Issues in Islam: American Muslims and Orthodox Islam; Growing Convergence

By Hurd, Robert | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 28, 1992 | Go to article overview

Issues in Islam: American Muslims and Orthodox Islam; Growing Convergence


Hurd, Robert, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Issues in Islam: American Muslims and Orthodox Islam; Growing Convergence

By Robert Hurd

Today, more than 25 years after his death from an assassin's bullet, Malcolm X remains an essential figure in the African American's struggle for justice and equality. Images of Malcolm X present a militant and confrontational response to the problems faced by African Americans in that struggle, a response best symbolized by the phrase, "Any means necessary."

Malcolm X's message and his methods differed greatly from those of Martin Luther King and other African-American leaders of his day, the result of different motivating ideologies. King and his group were Christians, and adopted a platform of nonviolent protest to awaken the world at large to their plight. Malcolm X, however, belonged to the Nation of Islam, or the "Black Muslims," as the organization came to be known during its emergence in the late 1950s.

Vast Change in Recent Years

A great deal of controversy has surrounded the Nation and its supporters throughout the group's existence. Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy surrounding its origins and motives, little is known about the vast changes that have taken place inside the movement in recent years.

Throughout the 20th century a number of African-American nationalist movements have adopted some aspects of Islam into their teachings. These groups have drawn upon Islam as a source of religious authority to attract followers and construct a bond with their African heritage. However, the religious concepts developed by these movements often fell outside the limits of orthodox Islamic teachings. Of all these groups, which include the Moorish Science Temple of America and the Nubian Islamic Hebrews, the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America, the official name of the Nation of Islam, is the best known to the American public.

The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit during the early 1930s by Wallace Fard Muhammad, who is believed to be of Turkish or Persian decent. He preached that African Americans were true Muslims who had to be reunited with their past heritage. Wallace Fard Muhammad disappeared sometime in the mid-1930s. Before he did, however, he appointed Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole, his successor to lead the movement. In the eyes of the Nation of Islam, Wallace Fard Muhammad was the living incarnation of God who came to restore order to the world. Elijah Muhammad became his prophet and was to spread his word to the African-American community.

The message of Elijah Muhammad strongly emphasized personal redemption, hard work, and a rigid pattern of ethical behavior to lift the African-American community out of poverty. It preached that whites were a race of "devils," created thousands of years ago by a crazed black scientist in Mecca named Yakub. Whites were viewed as inherently evil, bent on oppressing the black race. Elijah Muhammad's teaching claimed that promises of Paradise were used to enslave blacks and keep them in chains during their life on Earth.

The Nation of Islam's radical and militant message attracted thousands of African-Americans fed up with their mistreatment by mainstream American society.

Malcolm X learned of the Nation's existence while he was in prison, serving time for robbery. After his release, he changed his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X, the X symbolizing his original African name obscured by centuries of slavery. He quickly rose through the Nation's ranks to become its national spokesman, second only to Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X is an essential figure to the placement of the Nation of Islam within the Muslim community in America today. His expulsion from the Nation, followed by his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam, parallel the changes that occurred within the Nation after Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975.

Malcolm X's rift with the Nation of Islam began in the early 1960s. People within the Nation feared and envied the influence and power he had attained as the national spokesman for the movement.

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