Elijah Muhammad

Sep 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Faith & Religion
Share Button

Elijah Muhammad1897-1975  Elijah Muhammad guided the Nation of Islam from its modest beginnings during the Great Depression, when a handful of African Americans met in a Detroit storefront, to its meteoric rise after World War II. Under his leadership, it became one of the most powerful religious and social institutions in the country.

A Mysterious Messenger

Muhammad was born in Sandersville, Georgia, in October 1897, the son of William Poole, a sharecropper and itinerant preacher, and Mariah Hall, a maid. His given name was Robert Poole. In 1900, the Pooles moved to Cordele, Georgia, where Muhammad attended grammar school. He dropped out after the third grade and took work in a sawmill and a brick factory to help support the family. He left home at age 16.

Muhammad married Cordele resident Clara Evans in 1919 with whom he would have eight children. In the early 1920s, he and his wife moved north to escape the harsh, depressed economy of the south. Landing in Detroit, Muhammad found work in an assembly plant. In 1931, he met a door-to-door salesman named Wallace Fard, who maintained an alluring second life. Claiming to receive messages directly from God, Fard had proclaimed himself the redeemer of the black man, and attracted a small group of followers with services held in homes and storefronts under the name Temple of Islam. Muhammad was intrigued by Fard’s reading of muslim scripture and the Christian Bible, and became his lieutenant, taking the name Elijah Muhammad. He remained Fard’s second in command until one day in 1934 when Fard mysteriously disappeared. Muhammad barely survived a violent struggle for succession among Fard’s followers, and in 1936, moved to Chicago where he established a second Nation of Islam temple, with just 13 members.

Muhammad was jailed during World War II for refusing the draft and supporting Japan. When he emerged from three years of prison, he had grown in stature and began attracting followers at a growing rate, with hundreds instead of handfuls now attending his appearances. He proclaimed a new message as well: Wallace Fard, or Wali Farad as he was now referred to, was Allah and he, Elijah Muhammad, was Allah’s prophet. As prophet, Muhammad now set forth a doctrine that combined traditional Islamic teachings with elements of Christianity and black nationalism. He also offered a new story of creation: Blacks were a pure race created by God and Whites were a mixed race created by a mad scientist.

Muhammad commanded his followers to abandon their vices and those parts of their lives that had been determined by white society. The best known was replacement of one’s surname, usually descended from a slave owner, with the letter X. The X, Muhammad would say, stood for the vices, false ideas, and injustices that the member had now left behind (ex-alcoholic, ex-Christian, ex-slave).

To help assume their rightful positions in the world, Muhammad urged his followers to work hard, become economically independent, and separate themselves from mainstream culture. He told them to own their own businesses, send their children to Nation of Islam schools, and follow dietary rules. Later, to support the movement, men were required to sell copies of the Nation of Islam newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and a security arm was established that could instill fear in those both inside and outside the Nation.

Explosive Growth

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Nation of Islam grew rapidly, its membership reaching into the hundreds of thousands. But at the same time, it experienced turmoil and controversy. Most controversial, perhaps, was Muhammad’s assertion that black men owed no allegiance to the United States. He posed the question, “Why should a black man fight for a nation that enslaved and oppressed him?” He added that the goal of the Nation of Islam was to create a separate home and separate state for black people, and this alone would be worth fighting for.

It was a member of the movement named Malcolm X, however, who created the greatest turmoil, inside and outside. A charismatic speaker and ex-convict, Malcolm became a member of Muhammad’s inner circle in the 1950s and played a major role in the Nation’s growth to more than half a million members. He created a major source of income for the movement when he founded Muhammad Speaks in 1960, and Muhammad invested more and more power in him, putting him in charge of the Nation of Islam’s second most important temple, in Harlem.

Muhammad saw Malcolm, however, as a potential rival to his sons for future control of the movement, and he found Malcolm increasingly difficult to control. When Malcolm made a series of inflammatory public comments following the assassination of President Kennedy, Muhammad suspended him from his positions and ordered him to keep silent for a period of several months. Malcolm responded by leaving the Nation of Islam. He subsequently charged that Muhammad had fathered several illegitimate children with various secretaries. On February 22, 1965, Malcolm was gunned down while delivering a speech in Harlem. Suspicion fell on Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, but a connection was never proved.

Muhammad remained in charge of the Nation of Islam into the 1970s, but, suffering from chronic respiratory disease, spent more and more time at an estate in Arizona. It was in Chicago, his seat of power, where he died on February 25, 1975, and was succeeded by his son W. Deen Muhammad. The son soon shocked the movement by announcing its dissolution and his conversion to the Sunni sect of mainstream Islam. In 1978, Louis Farrakhan, a protégé of Malcolm X, successfully revived the Nation of Islam and proclaimed Elijah Muhammad’s birthday a sacred holiday. His legacy within the Nation of Islam intact, Muhammad, or simply “The Prophet,” is widely remembered for transforming a small temple into a nationwide movement with hundreds of thousands of devoted followers, culminating in an irrevocable effect on black culture and U.S. history.


Leave a Comment