Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The exact origin of the Nation of Islam remains shrouded in mystery, as does the character of the sect's founder. Wallace D. Fard, possibly an individual of Middle Eastern extraction, began to proselytize in the ghetto of Detroit around 1930. His followers regarded him as the messiah who had come to lead blacks into the millennium that was to follow the Battle of Armageddon. After Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1933, his mantle fell to Elijah Poole, who renamed himself Elijah Muhammad (Clegg 1997). Muhammad's teaching that Fard had actually been Allah provoked a split in the sect, prompting Elijah and his faction to relocate their headquarters to Chicago.

Like other messianic-nationalist sects, the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad asserted that black people were intentionally kept ignorant of their true origins, history, and religion. Elijah asserted that whereas God had created blacks as the first human beings, an evil black scientist named Yakub created the white race 6,000 years later. He also maintained that Christianity is a "slave religion" that keeps blacks in social and spiritual bondage. Until the millennium, blacks were counseled to abide by puritanical behavioral codes that

included a ban on the consumption of pork, tobacco, coffee, and alcohol. The Muslims were to maintain patriarchal households and traditional gender roles. The Nation of Islam also stressed economic independence from white people as well as the creation of a separate nation for blacks consisting of several southern states.

The Black Power movement of the 1960s prompted many young poor blacks, including many prisoners, to join the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, the charismatic minister of the Harlem temple, developed a national and ultimately international reputation as a fiery orator and uncompromising black leader. Despite the strident image of the Nation of Islam, it had made some significant accommodations with the larger society, including greater acceptance of integrationist leaders in the African American community and decreasing emphasis on racial separatism. While Malcolm X played a role in these changes, he found himself increasingly at odds with Elijah Muhammad in the former's critique of the larger society. Malcolm publicly criticized U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia and the federal government's lack of commitment toward solving domestic problems among African Americans. He also took offense at Elijah's extramarital involvements. In January 1964, Elijah removed Malcolm from his position as the minister of Temple 7 in Harlem for his remark that the John F. Kennedy's assassination was a "case of chickens coming home to roost."

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm announced his departure from the Nation of Islam and his plans to establish his own organization called the Muslim Mosque Inc., with an associated political body, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Although his organization did not admit whites, Malcolm expressed a willingness to work with whites against racism and for social justice. On February 21, 1965, an assassin's bullet ended Malcolm's growing influence in the African American community. Three former members of the Nation of Islam were imprisoned for the death of Malcolm X, although controversy continues as to whether the FBI played a part in his assassination.

Following the death of Elijah Muhammad in February 1975, Wallace D. Muhammad, one of his sons, assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam and transformed it into a relatively orthodox Islamic sect now known as the American Muslim Mission. In 1978, Louis Farrakhan created a reorganized Nation of Islam that regards W. D. Fard as Allah incarnate, blacks as the original human beings, and whites as devils (Gardell 1996). As the principal organizer of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., Farrakhan has emerged as the most provocative and perhaps influential leader in the African American community.

Hans A. Baer


C. A. Clegg III, The Life of Elijah Muhammad (New York: St. Martin's, 1997)

E. U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962)

M. Gardell, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996)

M. F. Lee, The Nation of Islam (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1988)

C. E. Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America , 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994)

C. E. Marsh, From Black Muslim to Muslim (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1984).

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