The Nation of Islam: Their History and Beliefs

Author: Jimmy Butts

Their History:

The examination of any religious movement divorced from its historical context not only hinders the observer from developing an accurate assessment of it, but it also leaves the well-meaning evangelist lacking the lens to formulate a strategy to engage its adherers. This has been the challenge for those in the Christian community who have sought to engage with members of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Post-slavery, many African-Americans desired a means of empowerment in order to rise above their position in American culture. Thus, the NOI emerged. Around the year 1930, a man named, Fard Muhammad, began teaching amongst the African-American community in the Detroit area. He taught that the original religion of African-Americans was Islam, while Christianity was the white man’s religion. One person who was drawn by this new teaching was Elijah Poole, who would eventually change his name to Elijah Muhammad. Elijah led the Nation of Islam after the mysterious disappearance of Fard in 1933.[1]

By 1959, there were fifty NOI temples in various parts of the United States.[2] A large factor of this growth was due to Malcolm X’s contribution to the movement. In his early life, Malcolm lived a criminal lifestyle that landed him in prison. While in prison, Malcolm was exposed to the teachings of the NOI and subsequently converted. Upon release, Malcolm established himself in the movement by his autodidactic scholarship and rhetorical giftedness. He traveled throughout the States and overseas influencing many, including Muhammad Ali, to join the movement. Malcolm eventually began to question the legitimacy of Elijah Muhammad’s message and eventually converted to Sunni Islam. Shortly after his conversion, he was killed. It is thought that his murders were connected to the NOI.

In 1975, Elijah Muhammad died, and the movement fractured. Some began moving the NOI toward Sunni orthodoxy, while others desired to maintain the traditional teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Those who decided to preserve Elijah’s teachings followed the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan, who leads them to this day.

Their Beliefs:

The most fundamental question of doctrine concerns authority. In the Nation of Islam, the highest authority in principle is Fard Muhammad, but in practice, it is Elijah Muhammad. With his own authority established, Elijah Muhammad was able to be the arbiter of all claims to truth. Consequently, he argued that there is some truth in the Bible if understood correctly.[3] However, he also believed that the Bible was a poisoned book that had been tampered with by whites to blind black people.[4] In contrast, The Qur’an was regarded as a perfectly pure book,[5] although one required Elijah’s interpretation to properly understand its content.

Elijah Muhammad taught that African-Americans needed to be saved from mental death. In his article, “Message to the Blackman in America,” Muhammad argued, “Christianity is one of the most perfect black-slave making religions on our planet. It has completely killed the so-called Negro mentally.”[6] Since mental death is the condition which one must be saved from, salvation comes through obtaining a particular knowledge; knowledge of the truth of God.[7] Muhammad taught that heaven and hell are not places, but rather they are conditions.[8] The references in the Bible that teach about resurrection actually mean a mental resurrection of the black nation to the knowledge of the truth.[9] According to Muhammad, part of this gift of knowledge is the realization of the corruption of what whites have given blacks; he explains, “Our first step is to give the white man his religion (Christianity), his church, and his names back. These three are chains of slavery that hold us in bondage to them. We are free when we give up the above three.”[10] In other words, this is a mental reawakening to the truth of god.

Regarding the Nation’s belief about the devil, Muhammad explains that 6,600 years ago the black nation gave birth to a god named Yakub.[11] He proceeds:

When Yakub was six years old, one day he was sitting down with two pieces of steel. He noticed the magnetic power in the steel attracting the other. He looked up at his uncle and said ‘Uncle when I get to be an old man, I am going to make a people who shall rule you.’ The uncle said what will you make; something to make mischief and cause bloodshed in the land? Yakub said: ‘Nevertheless, Uncle, I know that which you do not know.’[12]

From studying the germ of the black man under a microscope, Yakub discovered that there were two people in him. One was black, the other brown.[13] Yakub decided that he could graft a white person through a process of separating the black and brown germs.[14] Through a series of events, Yakub was exiled with a group of his followers to an island where he would continue his plan to graft the white race through a system of birth control. He instructed the doctors to not allow two black people to marry and have children; only two brown people could marry.[15] Furthermore, he ordered the nurses to kill all black babies at birth by pricking the brains with a sharp needle.[16] This long process eventually culminated in his desired ends: “After the first 200 years, Mr. Yakub had done away with the black babies, and all were brown. After another 200 years, he had all yellow or red, which was 400 years after being on ‘Pelan.’ Another 200 years, which brings us to the six hundredth year, Yakub had an all-pale white race of people on this Isle.”[17] Thus, the Nation of Islam believes that the race of white people is the originator of sin, murder, lying, and injustice.[18] They are the enemies of the black race,[19]and they prey on those who do not have the knowledge of self.[20]

Part of this self-knowledge is an understanding of who god is. The concept of an immaterial mystery god was taught to the devils by their father Yakub.[21] In the Nation’s orthodoxy, god is a material being[22] and not a “spook.”[23] Although they claim to believe in one god,[24] this belief is very complex. On the one hand, Fard Muhammad is viewed as this one god, Allah.[25] However, there is also the belief that all black men are god(s).[26] Further still, there is a council of twenty-four African-American men who serve as god(s) over the Nation. One scholar summarizes this multifaceted doctrine by stating that the gods’ refer to the general population of the descendants of the first black man, the creator. It also “refers to the council of the Gods that serve as the ruling body governing the Black Nation.”[27]

The Nation of Islam is a forgotten sect of Islam. Through this brief summary of their history and beliefs, may the Christian community be encouraged to pray for the members of NOI. They are a people group desperate for the truth of Jesus Christ.


[1] E.U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: The Rise of the Black Muslims in the U.S.A., 19.
[2] Ibid., 20.
[3] Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America, 95.
[4] Ibid., 94.
[5] Ibid., 95.
[6] Ibid., 70.
[7] Ibid., 11.
[8] Ibid., 76.
[9] Ibid., 97.
[10] Ibid., 26.
[11] Ibid., 110.
[12] Ibid., 112.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., 114.
[16] Ibid., 115.
[17] Ibid., 116.
[18] Ibid., 102.
[19] Ibid., 7.
[20] Ibid., 8–9.
[21] Ibid., 2.
[22] Ibid., 4.
[23] Ibid., 3.
[24] Ibid., 69.
[25] Ibid.,16–17.
[26] Ibid., 53.
[27] True Islam [pseud.], The Book of God: An Encyclopedia of Proof that the Blackman is God!, 321–322.

Jimmy Butts, a native of Virginia, is currently a MDiv student in Islamic Studies. He is also a pastor at Forest Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. Butts plans to pursue a Ph.D. focusing on African American Islamic Studies. 

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