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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 socalled “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.
- Lincoln, Eric. 1991. The Black Muslims in America. Queens, NY: Kayode Publications.
- Muhammad, E 1965. Message to the Black Man in America. Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No. 2.
- Muhammad, E 1967. How to Eat to Live. Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No. 2.
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