African-American Islam emerged in the early 20th century when a number of black Americans converted to Islam, the religion they believed was part of their original African identity. They rejected Christianity as the religion of white supremacy and oppression; by contrast, Islam offered a brotherhood of believers, the ummah, which transcended race and ethnicity.
In the early 1930’s, Wallace D. Fard Muhammad drew on the Qur’an and the Bible to preach a message of black liberation in the ghettos of Chicago. He taught withdrawal from white society, rejected the domination of “blue-eyed devils” and emphasized the “religion of the Black Man” and the “Nation of Islam.”
Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934. Elijah Muhammad took over and built the Nation of Islam into an effective national movement whose members became known as “Black Muslims.” He denounced white society’s political and economic oppression of blacks and the resulting self-hatred, poverty and dependency. By the 1970’s the Nation of Islam had more than 100,000 members.
A number of basic beliefs of the Black Muslim movement differed significantly from mainstream Islam. Elijah Muhammad announced that Wallace D. Fard was God and that Elijah Muhammad, not the Prophet Muhammad, was the last messenger of God. The Nation taught black supremacy and black separatism, not Islam’s brotherhood of all believers; in addition, the Nation did not follow the Five Pillars of Islam or major Muslim rituals. A key individual who rose through the ranks of the Nation of Islam to national prominence was Malcolm x, who accepted the teaching of the Nation of Islam while in prison. Drawn by Elijah Muhammad’s black nationalism, denunciation of white racism and promotion of self-help, Malcolm Little became Malcolm x: ex-smoker, ex-drinker, ex-Christian and ex-slave. A gifted, charismatic speaker, he was the most visible and prominent spokesperson for Elijah Muhammad for some years.
In 1964 Malcolm x undertook the pilgrimage to Makkah. He was deeply affected by what he experienced there—the equality of all believers regardless of race, tribe or nation. Malcolm returned from the pilgrimage as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a Muslim rather than a Black Muslim, and changed his position on black nationalism. On February 21, 1965 he was assassinated; two members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the murder.
Besides Malcolm X, Wallace D. Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, and his brother Akbar Muhammad, a distinguished scholar of Islam who had studied in Egypt and Scotland, questioned and challenged some of their father’s teachings and strategy. Both sons were excommunicated. Yet, toward the end of his life, Elijah Muhammad also made the pilgrimage to Makkah and also began to modify some of his teachings. By the time he died in 1975, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation were publicly acknowledged for their constructive contributions to America’s inner-city communities.
When Wallace D. Muhammad succeeded his father, he implemented reforms to conform to the teachings of orthodox Sunni Islam. He too made the pilgrimage to Makkah and encouraged his followers to study Arabic in order to better understand Islam. The Nation observed the Five Pillars of Islam in unity with the worldwide Islamic community to which it now belonged. Black separatist doctrines were dropped and the Nation began to participate in the American political process. In the 1980’s, Wallace changed his own name to Warith Deen Muhammad and that of the Nation of Islam to the American Muslim Mission, integrating it with the American Muslim community as well as with American society as a whole and the global Islamic community.
While a majority followed Warith Deen Muhammad, media coverage of the Black Muslim movement often focused on the minority led by Louis Farrakhan, who bitterly rejected the changes instituted by both Malcolm x and Warith Deen Muhammad, maintaining that only he and his followers had remained faithful to the original message and mission of Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan retained the leadership of the Nation of Islam, as well as its black-nationalist and separatist doctrines. In recent years, however, he has moved closer to orthodox Islam.