In January 1999 I posted twelve essays about different Islamic sects on a now-defunct forum, AncientSites.com. Most of the material came from Chapter 9 and Chapter 10 of my history papers on the Middle East, except for the lesson on this page. Seven and a half years later, my pastor asked me what I knew about the Black Muslim movement, so I pulled this off my computer. I don't see it conveniently fitting into any future paper I write on American history, so I have decided to post it separately. Now that we're in the middle of a war between militant Islam and Western civilization, I expect the Black Muslims will be in the news quite often for the next few years.
With the Black Muslims, we have America's chief contribution to the world Islamic movement. This sect was only founded in the twentieth century, so it is probably still in the developmental stage, especially since one of the authors of its doctrine, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan (1933-, born Louis Eugene Wolcott), is still alive. As the name suggests, it is a predominantly black religious movement, whose members profess Islam as their faith. Its leaders encourage economic self-sufficiency, and preach a gospel of black separatism, which sometimes calls for the establishment of a separate African-American homeland in the United States. They also demand a strict moral code on matters like diet, dress, and interpersonal relations. Members follow some Islamic religious ritual and pray five times daily.
Except for the wars against the Barbary pirates, Islam played no part in American history before the twentieth century. A few stories have surfaced of West African slaves, like Kunta Kinte of "Roots" fame, keeping their Islamic faith after they were brought to America. There have also been claims from some Moslem writers that there was once an American Indian named Mahomet (an eighteenth-century spelling of Mohammed or Muhammad), or that the Melungeons, a mysterious mixed-race community in the Appalachians, have an ancestry that is part Turkish. None of these stories has been verified, though.
The first American Moslem that we know of for sure was Timothy Drew (1886-1929). Born in North Carolina, he moved to Newark and founded the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1913, when he was just 27. He had little education, but had studied enough Islam to convince himself that it was the only appropriate religion for blacks. Changing his name to Noble Drew Ali, Prophet of Islam, he taught that Afro-Americans were really Moors, who had originally lived in Morocco. He called Christianity the "white man's religion," and said that peace and justice will only reign on earth when all white people become Christians, and all Moors follow Islam.
Noble Drew Ali.
In post-World War I America, the Moorish Science Temple really stood out. Men in the congregations wore fezzes and yellow pantaloons, while the women wore turbans. At the end of Ali's life, membership was reported as high as 100,000, but more likely 30,000. As you might expect, such rapid growth led to trouble. In March 1929, Claude Green-Bey, the the business manager of Chicago Temple No. 1, had a dispute with Ali over funds, declared himself Grand Sheik, and took many members with him. Green-Bey was stabbed to death a few days later; Ali was out of town at the time, dealing with another rival, but when he came back, the police arrested him on charges of ordering the murder. No evidence was found, though, and Ali was released in June. One month later he was found dead in his home, the cause of death unknown.
While Ali was in police custody, he had assigned leadership of the Chicago Temple to Wallace D. Fard, a clothing merchant who had just converted and moved to Chicago. Upon Ali's death, Fard took over the rest of the movement. We know little about Fard, because he did not rule for long, but he is now considered the real founder of the Black Muslims, because when some of Ali's followers did not accept him, he broke from them, founded a new temple (later known as a mosque) in Detroit, gave the movement its present-day name, the Nation of Islam, and designed its ideology. Some Black Muslims claim he was an Arab, born in Mecca. Others have claimed that he was really Wallace Dodd Ford, a New Zealand-born criminal who had recently served three years in California's San Quentin prison on drug charges. Whatever his ancestry, Fard used a variety of names (including Walli Farad and Master Farad Muhammad), and proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Noble Drew Ali. He also created the "white devils theory," which is all the more unusual because Fard was white himself. He taught that the black people were gods, but among them a devil appeared--the first white man. At the end of time the ultimate man, the God of gods, would show Himself and separate His black people from their enemies. Fard disappeared mysteriously in 1934, and his successor, Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975, born Elijah Poole), declared him to be an earthly incarnation of God. Thus Fard is now called Allah or the Great Mahdi by Black Muslims.
The only known photo of Wallace Fard, from noi.org.
With Fard's disappearance, Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Chicago mosque, became the Holy Prophet and Messenger of Allah, and the supreme leader of the Nation of Islam. The son of a poor Baptist pastor in Georgia, he had worked various jobs until the Great Depression left him unemployed, whereupon he met Master Fard. At first he had a hard time filling the shoes of his mentor. Only a few hundred blacks identified with the movement, and some violently opposed it. Once he was put on six months probation for starting a Moslem parochial school; since he took the kids out of the public school system, that was seen as contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The worst blow came at the beginning of World War II, when as a conscientious objector, he announced that Black Muslims should not go to war unless Allah orders it. That got himself and 71 of his followers jail sentences. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise; the prison was a fertile ground for black evangelism. As Eric Lincoln explained in his study The Black Muslims in America, "The prisons were made to order for Muhammad. Nine times out of ten, the potential convert was arrested by a white policeman, sentenced by a white judge, directed by a white prison guard under a white warden. The prison chaplain was white, and he knew when he got out that he could not go to a white church for help. The Negro church was not interested, but there was Elijah waiting." After that the movement grew rapidly, having an estimated 100,000 followers by 1961. At that point it made its most famous convert, Cassius Clay, who subsequently became boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
In the 1960s Elijah Muhammad's rule was challenged by Malcolm X (1925-65), head of the New York City mosque. Born Malcolm Little, he replaced his last name with an initial to emphasize that blacks should not use a name given to them by former slaveowners. At first Malcolm X was the movement's fiery spokesman, but gradually he grew disillusioned by Elijah's Muhammad's hedonistic lifestyle, and the group's failure to participate in the growing civil rights movement. He was shocked to see former secretaries of Elijah Muhammad file paternity suits against the prophet, and later remarked, "I had objected to the immorality of the man who professed to be more moral than anybody." In turn, Muhammad seemed threatened by the growing popularity of Malcolm X. In 1963 he dismissed Malcolm X as a minister and replaced him with Louis Farrakhan. One year later Malcolm X formed a new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and came back a changed man. Changing his name to Malik El-Shahbazz, he declared that he had been wrong, Black Muslims were not true Moslems, and any form of racism violates the Koran's teachings on universal brotherhood. A few weeks after his conversion, Malcolm X was assassinated while addressing an OAAU rally in New York City. Three Black Muslims were eventually convicted and jailed for the killing, but their leader was never caught. Farrakhan denied any connection with the shooting, and never faced any charges related to Malcolm X's death, though he later conceded that he helped create an atmosphere that may have induced others to carry out the assassination.
According to Elijah Muhammad, at first all men were black, but six thousand years ago, an evil genius named Yakub cross-bred lighter skinned blacks until he produced the first white people. The white race was turned loose to create Hell on earth, but God has worked to thwart them by sending prophets, first Moses, then Jesus, and most recently the Black Muslim leaders. Now God wants to take Black Americans to their own heaven, in the form of a nation where they won't have to deal with the devilish white man.
Despite the name "Nation of Islam," few non-American Moslems gave it any recognition; most saw it as racism combined with a few verses from the Koran. Accordingly, Wallace D. Muhammad, who succeeded his father Elijah Muhammad in 1975, downplayed black nationalism, admitted nonblack members, stressed strict Islamic beliefs and practices, and changed the group's name to the World Community of Islam in the West (now it's the American Muslim Mission). For most Black Muslims, this won acceptance into the Islamic mainstream, so they are not seen as a separate sect today.
However, that is not the end of the story, for whenever a religious group changes its beliefs, a dissident faction refuses to go with the flow. In this case, the dissident leader was an ex-nightclub singer Malcolm X had converted in 1955--Louis Farrakhan. In 1978 Farrakhan left Wallace Muhammad's organization and formed a new organization that assumed the original name, the Nation of Islam, and reasserted the principles of black separatism. In 1984 he supported the presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and became one of America's most controversial public figures, because he denounced Judaism as a "gutter religion" and called Adolf Hitler a great man. He also has made many people nervous because of his close ties--and financial support--from noted enemies of the U.S., especially Iran, Iraq and Libya.
The Rev. Louis Farrakhan.
Farrakhan has strengthened his following by repeated calls for self-reliance in the black American community, meaning stronger commitments to education and families, an end to black-on-black crime, and less dependency on government welfare. In October 1995 he staged his biggest success to date, the Million Man March. Hundreds of thousands of black men converged on Washington D.C., where they vowed to renew their commitments to family, community, and personal responsibility. (On an amusing note, the Iranian media saw the Million Man March as evidence that the United States was converting to Islam!)
The teachings of Elijah Muhammad grew really wild when Louis Farrakhan elaborated on them. In a 1991 Savior's Day sermon, he declared that there is a gigantic wheel-shaped plane in orbit around the earth, surrounded by 1,500 smaller planes. Nor was that all--Farrakhan also claimed that he was taken for a ride on that ship, it has a crew of thousands (all black, of course), and that Elijah Muhammad is alive and the captain of it! Supposedly this "wheel ship" is the weapon that will one day be used to destroy the white man and restore a perfect earth. Five years later, Farrakhan asserted that the giant flying saucer in the movie "Independence Day" looks a lot like the one he saw, only his didn't have the aliens.
The Nation of Islam has accredited schools in more than 45 cities. The Final Call, a weekly newspaper formerly named Muhammad Speaks, is circulated across the United States and has an Internet version at http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/cat_index_1.shtml. As in the past, the Nation of Islam rehabilitates convicts, drug addicts, and alcoholics, and encourages the formation of black-owned businesses. No membership records are kept, but the movement is estimated to have more than 100,000 followers.
The logo for the Nation of Islam is a reversed version of the crescent found on the flags of Moslem countries like Turkey. It has no connection with the navy-blue Babylonian crescent I put at the top of my webpages!
The Anglo-American Adventure
Other History Papers