To understand and evaluate "black Islam" we must consider its historical roots and theology. In addition, we must also be cognizant of the social, psychological and spiritual needs which gave rise to it.
The years 1917-1930 were exceedingly trying for American blacks. During those years the Ku Klux Klan was in its heyday, beatings and lynchings of blacks were tragically common, race riots were proliferating and "Jim Crow" laws were widespread. The black servicemen who returned to America after World War I found that they frequently had been treated better in European countries than they were in their own home.
In the summer of 1930 a man identifying himself as Wallace Fard Muhammad appeared in Detroit. He proclaimed that
he had come from the holy city of Mecca, with a mission to teach blacks the truth about whites. He instructed blacks to prepare for the battle of Armageddon, which he interpreted to mean the final confrontation between blacks and whites.1
He rapidly gained a following and "established the first Temple of Islam during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when blacks were vulnerable to any philosophy that provided hope."2 The foundation of his theology was that "Allah is God, the white man is the devil and the so-called Negroes are the Asiatic Black people, the cream of the planet earth."3
Between 1930-33 Fard recruited 8,000 followers among Detroit blacks. The most important of the new members was Elijah Poole, an unemployed auto worker.
Poole, born on October 7, 1898, in Sandersville, Georgia, was one of a Baptist minister/sharecropper's thirteen children. He "learned only the bare rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic before he had to go to the fields to help his family earn a living."4 He worked in Sandersville and in Macon, Georgia, until 1923 when he, his wife, Clara, and their two children moved to Detroit. From 1923 to 1929 he worked for the Chevrolet Auto Plant in Detroit until the Great Depression caused his family to go on relief for two years.
Poole, given the name "Karriem" at his initiation into the group, rose rapidly in the organization and was renamed "Elijah Muhammad" by Fard. He was subsequently chosen by Fard to be the Chief Minister of his "Nation of Islam."
In about June of 1934 Fard "vanished as mysteriously as he had arrived."5 Elijah Muhammad, succeeding Fard as the leader, would rule and mold the Nation of Islam for the next 41 years. Before continuing with their history it is necessary at this point to understand just what Elijah Muhammad's doctrine was.
From the beginning Elijah Muhammad had a very simple explanation for Fard's disappearance: "We believe that Allah (God) appeared in the Person of Master W. Fard Muhammad, July, 1930 — the long awaited 'Messiah' of the Christians and the 'Mahdi' of the Muslims."6 His disappearance was due to the fact that he had ascended back into heaven and would return at Armageddon to proclaim the total victory of the black man over the white man. In addition, the sole "Messenger of Allah" was Elijah Muhammad himself: "He (Allah) has made me a door. If you get out, you will come by me, and if you reject me, you will not go. I have been given the keys to heaven."7
It needs to be noted that any resemblance between the theology of Elijah Muhammad and that of orthodox Islam is purely coincidental. Orthodox Islam has repeatedly denounced The Nation of Islam's theology for its denial of an afterlife, its deification of Wallace Fard, its racism and hatred, etc.8
The main reason for the phenomenal growth and success of Muhammad's group was not his theology per se, but his appeal to the hurt and despair of the black man. C. Eric Lincoln, in his classic work The Black Muslims in America, declared that many blacks readily accepted Elijah Muhammad's message because he had "given them a new sense of dignity, a conviction that they are more than the equals of the white man and are destined to rule the earth."9
Muhammad's approach to building the self-esteem of the black man was two-pronged. First, the blacks in this country need to become one — "love and unity of self and kind" is the key to their "salvation."10 But this could not be accomplished unless the white man let the blacks separate and have their own country.11
The second prong of Muhammad's appeal to the blacks consisted in highlighting the hate and racism they had suffered at the hands of the white man. The result of this was a hate begotten of hate. All of the black man's problems could be traced to one single enemy, the "blue-eyed white devil":
The entire creation of Allah (God) is of peace, not including the devils who are not the creation of Allah (God) but a race created by an enemy (Yakub) of Allah....These enemies of Allah (God) are known at the present as the white race or European race.12
The late Louis Lomax, one of the foremost black journalists in this country and the first black newsman to appear on television (in 1959), believed that
The Black Muslims13 have but one message: The white man is by nature evil, a snake who is incapable of doing right, a devil who is soon to be destroyed. Therefore, the black man, who is by nature divine and good, must separate from the white man as soon as possible, lest he share the white man's hour of total destruction.14
A corollary to this teaching is that Christianity, the "white man's" religion, is also their enemy. Elijah Muhammad made this all too clear:
We called on the God that you said was the right one for a long time. For a hundred years we have been calling on your God and the Son, both. I am sure today that (sic) God and his Son that you are presenting to us have been for white people, surely they were not friends of ours. He never heard us. He must have been off somewhere in conversation over your future and did not have time to hear our prayers....Never any more will you fool us to bow and pray to a dead Jesus.15
There is no hope for us in Christianity; it is a religion organized by the enemies (the white race) of the Black Nation to enslave us to the white race's rule.16
Probably the most significant event to occur in the Nation of Islam's history during this period was the 1947 conversion of Malcolm Little, a black inmate in the maximum-security prison at Concord, Massachusetts. He would become known to the American people as Malcolm X.17
Due to lack of space it is not possible to detail the tremendous role Malcolm X had in the growth of the Nation of Islam. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he could be considered the St. Paul of this movement. From 1952, when he was released from prison, until his break with Elijah Muhammad in 1964, the membership of the Nation of Islam skyrocketed as a result of Malcolm's missionary efforts. During this period Malcolm "helped to establish most of the one hundred Temples in the United States."18
In March of 1964 Malcolm announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam. The reasons were twofold. First, Malcolm's faith in Elijah Muhammad had been shaken after Elijah confirmed to him that paternity charges brought against him by two former secretaries were true.19 And second, Malcolm began to see that the theology they espoused was not true to Islamic teachings. On February 21, 1965, less than a year after he had left the Nation of Islam, he was shot to death by three black men while giving a public lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
Wallace Deen Muhammad
Over the next ten years the Nation of Islam continued to grow, albeit not nearly as rapidly as before. Then on February 25, 1975, after a month's protracted illness, Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure at Chicago's Mercy Hospital. The next day, at the annual Savior's Day Rally (which commemorates the birth of Master Fard Muhammad), Elijah's seventh child, Wallace (Warith) Deen Muhammad, was named to succeed his father as the new leader of the Nation of Islam.
The announcement that Elijah's son Wallace was to be the new leader sent shock waves throughout the Nation of Islam. Most members believed that Louis Farrakhan, minister of the Harlem temple, would be the new leader. Another reason the members were shocked was because Wallace had been excommunicated from the group by his father on at least three different occasions. The main reason for his excommunications was that he rejected the apotheosis or deification of Fard. Why then was Wallace Deen chosen? Allegedly, Wallace Fard had prophesied that Elijah's seventh child would be a son that would head the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan emphatically backed Wallace: "The Honorable Elijah Muhammad's passing is the will of God. His son is the will of God."20
Within months major changes occurred. Wallace had been an extremely close friend of Malcolm X, both before and after Malcolm's break with his father, Elijah Muhammad. Consequently Wallace was deeply influenced by Malcolm's acceptance of true Islam shortly before his death. This influence is seen in the changes Wallace soon brought about in the Nation of Islam.
One of the first changes was to rename the group the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, thus attempting to identify more with worldwide Islam. They would later change their name again; they are now known as the American Muslim Mission.
However, such cosmetic changes were not Wallace's main concern. He immediately began to root out some of the main tenets of the old Nation of Islam. He denounced the belief that Fard was an incarnation of God, a teaching which is anathema to orthodox Muslims (see Part One of this series, "Islam's Worldwide Revival," Forward, Fall 1985). Likewise, "doctrines defining God as black and dismissing whites as devils" were changed "with the explanation that the former ideas were necessary transitional beliefs because of the brain-washing the blacks underwent as slaves."21 Indeed, whites were now permitted to join their group. Since 1975 the movement has been accepted by orthodox Muslims as legitimately Islamic and one within the fold of Islam.22
In 1978 Wallace resigned as the spiritual leader of "chief Imam" of the organization in order to be an ambassador-at-large, speaking in their behalf domestically and internationally.23 He decentralized its leadership into a 17-member council with six regional imams serving one-year terms, who have equal power in national matters, but complete power in their own regions.
Although no official membership rolls are kept, it is estimated that the American Muslim Mission currently has about 100,000 members.