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Abstract

The Nation of Islam (NOI) is an African American religious movement that originated in Detroit, Michigan, during the 1930s based on a rather heterodox form of the Muslim religion. Founded by the enigmatic Wallace D. Fard and taken over by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad upon Fard’s disappearance in 1934, the NOI came to exert important economic, political, and cultural influence in the African American community with its program of economic independence and charismatic high profile members such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Advocating the complete separation of Black people from the White race of “blue-eyed devils”, the NOI was a lightning rod for controversy. With Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, leadership of the organization passed into the hands of Warith Deen Mohammed, who dropped the name “Nation of Islam” and radically reorganized the group along quasi-Sunni Islamic lines. However, in 1977, long time NOI member Minister Louis Farrakhan reestablished the Nation of Islam according to Elijah Muhammad’s doctrine, and subsequently propelled it back into America’s national consciousness with his controversial involvement in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign and the 1995 Million Man March in Washington D.C. Although the NOI has done much to popularize Islam in the U.S., the Nation’s religious beliefs bear little resemblance to traditional Islamic theology. While the Nation shares a common vocabulary with Muslims around the world, the NOI’s teachings concerning God, cosmology, Prophet Muhammad and the afterlife can be deemed heterodox, or even heretical, by Islamic standards. But despite its vast ideological differences from the international Muslim community, the NOI has come to be seen like a partner, even an ally, by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This paper explores the NOI’s trajectory and ideology, together with the reasons behind that apparent paradox, and shows it to be built on common interest rather than a common faith.