By Imam Ivan G. Nassar
This article was submitted as a part of the “Expressions of the African American Muslim Experience” call for submissions.
“Yes, today the Muslims are in all the major cities of America, and if you look around in the smaller cities you will find us there also. Just walk around saying, ‘as-salaamu alaikum’ (peace be with you), and pretty soon someone will reply, ‘Wa- alaikum- assalaam’ (and upon you be peace).” —Elijah Muhammad’s Atlanta speech, 1961
When Elijah Muhammad spoke these words, there was hardly a black family in America that did not have a near relative or know someone who identified with the religion of Islam; these facts remain true today. Experts agree that Islam is the fastest growing religion among African Americans. “It’s an American phenomenon,” says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of history of Islam and Christian and Muslim relations at Georgetown University. “Starting from the ghettoes of the north, it is a response to racism; it is the religion of liberation.”
The professor’s points are valid; however, the professor fails to cite the genetic bond and historical connection that made Islam a legitimate choice for many African Americans. West Africa is the progenitor of African American history. Legendary Arab historians and eminent African scholars have documented the dignity and grandeur of the royal Islamic empire of Ghana, which served as the ancestral model for the Islamic empires of Mali, Songhay, and Kanem Bornu. According to the Arab historian and writer, al-Umari, the fame of West African Emperor Mansa Kankan Musa of Mali spread from Sudan, North Africa, and up to Europe.
The origin of the philosophy of the Nation of Islam is accreted to the mystic teacher Fard Muhammad who appeared in Detroit, Michigan in July 1930. Before his mysterious disappearance in 1934, he appointed his prize pupil Elijah Muhammad to lead the Nation of Islam, thus beginning the legacy of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad who would become one of the most feared and respected black men in American.
Elijah Muhammad taught and emphasized morality with respect to oneself and others. He also introduced a hypothesis of separation from the white race, believing that blacks should have their own state or territory. The first publication of the Nation of Islam newspaper bore the title “Some of this Earth to Call Our Own.”
Where home, schools and churches failed, leaving thousands of African Americans languishing under the imposition of social disparities, many African Americans viewed Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam as their saving grace. People who were once considered thugs, prostitutes, and dope addicts converted to Islam by the thousands. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson once said about Elijah Muhammad, “He took dope out of veins and put hope in our brains.”
Elijah Muhammad won an important convert when Malcolm X joined the faith in a prison cell. Malcolm became a public figure and spokesman for the Nation of Islam during the 1960s. With the leadership of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam became a movement to be reckoned with. A year before his death in 1964, Malcolm separated himself from Elijah Muhammad and its black supremacy teachings.
Other important converts of Elijah Muhammad include Louis Farrakhan and boxing legend Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay). Minister Farrakhan (Louis X) took over the roll of the official spokesperson for the Nation of Islam.
Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure at the age of seventy-seven on Feb. 25,1975. Twenty thousand mourners attended his funeral rites as Muslims mourned the loss of their leader.
Wallace D. Muhammad, the fifth son of Elijah Muhammad, became the undisputed leader of the movement. Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang professor and chairman of the African Study Department at Howard University called him ‘the Transformer in Chief’. He wrote, “Wallace shepherded the Nation of Islam into the fold of Sunni Islam.”
As the new leader moved closer to the beliefs and practices of Islam as experienced in most of the Muslim world, the movement split and Minister Louis Farrakhan became the leader for those who wanted to continue the unorthodox practice established by Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad had a major role in the shaping of African American history. It was Elijah who spearheaded the fame of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan (Wallace), and Warith D. Mohammed; and he helped shape the character of boxing champ Muhammad Ali. All are products of his legacy.