Elijah Muhammad, who headed the Nation of Islam (NOI) for more than forty years, was born Elijah Poole in Sandersville, Georgia in October 1897. One of 13 children, he had only the benefit of a third-grade education before he was forced to help support his large family by sharecropping.
Poole left home at age sixteen and worked various odd jobs in Macon, Georgia, before relocating to Detroit, Michigan in 1923. He was one of the many Southern blacks who migrated during and after World War I, seeking work in the North’s growing industrial cities.
Poole secured a job in a Detroit automotive assembly line, but due to the Great Depression and his own alcohol addiction he was unemployed by 1930. Around that time he was first exposed to the teachings of NOI founder Wallace Fard Muhammad (WFM), who exhorted blacks to “return” to Islam, which he and NOI characterized as “the religion of their ancestors.”
According to NOI lore, Poole recognized WFM as Allah after hearing him speak; the elder man recruited Poole to be one of his ministers, giving him the name Karriem. WFM eventually advanced Poole to the rank of Supreme Minister and changed his name again, to Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad studied with WFM before moving to Chicago in 1932 to establish an NOI temple in that city, mastering WFM’s esoteric and racist theology which held that blacks were the master race, and whites an evil upstart creation of a renegade black scientist named Yakub.
In 1934 Elijah Muhammad established a newspaper named The Final Call to Islam, which was the precursor of today’s The Final Call.
When WFM mysteriously disappeared in 1934, NOI, amidst charges and counter-charges of foul play, experienced its first schism. One faction, led by Abdul Muhammad, used the name Temple of Islam; Elijah Muhammad, meanwhile, established a new NOI headquarters in Chicago. Eventually, Abdul Muhammad’s group would be reabsorbed by NOI.
In 1935 Elijah Muhammad moved to Washington, DC, ostensibly to begin familiarizing himself with 104 books on Islam that WFM had instructed him to study. As a practical matter, the move to DC limited Muhammad’s vulnerability to his NOI opponents.
Elijah Muhammad became NOI’s first national voice, using radio to broadcast his black supremacist cant and writing a newspaper column titled “Mr. Muhammad Speaks.”
He encouraged blacks to become conscientious resisters in World War II and was himself arrested and incarcerated for draft-dodging in 1942. In his own defense, he argued both that he was too old for the draft, being then 45, and also that as a black man, he had no business fighting for the United States. He wrote: “When the call [to register for the draft] was made for all males between 18 and 44, I refused (NOT EVADED) on the grounds that, first, I was a Muslim and would not take part in war and especially not on the side with the infidels.” In fact, Elijah Muhammad encouraged blacks to support the Japanese against the U.S. He also established NOI’s paramilitary wing, the Fruit of Islam (FOI), and instituted the FOI dress code of black suits with white shirts.
Elijah Muhammad was released from prison after WWII and resumed his promotion of NOI. He made two significant recruits during this period: (a) a small-time convict named Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X; and (b) his self-proclaimed successor, onetime song-and-dance man Louis Walcott, now Louis Farrakhan.
In 1965 Elijah Muhammad published a 300-page book titled Message to the Blackman in America, based on the aforementioned WFM doctrines. In his screed, Elijah Muhammad explained that Allah had originally created the black race before all others, followed sequentially by the brown, red, and yellow races. The white race, he said, had come into existence only through the efforts of a renegade scientist named Yakub, who allegedly created white people sometime around 4000 BC.
According to Muhammad, Yakub extracted the “brown germ” from the “black germ” and in turn grafted whites from the “brown germ.” The result of this ill-advised experiment, said Muhammad, was the dilution of black blood and the creation of a morally tainted strain of humanity — “white devils” who would go on to devastate the world and oppress all other human beings, and whom God would one day destroy in a liberating Armageddon. This creation story was parlayed into the notion of “Black Supremacy” and the idea that “[S]ome must rule over the other. It is the law of nature.”
“The whole Caucasian race,” said Muhammad, “is a race of devils … the evil and murderous race.” He also referred to whites as “the great archdeceivers” and “man of sin.” The white race, Muhammad elaborated, “are the people described as ‘beast’ in the Revelation of the Bible.”
Muhammad further explained that Christianity had first been established “to deceive other races, namely, the black, brown, yellow and red” in order “to make an easy prey for the white race.”
Calling for the creation of a black homeland wherein no whites would be allowed, Muhammad said: “It is far more important to teach separation of the blacks and whites in America, than prayer.” Racial integration and intermarriage, he said, were nothing more than white schemes designed to confuse blacks, keep them enslaved, and prevent them from being exposed to the wise teachings of the NOI. According to Muhammad, blacks who strive to assimilate into mainstream American culture were “disgraceful Uncle Toms” and “Stool Pigeons.”
During his tenure as NOI leader, Muhammad was implicated in a web of scandal: he had at least six mistresses, and his organization was the subject of probes regarding financial impropriety from its very inception. Moreover, the brutal murders of many of NOI’s black opponents, including Malcolm X and the family of Hamas‘ Abdul Khaalis (leader of the rival Hanafi Muslims), were perpetrated by Elijah Muhammad’s followers — if not specifically at his direction, at least with his tacit approval.
Elijah Muhammad died in 1975.