In his classic work The Black Muslims in America (1961), religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln (1924-2000) argued that originally the Nation of Islam was less a religious movement than a protest movement against centuries of racial oppression. Founded in 1930 by W D. Fard (pronounced Far-rod), the Nation of Islam borrowed heavily from the teachings of Marcus Garvey’s (1887-1940) United Negro Improvement Association and Noble Drew Ali’s (1886-1929) Moorish Science Temple. Built around Islamic symbolism and a philosophy that challenged white supremacy, the Nation of Islam encouraged members to work toward economic and social independence from the white community. Far more radical than protest organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Nation of Islam espoused racial segregation as a solution to institutional racism.
The Nation of Islam began in Detroit, Michigan. W. D. Fard, a peddler possibly of Arab descent, began teaching small gatherings of "so-called Negroes" about the glorious history of "Afro-Asia." Fard warned his followers that ignorance of their past weakened them to the "tricknology" of whites, namely white supremacy. Fard argued that ignorance of history produced in the "Asiatic" community a sense of intellectual and moral inferiority. Education, he reasoned, preceded liberation, and therefore it is the responsibility of black men and women to seek knowledge and then to use that knowledge to inform daily practices. Fard, for example, admonished blacks to live and eat as their ancestors had in order to reclaim their birthright and to reestablish a system of equality, justice, and freedom. Fard also instituted Muslim Girls Training Classes, which taught girls and women the domestic arts, and the Fruit of Islam, which was a form of military training for men. These gender-segregated programs were designed to promote a sense of dignity, self-discipline, and social order.
With his wife Clara, Elijah Poole joined the great migration north in 1923 to flee the racial violence, poverty, and the boll weevil infestation that had destroyed crops in the South. The Pooles settled in Detroit with their two children (three more children would follow). In Detroit, Elijah Poole became a devoted follower of Fard, and eventually cast away his "slave name" to become Elijah Karriem and eventually Elijah Muhammad in 1933. Following Fard’s disappearance from Detroit in 1934, Elijah Muhammad fought to maintain his position as the Minister of Islam. In his capacity as leader, Elijah Muhammad deified Fard as the embodiment of Allah. This decision effectively positioned Fard as the last Prophet of Allah, a heretical notion for Sunni and Shiite Muslims. After serving three years at MCI Prison for failure to register for selective service during World War II (1939-1945), Elijah Muhammad resumed leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1946. Following his release, Muhammad continued to reach out to black prisoners.
While serving time at Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts, Malcolm Little (1925-1965) was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm Little identified strongly with the idea that his past behavior was the result of having been brainwashed by white supremacy. In response, Little spent his time in prison studying history, philosophy, and religion. He also maintained an ongoing correspondence with Elijah Muhammad, and eventually converted and changed his name to Malcolm X. Following his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm X began a journey that would eventually lead to his becoming the most articulate, powerful, and controversial spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
Unlike the other protest organizations at the turn of the century that fought for the full benefits of citizenship in an integrated United States, the Nation of Islam espoused a philosophy that whites were "blue-eyed devils" created by an evil black scientist named Yacub. Slavery, de jure segregation, the epidemic of lynchings, and institutional racism were offered as proof by followers that even if whites were not devils, they acted like devils. The militant and antiwhite rhetoric of the Nation of Islam made the organization unpopular even within the black community, and until the 1960s the philosophy appealed almost exclusively to southern migrants living in the urban Northeast and Midwest. Membership levels grew and shrank from 1930 to 1942, probably never rising above one thousand. In the 1950s, membership in the Nation was possibly as high as five thousand. With a large recruitment drive in the 1960s, Nation membership most likely reached its highest level of about twenty thousand. The number of members is not, however, indicative of the influence of Elijah Muhammad’s and Malcolm X’s teachings. There were thousands of African-Americans who sympathized with the Nation’s philosophy of self-sufficiency and Afrocentrism, and with the Nation’s declared willingness to physically defend their community.
There were two major tensions within the Nation of Islam following Malcolm X’s rise as the organization’s most charismatic spokesman. The first tension surrounded the relationship between Nation of Islam philosophy and "orthodox" Islam. With greater media attention came greater scrutiny, and a number of Sunni Muslims were more than willing to highlight the differences between Nation teachings and traditional Islam. In the press, Elijah Muhammad was characterized as a phony by Sunni Muslims who knew that the leader’s beliefs were a syncretic blend of Christianity and black nationalism layered with Islamic symbolism. By the 1960s, Elijah Muhammad’s son Wallace Muhammad and Malcolm X were pushing their leader to adopt traditional Islam, but Elijah Muhammad held firm to the original tenets of his organization. The second tension had to do with the question of race. The Nation of Islam was characterized in the press as a black supremacist organization that preached hate. Black leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) castigated the organization. The Nation’s anti-integration stance and tolerance of self-defense was seen as a threat to the current gains of the civil rights movement. Beyond the political repercussions, many blacks thought that the philosophy of the nation was cynical and untenable.
Major changes occurred in the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. Scandals surrounding Elijah Muhammad, integration following civil rights legislation, and the assassination of Malcolm X (renamed El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz before his death) all contributed to the slow delegitimization of some of the beliefs and practices of the Nation of Islam. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, he passed leadership to his son Wallace Muhammad. Wallace Muhammad subsequently dismantled the Nation of Islam and built the World Community of Islam in the West, now the American Muslim Mission. The American Muslim Mission continues to promote Sunni Islam within the African American community. In 1977 Minister Louis Farrakhan rejected the leadership of Wallace Muhammad and rebuilt the Nation of Islam in order to continue the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. While still focused on the mission of black empowerment, Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam continues to incorporate traditional Islamic practices.