Muhammad, Elijah 1897–1975
Elijah Muhammad 1897–1975
Leader of the Nation of Islam
“During our colored and Negro days, he was Black.” So said Jesse Jackson shortly after the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s death on February 25, 1975. Elijah Muhammad was a fearless critic of white America at a time when blacks who questioned the status quo had much to fear. Known as the Messenger of Allah to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in North America, his Temple of Islam mixed black nationalism with a program of economic self-improvement and the dietary and prayer laws of traditional Islam. Muhammad and his movement pioneered an interest in black history, emphasized black pride, and practiced black entrepreneurship and self-reliance.
Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah Poole on October 7, 1897, in rural Sandersville, Georgia. His parents, Wali and Marie Poole, were former slaves who worked as sharecroppers. His father was a Baptist preacher. Young Elijah went to school through the fourth grade and learned the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic before economic conditions forced him to join the rest of his family working in the fields.
There was little future there for one of thirteen children, so at the age of sixteen he left home. In 1919 he married Clara Evans, and in 1923, he, Clara, and their two young children moved to Detroit, joining a mass of African Americans who migrated north seeking jobs after World War I. There, he held a series of jobs—including a stint on a Chevrolet assembly line—before the Great Depression hit and devastated the U.S. economy.
In 1930 he came under the influence of Wallace D. Fard, the founder and charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam. Fard had appeared in Detroit in the summer of that year, selling raincoats and later silks. He charmed his customers with tales of black history and showed them—through ingenious interpretations of the Bible—that Islam, not Christianity, was the religion of black men in Asia and Africa. Fard’s message struck a chord, and his initial sessions grew to gatherings in homes and then to mass assemblies in a hall that he and his followers hired and named the Temple of Islam.
Each person wishing to join the temple was required to write a letter asking for his original (Islamic) name to replace the slave name the white man gave his ancestors. When Elijah Poole and his two brothers applied for names,
Born Elijah Poole, October 7, 1897, in Sandersville, GA; name changed to Elijah Muhammad, c. 1931; died of heart and respiratory ailments, February 25, 1975; son of Wall (a Baptist preacher and sharecropper) and Marie (a sharecropper) Poole; married Clara Evans, 1919; children: eight. Religion: Nation of Islam.
Worked as a laborer in Georgia and Detroit, 1913-30; met, worked for, and studied under Wallace D. Fard, 1930-34; established Southside Mosque in Chicago, IL, 1932; became leader of Nation of Islam on Fard’s disappearance, 1934-75; violated Selective Service Act by exhorting followers to avoid the draft, 1942; worked to build self-reliant black enterprise under Nation of Islam banner, mid-1960s-1975. Author of Message to the Black Man in America, published by United Brothers.
Addresses: c/o Nation of Islam, 734 West 79th St., Chicago, IL 60620.
they neglected to indicate that they were related. The prophet—as Fard was called—inadvertently gave them three different surnames: Sharrieff, Karriem, and Muhammad.
Once accepted, Elijah Karriem—as Poole was then called—devoted himself to Fard and the movement. Opposed by moderates, he nevertheless became Fard’s most trusted lieutenant. Fard acknowledged his higher status by renaming him Elijah Muhammad and appointing him chief minister of Islam.
In 1932 Fard sent Muhammad to Chicago to established the Southside Mosque, which was later called Temple No. 2. Muhammad was successful in that venture, but at the same time back in Detroit, Fard was being harassed by the police. C. Eric Lincoln, author of The Black Muslims in America, quoted Muhammad’s recollection of the events: “He [Fard] was persecuted, sent to jail in 1932, and ordered out of Detroit, Michigan, May 26, 1933.... He came to Chicago in the same year, [was] arrested almost immediately and placed behind prison bars. He submitted himself with all humility to his persecutors. Each time he was arrested he sent for me that I... [might] see and learn the price of truth for us (the so-called Negroes).”
Fard was not the only object of police interest. Muhammad himself was arrested in 1934 when he refused to transfer his children from the movement’s school, the University of Islam, to a public school. Tried in Detroit, he was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and placed on six months’ probation.
Likewise, the police were not the only organization harassing the Nation of Islam. Communists, anti-union, pro-Ethiopian, and pro-Japanese elements all tried to take over the movement for their own ends. Despite these pressures, Fard established effective organization, implemented ritual and worship, founded the University of Islam school for Muslim children, and instituted the Fruit of Islam, a paramilitary organization meant to protect the organization from police and other unbelievers.
When Fard disappeared in June of 1934, most saw Muhammad, his chief minister, as a natural successor. But Detroit was filled with rivals, so Muhammad returned to Chicago and Temple No. 2. There he set up new headquarters and began to reshape the movement under his own highly militant leadership. He equated Fard with “Allah” and instituted prayers and sacrifices to Fard. He also assumed the mantle of “Prophet,” which “Allah” had worn during his mission in Detroit.
The five-foot five-inch tall, thin-voiced Muhammad was physically an unlikely leader of a mass movement. But what he lacked in physical stature he more than made up for in intensity and radicalism. Whites, according to Muhammad, had forced the present intolerable situation on blacks, but the black man had allowed it to continue by remaining “in a land not his own.” According to Muhammad, separation was the only answer. The separation Muhammad was talking about was not the “back to Africa” movement that black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey had proposed a generation previously. Lincoln quoted Muhammad as saying that what he and the Nation of Islam wanted was “some of the land our fathers and mothers paid for in 300 years of slavery.”
According to Muhammad, blacks were the original, superior race of humans on earth. The tribe of Shabazz—the black race—began when an explosion divided the earth and the moon sixty-six trillion years ago. Whites, Muhammad claimed, were created by the evil magician Yakub. Yakub had grafted the weaker of two germs that exist within blacks, and the end product of his biological experiment was the white race. As a result of their unnatural creation, whites were thought to be evil and degraded. Muhammad believed that the white man’s reign on earth was to last 6,000 years before Allah came, at which time the white race would reach its end. The Nation of Islam views the coming of Allah as the coming of the Supreme Black Man, the Supreme Being among a mighty nation of divine black men.
The Nation of Islam became known for fostering black pride and self-sufficiency among its predominantly young, male, lower-class members. Muhammad promoted an effective program of good health, self-improvement, and moral guidelines for members of the movement to follow. Alcohol, tobacco, and the “slave diet” of pork and corn-bread were prohibited; one meal of fresh food was encouraged; male members were required to recruit new followers to the faith; and a strict code of marital fidelity was enforced. Muhammad also encouraged members to improve themselves economically and provided schooling and training in business enterprises to assist them in attaining the goal of financial independence. “Put your brains to thinking for self;” The Black Muslims in America quoted him as saying, “your feet to walking in the direction of self; your hands to working for self and your children.... Stop begging for what others have and help yourself to some of this good earth.... We must go for ourselves.... This calls for the unity of us all to accomplish it!”
Throughout the 1930s, Muhammad and his staff continued to build temples in the heart of the black ghetto, where, according to The Black Muslims in America, “the illusion of a ’Black Nation’ within a surrounding and hostile ’White nation’” takes on a semblance of reality. During World War II the authorities saw the Nation of Islam’s separatist ideology as a threat to the war effort. In 1942 Muhammad was arrested and charged with sedition and violation of the Selective Service Act. Cleared of sedition charges, he was convicted of exhorting his followers to avoid the draft. He spent the remaining years of the war in a federal prison in Milan, Michigan, where he was able to control the movement from his prison quarters.
Small, thin, and suffering from asthma and bronchitis, Muhammad was nevertheless able to keep the movement going. His column in the Pittsburgh Courier was widely read and commented on in the black community. In the late 1940s, Malcolm Little joined the movement while serving in a Massachusetts prison. Renamed Malcolm X, he became Muhammad’s chief disciple and bore Muhammad’s message across the country. According to Newsweek, Malcolm “put the little kingdom of Allah on the map.”
By 1960 the Nation of Islam had 69 temples or missions in 27 states. Tiny compared to conventional churches, its growth nevertheless became a worry to both conservatives and liberals. The conservative newsweekly U.S. News & World Report played on racial fears with a 1959 article called “Black Supremacy Cult in U.S.—How Much Of A Threat?” Among liberals, NAACP Chief Council Thurgood Marshall, probably smarting from Nation of Islam criticism, told the New York Times that the movement was “run by a bunch of thugs organized from prisons and jails and financed, I am sure by [Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel] Nasser or some Arab group.”
But while many criticized the Nation of Islam’s rhetoric, its positive effects could not be overlooked. Even Newsweek admitted that behind the discourse on “White devils,” there was an inspirational message. “The real heart of Muhammad’s message was the worth, the competence and the solidarity of Black people. He urged them to express it through a meld of puritan morals (no cigarettes, liquor, drugs or non-marital sex) and Protestant work ethics.”
Despite or maybe because of the movement’s tremendous growth, some say a rift had developed and that Muhammad was looking for an opportunity to put Malcolm X in his place. That opportunity came in November of 1963 when Malcolm told a Black Muslim rally at Manhattan Center that the assassination of President Kennedy was an instance of “the chickens coming home to roost.” While Malcolm’s statement was not against the Nation of Islam dogma, it was not the kind of utterance Muhammad wanted him to make in public. As punishment Malcolm was silenced for 90 days.
Malcolm accepted the punishment, but on March 8, 1964, he broke with Muhammad, telling the press that he was leaving the Muslims to organize his own party. According to the New York Times, Muhammad’s reaction to Malcolm’s schism was both angry and regretful. “Malcolm’s plans have had no effect at all on the movement. My work is divine work and people believe in what I am teaching of the resurrection from the death—the mental death of my people. Anyone who deviates from Islam is a hypocrite.”
After Malcolm X was assassinated in February of 1965, Muhammad kept close to his Chicago mansion, giving few interviews and rarely appearing in public. When he did appear it was in the company of hundreds of Fruit of Islam security guards. Mostly he worked in the Nation of Islam offices, planning recruitment strategies and tending to the movement’s growing network of businesses, farmlands, and restaurants.
In the early 1970s, an increasing radicalism made itself felt in the movement. A January 1972 shootout between police and a Louisiana Nation of Islam splinter group brought to light a split in the movement. According to Newsweek, younger activists such as the Young Muslims in Chicago, Saudi Arabia in New York, and El Colistrand in Oakland, California, were disenchanted with the $1.5 million the Nation of Islam was spending on mansions for Muhammad, his family, and his aids in Chicago. Muhammad responded to the rebellions like the elder statesman he by then was. “I think there is some little splinter group that sometimes wants to go out for themselves and be big boys,” he told Newsweek, “and so they take chances sometimes, and sometimes they stub their toes and they have to go back home and bandage them up. By that time, we’re back where we was.”
On January 30, 1975, Elijah entered Mercy Hospital in Chicago suffering from heart trouble, bronchitis, asthma, and diabetes. He died on February 25th. In a 1989 article for The Final Call titled “Allah’s Promise,” Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan eulogized Muhammad and called on black men and women to see the value of his words: “This modern era of Black consciousness was inaugurated by Muslims.... We became Muslims because Master Fard Muhammad came and raised up the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and gave him a methodology that enabled him to reach a spiritually and mentally dead people and raise us to spiritual and mental life.”
Farrakhan continued: “Elijah Muhammad was indeed a friend of the Black man and woman. He worked, suffered, studied, and constantly prayed for our rise. He sacrificed his own personal life to devote 44 years to the rise of our people. He singlehandedly, with tenaciousness of will and singleness of purpose, turned the language of America from use of the word ’Negro,’ which means something dead, lifeless and hard, into seeing ourselves as Black people, members of the aboriginal nation of the Earth.... He more than any religious leader is responsible for causing us to refer to one another as brothers and sisters.”
Lincoln, C. Eric, The Black Muslims in America, Greenwood Press, 1982.
The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African American, edited by Harry A. Ploski and James Williams, 5th edition, Gale, 1989.
Young, Henry J., Major Black Religious Leaders, Abingdon, 1979.
The Final Call, January 15, 1989.
Newsweek, January 31, 1972; March 10, 1975.
New York Times, February 26, 1975.
New York Times Magazine, March 22, 1964.
Reporter, August 4, 1960.
Time, March 10, 1975.
U.S. News & World Report, November 9, 1959.
Muhammad, Elijah 1879-1975
Elijah Muhammad was born on or about October 7, 1879, in Sandersville, Georgia, as Elijah Poole into a family with thirteen siblings. In his late teens or very early twenties he married Clara Evans, with whom he had eight children. He moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1929 or 1930 to find employment, as did many blacks during the Great Migration from the South to the North during and after the stock market crash of 1929. In Detroit Clara Poole first heard of a “peddler/preacher” named Master Fard Muhammad who was preaching a different religious message—“the oneness of God,” and that “blacks needed to embrace the religion of their ancestors”—Islam. Intrigued, Elijah went to investigate both the man and the message, and soon was Fard Muhammad’s favored student. The community the Poole family joined was recorded as the Nation of Islam (NOI), founded by Fard Muhammad.
An ardent and trustworthy student, Poole was first given the surname Karriem and then Muhammad as he matured from student to minister to Supreme Minister. By 1934 Fard Muhammad had left active participation in the NOI and Elijah Muhammad was appointed its leader, which enabled him to put what he had learned into action. His enduring task was to teach black people that their history written by white people was not true, to enlighten them about who they actually were in creation and the civilization of the world, and to maximize their potential as productive human beings working to better their spiritual, moral, and economic lives in a hostile, evil society. With a truncated U.S. education (ended at about the fourth grade) and a highly developed intellect accompanied by firm belief, Elijah Muhammad built a small but concrete empire. The Nation owned land, farms, schools, grocery stores, a national newspaper, clothing factories, and an international fish shipping company.
Muhammad used a multipronged, basic approach in his community. This was to engender moral and spiritual cleanliness (inwardly and outwardly); to instill the notion of seeking knowledge; to understand the command to work for self and the betterment of the black community by building and sustaining an economy, eating right, and nurturing strong families; and to avoid those things that would hamper any of the above, such as drinking alcohol, eating pork, gambling, and so on. This approach resulted in greater land and building ownership and the establishment of import-export businesses, clothing and grocery stores, and savings plans, and the publication of numerous texts as well as a newspaper that is now more than seventy years old.
The “Muslim Program” of the Nation of Islam has always been characterized as being divided between what Muslims want and what they believe. Simply summarized, Muhammad recognized that the United States had engineered a genocidal program against its ex-slaves that included regular lynchings, beatings, segregation, and racial discrimination. His response was to call for the establishment of a separate state where blacks could prosper. Members of his community believe in the oneness of God (Allah), the Holy Qur’an, and all the revealed scriptures—the Torah, the Bible—with the same qualifications as Sunni and Shi’a Muslims (for example, they do not believe that Jesus is God). They also believe that the so-called “Negroes” in America are God’s chosen people.
The main goal for this community has always been the same: to uplift the black community to take a place in world leadership, moving away from dominion over others to cooperative living. With this in mind, members of this community have conscientiously objected to military service through several European wars and the United States’s aggressions overseas. Their points were most ardently made by one of the most outspoken of the NOI’s members, El-Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X). Shabazz was introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam while in prison in the 1950s, and upon his release he met Muhammad and became his student. Shabazz’s intellect and charisma propelled him quickly through the ranks of the NOI to become one of its most visible spokespersons, until his assassination in 1963. Shabazz had publicly questioned the integrity of Muhammad, revealing that he had affairs with several of his secretaries, producing children. It is widely suspected that these public revelations, as well as jealousy engendered by Shabazz’s high public profile, provoked his assassination; the men arrested for the murder were associated with the Nation of Islam. Muhammad lived until 1975, when leadership of the Nation of Islam passed to another student, Louis Farrakhan, until 2006; the leadership at that point transferred to a board.
SEE ALSO Black Nationalism; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Malcolm X; Nation of Islam; Nationalism and Nationality; Religion; Rituals
Lincoln, C. Eric. 1991. The Black Muslims in America. Queens, NY: Kayode Publications.
Muhammad, Elijah. 1965. Message to the Black Man in America. Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No. 2.
Muhammad, Elijah. 1967. How to Eat to Live. Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No. 2.
Aminah Beverly McCloud
Elijah Muhammad was the leader of the Nation of Islam ("Black Muslims") during their period of greatest growth in the mid-twentieth century. He was a major promoter of independent, black-operated businesses, institutions, and religion.
Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah (or Robert) Poole on October 7, 1897, near Sandersville, Georgia. His parents were former slaves who worked as sharecroppers (farming the owner's land for a share of the crops) on a cotton plantation; his father was also a Baptist preacher. One of thirteen children, his schooling only lasted until he was nine; then Elijah had to work in the fields and on the railroad. His light skin color made him even more aware of the injustices (unfair treatments) that had been done to his ancestors. He left home at age sixteen to travel and work at odd jobs. He settled in Detroit, Michigan, in 1923, working on a car assembly line.
Poole became an early follower of W. D. Fard (c. 1877–c. 1934), the founder of the Nation of Islam, a religious faith practiced by Muslims in which Allah is the one god and Muhammad is his prophet (one who speaks through messages from a divine source). Fard appeared in Detroit in 1930, selling silk goods and telling his customers in the African American ghetto of their ancestral "homeland" across the seas. Fard proclaimed Islam the one correct religion for African Americans, denouncing Christianity as the religion of the slave masters. Soon Fard announced the opening of the Temple of Islam. It featured an unorthodox (nontraditional) form of Islam, but the movement also emphasized African American self-help and education.
Life as leader
Fard disappeared, as mysteriously as he had arrived, in the summer of 1934. The movement he had founded quickly developed several smaller groups. The most important was led by Poole, who had become a top leader to Fard and who had changed his name along the way to Elijah Muhammad. The movement had long had a policy of requiring members to drop their "slave" names.
Settling in Chicago, Illinois, Muhammad built what quickly became the most important center of the movement. Chicago soon featured not only a Temple of Islam, but a newspaper called Muhammad Speaks, a University of Islam, and several apartment houses, grocery stores, and restaurants—all owned by the movement. Temples were opened in other cities, and farms were purchased so that "pure" food could be made available to members. The movement was very controlled. Members had strict rules to follow regarding eating (various foods, such as pork, were forbidden), smoking and drinking (both banned), dress and appearance (conservative, neat clothing and good grooming were required), and personal behavior—drugs, the use of foul language, gambling, listening to music, and dancing were all not allowed.
Muhammad also revised the religion of the movement. Under his system Fard was proclaimed the earthly representative of Allah, and Elijah Muhammad was his divinely appointed prophet. Muhammad also taught that black people were the original human beings and that white people had been given a temporary privilege to govern the world. That period, however, was due to end soon; the time was at hand for black people to resume their former dominant role.
In 1942 Muhammad was one of a group of militant African American leaders arrested on charges of violation of the draft laws. He was accused of sympathizing with the Japanese during World War II (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis—Germany, Japan, and Italy—and the Allies—England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) and of encouraging his members to resist the military draft. He had, indeed, argued that white people oppressed (forced down) all people of color, and that it made no sense for African Americans to fight those who were victims of white discrimination (an unjust treatment or judgment because of differences) as much as they themselves were. For his words and actions Muhammad spent four years, from 1942 to 1946, in a federal prison at Milan, Michigan.
Small groups of like-minded individuals occasionally withdrew from Muhammad's movement. In the early 1960s Muhammad came to be overshadowed by the charming Malcolm X (1925–1967), leader of the New York Temple. In 1964 Malcolm X founded his own movement, which moved toward a more traditional form of Islam. However, Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965.
Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975. After his death the leadership of his movement passed to his son, Wallace (now Warith) Deen Muhammad, who renamed the movement the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, and then the American Muslim Mission. Warith Muhammad relaxed the strict dress code, abandoned resistance to military service, encouraged members to vote and to salute the flag, and even opened the movement to white people. In general, he made the movement much more conventionally Islamic.
Many members were disturbed at the movement's new, moderate direction. The most important of them formed a new group called the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan (1933–). Farrakhan generally retained Elijah Muhammad's ideas and practices.
For More Information
Clegg, Claude Andrew, III. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Evanzz, Karl. The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
Halasa, Malu. Elijah Muhammad. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
(b. 7 October 1897 in Bold Springs, Georgia; d. 25 February 1975 in Chicago, Illinois), black nationalist and founder of the Nation of Islam, known as "Messenger of Allah to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in North America."
Born Elijah Poole, Muhammad was one of thirteen children of Wali, a Baptist minister and sharecropper, and Mariah (Hall) Poole, a domestic servant. When he was fifteen years old, Muhammad witnessed the lynching of his friend Albert Hamilton, falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. After having completed only a formal fourth-grade education, Muhammad married Clara Evans on 17 March 1919. When he was twenty-four, he left Georgia with his extended family for Detroit, Michigan.
In Detroit Muhammad joined the Moorish Science Temple of America, becoming affiliated in 1931 with Wallace D. Fard (David Ford), a Detroit clothing merchant and the founder of the Allah Temple of Islam. Fard, who gave Muhammad the name of Elijah Karriem, changed the name of his organization from the Allah Temple of Islam to the Nation of Islam. Muhammad claimed leadership of the organization, but his position was contested by other members, and both men fled from Detroit after a murder was connected to the Allah Temple. Elijah Karriem (by that time given the name of Muhammad) ended up in Washington, D.C., where he read extensively at the Library of Congress. Muhammad rejoiced in the American defeat at Pearl Harbor. In 1942, refusing the draft, he was charged with sedition and draft evasion and spent three years in jail. Muhammad began calling himself the "Messenger of Allah to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in North America." He was under police and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance from 1930 until his death, and the FBI alone holds over a million pages of records on him.
Much controversy surrounded the origins of Fard, who either died or disappeared in 1934. Many years later, a 28 July 1963 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligence claimed that Fard was alive and well in New Zealand. Muhammad, by then the leader of the Nation of Islam, offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who could prove it. The FBI determined that Fard, a white ex-convict from San Quentin, was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1891, and not in Mecca of a black and white couple. His former common-law wife claimed Fard was really Fred Dodd, born in New Zealand in 1891 of Polynesian and English parents. Another claimed he was really Arnold Josiah Ford, a black rabbi from New York.
After 1934, Muhammad claimed that Allah himself had appeared in the person of Fard, and that he, Muhammad, was a prophet of Allah. His message that whites were devils from whom the blacks must remain separate and over whom the blacks would gain ultimate victory in the battle of Armageddon (in reference to the biblical story of the final struggle between good and evil) offered many poor blacks a sense of hope in a time when such hope was not available elsewhere.
While some claimed that between 100,000 and 250,000 African Americans were affiliated with the Nation of Islam during the 1960s, Muhammad's son, Warith (Wallace) D. Muhammad in the 1990s claimed the number was more like ten thousand. Some claim that the Nation of Islam had eighty thousand members in 1960, but others report that the group's seventy temples had 100, 000 members at the time of Muhammad's death.
The most famous member of the Nation of Islam remains Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X, who converted to Islam while held in federal prison in 1947 at Concord, Massachusetts. Released in 1952, he went to work for Elijah Muhammad and continued with the Nation of Islam until 1964. Named national spokesman for the Nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Muhammad started the weekly newspaper Muhammad Speaks. In his Autobiography (1964) Malcolm X calculated that he had "either directly established, or I had helped to establish, most of the one hundred or more mosques in the fifty states."
By January of 1960 Muhammad had fathered the first of thirteen illegitimate children. His legendary affairs may have included at least one that was incestuous. Flying in executive jets and wearing a $150,000 diamond-studded fez, Muhammad lavished material goods upon himself. When George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, called Muhammad the black Adolf Hitler, Muhammad took the remark as a compliment.
All this put strains on the Nation of Islam, and at the same time threatened the relationship between Muhammad and Malcolm X. Because of various paternity charges against Muhammad, Malcolm X—already censured by Muhammad for making controversial public statements after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—dissociated himself from the Nation of Islam.
In 1965 Louis Farrakhan (Louis Eugene Walcott), minister of Harlem Temple, denounced Malcolm X in Muhammad Speaks. Nation of Islam members who opposed Muhammad were often killed or injured, and some believe that Muhammad ordered the assassination of Malcolm X that year.
In 1967 Farrakhan became the Nation of Islam's national representative. Muhammad was no longer in a leadership position because he was under critical scrutiny for his extramarital activities. That same year W. Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son, renamed the Nation of Islam as the World Community of Al-Islam in the West.
After Muhammad's death from congestive heart failure, he was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Chicago. Leadership in the organization was divided between Farrakhan, who married his daughters to Muhammad's nephew and grandson, and the considerably more moderate W. Deen Muhammad. In February of 2000, the two men agreed to work together for the betterment of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad left an estate of $5.7 million, which he divided between his twenty-one heirs, including eight legitimate and thirteen illegitimate children.
For biographical information on Muhammad, see Claude Andrew Clegg, The Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (1997), and Karl Evannz, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (1999). Also see Zafar Ishaq Ansari, "W. D. Muhammad: The Making of a 'Black Muslim' Leader (1933–1961)," American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 2 (1985): 245–262. Information on the Black Muslim movement can be found in Clifton E. Marsh, From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Transition from Separatism to Islam, 1930–1980 (1984), and Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992).
Larry D. Griffin
ELIJAH MUHAMMAD (1897–1975), major leader of the American Black Muslim movement, the Nation of Islam, for forty-one years. Born Robert Elijah Poole on October 10, 1897, near Sandersville, Georgia, he was one of thirteen children of an itinerant Baptist preacher. He attended rural schools but dropped out at the fourth grade to become a sharecropper in order to help his family. In 1919 Poole married Clara Evans and in 1923 his family joined the black migration from the South, moving to Detroit. For six years, until the beginning of the Great Depression, he worked at various jobs in industrial plants. From 1929 to 1931 Poole and his family survived on charity and relief, an experience that was reflected in his later hostility toward any form of public assistance and in his strong emphasis on a program of economic self-help for the Nation of Islam. "Do for self" became his rallying cry.
In 1931 Poole met Wallace D. Fard (1877?–1934?, also known, among other aliases, as Walli Farrad and Prophet Fard), who had established the first Temple of Islam in Detroit. He became a totally devoted follower of Prophet Fard and was consequently chosen by Fard as a chief aide and lieutenant. Fard named him "minister of Islam," made him drop his "slave name," Poole, and restored his "true Muslim name," Muhammad. Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934, and, after some internal conflict among Fard's followers, Elijah Muhammad led a major faction to Chicago, where he established Temple No. 2, which became the main headquarters for the Nation of Islam. He also instituted the worship of Prophet Fard as Allah and of himself as the Messenger of Allah. As head of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad was always addressed as "the Honorable." He built on the teachings of Fard and combined aspects of Islam and Christianity with the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) into an unorthodox Islam with a strong racial slant. His message of racial separation focused on the recognition of true black identity and stressed economic independence.
Elijah Muhammad spent four years of a five-year sentence in federal prison for encouraging draft refusal during World War II. After his release in 1946 the movement spread rapidly, especially with the aid of his chief protégé, Malcolm X (1925–1965). During its peak years the Nation of Islam numbered more than half a million devoted followers, influenced millions more, and accumulated an economic empire worth an estimated eighty million dollars. Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975, in Chicago and was succeeded by one of his six sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad.
Clegge, Claude III. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. New York, 1997. A biography of Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad. The Supreme Wisdom: Solution to the So-Called Negroe's Problem. Chicago, 1957.
Elijah Muhammad. Message to the Blackman in America. Chicago, 1965.
Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for an Identity in America. Chicago, 1962. A sociological study of the Nation of Islam in Chicago.
Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. Boston, 1961. Lincoln was officially given access to the Nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad, and his study remains the best historical overview of the development of the movement.
Mamiya, Lawrence H. "Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Final Call: Schism in the Muslim Movement." In The Muslim Community in North America, edited by Earle H. Waugh, Baha Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi. Edmonton, Alberta, 1983. A study of Louis Farrakhan, who as successor to Malcolm X as "national representative," has sustained the black nationalist emphases and other teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
Lawrence H. Mamiya (1987 and 2005)
October 10, 1897
February 25, 1975
The religious leader Elijah Muhammad was born Robert Elijah Poole in Sandersville, Georgia. He was one of thirteen children of an itinerant Baptist preacher and sharecropper. In 1919 he married Clara Evans and they joined the black migration to Detroit, where he worked in the auto plants. In 1931 he met Master Wallace Fard (or Wali Farad), founder of the Nation of Islam, who eventually chose this devoted disciple as his chief aide. Fard named him "Minister of Islam," dropped his slave name, Poole, and restored his true Muslim name, Muhammad. As the movement grew, a Temple of Islam was established in a Detroit storefront. It is estimated that Fard had close to 8,000 members in the Nation of Islam, consisting of poor black migrants and some former members from Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and Noble Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple.
After Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934, the Nation of Islam was divided by internal schisms. Elijah Muhammad led a major faction to Chicago, where he established Temple of Islam No. 2 as the main headquarters for the Nation. He also instituted the worship of Master Fard as Allah and himself as the Messenger of Allah and head of the Nation of Islam, always addressed with the title "the Honourable." Muhammad built on the teachings of Fard and combined aspects of Islam and Christianity with the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey into a "proto-Islam," an unorthodox Islam with a strong racial slant. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad's message of racial separation focused on the recognition of true black identity and stressed economic independence. "Knowledge of self" and "do for self" were the rallying cries. The economic ethic of the Black Muslims has been described as a kind of black puritanism, consisting of hard work, frugality, the avoidance of debt, self-improvement, and a conservative lifestyle. Muhammad's followers sold the Nation's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and established their own educational system of Clara Muhammad schools and small businesses such as bakeries, grocery stores, and outlets selling fish and bean pies. More than one hundred temples were founded. The disciples also followed strict dietary rules outlined in Muhammad's book How to Eat to Live, which enjoined one meal per day and complete abstention from pork, drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. The Nation itself owned farms in several states, a bank, trailer trucks for its fish and grocery businesses, an ultramodern printing press, and other assets.
Muhammad's ministers of Islam found the prisons and the streets of the ghetto a fertile recruiting ground. His message of self-reclamation and black manifest destiny struck a responsive chord in the thousands of black men and women whose hope and self-respect had been all but defeated by racial abuse and denigration. As a consequence of where they recruited and the militancy of their beliefs, the Black Muslims have attracted many more young black males than any other black movement.
Muhammad had an uncanny sense of the vulnerabilities of the black psyche during the social transitions brought on by two world wars; his Message to the Black Man in America diagnosed the problem as a confusion of identity and self-hatred caused by white racism. The cure he prescribed was radical surgery through the formation of a separate black nation. Muhammad's 120 "degrees," or lessons, and the major doctrines and beliefs of the Nation of Islam all elaborated on aspects of this central message. The white man is a "devil by nature," absolutely unredeemable and incapable of caring about or respecting anyone who is not white. He is the historic, persistent source of harm and injury to black people. The Nation of Islam's central theological myth tells of Yakub, a black mad scientist who rebelled against Allah by creating the white race, a weak, hybrid people who were permitted temporary dominance of the world. Whites achieved their power and position through devious means and "tricknology." But, according to the Black Muslim apocalyptic view, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the forces of good and the forces of evil—that is to say, blacks versus whites—will clash in a "Battle of Armageddon," and the blacks will emerge victorious to recreate their original hegemony under Allah throughout the world.
After spending four years in a federal prison for encouraging draft refusal during World War II, Elijah Muhammad was assisted by his chief protégé, Minister Malcolm X, in building the movement and encouraging its rapid spread in the 1950s and 1960s. During its peak years, the Nation of Islam had more than half a million devoted followers (while influencing millions more) and accumulated an economic empire worth an estimated $80 million. Besides his residence in Chicago, Muhammad also lived in a mansion outside of Phoenix, Arizona, since the climate helped to reduce his respiratory problems. He had eight children with his wife, Sister Clara Muhammad, but also fathered a number of illegitimate children with his secretaries, a circumstance that was one of the reasons for Malcolm X's final break with the Nation of Islam in 1964.
With only a third-grade education, Elijah Muhammad was the leader of the most enduring black militant movement in the United States. He died in Chicago and was succeeded by one of his six sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad. After his death, Muhammad's estate and the property of the Nation were involved in several lawsuits over the question of support for his illegitimate children.
Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. 3d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdsmans, 1993.
Muhammad, Elijah. How to Eat to Live. Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No. 2, 1972.
Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No. 2, 1965; reprint, Newport News, Va.: United Brothers, 1992.
lawrence h. mamiya (1996)
Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) was the leader of the Nation of Islam ("Black Muslims") during their period of greatest growth in the mid-20th century. He was a major advocate of independent, black-operated businesses, institutions, and religion.
Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah (or Robert) Poole on October 7, 1897, near Sandersville, Georgia. His parents were ex-slaves who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation; his father was also a Baptist preacher. As a youngster Elijah worked in the fields and on the railroad, but he left home at age 16 to travel and work at odd jobs. He settled in Detroit in 1923, working on a Chevrolet assembly line.
Poole and his two brothers became early disciples of W.D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam. Fard, of mysterious background, appeared in Detroit in 1930, selling silk goods and telling his customers in Detroit's African American ghetto of their ancestral "homeland" across the seas. Soon Fard began holding meetings in homes, and then in rented halls, telling his listeners tales purporting to describe their nonwhite kin in other lands and urging them to emulate these brothers and sisters in such matters as dress and diet. Fard proclaimed Islam the one correct religion for African Americans, denouncing Christianity as the religion of the slavemasters. His meetings became dominated by his bitter denunciations of the white race. Soon Fard announced the opening of the Temple of Islam. It featured much antiwhite invective and embodied an unorthodox form of Islam, but the movement also emphasized African American self-help and education.
Fard disappeared, as mysteriously as he had arrived, in the summer of 1934. The movement he had founded quickly developed several factions, the most important of which was led by Poole, who had become a top lieutenant to Fard and whose name along the way had been changed to Elijah Muhammad. The movement had long had a policy of requiring members to drop their "slave" names.
Settling in Chicago, away from hostile Muslim factions in Detroit, Muhammad built what quickly became the most important center of the movement. Chicago soon featured not only a Temple of Islam, but a newspaper called Muhammad Speaks, a University of Islam (actually a private elementary and high school), and several movement-owned apartment houses, grocery stores, and restaurants. Temples were opened in other cities, and farms were purchased so that ritually pure food could be made available to members. The movement was a sharply disciplined one. Members had strict rules to follow regarding eating (various foods, such as pork, were forbidden), smoking and drinking (both banned), dress and appearance (conservative, neat clothing and good grooming were required), and all kinds of personal behavior (drugs, the use of profanity, gambling, listening to music, and dancing were all outlawed).
Muhammad also revised the theology of the movement. Under his system, Fard was proclaimed the earthly incarnation of Allah, the Muslim name for God; (Elijah) Muhammad was his divinely-appointed prophet. Muhammad also taught that blacks constituted the original human beings, but that a mad black scientist named Yakub had created a white beast through genetic manipulation and that whites had been given a temporary dispensation to govern the world. That period, however, was due to end soon; now the time was at hand for blacks to resume their former dominant role. It was understood that violent war would be likely before the transition could be completed. In the meantime, Muhammad advocated an independent nation for African Americans.
In 1942 Muhammad was one of a group of militant African American leaders arrested on charges of sedition, conspiracy, and violation of the draft laws. He was accused of sympathizing with the Japanese during World War II and of encouraging his members to resist the military draft. He had, indeed, argued that all nonwhites are oppressed by whites, and that it made no sense for African Americans to fight those who were victims of white racism as much as they themselves were. Muhammad was certainly no pacifist, but he argued that the only war in which African Americans should participate would be the coming "Battle of Armageddon," in which blacks would reassert their rightful superiority. For his words and actions Muhammad spent four years, from 1942 to 1946, in federal prison at Milan, Michigan.
Factions occasionally withdrew from Muhammad's movement. In the early 1960s Muhammad came to be overshadowed by the charismatic Malcolm X, leader of the New York Temple. Tensions between Malcolm X and Muhammad's leadership grew; finally, after Malcolm X commented that John F. Kennedy's assassination was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost," Muhammad suspended him. Shortly thereafter, in 1964, Malcolm X founded his own movement, which moved toward a more orthodox form of Islam. However, Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965.
Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975. After his death the leadership of his movement passed to his son, Wallace (now Warith) Deen Muhammad. The younger Muhammad renamed the movement the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, and then the American Muslim Mission; he also began to call blacks "Bilalians," after Bilal, who was said to have been an African follower of the prophet Muhammad. Warith Muhammad relaxed the strict dress code, abandoned resistance to military service, encouraged members to vote and to salute the flag, and even opened the movement to whites. In general, he made the movement much more conventionally Islamic.
Many members were disturbed at the movement's new, moderate direction and withdrew to form more traditionalist splinter groups. The most important of them retained the old name, the Nation of Islam, and was led by Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Eugene Walcott of British West Indian parents in 1934). Farrakhan generally retained Elijah Muhammad's ideas and practices, including the strict behavioral rules. He achieved prominence when he became a major adviser to Jesse Jackson during the latter's presidential campaign in 1984. At that time Farrakhan aroused controversy, particularly for his reported death threats directed at Jackson's Jewish critics.
The life and role of Elijah Muhammad are prominently discussed in the first thorough study of the Nation of Islam, C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (1961). His own principal work is Message to the Blackman in America (1965). Basic information can also be found in Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Information on Muhammad's life and ideas can be found in a number of books and articles on Black religion in America. See, for example, Henry J. Young, "Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975): Messenger of Allah," Major Black Religious Leaders Since 1940 (1979). For an interesting interpretation of the role of Fard, see Wallace D. Muhammad, "Self-Government in the New World," in Milton C. Sernett, editor, Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (1985). □