This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.
Part 8: Black Islam
While imported Islam may have died out among African slaves and their immediate descendants, a new form of homegrown Islam sprung up in the early 20thcentury. Not connected to mainstream Islam, these various sects of so-called “Black Islam” were cult-like organizations, led by charismatic “prophets” who mixed traditional Islamic beliefs with pseudo-historic, pseudo-scientific innovations. Many rejected Christianity as the religion of white oppressors, and embraced (at least some form of) Islam as the true religion of Africans.
Most notable of these organizations was the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad, a mysterious character, usually described as a light-skinned black man. He sought to “teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough Knowledge of God and of themselves, and to put them on the road to Self-Independence with a superior culture and higher civilization than they had previously experienced.”
Muhammad chose as one of his protégés a young man from Sandersville, Georgia named Elijah Robert Poole, best known to history as Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad eventually became leader of the organization after Wallace Fard Muhammad disappeared unexpectedly in May 1933.
The Nation of Islam held that Wallace Fard Muhammad was a prophet, and later that he was Almighty God himself. The Nation’s doctrines are a weird mishmash of militant race politics, pseudo-science, conspiracy theories, and spiritual mumbo-jumbo that would make L. Ron Hubbard blush.
According to the Nation of Islam, the Earth is 76 trillion years old. (That’s trillion, not billion. Take that, Carl Sagan.) Black people are the descendants of the original humans, the tribe of Shabazz, who appeared when the planet separated into the Earth and the Moon 66 trillion years ago. White people are devils created as part of a eugenics program initiated 6,600 years ago on the Greek island of Patmos by a mad scientist named Yakub. These blue-eyed, blonde-haired devils spread across the world, conquering black and brown people through violence and deception. The Nation of Islam also believed in establishing a black separatist state.
Prominent adherents to the Nation of Islam included influential civil rights activists such as Malcolm X and boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Both men rejected the Nation of Islam’s teachings later in life. Malcolm X converted to mainstream Sunni Islam and split from the Nation in 1964. He was assassinated by his former brethren in 1965. Muhammad Ali also rejected the Nation of Islam, and eventually embraced Sufi mysticism.
After Elijah’s death in 1975, his son Warith Deen Mohammed embarked on a radical reformation—indeed, a radical realignment toward orthodox Islam—of the Nation. He rejected the divinity of Wallace Fard Muhammad, abandoned the weird and militant social and political teachings, and engaged in outreach with mainstream Muslim communities. The organization, with its 400 mosques, was eventually renamed the American Society of Muslims.
But that wasn’t the end of the Nation of Islam. From its ashes arose a second incarnation under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan has made headlines over the last 40 years for his incendiary rhetoric, including anti-semitic and homophobic remarks. (Not to mention his close relationship with the late Libyan dictator Muammar Khaddafi.)
And although membership in the Nation of Islam is estimated at only 20 to 50,000 people, in 1995 Farrakhan organized the Million Man March, which drew hundreds of thousands (if not exactly a million) demonstrators to the National Mall, and featured several prominent Christian or secular celebrities, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks, author Maya Angelou, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (he of later controversy involving Barack Obama).
The Nation of Islam continues today, and is even more farcical than before. In 2010 Farrakhan endorsed Dianetics, and has said that white Americans should flock to Scientology.
For good or bad, the Nation’s influence has been eclipsed by more mainstream Muslim religious organizations.