America has been the birthplace of many unusual religious movements over the past 2½ centuries. The main reason, of course, is that the Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion. So, with no legal boundaries of belief drawn, new religious organizations and doctrines spring up all the time. One of the most peculiar uniquely American faith groups to emerge in the 20th century was the Nation of Islam (NOI). Born out of the anger of centuries of racial prejudice, that movement, since the 1930s, has attracted many African-Americans to its ranks. A succession of charismatic leaders through the years enticed many alienated African-Americans to embrace an ideology that turned American racism on its head. In this two-part series we will examine the history, personalities, and beliefs of the NOI. You may find it is not really what you think it is. It is not Islam at all!
The story of the NOI began way back in 1913 with a pseudo-Muslim group in Newark, New Jersey, called the Moorish Science Temple of America. It was founded by a man named Timothy Drew (1886-1929), who changed his name to Noble Drew Ali and wrote his own version of the Holy Koran. One of Ali’s followers was a mysterious silk salesman named Wallace D. Fard (AKA: Wallace Fard Muhammad). Fard’s actual name and ethnicity has long been a point of mystery. He almost certainly was not black, but was probably Arab or Pakistani. The year after Ali died, Fard went to Detroit, Michigan and founded his own pseudo-Muslim sect, the Nation of Israel, in that city.
One of Fard’s top lieutenants was an auto worker named Elijah Muhammad. His name was originally Elijah Poole (born 1898) and he was the son of a part-time preacher and sharecropper from Sandersville, Georgia. Fard sent him to Chicago in about 1933 to begin a NOI center there. In June, 1934, however, something very strange occurred, Wallace D. Fard simply disappeared, never to be seen again. To this day no one really knows what became of Fard. Some have speculated that he was killed, either by his enemies in the NOI or the Detroit police, or that he just ran away to establish a new false identity. In any case, he was never heard from again (except for one alleged exception – see below).
As a result, the NOI mantle of leadership shifted to Elijah Muhammad. He declared himself to be a prophet. He said Fard was actually the incarnation of Allah (God) and the long awaited “Mahdi” or “Messiah” of Islam. Muhammad said that Fard would soon return after a great race war (Armageddon) to lead the NOI to victory over the devil white race. NOI mythology stated that the white race was the creation of an evil scientist named Yacub (more about this in Part 2). Muhammad then claimed that he was the true messenger of God (that is, of Fard) and that all black people should follow him for liberation from white oppression. He also advocated that black Americans should establish their own independent republic in the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. (As we will see in Part 2, the NOI’s theology then and now bares little resemblance to orthodox Islam).
In 1947 a young prison inmate named Malcolm Little joined the movement. He changed his name to Malcolm X and, upon his release in 1952, became the NOI’s best known spokesman and the head of the New York Temple. Elijah Muhammad encouraged his followers to drop their European surnames, which he said were given by their ancestor’s slave masters. Like Malcolm, they were told to replace them either with Arabic Muslim names or simply X, denoting that they did not know their real names. Elijah also published a newspaper called Muhammad Speaks. In 1964 the NOI made its most famous convert. Cassius Clay (b. 1942) was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World when he joined the NOI and changed his name to Muhammad Ali (d. 2016).
In the early 1960s, disagreements crept into the movement. This was partially because Malcolm X, after going on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, decided to break with Elijah Muhammad over his racist teachings. He also grew disillusioned when Elijah’s numerous sexual liaisons with NOI women were publicly exposed. Malcolm then embraced orthodox Islam and became a critic of the NOI movement. He changed his name again to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City by three men associated with the NOI. Though it was never proven, some historians believe Elijah Muhammad or one of his top officials, Louis Farrakhan, may have ordered the hit.
The movement continued to grow into the 1970s. On February 25, 1975, Elijah Muhammad died of heart failure. He was followed as leader by his seventh child, Wallace (Warith) Deen Muhammad (1933-2008). This was somewhat surprising in that most observers had assumed Louis Farrakhan would take over because Warith had significantly different doctrinal beliefs from his father (especially the point that W. D. Fard was God). At first Farrakhan assented to Warith’s leadership. However, Warith had been a close friend with Malcolm X and had adopted many of the beliefs of orthodox Islam.
Gradually Warith Deen Muhammad began a drastic reform of the NOI, even changing its name to the World Community of Islam in the West. In essence, Warith renounced most of the bizarre teachings of his father and embraced orthodox Sunni Islam. Later, he changed the name or the organization again to the American Muslim Mission. Eventually, Warith officially disbanded the organization, and its various centers became self-governing Sunni Muslim mosques. (Note: Muhammad Ali followed Warith’s reform leadership.)
In the early 1990s, it was reported that Warith was claiming he had personally encountered the long-missing and aged Wallace D. Fard who apologized for his earlier racist and unorthodox Islamic teachings. He supposedly told Warith he fully supported the changes Warith had made in the movement he had founded. That claim has never actually been verified.
This drastic reformation of the NOI led to a total split with Louis Farrakhan in 1978. Farrakhan was born Louis Eugene Wolcott in New York City, in 1933. At one time he was a singer going by the name Calypso Gene. Farrakhan decided that he would not continue with Warith and so reorganized the NOI with the old doctrines that were present during Elijah Muhammad’s reign. Under Farrakhan’s leadership, the movement grew and became a major force in urban society. He started a newspaper titled The Final Call, which he required male members to peddle on the streets. He also retained the racist and anti-Semitic mindset of Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan’s leadership reached its pinnacle on October 16, 1995 when he hosted the Washington DC Million Man March (MMM). With the entire national media broadcasting live, thousands of African-American men gathered on the Washington Mall to hear various speakers. The keynote address was given by Farrakhan himself whose speech was, to say the least, incoherent. He talked about the height of the Washington Monument and other bizarre numerological calculations that he said were prophetic of the coming changes in America.
In the two decades since the MMM, Farrakhan’s public profile has decreased, possibly because of the actions of mainline African-American leaders and former President Obama to distance themselves from his extremist ideology. In Part 2 we will examine and analyze the theology and ideology of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
© 2018 Tal Davis