Elijah Muhammad: Leader of the Nation of Islam

Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Public Domain

Overview

Human rights activist and Muslim minister was introduced to Islam through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

For more than forty years, Muhammad stood at the helm of the Nation of Islam, a religious organization that combined the teachings of Islam with a strong emphasis on morality and self-sufficiency for African-Americans.

Muhammad, a devout believer in black nationalism once even said, “The Negro wants to be everything but himself...

He wants to integrate with the white man, but he cannot integrate with himself or with his own kind. The Negro wants to lose his identity because he does not know his own identity.”

Early Life

Muhammad was born Elijah Robert Poole on October 7, 1897 in Sandersville, Ga. His father, William was a sharecropper and his mother, Mariah , was a domestic worker. Muhammad was raised in Cordele, Ga. with his 13 siblings. By the fourth grade, he had stopped attending school and began working a variety of jobs in sawmills and brickyards.

In 1917, Muhammad married Clara Evans. Together, the couple would have eight children. By 1923, Muhammad had grown tired of the Jim Crow South saying “I seen enough of the white man’s brutality to last me 26,000 years.”

Muhammad moved his wife and children to Detroit as part of the great migration and found work in an automobile factory.

While living in Detroit, Muhammad was drawn to the teachings of Marcus Garvey and became a member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

The Nation of Islam

In 1931, Muhammad met Wallace D. Fard, a salesman who had begun teaching African-Americans in the Detroit area about Islam. Fard’s teachings connected the principles of Islam with black nationalism--ideas that were attractive to Muhammad.

Soon after their meeting, Muhammad converted to Islam and changed his name from Robert Elijah Poole to Elijah Muhammad.

In 1934, Fard disappeared and Muhammad assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad established Final Call to Islam, a news publication that helped build the membership of the religious organization. In addition, Muhammad University of Islam was founded to educate children.

Following the disappearance of Fard, Muhammad took a group of the Nation of Islam’s followers to Chicago while the organization broke off into other factions of Islam. Once in Chicago, Muhammad founded Temple of Islam No. 2, establishing the town as the headquarters of the Nation of Islam.

Muhammad began preaching the philosophy of the Nation of Islam and began attracting African-Americans in urban areas to the religious organization. Soon after making Chicago the national headquarters for the Nation of Islam, Muhammad traveled to Milwaukee where he established Temple No. 3 and Temple No. 4 in Washington D.C.

Yet Muhammad’s success was halted when he was imprisoned in 1942 for refusing to respond to a World War Two draft. While imprisoned Muhammad continued to spread the teachings of the Nation of Islam to inmates.

When Muhammad was released in 1946, he continued to lead the Nation of Islam, claiming that he was Allah’s messenger and that Fard was in fact Allah.

By 1955, the Nation of Islam had expanded to include 15 temples and by 1959, there 50 temples in 22 states.

Until his death in 1975, Muhammad continued to grow the Nation of Islam from a small religious organization to one that had multiple streams of income and had gained national prominence. Muhammad published two books, Message to the Black Man in 1965 and How to Eat to Live in 1972. The organization’s publication, Muhammad Speaks, was in circulation and at the height of the Nation of Islam’s popularity, the organization boasted a membership of an estimated 250,000. 

Muhammad also mentored men such as Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and several of his sons, who were also devout members of the Nation of Islam.

Death

Muhammad died of congestive heart failure in 1975 in Chicago.