Is there a difference between Muslims and Black Muslims?
John L. Esposito, December 2, 2003

African-American Islam emerged in the early twentieth century when a number of black Americans converted to Islam, the religion that they believed was part of their original African identity. Islam was preferred over Christianity, which was seen as a religion of white supremacy and oppression, the religion of those who treated black Americans as second-class citizens and denied them their full civil rights. By contrast, Islam seemed to emphasize a brotherhood of believers, the ummah, which transcended race and ethnicity.

Birth of Nation of Islam

In the early 1930s Wallace D. Fard Mohammed drew on the Quran and the Bible to preach a message of black liberation in the ghettos of Detroit. Wallace D., who was called the Great Mahdi, or messiah, taught withdrawal from white society, saying that blacks were not Americans and owed no loyalty to the state. He rejected Christianity and the domination of white “blue-eyed devils” and emphasized the “religion of the Black Man” and the “Nation of Islam.”

Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934. Elijah Muhammad (formerly Elijah Poole [1897-1975]) took over and built the “Nation of Islam”, an effective national movement whose members became known as “Black Muslims.” Elijah Muhammad denounced white society’s political and economic oppression of blacks and its results: self-hatred, poverty, and dependency. His apocalyptic message promised the fall of the white racist oppressor America and the restoration of the righteous black community, a “Chosen People.” His religious teachings gave alienated and marginalized poor and unemployed people a sense of identity and community and a program for self-improvement and empowerment. Elijah Muhammad emphasized a “Do for self” philosophy, appealing particularly to black youth, focusing on black pride and identity, strength and self-sufficiency, strong family values, hard work, discipline, thrift, and abstention from gambling, alcohol, drugs, and pork. By the 1970s the Nation of Islam has more than one hundred thousand members.

Nation of Islam vs. Mainstream Islam

A number of basic beliefs in the Black Muslim movement differed significantly from mainstream Islam. Elijah Muhammad announced that Wallace D. Fard was Allah, and thus that God was a black man, and that he, Elijah Muhammad, not the Prophet Muhammad, was the last messenger of God. The Nation taught black supremacy and black separatism, not Islam’s brotherhood of all believers in a community that transcends racial, tribal, and ethic differences. In addition, the Nation did not follow the Five Pillars of Islam or observe major Muslim rituals.

Nation of Islam and Malcolm X

A key individual who rose through the ranks of the Nation of Islam to gain national prominence was Malcolm X, who accepted the teaching of the Nation of Islam while in prison. Drawn by Elijah Muhammad’s black nationalism, denunciation of white racism, and promotion of self-help, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X: ex-smoker, ex-drinker, ex-Christian, and ex-slave. A gifted, charismatic speaker, Malcolm was the most visible and prominent spokesperson for Elijah Muhammad, recruiting new members (including the boxer Cassius Clay, renamed Muhammad Ali), establishing temples, and preaching the message of the Nation of Islam nationally and internationally. However, Malcolm’s exposure to world events and contact with Sunni Muslims resulted in a gradual change in his own religious worldview, away from that of Elijah Muhammad and toward mainstream Islam.

Malcolm X and Mainstream Islam

In 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam to start his own organization. At this time he also went on pilgrimage to Mecca. On the pilgrimage he was deeply affected by what he experienced-the equality of all believers regardless of race, tribe, or nation. Malcolm explained his realization that “we were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God removed the ‘white’ from their minds, the ‘white’ from their behavior and the ‘white’ from their attitude.” H also recognized that he did not know how to perform Islam’s daily prayers and had not observed the other prescribed practices in the Five Pillars of Islam. Malcolm returned from the pilgrimage as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a Muslim, rather than a Black Muslim, and he changed his position on black nationalism, moving to pan-Africanism, which aligns African Americans with their cultural and religious ties in Africa.

On February 21, 1965, the former Malcolm X was assassinated as he spoke to an audience in New York City. Two members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the murder.

Transition of Nation of Islam to Mainstream Islam

The 1960s were a time of transition for the Nation of Islam. Not only Malcolm X but also Wallace D. Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, along with his brother Akbar Muhammad, a distinguished scholar of Islam who had studied in Egypt and Scotland, questioned and challenged some of the teachings and strategies of their father. Both sons were excommunicated by their father. Yet toward the end of his life Elijah Muhammad also made the pilgrimage to Mecca and began to modify some of his teachings. By the time of his death in 1975, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation were publicly acknowledged for their constructive contributions to America’s inner cities and communities.

When Wallace D. Muhammad succeeded his father as Supreme Minister of the Nation, he implemented major reforms in doctrines and organizational structure, so that they conformed to the teachings of orthodox Sunni Islam. Wallace Fard was identified as the founder of the Nation and Elijah Muhammad as the leader who brought black Americans to his interpretation of Islam. Wallace Muhammad made pilgrimage to Mecca and encouraged his followers to study Arabic in order to better understand Islam. Temples were renamed mosques, and their leaders were now called imams rather than ministers. The community observed the Five Pillars of Islam in union with the worldwide Islamic community to which they now belonged. Black separatist doctrines were dropped as the Nation community began to participate within the American political process. Finally, the equality of male and female members were reaffirmed, and women were given more responsible positions in the ministry of the community. While the Nation continued to work for social and economic change, business ventures were cut back and religious identity and mission were given priority.

At the end of the 1970s Wallace transferred organizational leadership to an elected council of six imams and focused on his role as religious and spiritual leader. In the mid-1980s, signaling his and Nation’s new religious identity and mission, Wallace changed his name to Warith Deen Muhammad and renamed the community American Muslim Mission, integrating it within the global mainstream Islamic community and within the American Muslim community.

Present day Nation of Islam

Media coverage of the Black Muslim movement often focuses on Louis Farrakhan, the man who led a minority of Nation members in protest against Warith’s reforms. Farrakhan bitterly rejected the changes instituted by both Malcolm and Warith Deen Muhammad, maintaining that only he and his followers had remained faithful to the original message and mission of Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan retained the mantle of leadership of the Nation of Islam, along with its black nationalist and separatist doctrines. Farrakhan’s strident, separatist messages as well as the international connections he has established with militant leaders like those of Libya and Iran have given him and his minority of followers a disproportionate visibility.

Farrakhan’s militancy and anti-Semitic statements have been widely criticized. At the same time, his charisma and energy directed to fighting crime and drugs and to rehabilitating prisoners have earned praise for the Nation. His leadership of the 1995 Million Man March in Washington D.C., received widespread media coverage and support from Christian as well as Muslim leaders and organizations. In recent years, Farrakhan has moved the Nation closer to more orthodox Islamic practices, maintaining a closer identity with mainstream Islam.

Excerpted from the book "What everyone needs to know about Islam" by John L. Esposito