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A bespectacled Black man wearing a  coat and a tie.
Malcolm X helped lead the Nation of Islam until 1964. Truman Moore/Getty Images

The Nation of Islam: A brief history

May 2023 marks 98 years since the birth of civil rights leader Malcolm X, formerly Malcolm Little.

Malcolm X was a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, or NOI, and helped to lead the organization until he left in 1964 – the year before his assassination.

The NOI, whose role in civil rights movements is a focus of my research, included leaders such as Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, who along with Malcolm X are known for their fiery rhetoric and teachings on race.

The NOI, which teaches a Black supremacist message and advocates for racial separatism, has also been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While the organization once boasted half a million members, the group is now relatively small. Currently it has an estimated membership of roughly 35,000 – but prominent NOI members, such as boxer and onetime Malcolm X friend Muhammad Ali, attracted wide public interest in the movement. Today, its influence continues to extend well beyond its membership.

The friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali continues to fascinate modern audiences.

Although Malcolm X – and other prominent members like Ali – left the NOI, thousands of students each year learn about the group from Malcolm X’s “Autobiography,” originally published in 1965.

Malcolm X’s influence on popular culture also remains significant. He inspired a Hollywood biopic and is referenced in the work of artists such as Beyoncé, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, who was briefly associated with NOI.

The legacy of Malcolm X has helped the NOI to maintain a high profile in modern popular culture. An example is ‘Master Fard Muhammad’ (official video), 2021.

Thanks largely to Malcolm X, the NOI is now a household name, but its teachings remain controversial, particularly among Muslims.

A radical alternative to Christianity?

W.D. Fard, a peddler by day and preacher by night, established the NOI in 1931 in Detroit, Michigan.

He taught that God was a Black man who taught the first human beings Islam. Accordingly, Fard framed Islam as “the natural faith” for people whose ancestors came from Africa, before colonization and slavery had forced Christianity onto them. He argued that Black people should abandon Christianity in favor of Islam as their ancestral religion.

Fard also taught that Christianity was “the white man’s” religion and a corrupted form of Islam used to promote white supremacy. The message appealed to Black migrants from the South, who were sometimes looked down upon by Northern Black Protestants. Fard disappeared from the historical record in the mid-1930s.

Malcolm X and the NOI

Malcolm X joined the NOI while incarcerated in 1952. He became an international spokesman for the group, using his fierce wit and sense of humor to debate Black and white leaders on matters of race, religion and politics.

Some of Malcolm X’s speeches continue to resonate today.

Malcolm X was suspended from the NOI in 1963 for his comments about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The following year, he renounced the NOI, converted to Sunni Islam, completed the hajj and formed a Black civil rights organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unit, or OAAU. This group sought to unite all Black people across the globe and conditionally accepted help from white people committed to Black freedom. The NOI, on the other hand, focused on the U.S. and refused all help from white Americans.

Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, during an OAAU event in New York. The identity of his killers remains a mystery.

‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’ 2020 Netflix documentary (official trailer)

A new era

When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son, Warith Deen Mohammed, transformed the NOI into the “World Community of al-Islam in the West.” He downplayed previous teachings about Black supremacy and aligned the movement closer to Sunni Islam. In 1977, however, a protégé of Elijah Muhammad’s and Malcolm X’s named Louis Farrakhan “restored” Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Farrakhan assumed leadership of the group and emphasized Elijah’s teachings on race.

W.D. Fard, the NOI’s founder, and his successor Elijah Muhammad did not seem to know much about Sunni or Shiite Islam’s teachings. Fard did not cite the Quran to his followers, and Elijah Muhammad did not read the book until after assuming the NOI’s leadership.

As the group grew after World War II, Muhammad and other leaders became more familiar with mainstream Islamic tenets. They changed the name of their meeting places from “temples” to “mosques” and incorporated the Quran and Arabic phrases into their teachings and community organizing.

While the movement has changed its practices to align more closely with global expressions of Islam, many Muslims do not consider the NOI part of the Ummah, the global community of Muslims.

Not universally considered Muslim

The NOI’s unique theology is one of the reasons the group is not accepted into the Ummah.

Other forms of Islam maintain that God is eternal, nonhuman and singularly divine. The NOI, however, teaches that W.D. Fard was “God in person” who called Elijah Muhammad as his prophet.

Despite this significant deviation from mainstream forms of Islam, the NOI follows four of the five pillars of Islam: five daily prayers (salat), giving alms to the poor (zakat), pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) and a month of fasting during Ramadan.

NOI Muslims did not practice Ramadan until 1988, when Farrakhan instructed members to fast “with the entire Islamic world.”

Changing attitudes?

That change led to opportunities for intra-Muslim cooperation but also underscored the limited acceptance of the NOI that continues among many other Muslim groups.

For example, in 2000, NOI members prayed with Houston Muslims during Ramadan, allowing the NOI to connect with other American Muslims.

However, these cross-Muslim events have not continued in Houston. Nor are they common elsewhere. The lack of sustained pan-Muslim events might suggest that, even when religious practice aligns, there remain obstacles to the building of relationships between mainstream and NOI Muslims.

While both the NOI and Malcolm X remain controversial, for many admirers X’s work has taken on new significance for today’s racial justice movements.

Malcolm X’s legacy continues in today’s movements for racial justice.

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