Founded in 1930, The Nation of Islam emerged out of Detroit, Michigan to become what the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History describes as the most famous and most controversial Islamic organization in North America. Besides building a robust network of mosques engaged in both religious worship and social service, the Nation of Islam has produced leaders who have had a significant impact on American culture.
The founder of the Nation of Islam was Wallace D. Fard, later known as Fard Muhammad. In establishing the community that he referred to as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North American, Fard preached a message of black liberation from impoverishment and a discriminatory society. He established the group's fundamental belief system, grounded in a creation story in which the first human was black. Fard also instituted the practice of replacing one's name given by former slave masters with a Name of God. He disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1934, which gave rise to the doctrine that he had gone to Mecca in anticipation of a later return.
Fard's successor was Elijah Poole, who took on the new name of Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad led the Nation of Islam from 1934 through 1975 and is to a large degree responsible, along with his one-time disciple Malcolm X, for transforming it from a local community into an international organization. Muhammad claimed that Fard was Allah in Person, while he himself was Allah's messenger. Muhammad expanded on the Nation's critique of American racism as well as its work toward achieving liberation by achieving true knowledge of self, living a moral life, eating a healthy diet and building economic strength through entrepreneurial business.
Arguably the most influential leader to emerge from the Nation of Islam was Malcolm Poole, better known as Malcolm X. Originally a follower and protege of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm helped promote the Nation of Islam through community organizing, launching small businesses, creating the influential newspaper "Muhammad Speaks" and publicly criticizing discrimination, most notably the beating of a Nation of Islam member in Harlem by police in 1957. In 1963 Malcolm broke with Elijah Muhammad to form his own groups, Moslem Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In contrast to Martin Luther King's message of nonviolence and legal reform, Malcolm advocated achieving justice, freedom and equality "by any means necessary." He was murdered while giving a speech in 1965.
The most prominent leader associated with the Nation of Islam today is Louis Farrakhan. In 1977, two years after Elijah Muhammad's son and successor, W. D. Mohammed, had changed the Nation of Islam's name to the American Society of Muslims as part of an effort to bring it into conformity with mainstream Sunni Islam, Louis Farrakhan created a new organization called the Nation of Islam. In addition to returning to the original message of black separatism taught by Muhammad and Fard, Farrakhan also built a new network of mosques and businesses and has become prominent public spokesman for the movement, leading such influential initiatives as the Million Man March on Washington, D.C. in 1995.
- Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History; Edward E. Curtis IV, ed.
- Encyclopedia of Religion in America; Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams
- Our Saviour Has Arrived; Elijah Muhammad
- Elijah Muhammand and Islam; Herbert Berg
- New York Times: Black Muslim Leader Dead; Elijah Muhammad, 77
- Millions More Movement: An Historical Perspective
- Washington Post: W.D. Mohammed, Changed Muslim Movement in U.S.
- Black Past: (1964) Malcolm X’s Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity
- American Experience: Malcolm X, Make It Plain: Timeline: Malcolm X
- The Nation of Islam: What the Muslims Want
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