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http://www.flickr.com/photos/30693332@N07/2875649943/in/photostream/The Legacy of The Hon. Elijah Muhammad

By Imam Ivan G. Nassar

This article was submitted as a part of the “Expressions of the African American Muslim Experience” call for submissions.

“Yes, today the Muslims are in all the major cities of America, and if you look around in the smaller cities you will find us there also. Just walk around saying, ‘as-salaamu alaikum’ (peace be with you), and pretty soon someone will reply, ‘Wa- alaikum- assalaam  (and upon you be peace).” —Elijah Muhammad’s Atlanta speech, 1961

When Elijah Muhammad spoke these words, there was hardly a black family in America that did not have a near relative or know someone who identified with the religion of Islam; these facts remain true today. Experts agree that Islam is the fastest growing religion among African Americans. “It’s an American phenomenon,” says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of history of Islam and Christian and Muslim relations at Georgetown University. “Starting from the ghettoes of the north, it is a response to racism; it is the religion of liberation.”

The professor’s points are valid; however, the professor fails to cite the genetic bond and historical connection that made Islam a legitimate choice for many African Americans. West Africa is the progenitor of African American history. Legendary Arab historians and eminent African scholars have documented the dignity and grandeur of the royal Islamic empire of Ghana, which served as the ancestral model for the Islamic empires of Mali, Songhay, and Kanem Bornu. According to the Arab historian and writer, al-Umari, the fame of West African Emperor Mansa Kankan Musa of Mali spread from Sudan, North Africa, and up to Europe.

The origin of the philosophy of the Nation of Islam is accreted to the mystic teacher Fard Muhammad who appeared in Detroit, Michigan in July 1930. Before his mysterious disappearance in 1934, he appointed his prize pupil Elijah Muhammad to lead the Nation of Islam, thus beginning the legacy of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad who would become one of the most feared and respected black men in American.

Elijah Muhammad taught and emphasized morality with respect to oneself and others. He also introduced a hypothesis of separation from the white race, believing that blacks should have their own state or territory. The first publication of the Nation of Islam newspaper bore the title “Some of this Earth to Call Our Own.”

Where home, schools and churches failed, leaving thousands of African Americans languishing under the imposition of social disparities, many African Americans viewed Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam as their saving grace. People who were once considered thugs, prostitutes, and dope addicts converted to Islam by the thousands. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson once said about Elijah Muhammad, “He took dope out of veins and put hope in our brains.”

Elijah Muhammad won an important convert when Malcolm X joined the faith in a prison cell. Malcolm became a public figure and spokesman for the Nation of Islam during the 1960s. With the leadership of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam became a movement to be reckoned with. A year before his death in 1964, Malcolm separated himself from Elijah Muhammad and its black supremacy teachings.

Other important converts of Elijah Muhammad include Louis Farrakhan and boxing legend Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay). Minister Farrakhan (Louis X) took over the roll of the official spokesperson for the Nation of Islam.

Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure at the age of seventy-seven on Feb. 25,1975. Twenty thousand mourners attended his funeral rites as Muslims mourned the loss of their leader.

Wallace D. Muhammad, the fifth son of Elijah Muhammad, became the undisputed leader of the movement. Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang professor and chairman of the African Study Department at Howard University called him ‘the Transformer in Chief’. He wrote, “Wallace shepherded the Nation of Islam into the fold of Sunni Islam.”

As the new leader moved closer to the beliefs and practices of Islam as experienced in most of the Muslim world, the movement split and Minister Louis Farrakhan became the leader for those who wanted to continue the unorthodox practice established by Elijah Muhammad.

Elijah Muhammad had a major role in the shaping of African American history. It was Elijah who spearheaded the fame of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan (Wallace), and Warith D. Mohammed; and he helped shape the character of boxing champ Muhammad Ali. All are products of his legacy.

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  • AsalumAlaykum

    Elijah Muhammad is considered in south africa as a very controversial person with regards to his practice of islam. What was his thought process regarding his ways of practice? And from my very limited knowledge about him, I have read that he painted himself to be Prophet like? Is this true?

    JazakaAllah ghair. May the All mighty increase us. And keep us growing with beneficial knowledge in shaa Allah.


    Br. ameer

  • I have a problem with this article. You don’t praise a man who called himself a prophet and died as such (because the Quran clearly speaks about where such root takes one in the after life). Also, I’m sure even Malcolm X who knew him better than you wouldn’t tolerate this as well. He didn’t leave only because of his unorthodox beliefs, he was a hypocrite who lied and went against his own teachings. Subhanallah, would you praise Musailamah Kadhaab? He must have brought some small good in the people but we don’t accept. Please, do not call this man honorable. People want to look for reasons to hate you.

  • While the Nation’s aqeedah may have been far from true Islam, there are many lessons we can learn from them in studying the programs they put in place to uplift people from the worst of habits and practices to the noblest of character and conduct.

    It’s a kind of discipline that we Muslims today should really try to learn from and apply in our own self-improvement.

  • The Nation of Islam teachings cannot be considered proper under Islamic belief because Muslims are required to believe Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him is the final messenger that will be sent to us, the Ummah – the Nation does not believe this. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz aka Malcolm X is a legend ON HIS OWN due to his charismatic way of speaking and successful manner in telling it like it is. Allah guided him onto the right path – may he be granted Paradise. It is incorrect to say Malcolm X is a product of Elijah’s legacy. Allah made Malcolm X accelerate in his preaching and he finally discovered true Islam. He stands on his own – not needing reference to Elijah. The Nation of Islam is not Islam. It may be very beneficial for African Americans – and yes they have some great organizing skills etc in order to be able to gather so many people. But please, be true to our true brother Malcolm X and give him his due respect. After all, Malcolm X El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz cut his ties with the Nation and only Allah knows for certain – but paid the price with his life. May Allah guide us all. Aameen.

  • I think its inappropriate for Muslims to call honorable anyone who a) claimed prophecy after Prophet Muhammad b) had poor character and was a known adulterer and c) called for the assassination of our brother malcolm x. Anything good he did pales in comparison. Sometimes Allah uses evil people to advance good. We dont attribute the advancement to the evil person, but to Allah

  • Thank you for writing such a positive tribute to our leader, teacher, and guide, The Hon. Elijah Muhammad. It’s too often that the goodness of his work is overlooked, and I am very appreciative of your kind words. Thank You

  • actually i felt this was an entirely neutral article and clearly implied that Nation of Islam is not the same as orthodox/Qur’anic Islam. I would say the tone is the same as would be employed if we might discuss a non-believer leader who nevertheless had an influence/effect on Muslims.

    I think the confusion is from the term “Hon.” which may be mistaken (quite understandably for American readers) as the author’s own use to refer to Elijah Muhammad. I believe the author was merely using the term as used by Elijah for himself, and by his followers (his “formal” title). it’s a title, like “his excellency”, “Rt. Hon”, “Sir”, etc. not an adjective.

    • You know, I agree it was more neutral than positive, nonetheless it was still more positive than most articles on the web. Lol.

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