The influence of religion on the everyday life of society cannot be underestimated. However, religion is nothing without followers. Sometimes, it is used as a tool for changing the lives of ordinary people. However, in such cases, it requires particular changes in the primary postulates and strong leaders. One of the examples of such heterodox religions is the Nation of Islam. Sometimes referred to as the Black Muslims, its followers became involved in the struggle for racial equality and social justice in the United States.
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The Nation of Islam has a spectacular history, but it began with a single person, whose name was Wallace D. Fard. The development of the sect began in 1930 when he appeared in the black ghetto in Detroit. Fard was interested in the health and wellbeing of poor African Americans and gave them guidance on improving the quality of their lives through religion. His messages were based on both the Bible and Qur’an.
Pointing to the fact that a similar combination of Christianity and Islam is the true religion of the black people brought from Africa and Asia made it unique and appealing. The foundation of the promoted belief was the fact that white people were blue-eyed devils, who became dominant through cruelty, injustice, and murder (Palmer 1620).
Such postulates attracted numerous followers. Desiring to make a new religion even more popular and influential, Fard designated his assistant, Elijah Muhammad, to lead the branch of the Nation of Islam in Chicago. When Fard disappeared in 1934, it was Elijah Muhammad, who became the key figure in the rise of the organization because he made his Temple of Islam in Chicago the headquarters of the Nation (Fishman and Soage 60).
The role of Elijah Muhammad in the evolution of the Nation of Islam cannot be underestimated because he ruled the organization for more than forty years, and it was Muhammad, who made the postulates of the new religion clear and the sect influential and popular among African Americans (Soage 61). Before joining the Nation of Islam in 1931, he was an unemployed autoworker with three-grade school education, but it was his intelligence and the desire to improve the lives of his black brothers and sisters that made him a leader (Clegg 21).
Except for the central belief that the whites were devils from nature, who did not respect anyone but other whites, his doctrinal lineage was based on the idea that the blacks were the chosen people, and Allah was also black. Moreover, the whites were considered the force of evil, and the blacks were the forces of good. So, the struggle between the good and the evil obtained the racial foundation.
During his rule, the followers of the organization managed to turn it into a nationwide network of the sect with more than one hundred temples all over the United States. The primary guidance of the Nation was the necessity to attack racial inequality and build social justice. Muhammad believed that the only way to achieve this goal was to contribute to the economic independence of the black people and recover the acceptable identity.
The movement under his leadership turned into a separatist one because he believed that reaching the objectives mentioned above could become possible in the case of creating a separate country for African Americans and the followers of his brand of Islam (Palmer 1621). Nevertheless, when Muhammad realized that making it real is close to impossible, he decided to make mitigate the anti-white tone and switch to self-help, i.e. support those in need to reach higher levels of economic welfare without the strive for the existence of the independent state for the African Americans. So, he stepped away from separatism, but never gave up the idea of black supremacy.
Because Elijah Muhammad was imprisoned, his religion could not but become popular among the prisoners. One of those converted was another significant figure in the evolution of the Nation of Islam – Malcolm X. During one of the sermons, he realized that white people were the source of his family’s poverty and the cause of injustice in society. His conversion was quick because the religion perfectly suited his needs granting hope for a better future to black criminals.
The foundation of his doctrinal lineage was the belief that blacks should fight for the right to racial equality, and violence was an acceptable tool (“Malcolm X: Biography” par. 2). Moreover, he claimed that the Nation of Islam, being the representation of Allah on earth, should not keep away from the civil rights movement and become an active participant in the struggle for social justice.
However, a similar position led to Malcolm’s exclusion from the Nation. It was the initiative of Elijah Muhammad, who was the leader of the sect. This simple fact highlights that even though the religion operated under flexible postulates, violence was unacceptable because the focus was made on welfare and wellbeing. This personal conflict led to the split in the movement in 1964. Malcolm X founded his own groupings – the Organizations for Afro-American Unity and Muslim Mosque Inc., but they collapsed soon after his assassination in 1965 (Palmer 1623).
Even though the figure of Malcolm X was contradictory, his significance for the rise of the Nation of Islam cannot be undervalued. His wit and intelligence, together with inspiring speeches, made the organization even more popular and helped win thousands of new followers, especially among prisoners (Colley 403).
Nevertheless, the death of Malcolm X has not put an end to the turmoil inside the Nation of Islam. In 1975, Elijah Muhammad passed away leaving the organization without a leader. The new head of the Nation, Wallace Muhammad, who was one of Elijah’s sons, decide to transform the sect and integrate it into the global Islam. The story of a man, who later became known as Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, is controversial because he was a follower of the orthodox Islam and there were numerous instances of his exclusion from the organization.
As he returned and became a new spiritual leader, he changed the course of the sect’s development. The foundation of his doctrinal lineage was the decision to step away from his father’s belief that the white people were the devils. He claimed that the whites are also Allah’s worshippers. That is why the belief in the supremacy of one race over another is wrong and unjust because it does not fall under the will of Allah. It means that Wallace Muhammad was a reformist, who destroyed the legacy of his father, nullifying its uniqueness and bringing the religion in line with the postulates of traditional Islam. He brought his ideas to life by transforming the temples located all over the United States into traditional Muslim mosques.
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Finally, he introduced five pillars of Islam and renamed the organization in order to reflect the new model of thinking adopted by its followers (“Warith Deen Mohammed: Imam who preached a moderate form of Islam to black Americans” par. 9). Since then, it has turned into the Muslim American Community.
Similar transformations had a negative impact on the Nation of Islam. They led to further splits and reduction in the number of followers. Even though it was one of the most visible religious and nationalist movements in the history of the United States, it never regained the popularity it used to have. It still operates in smaller cities, but the epoch of its might has ended.
In the conclusion, it can be said that although the roles of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Wallace Muhammad were different, they were all significant for the evolution of the Nation of Islam. Of course, the first two figures won new followers of the organization and the last one decided to transform it ruining the job of his predecessors, but their influence is significant. First of all, they fought for the equal rights of African Americans, and they have achieved this objective.
It means that the decision to transform the sect into a traditional Muslim organization might have been motivated by the desegregation of public life and acknowledging racial equality. There is no sense in escalating interracial hostility in the country, which moves into the direction of justice. Finally, these people helped establish Islam as one of the primary religions in the United States making the nation religiously diverse.
Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina, 2014. Print.
Colley, Zoe. ““All America Is a Prison”: The Nation of Islam and the Politicization of African American Prisoners, 1955-1965.” Journal of American Studies, 48.2 (2014): 393-415. Print.
Fishman, Jason Eric, and Ana Belén Soage. “The Nation of Islam and the Muslim World: Theologically Divorced and Politically United.” Religion Compass, 7.2 (2013): 59-68. Print.
Malcolm X: Biography. n.d. Web.
Palmer, Colin A. Ed. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History: The Black Experience in Americas. 6 Vols. Detroit, Michigan: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. Print.