The Nation of Islam (NOI) is a religious Black nationalist organization operating in the USA. Wallace Fard Muhammad founded the NOI (often referred to as 'The Nation') in the 1930s in response to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans living in urban centers (19). The Nation is exclusively made up of African-Americans and many members are poor youth or former Christians (11). Its belief system is a distinct and complex combination of Islam, Christianity, historical revisionism, and Black supremacy. The Nation runs social programs, provides religious services, owns businesses, and maintains an armed contingent called the Fruit of Islam (FOI). This unique set of beliefs and practices has made the group difficult to categorize. After Fard Muhammad’s disappearance, Elijah Muhammad took over as leader and began a period of expansion. Famous members including Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X helped Elijah Muhammad bring the Nation to prominence in the 1960s. After Elijah’s son and successor disbanded the group, Louis Farrakhan revived the group and continues to lead it today (7). The NOI has had an immensely controversial but important role in African-American history and culture.
History & Foundations
Fard Muhammad started preaching to Detroit’s African-American community in 1930. He began to gain a large following, attracting thousands to his services. In Fard Muhammad’s own perspective, Black people are the people of God, making them the ‘Nation of Islam’; this is where the name of the group was birthed. Elijah Poole, who went on to change his name to Elijah Muhammad and become the Nation’s leader, became one of Fard Muhammad’s early disciples in 1931. In 1934, Fard Muhammad disappeared under mysterious circumstances, at which point Elijah Muhammad assumed the leadership of the organization. Fard Muhammad was never found (19).
After his disappearance, Elijah Muhammad claimed that Fard Muhammad was a God and he was his prophet. He relocated his headquarters from Detroit to Chicago and spent the rest of the decade traveling across the United States to spread his beliefs, further popularizing the Nation (19). Muhammad and 64 other Nation of Islam members were arrested and imprisoned for refusing the draft during the Second World War. His incarceration led to a drop in membership for the NOI, although they soon regained their status with the rise of the civil rights and Black power movements in the 1950s and 60s. He also began to draw more ideologically from Sunni Islam during this time (11).
Under Elijah Muhammad’s leadership, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali helped raise the Nation’s profile in the public eye. Malcolm was introduced to the NOI during his time in prison and became a minister in Harlem after his release. Ali began his involvement in the Nation during the 1960s and became Malcolm’s personal friend and protégé (15). Both Malcolm and Ali, born Malcolm Little and Cassius Clay respectively, changed their names as a way of rejecting their “slave names”, as is common practice for new NOI members (15).
Malcolm eventually became disillusioned with the Nation, particularly because of Elijah Muhammad’s infidelity and disagreements he had with the core doctrine, and left to convert to Sunni Islam in 1964 (15). Despite Malcolm unsuccessfully attempting to persuade Ali to follow him, Ali would later convert after Malcolm’s death and stated that betraying Malcolm was his worst regret in life (1). Malcolm was killed by three NOI members in 1965, which damaged the Nation’s image and led to a decline in membership (7).
In 1975, Elijah Muhammad died. He was succeeded by his son Wallace Muhammad. Like Malcolm X and Ali, Wallace Muhammad did not agree with many of his father’s practices and sought to steer the group away from its idiosyncratic teachings to what he perceived as a more acceptable form of Sunni Islam. He abolished the FOI, permitted White members, and did away with much of the Nation’s more obscure beliefs, such as that Wallace Fard Muhammad was the reincarnation of Allah. Wallace renamed the NOI twice in the 1970s and eventually disbanded it in 1985 (7). However, Louis Farrakhan, a NOI minister and one of Wallace’s detractors, reestablished the Nation and led it to a resurgence in popularity (13).
Farrakhan, who embraced Elijah’s more extreme views over his son’s reforms, expanded the Nation’s international and cultural influence. Farrakhan claims that in 1985, he was brought to a spaceship known as the Mother Plane and was instructed to lead the Nation (5). He established diplomatic ties to world leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi and Jerry Rawlings, as well as a connection with the rap community (13). He also took an increased influence from numerology, scientology, and freemasonry (12). Under Farrakhan’s leadership, the NOI organized the Million Man March in 1995 with speeches from civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King III, as well as a speech from Farrakhan himself (5).
In 1993, Farrakhan’s national advisor and envoy to Gaddafi Khalid Abdul Muhammad delivered an anti-semetic speech in New Jersey, for which he was subsequently barred from the Nation. He was later shot by a former NOI member. Muhammad went on to form the New Black Panther party, which has been repeatedly denounced by associates and members of the original Black Panthers because of Muhammad’s violent anti-semetic, anti-miscegenistic, and homophobic stances (17).
Today, the Nation still has tens of thousands of members (2). Farrakhan and Wallace Muhammad held a meeting and reconciled in 2000 (7). Farrakhan’s controversial anti-Semetic and homophobic comments have landed him in the public eye several times over recent years, causing him to be banned from Facebook in 2019 (4).
Objectives & Ideology
The Nation of Islam teaches a unique blend of Islam, Christianity, and Black nationalism. Its central belief is that Black People are the original people of the earth and are superior to all other races. This belief is based on the idea that all humans, even those who are not Black, descended from Black men and White people were created to oppress Black people (8).
Many of Wallace Fard Muhammad’s original congregation belonged to the Moorish Science Temple of America, an early 20th century Black ethno-religion with similar beliefs to the Nation, and Fard Muhammad drew heavily from it. He also took influence from fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons and the economic and social ideas of Marcus Garvey (8).
Another central belief of the Nation is the rejection of traditional Christianity, which they view as a religion created by the White race to control Black people. Instead, the Nation of Islam encourages its followers to embrace traditional Islamic practices, such as prayer and fasting. Members also do not eat pork and women cover their heads. However, there are some traditional Islamic beliefs that the Nation diverges from. For example, they do not believe in an afterlife (8). There is also some Christian influence, as ministers read from both the Qur'an and the Bible during the Nation’s religious services (19).
The Nation believes that there is a series of Gods, the most recent of which being Fard Muhammad. Allah, the first God, came down to earth personified as a Black man and created the Black race. Yakub, an evil scientist, is said to have created the White race as a genetic mutation of Black people. Allah allowed them to rule the earth for 6000 years, which had allegedly come to an end in 1915 (5). They teach that racial tensions will lead to an apocalypse, at which point Fard Muhammad will come down from a spaceship known as the Mother Plane and destroy the White race. This unorthodox strain of Islam does not fall under any mainstream Muslim denomination and most other Muslim groups categorize their beliefs as heretical (8). The group also takes stock in a number of miscellaneous conspiratorial beliefs, such as numerology and creationism (5).
One of the most important aspects of the Nation's views is the call for Black self-reliance and separatism. The organization promotes the idea that African Americans should separate themselves from the larger American society, which it sees as oppressive, and instead create their own communities and institutions. It operates its own schools, businesses, and mosques. One thing that distinguishes the Nation from other Black nationalist groups, such as the Black Panther Party, is its embrace of capitalism. They espouse a form of economic nationalism influenced by Garveyism that pushes for economic segregation between Black and White people (8). The Nation and its members own many businesses, including restaurants, bakeries, a clothing line, a skincare company, and even a mall (10).
Socially, the Nation is conservative. Drug and alcohol use is discouraged, family and religion are held in high regard, and women are expected to dress modestly (8). The Nation’s endorsement of strict patriarchal gender roles has brought accusations of sexism (2).
Its conception of race varies dramatically from mainstream views. As opposed to other Black ethno-religious movements such as the Black Hebrew Israelites and Rastafarians, the Nation is not Afrocentric. Instead, they focus on the African diaspora in North America. It doesn’t even see Africa as a homeland, believing Black people to have come from Mecca. The Nation is not concerned with Blackness, as it is commonly thought of, so much as the “Asiatic” lineage from which it claims that Black people descended from. For this reason, it is friendly towards other people of colour, particularly those that have been oppressed by Europeans (19). The Nation’s concept of race can be seen as figurative as well as literal. Race is something that, as the nation sees, can exist physically and spiritually within a person. Whereas Whiteness is representative of evil, Blackness is representative of holiness as Black people are supposed descendants of Allah. White people, as well as Jews, are often referred to as “Satanic” by the Nation (18).
The Fruit of Islam is the Nation’s paramilitary wing, known for their distinctive blue uniforms. Each temple has its own unit who provide security for Nation members and property (8). The NOI is not primarily focused on armed insurrection. It instead exerts influence through its religious and social activities and conducts violence against the organization’s enemies in a covert manner. That being said, the Fruit of Islam is a well-trained and well-organized force. Members undergo strict training in martial arts and military drills as well as religious subjects (11). The FOI has a sister group called Muslim Girls Training (MGT) that trains women in domestic activities (8).
The Nation is organized with a centralized hierarchy and an underlying bureaucracy. Local ministers run their own temples and FOI/MGT programs, while the central organization handles national matters such as diplomacy and organizing conferences and other large NOI gatherings (8). There are tens of thousands of members across the USA today, but the Nation has always had a particularly large presence in major urban centers with significant Black populations such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York (2). The NOI also has a chapter in the United Kingdom (16).
Approach to Resistance
The NOI does not make itself out to be a violent group. Although there is an armed contingent, it primarily positions itself as a religious and social organization. However, the Nation has been responsible for many acts of violence. Malcolm X’s assassination was carried out by three members, but it remains unclear if the killing was a NOI conspiracy (7). In 1973, NOI members broke into the home of a Sunni minister and former NOI member Hamaas Abdul Khaalis who had spoken out against Elijah Muhammad and the NOI. They killed seven people, five of whom were children (6). Besides its security and disciplinary roles for the Nation, the FOI has run community policing initiatives in inner city housing projects. The group also is not necessarily revolutionary in nature. Instead, the group works to build economic and social independence for Black people. They do believe that Fard Muhammad will come back to earth in a spaceship bringing an apocalypse that will kill all White people, however this is to come on its own accord. Meanwhile, the Nation trains its members through the FOI for this event, known as the “Armageddon” (19).
Relations and Alliances
The Nation has had many splinter groups. The Five Percent Nation, also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, split off from the NOI’s central organization in 1964 out of Malcolm X’s former temple in Harlem. Founder Clarence 13X’s teachings appealed to New York’s impoverished Black youth, of whom many were associated with gangs as well as the burgeoning hip hop scene. This led to the group being labeled as a gang itself and many rappers becoming Five Percenters, including members of the group Wu Tang Clan (14). The United Nation of Islam, another splinter group, was established in 1978 by Royall Jenkins, who claimed to be Allah himself and had a fundamentalist interpretation of the Nation’s doctrine. Jenkins has been criticized for allegations of sexual abuse and human trafficking (20).
Despite their common goals and cause, the Nation frequently conflicted with the Black Panther Party during its existence. Many NOI members felt that the Black Panthers did not respect the NOI’s contributions (11). This led to a number of small clashes between the two groups, such as instances where Black Panthers would attack NOI members selling papers (10). The Nation has been generally hostile towards other Black groups and leaders, however some of this conflict can be attributed to the FBI’s efforts to undermine Black activists with COINTELPRO (9).
Law enforcement and the Nation have had a fraught relationship with one another. NOI temples have been frequent targets for police harassment, leading to a dislike and distrust of police within the Nation. In 1972, an officer was shot and killed while responding to a call at an NOI temple (3).
Although certain far-right groups like the Fourth Reich Skinheads have conflicted with the Nation, others have collaborated with them. Malcolm X alleged that the Nation held meetings with Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members. The alliance with the far-right became international when the British National Front endorsed the NOI during the 1980s (10). Many of these groups align with the Nation’s segregationist and anti-miscengination positions. Human rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have labeled the NOI as a hate group (2) (21).
During the Second World War, the Nation expressed a favorable opinion of Japan on the basis of their opposition to the draft and American militarism (13). At this time, the FBI began to monitor the NOI (8). Under Farrakhan’s leadership, the Nation expanded its international ties. In 1995, Farrakhan visited 23 countries including Iraq, Libya, and Cuba to spread his message. He began to advocate in favour of pan-Africanism, which previous NOI leaders did not concern themselves with. Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi was a friend to the Nation. His Third Internationalist Theory overlapped with the Nation’s beliefs insofar that both are centered on Black self-determination. Gaddafi had helped fund the Nation and Farrakhan as well as Elijah Muhammad have praised his work (13). Farrakhan has also developed a relationship with the Church of Scientology and encourages his followers to practice dianetics, the belief system of Scientology (12).
Works Cited (Chicago-style, alphabetised)
(1) - Ali, M. (2003). The Soul of a Butterfly. Simon and Schuster.
(2) - Anti-Defamation League (2021). Nation of Islam. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/resources/profile/nation-islam
(3) - Barnard, A. (2012, May 11). Harlem Split on Plan to Honor Officer Killed in Mosque in ’72. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/12/nyregion/harlem-split-on-plan-to-honor-officer-killed-in-72.html?_r=1&ref=annebarnard
(4) - Charles, S. (2019, May 2). Louis Farrakhan banned from Facebook over policies on violence, hate. Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved from https://chicago.suntimes.com/2019/5/2/18619271/louis-farrakhan-banned-from-facebook-over-policies-on-violence-hate
(5) - Curtis, E. E. (2016). Science and Technology in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam: Astrophysical Disaster, Genetic Engineering, UFOs, White Apocalypse, and Black Resurrection. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 20(1), 5–31. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417786
(6) - Delaney, P. (1973, Jan. 25). Survivor Tells How 7 Moslems Died in Washington. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1973/01/25/archives/survivor-tells-how-7-moslems-died-in-washington-wounded-women.html
(7) - Dodoo, J. (2000). Nation of Islam. World Religions and Spirituality Project. Retrieved from https://wrldrels.org/2016/10/08/nation-of-islam/
(8) - FBI. (1955). Nation of Islam. Retrieved from https://vault.fbi.gov/Nation%20of%20Islam/Nation%20of%20Islam%20Part%201%20of%203/view
(9) - FBI. (1968). COINTELPRO Black Extremist 100-448006 Section 1. Retrieved from http://blackfreedom.proquest.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/nation1.pdf
(10) - Gardell, Matthias (1996). In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and The Nation of Islam. Duke University Press.
(11) - Gibson, D.M. (2020). Making Original Men: Elijah Muhammad, The Nation of Islam, and The Fruit of Islam. Journal of Religious History, 44(3) 319-337. Retrieved from https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.torontomu.ca/10.1111/1467-9809.12684
(12) - Gray, E. (2012, Oct. 5). Thetans and Bowties: The Mothership of All Alliances: Scientology and the Nation of Islam. The New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/108205/scientology-joins-forces-with-nation-of-islam
(13) - Jeffries, B. S. (2019). Black Religion and Black Power: The Nation of Islam’s Internationalism. Genealogy, 3(3), 34. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/genealogy3030034
(14) - Knight, M. M. (2007). The Five Percenters. OneWorld Publications.
(15) - Malcolm X & Haley, A. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ballantine Books.
(16) - Nation of Islam UK. (2023). Saviour’s Day 2023. https://noi.org.uk/francophone/savioursday2023/
(17) - Noel, P. (1998, Oct. 13). The Hunt for Khallid Abdul Muhammad. The Village Voice. Retrieved from https://www.villagevoice.com/1998/10/13/the-hunt-for-khallid-abdul-muhammad/
(18) - Norwood, S.H., & Pollack, E.G. (2020). White Devils, Satanic Jews: The Nation of Islam from Fard to Farrakhan. Modern Judaism 40(2), 137-168. Retrieved from https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/760878.
(19) - Sahib, H. A. (1995). The Nation of Islam. Contributions in Black Studies, 13(3), 48-160. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cibs/vol13/iss1/3
(20) - Salcedo, A. (2021, Oct. 27). Kansas ‘cult’ leaders separated children from their parents and forced them into unpaid labor, feds say. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/10/27/united-nation-of-islam-leaders-charged-conspiracy-forced-labor/
(21) - Southern Poverty Law Center. Nation of Islam. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/civil-rights-memorial