Ever since entering the spotlight of public attention (about 1984), Louis Farrakhan has been a controversial figure. He thrills the hearts of some, scares the daylights out of others, and offends many more. When he called the African-American community to participate in a "Million Man March" on Washington, D.C., 400,000 responded—twice the number who walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Unlike Dr. King, everything Farrakhan said was dedicated to Allah.
Few people have reminded Americans of Islam’s presence on this continent more pointedly than Farrakhan. But what many people do not know is that Farrakhan does not represent Islam. He is the leader of the Nation of Islam, a distinctly American invention that has its roots in the opening years of the twentieth century (see Bijlefeld, 1993; Gudel and Duckworth, 1993; Ahlstrom, 1972; Morey, 1992).
In 1930, a Detroit clothing merchant named Wallace D. Fard (a.k.a. Wali Farad Muhammad) began preaching an Islamic-flavored message among blacks. Fard had been a follower of the “Noble Prophet Ali Drew,” founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America. Drew’s message was a mixture of Christian principles, Islamic ideals, and black nationalism that offered hope to an oppressed community of people. After Drew’s assassination in 1929, Fard, claiming connections with Mecca, began calling black Americans to renounce Christianity (a “white man’s religion”), and to embrace Islamic ideals. He founded the Temple of Islam in Detroit, and by 1934 had a following of 8,000. After Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934, his most famous disciple, Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole), carried the movement forward.
Elijah Muhammad claimed that Allah had appeared in the person of Fard, and that he himself was a prophet of Allah. He saw white people as devils and preached against integration. In his view, the black man would win ultimate victory over the white man in the battle of Armageddon. He offered the impoverished and persecuted black community a sense of dignity. Blacks were not simply the white man’s equal, but someday would rule the Earth.
In 1947, Elijah Muhammad’s message was heard and believed by the imprisoned Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) who, upon his release in 1952, joined the Black Muslims. He was an outspoken minister of the group until 1963, when he became disillusioned with Muhammad. After a trip to Mecca a year later, Malcolm X converted to orthodox Islam and no longer endorsed racial antagonism. Eleven months later he was assassinated.
When Muhammad died in 1975, he was succeeded by his son, Wallace Deen, who sought unification between the Black Muslims and orthodox Islam. This trend was unacceptable to Louis Farrakhan, who preferred the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. So, in 1977 Farrakhan broke from the Black Muslims, returned to his mentor’s teaching, and started the faction that bears the name “Nation of Islam” (a name also used by Elijah Muhammad).
Without Farrakhan, Wallace Deen Muhammad led Black Muslims to full unification with orthodox Islam. This group is not to be confused with the Nation of Islam, which still is considered heretical by Islam worldwide.
Some of the more troubling views of Elijah Muhammad that are evident in current Nation of Islam rhetoric are well summarized by Sidney Ahlstrohm:
[Their] eschatology teaches that God has come; there is no life after this life; heaven and hell are only two contrasting earthly conditions; the hereafter (which will begin to appear about A.D. 2000) is but the end of the present "spook" civilization of the Caucasian usurpers, including the Christian religion. It will be followed by the redemption of the Black Nation and their glorious rule over all the earth (1972, p. 1068).
Ostensibly, the message of the Nation of Islam (as presented by Farrakhan at the Million Man March) is one of social atonement and reconciliation; it is a call for the black community to strive for moral and ethical superiority. Farrakhan called the audience to give up drugs, prostitution, and violence, and to commit to improving themselves “spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically, and economically” (1995). These are laudable concerns that should transcend race. If lower crime rates, higher economic productivity, and an over-all improvement in the quality of life for African-Americans result from the efforts of Farrakhan, then all people will have reason to rejoice.
The problem with the Nation of Islam, however, is at least two-fold: (1) it is not the religion of Jesus Christ; and (2) it is preoccupied with “white supremacy.” In his Million Man March speech, Farrakhan argued that the United States is rotten at its very foundation because it has been characterized from the beginning by white supremacy. For example, He said:
The Seal and the Constitution [of the United States—BB] reflect the thinking of the founding fathers, that this was to be a nation by White people and for White people. Native Americans, Blacks, and all other non-White people were to be the burden bearers for the real citizens of this nation (1995).
Clearly, anyone with a cursory understanding of American history can respect (even if only to a limited degree) the sense of anger and frustration that minorities feel about their position in this society. Prejudice is a dangerous and painful thing. Its effects have not disappeared, and the wounds it has inflicted still are very fresh in many places (and in many lives). But the answer is not found in the Qur’an or the doctrines of Elijah Muhammad. Cornel West succinctly stated:
...one’s eyes should be on the prize, not on the perpetuator of one’s oppression. In short, Elijah Muhammad’s project remained captive to the supremacy game—a game mastered by the white racists he opposed and imitated with his black supremacy doctrine (1993, p. 100).
The only hope for a world torn by racial hatred is Jesus Christ—not a black Jesus or a white Jesus, but the Jesus of Scripture—Who like all of us is the Son of Adam, but unlike us, is also the Son of God. By His self-sacrifice for all humanity, He offers to break down the walls of enmity that sin erects between us (Acts 10:34; Ephesians 2:14; Galatians 3:28).
Ahlstrom, Sidney E. (1972), A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
Bijlefeld, Willem A. (1993), “Black Muslims” The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia [CD-ROM].
Farrakhan, Louis, (1995), Transcript from Minister Louis Farrakhan’s remarks at the Million Man March [Online], URL http://www3.cnn.com/US/9510/megamarch/10-16/transcript/index.html.
Gudel, Joseph P. and Larry Duckworth (1993), “Hate Begotten of Hate,” The Christian Research Institute [Online], URL http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/crj0010c.txt.
Morey, Robert A. (1992) The Islamic Invasion (Eugene, OR: Harvest House).
West, Cornel (1993), Race Matters (Boston, MA: Beacon).