Since its founding in 1930, the Nation of Islam (NOI) has grown into one of the wealthiest and best-known organizations in black America, offering numerous programs and events designed to uplift African Americans. Nonetheless, its bizarre theology of innate black superiority over whites — a belief system vehemently and consistently rejected by mainstream Muslims — and the deeply racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders, including top minister Louis Farrakhan, have earned the NOI a prominent position in the ranks of organized hate.
In Its Own Words
"[T]he Jews don't like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler. Well, that's a good name. Hitler was a very great man. He wasn't a great man for me as a black person, but he was a great German. Now, I'm not proud of Hitler's evils against Jewish people, but that's a matter of record. He raised Germany up from nothing. Well, in a sense you could say there's a similarity in that we are raising our people up from nothing."
— Louis Farrakhan, radio interview, March 11, 1984
"Jews have been conclusively linked to the greatest criminal endeavor ever undertaken against an entire race of people … the black African Holocaust. … The effects of this unspeakable tragedy are still being felt among the peoples of the world at this very hour."
— The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews (NOI book), 1991
"Who are the slumlords in the Black community? The so-called Jews. … Who is it sucking our blood in the Black community? A white imposter Arab and a white imposter Jew."
— Speech by NOI national official Khalid Muhammad, Nov. 29, 1993
"These false Jews promote the filth of Hollywood that is seeding the American people and the people of the world and bringing you down in moral strength. … It's the wicked Jews, the false Jews, that are promoting lesbianism, homosexuality. It's the wicked Jews, false Jews, that make it a crime for you to preach the word of God, then they call you homophobic!"
— Louis Farrakhan, Saviours' Day speech, Feb. 26, 2006
For what would become one of the largest and best-organized groups in the history of black America, the Nation of Islam (NOI) had a relatively obscure beginning. Founded by a mysterious clothing salesman in the ghettoes of Detroit in 1930, NOI was considered an insignificant, if highly media-worthy, "‘voodoo sect" throughout much of the 1930s and 1940s.
Founder Wallace D. Fard (alternately, Farad Muhammad) and his "messenger" and successor Elijah Muhammad preached a hybrid creed with its own myths and doctrines. These held that over 6,000 years ago, the black race lived in a paradise on earth that was destroyed by the evil wizard Yacub, who created the white "devil" through a scientific process called "grafting." Fard and his disciple preached of a coming apocalyptic overthrow of white domination, insisting that the dominion of evil was to end with God's appearance on earth in the person of Fard. Following this, NOI predicts an epic struggle in which the Nation of Islam will play a key role in preparing and educating the Original People, who ruled the earth in peace and prosperity until Yacub's "blue-eyed devils" came along to gum things up. The Nation of Islam teaches that intermarriage or race mixing should be prohibited. This is point 10 of the official platform, "What the Muslims Want" published 1965.
NOI's connection to Islam is through its founder Fard. NOI believes, like other Muslims, that there is no other God but Allah, but they redefine "Allah" by saying that he "came in the person of W. D. Fard."
Despite the initial group's small size and early setbacks, Fard and his disciple laid the groundwork for what the group was to become in the 1950s and 1960s. From the start, NOI was tightly organized, a fact most clearly seen in its creation of the elite "Fruit of Islam," a group envisioned by Fard as a paramilitary wing to defend NOI against police attacks. In the 1940s, "messenger" Elijah Muhammad also began constructing what would later be considered the Nation's "empire," purchasing the group's first bit of Michigan farmland in 1945 and founding businesses and educational ventures in several states that a decade later were valued in the millions.
NOI's real boom came during the 1950s, however, when the advent of the civil rights movement and the violent reactions it provoked converged to make NOI's depiction of the "white devil" pertinent to a much larger sector of black America. New members, including Malcolm X and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay before joining NOI), added visibility to the group and, in the case of the former, contributed directly to a meteoric membership increase.
Appointed to the prestigious leadership of Harlem's Temple No. 7 in New York City just two years after his 1952 release from prison, Malcolm X was wildly popular and his years as a prominent member of NOI (1952-1964) saw membership skyrocket from around 400 to between 100,000 and 300,000. But the Nation's vituperative language and its advocacy of self-defense in place of nonviolence alienated it from mainstream civil rights groups. By 1959, Martin Luther King was warning of "a hate group arising in our midst that would preach the doctrine of black supremacy."
Nevertheless, the mid-1960s saw a second membership surge at NOI as a new and more militant generation of black leaders began focusing on the residual racial problems of the North. As urban riots rocked the nation, NOI's message that black elevation could only come through a radical separation from the structures of white oppression continued to resonate for many. Although NOI remained frustratingly conservative in many ways (indeed, Malcolm X "liberated" himself from this conservatism in 1964), its radical rhetoric continued to attract recruits.
Following Malcolm X's 1964 split from his erstwhile mentor, Elijah Muhammad, a rising star in the Nation was appointed to replace him at Temple No. 7. Louis Farrakhan had been working as a cabaret singer until he met Malcolm X and joined NOI in 1955. Ascending rapidly through the ranks, he had proved to be a superb speaker and organizer, managing to win over the congregation left behind by his charismatic predecessor. He faced a firestorm after Malcolm X's 1965 assassination, for which many blamed NOI. Talmadge Hayer, an NOI member, was arrested on the scene. Eyewitnesses identified two more suspects, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, also members of NOI. All three were charged in the case. At first Hayer denied involvement, but during the trial he confessed to having fired shots at Malcolm X (In the months before he was murdered, meanwhile, Malcolm X had a complete change of heart, denouncing the "sickness and madness" of the NOI's racism and turning to Sunni Islam.) Hayer testified that Butler and Johnson were not present and were not involved in the assassination, but he declined to name the men who had joined him in the shooting. All three men were convicted. Butler, now known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was paroled in 1985. He became the head of the Nation of Islam's Harlem mosque in New York in 1998.
Farrakhan weathered the storm of Malcolm X's assassination and managed to create a powerful base within the Nation, ascending to the position of national spokesman in 1967.
When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, Farrakhan initially remained faithful to his son, Wallace Deen Muhammad (later Imam Warithuddin Muhammad) who succeeded him. But the younger Muhammad's dismantling of the Nation's material empire and his attempts to bring NOI into the fold of mainstream Islam ultimately alienated Farrakhan. In 1977, a rebellious Farrakhan, backed by a powerful enough base to pull it off, rejected the younger Muhammad and declared the creation of a "resurrected" NOI based on the original ideology of Elijah Muhammad.
At the head of the new NOI, Farrakhan successfully rebuilt an empire. Aside from continuing NOI's earlier educational and training programs, the reconstituted Nation embarked on economic self-sufficiency programs, creating bakeries, restaurants, fish markets and even a line of hair and skin care products. NOI also took on a series of initiatives including providing security for housing projects, reaching out to prison inmates, and creating programs for those suffering from HIV and AIDS. Most recently, it has worked to reach out to the world of hip-hop, engaging various artists in an attempt to entice to a younger generation of potential NOI members.
NOI's efforts are tainted, however, by a long history of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric that escalated dramatically with Farrakhan's coup. Even prior to Farrakhan, NOI's characterization of whites as "devils" was unwavering. The seeds of anti-Semitism were deeply rooted in the organization, with Elijah Muhammad preaching early on about greedy Jews who turned Jesus Christ in to the authorities. Even during the early days of the civil rights movement, a period of collaboration between progressive Jews and blacks, Malcolm X had denounced Jews in the leadership of the NAACP and linked their presence there to the group's non-militant stance.
During the early 1980s, the deeply bigoted language for which NOI is infamous for today became daily fare, exacerbated by the charged atmosphere surrounding Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential bid. Farrakhan made several of his most infamous remarks during the campaign, including calling Hitler "a very great man" and Judaism a "dirty religion" (some say he actually termed it a "gutter religion"). While these and other remarks ultimately spurred Jackson to publicly disavow Farrakhan, the controversy actually increased the NOI leader's visibility and appeal to many African Americans angered at the attacks on him.
Farrakhan's racist venom continued, to the point that he was banned in 1986 from entering the United Kingdom, where officials cited concerns for racial harmony. He frequently reiterated the "dirty religion" theme along with references to the "so-called Jew" (arguing that the "true" Jews were black North Africans) and constant accusations of secret Jewish control of financial and political institutions. One of the most baseless attacks came in the form of a 1991 "study" ordered up by Farrakhan and written by NOI's "Historical Research Department." Entitled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, the book uses isolated examples of Jewish merchants' involvement in the purchase and ownership of slaves to place the onus of the slavery industry squarely on Jewish shoulders — a historical falsehood,
While Jews remain the primary target of Farrakhan's vitriol, he is also well known for bashing gay men and lesbians, Catholics and, of course, the white devils, whom he calls "potential humans ... [who] haven't evolved yet." All of this has helped make him attractive to certain white supremacist groups who agree that the races must be separated. In its turn, NOI has come to view white supremacists as people who at least understand NOI's program and could therefore become allies.
In one early instance, American Nazi Party boss George Lincoln Rockwell appeared at NOI's 1962 Saviour's Day Convention, christening Elijah Muhammad the Hitler of blacks. In another, Malcolm X, on departing from NOI in 1964, spoke of an Atlanta meeting (later corroborated by FBI records) between NOI and the Klan in an attempt to establish mutual working conditions. In more recent years, a yearning for racial separation has brought NOI other strange bedfellows. During the Jesse Jackson campaign, NOI was discovered by white "Third Positionists" (who espouse, among other things, radical racial separatism) in the extreme-right British National Front, some of whom developed friendly relationships with NOI officials in the late 1980s before suffering a backlash from the rank and file who could not understand their leadership's cozy ties to American "niggers." Similarly, American neo-Nazi and White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzger has praised NOI's anti-Semitic rhetoric and has even donated a symbolic amount of money to the Nation.
Just as disturbing has been Farrakhan's willingness to tie himself to authoritarian and, in many cases, violently repressive foreign leaders for the sake of furthering black and Islamic administrations worldwide. These include Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi, Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, and the now deceased General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan and Ugandan despot Idi Amin.
During the mid-1990s, it seemed that Farrakhan was trying to moderate his message, reaching out to the Jewish community groups and more mainstream black organizations. But any such effort was thwarted by his own continued anti-Semitic remarks and those of his officers. In 1993, for instance, an attempt at reconciliation with the Congressional Black Caucus failed after the Anti-Defamation League published an article detailing a wildly incendiary speech by top NOI official Khalid Muhammad at New Jersey's Kean College in November of that year in which he violently bashed Jews, Catholics, LGBT people and whites. Similarly, although many local chapters of the NAACP endorsed the Million Man March where Farrakhan was the keynote speaker, the national organization refused to participate in any way.
More recently, Farrakhan has established a close relationship with the New Black Panther Party, which was led by former deputy Khalid Muhammad (who left NOI after his more volatile remarks were widely publicized) until Muhammad's death in 2001. Openly racist and violently anti-Semitic, the New Panthers have been denounced by leading members of the original Black Panther Party — men like Bobby Seale — as "a racist hate group." But that didn't stop Farrakhan from inviting current New Panther boss Malik Zulu Shabazz to co-convene NOI's 2005 Millions More March, marking the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March.
Farrakhan has been suffering from prostate cancer, and seems to be weakening as the years pass. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that NOI's legacy of racism will die with him. This is particularly true given that to this day, NOI members continue to promote racist and anti-Semitic ideas. A case in point is Ashahed Muhammad, a prominent NOI member and author of Synagogue of Satan, a book advertised on NOI's website that alleges, once again, a Jewish conspiracy to control the federal government. Muhammad runs the Truth Establishment Institute website, which, alongside Synagogue of Satan and The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, offers works by the likes of Mark Weber, a former member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance and the long-time leader of the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review. As a younger generation of NOI leaders rises to prominence, it is thus decidedly unclear whether NOI will be able to shed its legacy of hate.