Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) was the leader of the Nation of Islam ("Black Muslims") during their period of greatest growth in the mid-20th century. He was a major advocate of independent, black-operated businesses, institutions, and religion.
Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah (or Robert) Poole on October 7, 1897, near Sandersville, Georgia. His parents were ex-slaves who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation; his father was also a Baptist preacher. As a youngster Elijah worked in the fields and on the railroad, but he left home at age 16 to travel and work at odd jobs. He settled in Detroit in 1923, working on a Chevrolet assembly line.
Poole and his two brothers became early disciples of W.D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam. Fard, of mysterious background, appeared in Detroit in 1930, selling silk goods and telling his customers in Detroit's African American ghetto of their ancestral "homeland" across the seas. Soon Fard began holding meetings in homes, and then in rented halls, telling his listeners tales purporting to describe their nonwhite kin in other lands and urging them to emulate these brothers and sisters in such matters as dress and diet. Fard proclaimed Islam the one correct religion for African Americans, denouncing Christianity as the religion of the slavemasters. His meetings became dominated by his bitter denunciations of the white race. Soon Fard announced the opening of the Temple of Islam. It featured much antiwhite invective and embodied an unorthodox form of Islam, but the movement also emphasized African American self-help and education.
Fard disappeared, as mysteriously as he had arrived, in the summer of 1934. The movement he had founded quickly developed several factions, the most important of which was led by Poole, who had become a top lieutenant to Fard and whose name along the way had been changed to Elijah Muhammad. The movement had long had a policy of requiring members to drop their "slave" names.
Settling in Chicago, away from hostile Muslim factions in Detroit, Muhammad built what quickly became the most important center of the movement. Chicago soon featured not only a Temple of Islam, but a newspaper called Muhammad Speaks, a University of Islam (actually a private elementary and high school), and several movement-owned apartment houses, grocery stores, and restaurants. Temples were opened in other cities, and farms were purchased so that ritually pure food could be made available to members. The movement was a sharply disciplined one. Members had strict rules to follow regarding eating (various foods, such as pork, were forbidden), smoking and drinking (both banned), dress and appearance (conservative, neat clothing and good grooming were required), and all kinds of personal behavior (drugs, the use of profanity, gambling, listening to music, and dancing were all outlawed).
Muhammad also revised the theology of the movement. Under his system, Fard was proclaimed the earthly incarnation of Allah, the Muslim name for God; (Elijah) Muhammad was his divinely-appointed prophet. Muhammad also taught that blacks constituted the original human beings, but that a mad black scientist named Yakub had created a white beast through genetic manipulation and that whites had been given a temporary dispensation to govern the world. That period, however, was due to end soon; now the time was at hand for blacks to resume their former dominant role. It was understood that violent war would be likely before the transition could be completed. In the meantime, Muhammad advocated an independent nation for African Americans.
In 1942 Muhammad was one of a group of militant African American leaders arrested on charges of sedition, conspiracy, and violation of the draft laws. He was accused of sympathizing with the Japanese during World War II and of encouraging his members to resist the military draft. He had, indeed, argued that all nonwhites are oppressed by whites, and that it made no sense for African Americans to fight those who were victims of white racism as much as they themselves were. Muhammad was certainly no pacifist, but he argued that the only war in which African Americans should participate would be the coming "Battle of Armageddon," in which blacks would reassert their rightful superiority. For his words and actions Muhammad spent four years, from 1942 to 1946, in federal prison at Milan, Michigan.
Factions occasionally withdrew from Muhammad's movement. In the early 1960s Muhammad came to be overshadowed by the charismatic Malcolm X, leader of the New York Temple. Tensions between Malcolm X and Muhammad's leadership grew; finally, after Malcolm X commented that John F. Kennedy's assassination was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost," Muhammad suspended him. Shortly thereafter, in 1964, Malcolm X founded his own movement, which moved toward a more orthodox form of Islam. However, Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965.
Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975. After his death the leadership of his movement passed to his son, Wallace (now Warith) Deen Muhammad. The younger Muhammad renamed the movement the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, and then the American Muslim Mission; he also began to call blacks "Bilalians," after Bilal, who was said to have been an African follower of the prophet Muhammad. Warith Muhammad relaxed the strict dress code, abandoned resistance to military service, encouraged members to vote and to salute the flag, and even opened the movement to whites. In general, he made the movement much more conventionally Islamic.
Many members were disturbed at the movement's new, moderate direction and withdrew to form more traditionalist splinter groups. The most important of them retained the old name, the Nation of Islam, and was led by Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Eugene Walcott of British West Indian parents in 1934). Farrakhan generally retained Elijah Muhammad's ideas and practices, including the strict behavioral rules. He achieved prominence when he became a major adviser to Jesse Jackson during the latter's presidential campaign in 1984. At that time Farrakhan aroused controversy, particularly for his reported death threats directed at Jackson's Jewish critics.
Further Reading on Elijah Muhammad
The life and role of Elijah Muhammad are prominently discussed in the first thorough study of the Nation of Islam, C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (1961). His own principal work is Message to the Blackman in America (1965). Basic information can also be found in Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Information on Muhammad's life and ideas can be found in a number of books and articles on Black religion in America. See, for example, Henry J. Young, "Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975): Messenger of Allah," Major Black Religious Leaders Since 1940 (1979). For an interesting interpretation of the role of Fard, see Wallace D. Muhammad, "Self-Government in the New World," in Milton C. Sernett, editor, Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (1985).