The Nation of Islam: Definition, Beliefs & History

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
Learn about the history and beliefs of the Nation of Islam. Discover the major events that shaped the group, get to know its leaders, and find out the reasons for which the group has been criticized over the years.

Bowties, Militancy, and Racial Apocalypse

You may have seen Malcolm X, Spike Lee's film version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X or heard Chuck D of Public Enemy describe himself as 'the follower of Farrakhan', but these sources only give you glimpses of the long, strange story of the Nation of Islam. With their distinctive bow ties and inflammatory rhetoric, the Nation of Islam is one of the most successful new religious movements of the 20th century.

Nation of Islam, preaching in London in 1999
Nation of Islam, preaching in London in 1999.

Times of Turmoil: The Beginning of the Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam is an African-American religious movement that began in Detroit during the Great Depression of the 1930s. America certainly experiences racial tension today, but during the Great Depression, life in America for African Americans was particularly difficult. During this time, African Americans left the intense racism, violence, and poverty of the Deep South for the industrial cities of the North like Chicago, Detroit, and New York City in large numbers. However, when they got to these new urban areas hoping for a new life, they discovered that the racism and unemployment they were fleeing in the South were waiting for them in their new homes.

Many leaders within African-American communities theorized that the best option was to leave America altogether and relocate back to Africa. Others suggested forming their own self-contained communities in which they would not have to rely on white people. New religions, sects, and radical political movements of all kinds flourished in this environment of frustration, uncertainty, and anger.

Wallace D. Fard formed the Nation of Islam in the early 1930s out of this chaotic milieu. Fard stitched together many of the ideas that had been circulating in radical African-American circles for years, including black separatism, the rejection of Christianity, and hostility towards white America. Fard launched an organization that articulated an atypical version of Islam that only halfway resembled orthodox Islam, while also emphasizing a distinctly racist, anti-European, and frequently anti-Semitic ideological platform.

It is not known exactly who Wallace D. Fard was, but he abruptly vanished in 1934, leaving his successor Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole in Georgia) to carry on his work. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Elijah Muhammad-led Nation of Islam built schools, mosques, and its own self-defense unit known as the Fruit of Islam.

Elijah Muhammad
Muhammad

Ideology and Origin Story

The Nation of Islam teaches that dark-skinned Africans were the first and most authentic human beings. White people, according to Nation of Islam theology, are the product of a mad scientist's experiment gone horribly awry, resulting in a race of 'blue-eyed devils.' The Nation of Islam's origin story tells of an evil scientist named Yakub in the distant past who conducted diabolical breeding experiments on the Greek island of Patmos that resulted in a pasty, soulless human, the race we today call Caucasians.

The 'blue-eyed devils' of Yakub's creation were fundamentally wicked, the Nation of Islam tells us, and have spent the intervening years brutalizing and enslaving dark skinned peoples. The Nation of Islam believes that a time of reckoning will soon arrive in which white people are finally overthrown in an apocalyptic race war, and dark-skinned Africans will once again reign supreme. Cryptic references are also made in some Nation of Islam literature to UFOs and other sci-fi technology being used to defeat the fiendish 'blue-eyed devils.'

The 1960s and Malcolm X

The Nation of Islam grew in size and influence during the 1940s and 1950s. In the early 1950s a young man named Malcolm Little joined the Nation of Islam while in prison. Upon his release, he changed his name to Malcolm X and quickly became a major spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The 'X' that some Nation of Islam members adopt is meant to symbolize the African name that had been stolen from them when their ancestors were enslaved.

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