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A Lost-Found Nation

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The Nation of Islam is a distinctive Islamic movement that was an especially significant part of African American religious, cultural, and political life circa 1950–1970. Led by Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) from 1934 until his death, the movement created a worldwide impression when iconic figures, such as the boxer Muhammad Ali (d. 2016) and minister and human rights activist Malcolm X (d. 1965), became Muslim through its message. Considering race to be an essential part of identity, it advocated that Black Americans had a destiny separate from the White majority in the United States. This view differentiated it from the mainstream of African American thought. Numerous scandals and internecine struggles related to the movement’s organization eventually led to a decrease in its influence from the 1970s onward, although it exists to the present under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan (b. 1933).

I focus on the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad’s guardianship. In his thought available to us from transcribed speeches, time is a central concern. He put forth a distinctive understanding of a deep past tied to racial difference. This understanding required moving toward a new future that the Nation’s members were commanded to create through their own effort.

While the movement’s posture toward American society was separatist, on a worldwide scale, it saw itself as a part of the global struggle for decolonization and divestment from European ideas about racial hierarchy. Its Islamic identity afforded it a non-Eurocentric cosmopolitanism related to African and Asian nations that were, in the 1950s and 1960s, keen to cultivate relationships through bypassing institutions set up by former colonial powers.

The Nation required very high levels of commitment from its members, with set roles assigned to women and men. Memoirs of growing up in a Nation of Islam household provides a sense for what made the movement attractive, and challenging, for those who chose it as adults or became members as children in families.

Theology of Time

Between June 4 and October 29, 1972, Elijah Muhammad gave twenty-one speeches at the Nation of Islam’s Chicago Temple #2 that touched upon all the movement’s major themes in its fully elaborated form. These speeches have been published under the title Theology of Time, a phrase that occurs in them often. The speeches do not constitute a straightforward ideological explanation that could be parsed analytically. These were extempore addresses presented to a live audience presumed to be familiar with what was being said. The collection does, nevertheless, illuminate why Elijah Muhammad saw the correct understanding of time to be the key to both religious salvation and sociopolitical and economic success.

In Elijah Muhammad’s account, the cosmos was born through a spatiotemporal autogenesis. In the beginning, there was nothing at all until an entity moved from one place to the next. This movement created time, that is, the measurable duration in which the movement happened. The movement that created time amounted to “the beginning of God. We had no beginning before He made Himself. We could not calculate on time, because there was no notion making time until after He made himself. He made a motion, and we’ve been reading Time ever since” (Muhammad, Theology of Time, 167).

The key corollary to this understanding is that God, whose proper name is Allah, is a material being. His very existence has to do with space and time. Moreover, all other beings who have come to exist since His self-substantiation are also material entities in their essence. They share the process through which Allah became existent and are further instantiations of His substance.

The original humans who came to exist were Black, with origins going as far back as seventy-three trillion years. The cosmos shared between Allah and Black human beings was subjected to a severe corruption 6,000 years ago, when a brilliant but rogue scientist, named Yakub, used manipulative miscegenation to make the White human race. This deformed, inherently violent, version of humanity then managed to take over the earth, suppressing the original Black people.

The enslavement and transport of Africans to the Americas, which deprived them of intellectual and material resources, was the apogee of the corrupt age begun 6,000 years ago. The crux of Elijah Muhammad’s message was to inform descendants of the enslaved, a “Lost” Nation now “Found,” about their true cosmological past:

You and I are created people, but the white man is not the created people; he is a made people. You and I have a long, long old birth record; it’s so long that we cannot tell you when we were born, but the white man, he is a man that our Scientists made here recently, 6,000 years ago. … There are two Gods. One made an evil man and the other one allowed a good man to remain. The evil man began 6,000 years ago, and the good man, we the Black people, have no birth record. … As God had taught me, in the Person of Master Fard Muhammad, to Whom praise due forever, that we were here millions of years before white folks came (365–366).

This statement provides further elements of the story of the cosmos. First, there is the important distinction between the “created” Black people and the “made” White people. The created are coextensive with the Allah of autogenesis, while the made ones are of recent, scientific manufacture, who are genetically programmed to be violent and unjust. To correct this situation in a manner that was preordained, Allah adopted a human form in the person of Master Fard Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad’s teacher. Fard Muhammad disappeared in 1934, after teaching Elijah Muhammad the truth. Together with being Allah in the flesh, he was seen as both the promised Second Coming of Jesus and the Muslim messianic figure named the Mahdi.

Elijah Muhammad saw himself as the Messenger of Allah, the student of Master Fard Muhammad, who learned the truth about the cosmos through an apprenticeship of four years and four months between 1930 and 1934 (115). The Nation of Islam was his project to teach other Black people the truth of their past, especially the essential difference between them and White people. This view included the idea that the Islam that was begun by Muhammad in Arabia was a part of the corrupt White interregnum that fell within the last 6,000 years. Now, that Islam was to be replaced by the Nation of Islam:

I am Elijah of your Bible, I am the Muhammad of your Holy Qur’an; not the Muhammad that was here 1,400 years ago. I am the one of whom the Holy Qur’an is referring. The Muhammad that was here 1,400 years ago was a white man, then they put up a sign of the real Muhammad. It’s there in Mecca, Arabia; they call it the little Black Stone. I looked at it. I made seven circuits around it. I kissed the little Black Stone, but I didn’t like kissing it, because I knew what it meant. It means that the people will bow to the real Blackman who is coming up out of an uneducated people, having not the knowledge of the Bible and Holy Qur’an, which is why they made it an un-hewed stone; he will be uneducated. So, I was there kissing the sign of myself and I was afraid to tell them that this is me you’re talking about here (3).

Predicted in the form of the Black Stone affixed to the wall of the Ka’ba in Mecca, the Messenger of Allah, Elijah Muhammad, arose from descendants of the enslaved in America to correct a cosmic corruption. By revealing the true nature of time, he disabused Black persons from “tricknology,” that is, the collection of knowledge and practices that have allowed White people to keep Black people subservient, with ever increasing sophistication, for the last 6,000 years through blocking access to knowledge of their own beings.

Elijah Muhammad’s Theology of Time was a subversion of tricknology. Its cardinal principle was that there is no other life than what is experienced in the here and now. The notion of an afterlife of the spirit after death was a subterfuge of tricknology meant to render Black people inert: “There is no man that dies and goes back to the earth, then returns again. That is the thing that just doesn’t happen” (21).

With the arrival of, first, Allah in the person of Master Fard Muhammad and, second, the Messenger, Elijah Muhammad, the world was at the cusp of a radical transformation. Now it was possible for Black people to break the cycle of delusion and corruption started 6,000 years ago. This was the moment of resurrection promised in scriptures such as the Quran and the Bible: “Time brings about all things. Time is making you manifest. They call it resurrection. To resurrect the dead it doesn’t mean resurrecting a physically dead person, but a mentally dead person. You must remember that for 400 years, we have been a mentally dead people” (221). Accepting Elijah Muhammad’s message and dedicating oneself to the program for the future he had charted out meant being resurrected out of ignorance into knowledge.

From Present to Future

Elijah Muhammad’s speeches are full of a sense of urgency. The account of the past I have presented above is found piecemeal within an overall discourse that is singularly focused on exhorting listeners to take up a new mode of life:

I am a Messenger. I have a message to deliver to you from the Lord of the World. We need professional people to get going. Get going on what? To get going on building us a world of our own. We want a world of our own. We need professional people to get started with the world. I no longer want the world that I was born in. I want my own world (279).

Keeping with the view that there was no other life than what was experienced materially, the possibly resplendent future needed to be created in the world through active use of the mind and the body. Important as it was for coming to the correct understanding, the past was not a blueprint for the future. Instead, the righteous society required inhabiting new modes of being.

These required changing food habits, especially by forsaking the consumption of pork; following strictly delimited gender roles that placed women in the home and men in the public; emphasizing technical education to build capacity to change the world, this being undertaken in the Nation of Islam’s own institutions to avoid the corrupted history taught in regular schools; creating businesses and institutions, such as hospitals, that would allow Nation of Islam members to subsist through exchanging resources among themselves rather than relying on outsiders; and striving to acquire land in North America to one day create a state to match the Nation as an entity apart from the United States.

Elijah Muhammad’s Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America was to be a part of the global network of non-Eurocentric nations on the rise after the end of the Second World War. This aspect of the Nation of Islam was especially prominent in the movement’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, published weekly between 1960 and 1975. While Elijah Muhammad’s writings created the impression of a movement focused inward, Muhammad Speaks was the opposite, with its extensive coverage of political and social justice issues in the United States and around the world. For example, the April 10, 1970, issue, which is quite typical of the publication as a whole, included the following:

  • A cover image in which two Black men shake hands going across an image of the globe, with the map of the United States at the center
  • American politics and society: News pertaining to racial issues in Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, and New York; public reappearance of the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael; building a secret police by the US Congress; creating a hospital for Black people; and a report on White people’s racism against American Indians.
  • International issues: Reports on Cambodia, Canada, Chad, Egypt, Israel, Mozambique, Syria, Sudan, and Vietnam

In addition to news and editorial coverage, Muhammad Speaks was full of advertisements for restaurants, hair salons, vehicle and other repair shops, and stores selling food, clothing, and many other forms of consumer goods. The movement’s commercial aspect was highlighted continuously in articles quoting Elijah Muhammad and others, emphasizing, again, the Nation of Islam’s insistence on creating success in the world managed through individual and collective action undertaken materially. The Nation’s resurrection presaged in the appearance of Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad could go from potential to reality only through meeting standards of economic and political success as understood in a developmentalist paradigm.

Beyond the Messenger

The picture of the Nation of Islam in Elijah Muhammad’s speeches and Muhammad Speaks consists of a set of theoretical, prescriptive propositions. To complement this, I turn to a memoir of childhood as a part of the Nation published by Sonsyrea Tate as an adult. Tate left the Nation in her late teens to become a journalist. Her narrative is critical while being thoughtful regarding why her family joined the Nation:

When my grandparents joined the Nation of Islam, they replaced our family name with the Letter X, a symbol that stood for hope deep-rooted and eternal. To a people weighted under racism, broken and embittered, disenchanted even with the black church, the Nation of Islam represented such hope.…My grandparents liked the fact that in the Nation of Islam gender roles were clearly defined, rules were strictly enforced, and the individual god within each black person was acknowledged and respected.…In the Nation children learned to love themselves and love people who were like us.…When I became a third-generation X, I, too, would learn self-reliance, discipline, and self-respect (Tate, Little X, 3–4).

While working hard to create a self-respecting, prosperous existence for African Americans in general, the Nation of Islam’s program for individuals was highly restrictive. The expansiveness projected for the future thus required an ironic severe narrowing of possibilities for the movement’s members. This was especially the case for girls and women, who bore the burdens of a general social disadvantage in American society, combined with Elijah Muhammad’s particularly restrictive views. In one instance, Tate describes being taught the significance of motherhood before she had turned ten. In this ideology, the womb was made the female body’s primary function, curtailing the future to a single, highly prized role (86–87).

In Tate’s description, members of the Nation of Islam felt a significant degree of dissonance between the hope-filled ideology provided by Elijah Muhammad and the continuing difficult circumstances they faced in life:

I thought everybody in my home was doing everything the Honorable Elijah Muhammad said we had to do in order to have heaven here on earth, so I wondered why I didn’t feel like I was in heaven. We had learned that heaven and hell are right here on Earth. Heaven—a nice home, a steady job, and a happy, healthy family. Hell—pain, poverty, suffering, sickness, and isolation…Some of my other friends had a hard time figuring out why bad things kept happening in their families, too, even though they tried to be good (98–99).

Rhetoric notwithstanding, the resplendent future the Nation of Islam promised its adherents remained unattainable for most. The contradiction applied as much to Elijah Muhammad as it did to ordinary members of the Nation of Islam since the movement became embroiled in internal struggles toward the end of his life.

The Nation of Islam underwent a massive transformation upon Elijah Muhammad’s death. Most of the movement’s members shifted over to become Sunni Muslims under the leadership of Wallace D. Muhammad, Elijah’s son, who opened the group to everyone and removed the racialized understanding. Elijah Muhammad’s cosmology was now presented as a preliminary message that had been necessary to bring African Americans to Islam. By the late 1970s, the time of those ideas was now over. With this change, heaven and hell receded back from the earth to their otherworldly “spiritual” positioning as understood by most other Muslims.

One strand of the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, retained the name and distinctiveness of the movement although with primary emphasis on social and political action rather than on theological speculation. The fact that the Nation’s original message has continued to resonate is reflected in the Million Man March that was organized by Farrakhan in 1995. Attended by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, this day of “atonement,” as Farrakhan described it, was meant to generate pride and initiative among Black men in particular, who were seen beset with material as well as moral disadvantages.

In speeches made at the Million Man March as well as in later commentary, African American speakers mixed their support for its purposes with disquiet regarding the association with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. A good example is the following comment by the prominent author Alice Walker:

I can’t imagine becoming Muslim. As a religion whose male Semitic God demands submission and whose spread, historically, has been primarily through conquest, I consider it unsafe. Anyone who considers converting to Islam should first investigate its traditional application in the Middle East and Africa, and the negative impact on women and children in particular, and also on the environment.…However, I don’t think Farrakhan was proselytizing. I thought he spoke as a black man with a following, and therefore some independence and power.…If he is homophobic, as many of my friends believe, this is a great pity.…If he is anti-Semitic…he definitely needed to be forgiven.…I was moved by his apparent humility; and underneath all the trappings of Islam, which I personally find frightening, I glimpsed a man of humor, a persuasive teacher and someone unafraid to speak truth to power (Madhubuti and Karenga, Million Man March/Day of Absence, 43).

The combination of attraction and suspicion Walker expresses regarding Farrakhan seems a good summary for how the Nation of Islam has been positioned throughout its existence. The future it indicates with respect to self-improvement, self-respect, and economic betterment is readily understandable by many. But the connection to Islam, both in the form Elijah Muhammad articulated and versions associated with places outside the United States, is harder to assimilate. For both sides of the issue, African American pasts continue to cast long shadows into the future.

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