Analyzing the Discourse of the ‘Nation of Islam’ Nina Ascoly “That was an army of Black men standing in front of me...They loved the message and they loved the Messenger,”
Minister Louis Farrakhan on the Million Man March
(Arizona Republic, 1996: 6)
“No march, movement or agenda that defines manhood in the narrowest terms and seeks to make women lesser partners...can be considered a positive step,”
Angela Davis on the Million Man March
(Pooley, E “To The Beat of His Drum” Time, Vol 143, No. 9, 1994: 2-3).
Riders on the New York City subway system view a constant flow of people—men, women, occasionally children—shifting from car to car, making requests. Money for AIDS victims without health insurance, assistance to disabled Vietnam veterans, support for a battered woman, homeless, with two kids in tow. Distinct from the down-and-out, and immediately recognizable, are the African-American men—hair closely cropped, faces set seriously, impeccably dressed in dark suits and crisp white shirts, almost eccentrically accentuated by jovial red bow ties—selling The Final Call, the weekly newspaper of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a Muslim group with nearly a 70-year history in the United States. Their leader is the controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the NOI since 1977, a figure on the national political landscape since the mid-1980s.1Now, nearly ten years later, his name-recognition rate has skyrocketed and he has been, perhaps begrudgingly, embraced as a man “to be included in the dialogue.” Recently, his ability to mobilize people for the October 16, 1995 Million Man March (MMM) in Washington, D.C. made him ever more difficult to ignore.2 Farrakhan himself remarked: “I was surprised when I learned that 44 percent of the men that were there had some college education. Over 20 percent of those men had businesses; they were entrepreneurs.. Here’s a black middle class that comes to a march called by a man who is considered radical, extremist, anti-Semitic, anti-white. What does that say about the hunger, the yearning, of that black middle class?” (quoted in Gates, 1996: 150). The NAACP, the largest and oldest civil rights organization in the United States, did not endorse the MMM, but “many of its leaders and members enthusiastically participated” (Lusane, 1996: 3). Recently, Benjamin Chavis, a Christian minister, the former executive director of the NAACP, and a coordinator of the MMM, joined the Nation of Islam (Chavis, 1997: 3).3 Prior to the Million Man March, Farrakhan was well-known in the U.S. and capable of drawing large crowds.4 Though Farrakhan says he does “not wish to have a movement built just on my charisma” (Arizona Republic, 1996: 10), he does see himself as a very important catalyst for change in the lives of all black men in the U.S. “ … I believe I am A Jesus, walking in the footsteps of THE Jesus, I saw that Million Man March in a scriptural light … I saw my call of Black men, who are the biggest problem in the country, and their responding to my call as similar to Jesus going to the tomb of Lazarus, and calling Lazarus out of that tomb …
I am not THE Messiah, I’m clear on that. But I believe that I am a functionary of His,” he told interviewers in 1996 (Arizona Republic: 2).5 He enhances this perception of his “other worldliness” or “stature” by speaking of himself in the third person. A 1994 survey of 504 African Americans found that 73% were familiar with Farrakhan and two-thirds of that 73% viewed him favorably. His name recognition was higher than any other black political figure except Jesse Jackson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Henry, 1994: 2).
Beyond the U.S., Farrakhan has positioned himself as a self-appointed statesman, carrying the concerns of constituents overseas in meetings with various African heads of states.6 His most publicized relationship has been with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who pledged $1 billion in aid to Farrakhan to finance the work of the NOI in the United States (NOI, Aug. 29, 1996).7 The U.S. Treasury Department blocked the gift, denying a request to waive the 1996 Antiterrorism Act which makes financial transaction illegal with countries the U.S. State Department deems to be supporters of international terrorism.8 Given these various realms of activity, Farrakhan and the NOI, I believe, form a movement that is deserving of closer scrutiny. In this paper I will analyze the discourse of the Nation of Islam. I will base my analysis largely on NOI documents and speeches, as well as interviews with Louis Farrakhan which have appeared in a variety of media outlets in the United States. After reviewing the history of the group, I will discuss how the NOI has constructed its own notion of community and what this means in terms of relationships with others, including other Islamic groups and the state. To understand the role of the NOI, it is also necessary to summarize the development of black nationalism in the U.S., the legacy of such ideology, and the NOI’s place in the chronology of that movement. Finally, I will focus on the ideal vision of gender roles presented within NOI discourse and specifically examine how women’s roles include serving as identity markers for the community. While the organization has achieved a higher profile due to mainstream media coverage, I believe the implications of their message regarding gender roles has not been sufficiently discussed. In conclusion, an examination of the context in which this contemporary movement operates will reveal the possibilities for acceptance or rejection of the NOI’s message within its target constituency.
Islam in the U.S.: The Origins of the NOI The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 by Wali Farad Muhammad (born Wallace D. Fard) a door-to-door salesman who appeared in Detroit. “On July the Fourth, the day of America’s Independence celebration, He announced the beginning of His mission which was to restore and to resurrect His lost and found people, who were identified as the original members of the Tribe of Shabazz from the Lost Nation of Asia. The lost people of the original nation of African descent, were captured, exploited, and dehumanized to serve as servitude slaves of America for over three centuries,” explains Tynetta Muhammad (1996: 1), wife of Elijah Muhammad, the man who was the founder’s protégé and assumed leadership of the NOI in 1934, when Fard mysteriously disappeared.
Fleeing internal power struggles, Elijah Muhammad moved the group to Chicago (Mamiya, 1983: 251). While in prison for resisting the World War II draft, Elijah Muhammad realized the untapped potential of recruiting followers among the prison population. He successfully pursued this strategy and by 1960 NOI membership had increased from a mere 8,000 in the 1930s to somewhere between 65,000 and 100,000 (Marable, 1992: 4).9 Malcolm Little, a hustler in New York and Boston, was one of these prison converts. Upon his release in 1952 he took the name Malcolm X, began preaching at Temple 11 in Boston, and by 1955 was minister of the NOI’s Temple No. 7 in Harlem. He rose to prominence and became the public face of the NOI.10 Louis Eugene Walcott, a calypso singer known as “The Charmer,” first heard Elijah Muhammad preach in 1955. A few months later he heard Malcolm X and went on to become his devoted student. He became Louis X and in 1957 took over at Temple 11 (Gates, 1996: 141-142). Regarding his conversion, Farrakhan explains: “I wasn’t looking for a change in religion. I wanted a change in the status of black people” (quoted in Gates, 1996: 149). Meanwhile, civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and CORE, concerned that the rhetoric of the Muslim group aided the cause of white supremacists, denounced the NOI, some even suggesting similarities between the NOI and earlier European fascism (Marable, 1992: 5). By 1962 Malcolm X had become the NOI’s principal spokesperson. But his increasing focus on contemporary political issues posed a threat to the autocratic Elijah Muhammad.11 In 1963 he was confronted by the hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad—two secretaries filed paternity suits against the married NOI leader, who preached a monogamous marriage-based code of ethics, and though he admitted he had fathered four children as a result of these extramarital affairs, no sanctions were issued (Marable 1992: 6).
In 1964 Malcolm X broke with the NOI, while Louis Farrakhan remained a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan denounced his former teacher, saying that “Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death” (Gates, 1996: 142). Farrakhan became Elijah Muhammad’s top representative (Gates, 1996: 142). Malcolm X, meanwhile, became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, took up an anti-racist, anti-capitalist line,12 formed Muslim Mosque Incorporated and a few months later the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).13 In 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated at an OAAU rally. Three NOI followers were convicted in connection with the murder.14 Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 and surprisingly leadership of the NOI went to his son, Wallace Deen Muhammad. He who had sided with Malcolm X in the 1960s, had questioned the teachings of his father, preferring the teachings of Sunni Islam instead, and had actually been thrown out of the NOI (Gates, 1996: 142). He immediately began to transform the group,15 declaring that “there will be no such category as a white Muslim or a black Muslim. All will be Muslims. All children of God” (quoted in Mamiya, 1983: 249) and changed his own name to Warith Deen Muhammad, not wanting to be “symbolically” linked to NOI founder Wallace Fard (Lincoln, 1983: 229). He relaxed the strict disciplinary rules and dress codes his father had enforced, allowed women to go out alone at night and encouraged participation in sports, music, voting, and flew the U.S. flag. Most significantly, he called off the race war his father had preached as inevitable (Lincoln: 227-228), clearing a path toward courting more middle class followers, who, as Mamiya suggests, perceived themselves as “part of the system” (1983: 248-249). Otherwise, he continued to recommend a lifestyle of hard work and self-betterment for his followers.16 The name of the organization was changed to the World Community of Al-Islam in the West and then, four years later, to the American Muslim Mission (Lincoln: 228).
In 1977, Farrakhan left to establish a new Nation of Islam, promising a revival of the original teachings of Wallace Fard and Elijah Muhammad. He took with him many members of the highly trained elite paramilitary group, known as the Fruit of Islam (FOI), that Warith Deen had disbanded.17 In the 1980s and ‘90s the FOI have been deployed in various capacities—as bodyguards for prominent individuals and as private security forces hired to help stamp out illegal drug trade in public housing complexes.18 This schism lead other established Muslim groups in the U.S. to recognize Warith Deen’s group, dismissing the NOI as not representative of “real” Islam and disseminators of misleading information on Islamic ideology.19 “The Black Muslims of the ‘Nation of Islam,’ with their notion of Black supremacy, ‘were not Muslims at all by any definition of the word at first,’ but have recently adopted real Islam and in 1976 fasted Ramadan for the first time. Now they are known as Bilalians, named for the Ethiopian who was the meuzzin for the Prophet Muhammad at the mosque in Medina. They are the ‘World Community of Islam in the West’ with Imam Warith Deen Muhammad as their head. He is also leader of their American Muslim Mission … ,” writes Lovell in her overview of Islam in the United States (1983: 103, with references to Kettani, 1977).
“The original Black Muslim movement had basic beliefs that did not conform with Orthodox Islam,” she writes. “There were: There is one God, called Allah, and Elijah Muhammad is His last Messenger; Allah appeared to Elijah Muhammad in the person of Master Wallace Fard Muhammad in Detroit in July 1930; and God is not a spirit, but a man. They also believed that heaven and hell are on earth at this time, that there is no life after death. Seven daily prayers and fasting during the month of December were other religious requirements.”
While requirements regarding fasting, pilgrimage, and prayers do differ, it is in granting Elijah Muhammad the status of prophet that the NOI parts company with most other U.S. Muslim groups.20 Mustafa Malik, director of research of the American Muslim Council says, “to be a Muslim, you have to believe that there is only one God and Muhammad is his last Prophet. The Nation of Islam people believe that Elijah Muhammad is the last Prophet. There is nothing in common except that we call ourselves Muslims and they call themselves Muslims” (quoted in Henry, 1994: 3).
M. Amir Ali, of the Institute of Information & Education, also finds this deviation from Muslim ideology troubling. “Elijah Muhammad was a ‘Messenger of Allah.’ Are there any more messengers or prophets to come?” he asks (Ali: 1). The Institute of Islamic Information & Education, located in Chicago, makes it their business to disseminate what they perceive to be “true and correct information about Islam … taking corrective action for the removal of misinformation and false perceptions which exist in the American society about Islam and Muslims.” The NOI does not practice the Islamic religion, they say, but “Farrakhanism.”
“Such religion should be considered a pseudo Islamic cult,” writes Ali in his “Comparison Between Islam and Farrakhanism” which echoes Lovell’s critique of the NOI, detailing 12 major instances where the tenets of “Farrakhanism” contradict Islamic beliefs. “In America there are many pseudo-Islamic cults, Farrakhanism being one of them. An honest attitude on the part of such cults should be not to call themselves Muslims and their religion Islam. Such an example of honesty is Bahaism which is an off-shoot of Islam, but Bahais do not call themselves Muslims nor their religion, Islam” (Ali: 3).21 “Elijah Muhammad … outraged true Muslims with his statement that ‘Every white man knows his time is up,” writes Lovell. “Therefore, it is easy to see why, as recently as 10 years ago, Muslims in America considered the Blacks a great danger to Islam and to themselves. One can also understand how the changes urged by Malcolm X caused the schism … ” (1983: 104).
It is the NOI’s portrayal of the creation and destruction of the world, with its significant focus on the issue of race, that seems to be unique and thus highly contentious for other Muslims in the U.S.
Farrakhan, citing Elijah Muhammad, states that black people are the “original people of the earth. Out of us came all other races” (1996e: 1). The tone is more a science fiction story of gene-splicing and hybrid peoples along the lines of Frankenstein’s monster, than a theory of evolution. Elijah Muhammad teaches that it was a renegade black scientist named Yakub who, in defiance of Allah, created the white race nearly 7,000 years ago. The world has been in decline ever since. The fall of white rule is prophesied (Gates, 1996: 144, 163-4). Elijah Muhammad explained that America, the “unjust” world created by whites, is “number one on God’s list to be destroyed,” because of their mistreatment of blacks (Farrakhan, 1996a: 2).22 The destruction prophesized involves a $ 15 billion giant “Motherplane” or UFO (as Farrakhan says whites would term it) built by Japanese scientist, laden with bombs. “The final act of destruction will be that Allah will make a wall out of the atmosphere over and around North America.” A fire will burn for 310 years, and not cool off for another 690. America can be saved23 by changing “her way of thinking” and embracing a “righteous code of conduct” (Farrakhan, 1996a: 2-4). Interestingly, the immoral “America” that needs to be disciplined is feminized—referred to as “she”. The vehicle of destruction—”a motherplane”—also could be interpreted as conjuring up feminine, though more maternal, power).
Farrakhan often quotes the Bible, perhaps taking from Christianity to connect with a wider audience. Ali notes that the writings of the NOI place contradictory emphasis on the Qur’an and the Bible. “On one side, … Believe in the Holy Qur’an and in the scriptures of all the Prophets of God, and on the other side, We, the original nation of the earth … are the writers of the Bible and Qur’an. We make such history once every 25,000 years … it is done by twenty-four of our scientists … Both the present Bible and the Holy Qur’an must soon give way to the Holy Book … ” (Ali: 2)