February 21 marked 56 years since the 1965 New York City assassination of the former Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Malcolm X by NOI members. The anniversary offers an occasion to reflect upon the bizarre, hateful history of this African-American cult and its disturbing implications for Islamic politics globally.
A valuable study resource on the NOI is the 2001 book The Nation of Islam: Understanding the “Black Muslims” by the Christian seminary professor Steven Tsoukalas. He examined the NOI’s “counterracist anthropology” that emerged under the shadowy Wallace D. Fard, who founded the NOI in 1930 in Detroit amidst a viciously racist American society. Fard only briefly led the NOI before disappearing in 1934, whereupon his “Messenger” Elijah Muhammad assumed NOI leadership until his death in 1975.
Under Muhammad, Tsoukalas explained, the NOI developed into what civil rights leader Martin Luther King in 1959 listed among America’s “black supremacist hate groups.” The NOI has the “basic premise that anything black is good and anything white is evil,” including Christianity, slandered by the NOI as the “white man’s religion.” The NOI’s “central myth” is that millennia ago the “infamous evil scientist Yakub” created the white race.
NOI racial separatism meant that Muhammad advocated the creation of a blacks-only state in America, Tsoukalas noted. To this end he, like Fard previously, organized planning meetings with Ku Klux Klan leaders, white supremacists who ironically shared Muhammad’s goal, albeit from opposed racist premises. Muhammad additionally had a “strange relationship” with American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, whom Muhammad invited along with other Rockwell followers to attend NOI temple services.
If all this is not weird enough, Tsoukalas examined how the “NOI’s doctrine of God is confusing and contradictory, fluctuating between monotheism and polytheism.” Accordingly, a “string of finite gods who each exist for about one to two hundred years” followed the first black god who created himself from an atom. Fard is the “present god of this cycle” who is still alive, a claim supposedly substantiated by NOI members who asserted to have seen him in the 1970s and 1980s.
The NOI’s theological farrago presents all manner of contradictions with Islamic beliefs and realities, as Muhammad’s 1959 tour of the Middle East and North Africa with his two sons revealed. With great public fanfare, the trio toured Islamic sites in Istanbul, Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Khartoum. In Cairo, President Gamal Abdel Nasser invited the Muhammad family to stay in his palace.
Yet Muhammad’s travels upended the NOI’s black/white dichotomy of Africans and other non-white people such as Arabs struggling against a “devil white race,” as Tsoukalas noted. What Muhammad
found was not the history Fard taught him. Africans exploiting other Africans for wealth and power, the fruits of the Arab slave trade of the nineteenth century; and Ethiopia’s slavery system all threatened Muhammad’s idealistic views. Muhammad was also unaware of Saudi Arabia’s enslavement of more than one hundred thousand Africans.
Shortly preceding Muhammad with his consent to the Middle East that same year, his NOI deputy Malcolm X had similar experiences, Tsoukalas observed. As with Muhammad, Nasser’s deputy Anwar Sadat and his entourage hosted Malcolm X as a dignitary at several social gatherings. But with Saudi Arabia’s legal enslavement of Africans, he “was rudely awakened to the first seeds of contradiction” with “Fardian Islam.”
Perhaps out of deference to Muhammad, Malcolm X refrained from traveling to Mecca. This allowed the “Messenger” to be the first NOI leader to enter Islam’s holy city, for he had announced before embarking that he and his sons would pilgrim to Mecca. However this travel would occur outside Islam’s hajj season and therefore qualify only as the al-umrah “lesser pilgrimage.”
Muhammad’s intentions to visit Mecca, a city closed to non-Muslims, raised grave theological questions, Tsoukalas noted. “After all, a most central, if not the central tenet, of traditional Islam was treaded upon and kicked in the waste bucket by Elijah Muhammad.” Contrary to all Islamic doctrine about a distant god beyond human comprehension and incarnation, he believed that “Fard is Allah in the flesh.”
Yet Muhammad entered Mecca without hindrance. Tsoukalas wondered why the “world of orthodox Islam would welcome someone whom it considers a blasphemer to make the sacred pilgrimage to the holy city.” Given the desire of Muslim state leaders to promote the anti-American NOI, “politics seems to have overruled the sacred.”
Muhammad and Malcolm X likewise suppressed any criticism upon returning to America, Tsoukalas noted. “Elijah made sure that major magazines and newspapers throughout the United States picked upon the successful trip, emphasizing his acceptance by the Muslim world.” Meanwhile “Malcolm X returned to America with glowing news from his excursion to the East” and, despite Saudi enslavement of Africans, “boasted about the lack of racial prejudice.”
Muhammad returned in 1972 to Islamic countries, this time accompanied by boxing star Muhammad Ali and several NOI leaders, Tsoukalas observed. A trip highlight was a personal invitation to visit Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gadhafi, whose regime, along with other Islamic countries, had financed NOI with millions of interest-free dollars. Despite the NOI’s “stark contradiction” to Islamic doctrine, Muslim leaders once again promoted NOI radicalism.
The NOI reception in the broader Muslim world, despite numerous NOI heresies such as its exclusion of whites, stands in stark contrast to mainstream Muslim treatment of the Ahmadis. Orthodox Muslims denounce this fringe group for claiming that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) is an additional prophet after Islam’s prophet Muhammad, a violation of Islamic doctrine concerning Muhammad’s prophetic finality. Ahmadis must conceal their beliefs in order to avoid a Saudi prohibition on Ahmadis in Mecca.
The NOI encounter with the wider Muslim world in turn has helped dispel myths that Islam is a more natural faith for non-whites than Christianity. Notwithstanding universal doctrines in both Christianity and Islam, sins of bigotry can occur among all faiths, not just in Jim Crow America. Indeed, Christianity provided the main impetus to abolish slavery around the world, from which Africans suffered so dearly, while Islamic doctrine perpetuated human bondage.
Nonetheless, NOI’s amicable relationship with self-professed orthodox Muslim regimes and individuals continues. American political activist Linda Sarsour has heaped praise upon the current NOI leader, Louis Farrakhan, a fellow anti-Semite. Dictatorships in Muslim countries such as Libya and Iran’s Islamic Republic have also welcomed Farrakhan on several occasions.
The NOI and its Muslim fellow travelers can only provoke cynicism among objective observers. Theological axioms and historical realities seem to matter little when various haters of Western societies make common cause. May the truth set NOI’s duped followers free.