (1998): 79-81
Owens, Keith A. "BLACK RAGE, BLACK POWER; The Nation of Islam; Made In
Detroit; A local movement made a lasting national impact." Michigan Chronicle 22 Feb. 2006: A.1.