Quick, name the most famous Muslim American in history.
Now, that wasn’t a fair test, given the giant picture headlining the article (we political scientists call that “priming” because we like to come up with technical terms for everything), but even without the photo, you probably would have answered either “Muhammad Ali” or, if you’re more politically inclined, “Malcolm X.”
If, however, I’d left out that photo and question, and instead simply asked you to picture American Muslims in general, you’d probably have developed a different image in your mind. You likely would have thought of individuals with Middle Eastern or North African or Asian heritage. You probably wouldn’t have thought of white people, even though 40% of Muslims in America are technically white (because Arab and other Middle Eastern origins are classified as “white” by the US government – remind me to write an article on that history; it’s fascinating – although there may be a new Middle East/North Africa category added to the census in the future).
And I’m guessing most of you, most of the time, would not have immediately thought of black Muslims, even though 20% of Muslims in the US are black. I say “most of the time” because two stories last week highlighted the American black Muslim community and the uneasiness that many in this country have with them. The mother of one of the Coventry Catholic School boys filmed staring down a Native American elder was contacted for comment, and she blamed the situation on a group of “Black Muslims” who she claimed were harassing the boys in the moments before the video (subsequent videos revealed the men she was apparently referring to were Black Hebrew Israelites, a different religion). Meanwhile, the events of the Women’s March remained partially overshadowed as co-founder Tamika Mallory continues to take heat for her association with Louis Farakkhan, the controversial (that is to say, anti-Semitic, homophobic and transphobic) leader of the Nation of Islam.
I remember learning of Minister Louis Farrakhan during my adolescent years (the 1990s). Some of my relatives got a VHS tape of his sermons (yes, this was when “tapes” were actually tapes) and watched them for hours. I wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to understand most of what he was saying, but I mostly remember that the parts I picked up on seemed strange: talk of an evil scientist named Yakub who somehow created white people (who were bad, I gathered), and so forth.
But I also knew of black Muslims from popular culture: they were people (generally men) who walked around, often in groups, wearing impeccable suits, and their speech and mannerisms were very controlled, almost militaristic. Their appearance and demeanor demanded respect. Malcolm X (someone who, if you were growing up black, you automatically knew about, even if it was primarily as MLK’s counterpart) was a Muslim and, I eventually realized, a member of the Nation of Islam. Of course, Malcolm was a divisive figure, too, although not in the same way as Farrakhan.
A Brief History of the Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam is an African-American centric religion that practices a non-conventional form of Islam. The NOI was founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace Fard, also known as Wallace Fard Muhammad, as an Islamic movement with a black nationalist focus. Fard is a very mysterious figure; even though he was subject to multiple FBI investigations, the most basic details of his life – his birth date, ethnicity, real name, his death – remain uncertain. Among his followers, this mystery only gave credibility to the idea that he was a divine individual – many identified him the Madhi, a messiah-like figure in Islamic tradition who is prophesied to come one day and vanquish evil from the world.
It was Fard who promulgated the tenets that separated the NOI from mainstream Islam – the idea of black people as the original people of the earth; the creation of the white race by the evil scientist Yakub (aka the Old Testament Jacob, laying the groundwork for the anti-Semitism that is causing problems today); and the identification of African Americans with a “lost tribe of Shabazz” that originated in the holy city of Mecca.
Fard disappeared in 1934 (really, straight up Jimmy Hoffa style vanished) and his disciple, Elijah Muhammad, took over. It was the Honorable Elijah Muhammad who ran the NOI when a young man named Malcolm Little was converted while in jail in Boston. Renamed Malcolm X (shedding his “slave” name), he worked closely under Elijah Muhammad’s tutelage to popularize a much more militant and separatist (and for many frustrated black Americans, a more powerful) brand of black liberation that that being offered by Dr. King. Malcolm X left the NOI in 1964 over disagreements with Elijah Muhammad and after a transformative trip to Mecca (Malcolm was assassinated by three NOI members a year later); thus, when Elijah died in 1975, his protégé, Louis Farrakhan, soon took over. During the 1980s and 90s, Farrakhan received attention in national media attention for his anti-Semitism and other hateful remarks. Jerry Seinfeld even joked about him on his eponymous sitcom (I mean the show Seinfeld; there wasn’t a sitcom called Farrakhan, which I’m sure everyone involved is happy about), comparing him to former KKK leader David Duke (sidenote: if you haven’t done so already, watch Spike Lee’s newly Oscar-nominated BlackKkKlansman, but only after you go watch Lee’s phenomenal Malcolm X, which should have won all the Oscars…).
The Million Man March and the Enduring Appeal of the Nation of Islam.
But Farrakhan really entered most of America’s consciousness when he organized 1995’s Million Man March in Washington DC. This event transcended the Nation of Islam, or religious distinction – Christian clergy participated heavily, as did black politicians, scholars, Civil Rights leaders, activists and hundreds of thousands of invidiuals from across the black community. (Yet again, Spike Lee captured this historical moment in his 1996 film Get on the Bus). For Muslim, Christian and nonreligious black men alike, the event took on the significance of a Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslim men are expected to take once in their life if they are able.
Still, the event was very much Farrakhan and the Nation’s show, focused on a conservative, for lack of a better term, conception of black male leadership, empowerment, morality and respectability. Farrakhan of course toned down his rhetoric for the march (although it did not stay that way), and organizing such a massive and meaningful event solidified the minister’s national standing,
Beyond the March itself, the Nation of Islam has endeared itself in many urban black communities through is work, activism and empowerment. It was the rhetoric of meaning behind the black identity (and the prospect of identifying a reason, however misguided, for centuries of black oppression) that attracted people like my aunts (Christians with no interest in Islam per se) to Farrakhan’s words. It’s these long-running and pervasive community activities, not anti-Semitism, that maintains the NOI’s appeal to many black Americans looking for purpose (although not exclusively due to the Nation of Islam, half of black American-born Muslims are converts to the religion). It was this type of outreach and support that converted Malcolm Little and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali, for those with short memories), who were both Nation of Islam members before transitioning to more mainstream versions of Islam.
And it was this support from Nation of Islam members that comforted Tamika Mallory after her child’s father was murdered and secured the activist’s loyalty, which remains today even as it calls into question her motives and judgment and brings significant backlash to the movement she helped found. Just as Donald Trump has many white supporters who simply choose ignore racism and misogyny from the President and his camp, Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have many supporters who, like Tamika Mallory, have decided to overlook the uglier elements of Farrakhan’s rhetoric because of the specific appeal and history the Nation has with the black community as a source of power in a history of powerlessness.
[This article is the third in a series of articles entitled “America Marches”, inspired by the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the convergence of a series of public events this past weekend in Washington, D.C. and around the country]