Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam is an indigenous African American socioreligious movement that was founded in 1930 by W. D. Fard in Detroit, Michigan, and developed by Elijah Muhammad. Though it began as a socioreligious protest movement, its worldview is to a large extent embedded in the Qur'an (which is also spelled Koran). It should not be confused with orthodox Islam, which evolved in Mecca around 622 C. E.
The Nation of Islam arose in the United States in response to the crude, racist bigotry; socioeconomic injustices; lynching; and mob violence against African Americans in the first decades of the 20th century. Another factor in the receptivity of the African American community to Islam was the failure of the Black Church to influence public policies in African Americans' favor. Hence, the most despondent members of the African American community began to search for a new cultural and religious identity, which they found in Islam.

Origins and Early Teachings

The Nation of Islam evolved from the Moorish Science Temple founded by Noble Drew Ali in 1913 in Newark, New Jersey. When the temple split into two factions, W. D. Fard moved to Detroit and trained several ministers to create a new group—the Nation of Islam. Among them was Elijah Poole, later Elijah Muhammad, who at the time was an unemployed auto worker from the South. His knowledge of the Bible, as the son of a Baptist minister, was what inspired W. D. Fard to make Elijah Muhammad the Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam. This explains why the Nation of Islam derives its ideology from both the Bible and the Qur'an.
A core of the socioreligious teachings of both Fard (who had become known as Fard Muhammad) and Elijah Muhammad was that African Americans are the original black nation of Asia known as the Tribe of Shabazz. This nation was said to have originated in Africa when a great explosion divided the earth from the moon some 60 trillion years ago. The Tribe of Shabazz discovered that the rich land between the Nile Valley and Mecca was the best part of the earth on which to live. But since the Tribe of Shabazz was enslaved for 400 years, Fard Muhammad and his messenger Elijah Muhammad were sent by Allah to relocate the “lost-found nation” in an independent state. Therefore, since the so-called Negroes were not and could not be American citizens by nature or race, they could be said to constitute a nation within a nation. Hence, Elijah Muhammad renounced his U.S. citizenship and urged his followers to do likewise.
Another core belief of the Nation of Islam is that it is the religion of salvation and truth for black people, whereas Christianity is the religion of “evil white” people. The theme “white devil” comes directly from the teachings of Noble Drew Ali, which identify white people as the embodiment of the Satan in the Bible. The Nation of Islam also believes that Yacub, a descendant of the Tribe of Shabazz, 6,800 years ago in Mecca, created a vengeful plot to enslave the tribe. Yacub was skillful in genetics and developed the white race through creating Adam and Eve by crossbreeding. Two thousand years later, Allah raised Moses to civilize the white race.
The teachings of the Nation of Islam included images of the Armageddon by which the white race would fall ignominiously into destruction, while in the East the black Muslims would rise triumphantly to rule the world and freedom, justice, and equality would prevail forever. The belief that Allah would restore the New World Order after the final battle against the “white devil” was preached in Elijah Muhammad's Mosque in Chicago. Images of Armageddon were also significant in the sermons of Malcolm X, the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam, at Harlem's Temple Number Seven in the late 1950s.
Elijah Muhammad turned the Nation of Islam into a popular movement with a massive following. By establishing mosques in poor inner-city areas, the nation created several social and educational institutions and activities in places where there had been none. It reached into the poor, drug-infested neighborhoods and the prisons with its message of a radical break with the past and a new beginning.

Current Teachings

There is a continuation of some of these teachings in the contemporary Nation of Islam. Now the goals of the Nation of Islam are to secure freedom, justice, and equality under the law; equality of opportunity; and an end to police brutality and mob attacks against African Americans. The Nation of Islam's other goals for those of African descent include employment opportunities, exemption from all taxation, prohibition of intermarriage or race mixing, knowledge of Islam, and a separate state for African Americans.
The Nation of Islam believes it is important for its members to be clean in spirit, mind, and body. This belief is the source of the group's prohibition of alcohol, gambling, fornication before marriage, adultery, and dancing for its members. The members also have dietary limitations—excluding pork, collard greens, corn bread, and neck bones from their diets because they are reminders of slavery, and including foods such as fish, chicken, and rice. Members are required to change their last names to X in order to rid themselves of their “slave names.” The X is also said to represent the unknown identity associated with the African ancestry. In the Nation of Islam, men wear suits and ties and are clean shaven and women cover their heads, wear long dresses that reach to their toes, and wear no makeup. There is a separation between the sexes during prayers. Members are taught to adhere to a strict moral and economic code that fosters thrift, capital gains, and self-respect.
The economic development of the Nation of Islam has involved the establishment of farms, livestock and vegetable cultivation, rental housing, private home construction, real estate purchases, food processing centers, restaurants, Islamic schools, clothing factories, banking, business league formations, import and export businesses, health care, administrative offices, and men and women's development and leadership training units. In 1972, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad opened a $2 million mosque and school in Chicago. This nation-building (asabiya in Arabic) program is an attempt at fostering the principle of self-determination through collective ownership of business.

Criticism of the Teachings

In many respects, the Nation of Islam has brought hope to disenchanted African Americans. It connects them to a religion not associated with the legacy of the enslavement, as well as providing a break with degradation, poverty, and the racial bigotry of the American establishment. For African Americans, Islam symbolizes a rejection of white Christianity and its Eurocentric history and culture and offers a new way of life based on complete submission to the will of Allah.
However, the Nation of Islam's claim that it consists of the descendants of the original, great black Asiatic nation is a fantasy of a glorious history of black Afroasia. In addition, the notion of the Tribe of Shabazz located between the Nile Valley and Mecca is without any historical reality. The idea of Islam as the religion of nonwhites is also untrue and caused Malcolm X to break away from the nation after his visit to Africa and the Holy City of Mecca in 1964. This visit transformed him from a black Muslim into a Muslim, as he met blond, blue-eyed men he could call his brothers.

Changes in Leadership

In 1963, Elijah Muhammad's son, Wallace D. Muhammad, and Malcolm X found themselves let down by Elijah Muhammad's infidelity within the ummah (i.e., the community of Muslims). By 1964, a serious breakdown had occurred in the relationship between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm. When Malcolm was assassinated, many people accused the Nation of Islam in the death of its most popular spokesperson.
Wallace D. Muhammad (later known as Iman Muhammad) succeeded his father, Elijah Muhammad, as leader of the Nation of Islam after the latter's death in 1975. Iman Muhammad rapidly evolved the Nation of Islam into the World Community of Islam in the West. He accused his father of failing to give the “true” Islam to his community. He bestowed honor on Bilal Ibn Ribah, a great person of African heritage in the history of early Islam, and changed the title of the Nation of Islam's publication from Muhammad Speaks to Bilalian News. But by 2003, Iman Muhammad had resigned his leadership, explaining that the imams did not want to follow the strict Islam that he taught. Elijah Muhammad's brother, John Muhammad, took over the World Community of Islam in the West when Iman Muhammad resigned.

The Nation of Islam under Farrakhan

The shift from the Nation of Islam's asabiya (nation building) to the purely umann(religious community) of the World Community of Islam in the West had left a void that Louis Farrakhan, a follower of Elijah Muhammad and the most popular preacher in the Nation of Islam, sought to fill. Farrakhan succeeded in acquiring the major temple and residence of Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. The temple was renamed the Mosque Maryam and Muhammad's University of Islam School. It focuses on educating African Americans and other minority groups to arm them in their struggle against racism in the United States. The Nation of Islam under Louis Farrakhan has restored the worldview of Elijah Muhammad, including that of Fard Muhammad as the long-awaited Messiah of the Christians and the Madhi of the Muslims. The Nation of Islam also continues to uphold the December Fast to distinguish it from Ramadan, which is practiced by orthodox Muslims. Under Minister Louis Farrakhan, the legacy of Elijah Muhammad continues and the Nation of Islam advances as an institution committed to the transformation of the American society.



  • Nation of Islam
  • Elijah Muhammad
  • Islam
  • Louis Farrakhan
  • nation
  • mosques
  • Malcolm X


Further Reading

  • Lee, Martha F. (1996). The Nation of Islam. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. This work makes a contribution to the understanding of the organization as a contemporary nationalist movement. Following lines laid down by earlier scholars, this book goes into areas that are not discussed in earlier works.
  • Marsh, Clifton E. (1996). From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Resurrection, Transformation, Change of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America, 1930–1995. London: Scarecrow Press. This is a very useful introduction to the Nation of Islam, which includes answers to lots of questions about its origins and programs.
  • McCloud, Amina Beverly. (1995). African American Islam: An American Millenarian Movement. New York: Routledge. This volume grew out of McCloud's doctoral dissertation on Islam in the African American community. It is one of the few works to seriously look at the movement since Essien-Udom's massive Black Nationalism.