The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad

The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad

The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad

The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad


Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) was one of the most significant and controversial black leaders of the twentieth century. His followers called him the Messenger of Allah, while his critics labeled him a teacher of hate. Southern by birth, Muhammad moved north, eventually serving as the influential head of the Nation of Islam for over forty years. Claude Clegg III not only chronicles Muhammad’s life, but also examines the history of American black nationalists and the relationship between Islam and the African American experience.

In this authoritative biography, which also covers half a century of the evolution of the Nation of Islam, Clegg charts Muhammad's early life, his brush with Jim Crow in the South, his rise to leadership of the Nation of Islam, and his tumultuous relationship with Malcolm X. Clegg is the first biographer to weave together speeches and published works by Muhammad, as well as delving into declassified government documents, insider accounts, audio and video records, and interviews, producing the definitive account of an extraordinary man and his legacy.


His followers knew him as the Messenger of Allah. His detractors, none of whom could ignore his profound influence on others, denounced him as a cult leader, a black supremacist, and a hate teacher. Those who admired him but would not follow him called him the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Reporters typically addressed him as either Mr. Muhammad or by his surname alone, even when they wrote unflattering stories about him and his movement. The numerous other cognomens and aliases by which he went served mostly utilitarian purposes, such as confusing government surveillance agencies or shielding the leader from undesirable public scrutiny. Only his most bitter enemies referred to him as simply “Elijah” or by his “slave name” of Poole—insults resorted to most often by his religious opponents.

Each of these names, labels, and salutations conjured up particular images of Elijah Muhammad and his leadership. Some of the images were meant to stigmatize him and diminish his influence; others were self-serving illusions that he had created and fostered for certain purposes. Despite this range of designations, no single term or phrase completely captured the essence of his life or significance. He was much larger and more complex than mere names and phrases, notwithstanding the countless attempts to reduce him to such.

Given his relevance to the evolution of black nationalist and religious thought in the twentieth century, Elijah Muhammad has unfortunately been the subject of few monograph-length studies. Until now, his life and work have been mired in simplistic popular images and distortions. To be sure, Muhammad has not entirely escaped the historian’s attention. Several works, including books, articles, and dissertations, have examined the Nation of Islam. However, Muhammad and his historical importance have still suffered, in many ways, from a surprising degree of scholarly neglect, which has often vitiated his role in shaping American Islam and African-American racial consciousness. The earliest books on the movement appeared in the early 1960s, followed by a spate of articles and other writings, which made the Muslims a somewhat vogue, if controversial, topic of discussion, not unlike the explosion of interest that the image and words of Malcolm X enjoy today. Yet, following the departure of Malcolm X from the Nation in the winter of 1963–64, scholarly and journalistic interest in the movement markedly declined. From then until the present, academic and nonmember writers have studied, almost without exception, the separatist organization . . .

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