Is the Nation of Islam a true Islamic religion?
Many uninformed people do not understand that the Nation of Islam, an American religion, is not true Islam. To know how it is different, let's look at its history.
Before the Nation of Islam (NOI)
Africans and their descendants had been oppressed through slavery and later racial discrimination up through the twentieth century. Islam was a religion associated with Africa and a tradition independent of and distinct from European culture. Islam could also lay claim to the Ottoman Empire, which was more significant than the Roman Empire at its peak. It had a straightforward theology, at least compared with Christianity, a conventional social ethic, a legal justice system based on their holy book, the Qur'an, and an economic system promulgated on social justice and equality of distribution. It also stoked fear among white Christian Americans as they were not prepared for a unified underclass to challenge their beliefs or rules.
When there is a need for a specialized product, one will emerge that will take on the features of an existing product but will be custom fitted for the task at hand. In a sense, this began to happen for African Americans still feeling the bitterness of racial discrimination in the early twentieth century. Former black slaves and their families were looking for that tonic to ease their pain. They sought to consolidate their fear, hatred, and disgust towards the individuals and the institutions that allowed slavery to go on for so long. The "product" that began to emerge as an activist-based religion that was intolerant of racial equality. It was a "product" that promoted racial superiority, and it found a ready market in the African American community.
Contemporary Islam would not work in these conditions as it promotes racial equality. While traditional Islam does not promote gender equality, religious equality, or LGBTQ rights, it promotes racial equality. The "American product" was modified to look like Islam but boasted a superior racial position over whites. It had to provide a rationale for why blacks did not fit into the white social structure. It had to give a path to circumvent the white community. Today, that product, The Nation of Islam, had a rough beginning dating between 1910 – 1920.
The Nation of Islam evolved from several different organizations which assumed the peculiarities of their leaders. Timothy Drew developed the first uniquely American form of Islam when he founded the Canaanite Temple in Newark, NJ, in 1913 and later the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1928. He referred to his followers as "Moslem" and used the word "Temple" for his meeting place. He claimed his calling from Allah, and he changed his name to Noble Drew Ali. Drew Ali claimed to be a prophet, and his publication of The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America focused on Jesus, not Muhammad. He taught that African Americans were Moors and that the Founding Fathers had obscured their real identity and enslaved them in the process. Traditional Islamist groups were infuriated that Drew Ali would claim himself to be a prophet, believing that he was blasphemous because the Qur'an claimed that Muhammad was the last prophet. Drew Ali got the message and quickly moved on to Chicago, where he started the process again.
Drew Ali died in 1929 under suspicious circumstances. His movement peaked with some thirty thousand members in the 1930s. Even today, there are still chapters that teach his theology and view him as a prophet. Many of his precepts, which entail Jesus being a black man, Islam as the epistemologically superior religion, and opposition to racial integration, would all become key concepts in the Nation of Islam.
The Nation of Islam
Wali Fard (pronounced "Farrad") Muhammad received credit for establishing the Nation of Islam (NOI). Although there are many mysteries and suspect stories regarding his name's origin, his real name was Wallace Dodd Ford. Both Los Angeles police records and FBI prison records list him a Caucasian or white, married, and a father. He was arrested in 1918 by the LA police and again in 1926 for the possession of drugs. Upon his release, he moved to Chicago and then to Detroit. God uses troubled men to achieve his goals – perhaps, in this case, that was Fard Muhammad's rise to notoriety.
Fard Muhammad worked as a door-to-door salesman. His gift of gab paid off as he began teaching a version of Islam that emphasized the evils of alcohol and pork. He attacked the Bible and Christianity on racial grounds, and he had a willing audience. In the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement was yet to begin, but racial discrimination was rampant throughout the nation. As before, with Drew Ali's case, Fard Muhammad ran afoul of the law and disappeared. His time with the NOI had not been in vain, however. He amassed several thousand followers, founded a second temple in Chicago, and established a school known as the University of Islam. It's noteworthy that a 1934 NOI publication, The Final Call, describes Fard Muhammad as a prophet.
In the late 1950s, the Black Muslim Movement had gained much notoriety because of a charismatic convert named Malcolm X. Other new members, including heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay before joining the NOI), added visibility to the group. Another new member recruited by Malcolm X during this period was Louis Farrakhan (originally Louis Eugene Wolcott and then Louis X). Before joining the NOI, Farrakhan was a cabaret singer, but he rapidly advanced through the ranks, with Malcolm X's support, as a superb speaker and organizer. The onset of the civil rights movement and the violent reactions it provoked made the NOI's portrayal of the "white devil" pertinent to a much more significant proportion of black America. By 1959, Martin Luther King was cautioning his congregations of "a hate group arising in our midst that would preach the doctrine of black supremacy."
While the NOI had a strong uptake of membership within the black American community, it also caught the eyes of American Muslims. Immigrant Muslim communities confronted the NOI with objections to it using the Islam "brand" as Islam does not condone racism. Additionally, orthodox Islam recognizes that the last "real" prophet was Muhammad, who died in 632, not Fard Muhammad, who disappeared in 1934.
Louis Farrakhan eventually emerged as the leader in the 1970's. Farrakhan had rapidly risen to prominence following his mentor, Malcolm X's departure. Farrakhan made the correct assumption that the essence of the NOI was their racial teachings. While America was slowly addressing civil rights and racial discrimination was illegal, progress was too slow, with many adherents supporting Farrakhan's push for radical change. He reinvigorated the NOI in 1977, with all of Elijah Muhammad's original teachings. Farrakhan was no stranger to controversy. He made anti-Semitic speeches, accusing Jews of promulgating the slave trade; organized a large gathering of African American men in Washington, D.C. to confront lawmakers about civil rights, which was consequently labeled as the Million Man March in 1995; bashed the LGBTQ community, Catholics, Caucasians, and most recently in 2010, embraced the Church of Scientology's philosophy of Dianetics.
Racial separation is one of NOI's primary goals. Nation of Islam members pool their resources and purchase products from black-owned enterprises to keep money circulating within the community. They desire to establish a separate territory which former slave masters are obligated to support for 20 to 25 years until they become self-sufficient. Until they can have an independent nation, the NOI wants segregated schools, exemption from all taxation, and the prohibition of intermarriage. This concept of segregation fits into the demand for reparations being voiced by several congressmen. An interesting irony is that Farrakhan's separatist effort has allied his views with several white supremacist organizations and the Black Lives Matter movement that agree that the races must be separated.
The NOI resembles traditional Sunni Islam by following their version of the Five Pillars. Other doctrines of the NOI dealing with the Muhammad not being the last prophet, a different Messiah other than Christ, and the teaching of Yakub, a story of human breeding that produced the white race, have not been acceptable to Islamic sects.
Ask orthodox Muslims if the NOI is legit
If one asks a Muslim scholar what they think about the Black Muslim Movement, they will say that it is not genuinely Islamic. To the orthodox believer: 1) Islam is universal; it does not tolerate racial discrimination; the vitriolic rhetoric emanating from the Black Muslim Movement suggesting the black race is superior is wrong; 2) it is blasphemy to believe that other prophets came after Muhammad as this conflicts with the Qur'an (33:40); 3) one can be committed to the black community and have a black-only plan and still be an orthodox Muslim, but you need to follow traditional Muslim thought. For example, before his assassination, Malcolm X left the NOI and changed his position on orthodox Islam. He refuted black nationalism, instead moving to pan-Africanism, which aligns African Americans with their cultural and religious heritage in Africa.
Civil rights laws have helped to tamp down racial discrimination, and membership of the NOI has slowly dissipated. While so-called American Islam is still present, it has become secondary in affiliation to true Islam. Orthodox Muslims will tell us their religion does not discriminate against blacks or whites, but Muslims do not tell us is that Islam does discriminate against women, LGBTQ groups, and people who do not believe in Islam.