Following the Great Migration of countless African Americans from the south to the north, many African Americans felt alone and without a proper community in the big cities. In the 1930s, a mysterious man, Wallace Fard Muhammad, offered a new home for African Americans in the Nation of Islam.
Elijah Muhammad carried on his work by strengthening the community that African American Muslims had not found in the Christian Churches. Members of the Nation of Islam saw Islam as the “natural” religion of all black people throughout the world.
The Nation of Islam provided senses of black nationalism, authority, respect, and power. The Nation also created a home for African Americans by regulating all aspects of life: what they ate and drank, what they wore, and how they acted. Christian “slave names” were dropped and replaced with the letter “X” to show one’s identity within this new community.
The Nation formed its own black community, separate from the white community, complete with schools, businesses, mosques, and even a paramilitary group. The goal of this community was that African Americans become self-sufficient; a goal that was met as “these enterprises prospered as concrete evidence of nationhood.”
Islam connected African Americans to their Muslim ancestors in Africa. The slave trade had separated African Americans from their identity as Muslims and had forced Christianity upon them. Given this, Lewis V. Baldwin and Amiri YaSin Al-Hadid write that, “the NOI members believe that African Americans are lost until they discover and reclaim their true Muslim identity and unite with the Nation of Islam.”
When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son, W. Deen Mohammed, was chosen as his successor. W. Deen recognized the important role that the Nation played in creating a home for African Americans, but he worried that several significant flaws in the Nation’s structure and theology would inhibit the future growth of the religion. First, W. Deen thought the Nation was too focused on Black Power and not focused enough on the faith of Islam. Second, he corrected what he saw as the three flaws in the Nation of Islam’s ideology: “that Allah is a man by the name of Fard Muhammad, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and all whites or Europeans are genetically devils.”
Although he denied the teachings of his father and W. Fard Muhammad, W. Deen never criticized his two predecessors. Instead, he saw himself as continuing on the teachings for which members of the Nation of Islam had not previously been ready. “Mr. Fard planned to introduce the Qur’an and real Islam in America,” W. Deen said in a speech. “But he knew blacks were militant and angry with whites, so he sought the angry ones, the dissatisfied ones. And they were accepted and accepted his teachings, but he planted among them the Qur’an.”
W. Fard Muhammad planted the seeds of orthodox Islam and W. Deen was able to grow those seeds into fully orthodox theology. In addition to the difficult task of re-formulating theology there were legal challenges to the Nation of Islam: the assassination of Malcolm X, accusations of drug-dealing within the movement, and pressure from the federal government. In response to the above issues, W. Deen used the Nation of Islam to help African Americans cross into orthodox Sunni Islam and mainstream American society. He continued his father’s work of building a home for African American Muslims, but he did this in conversation with the wider American and Christian society. Thomas Tweed’s definition of religion as a way “to make homes and cross boundaries” provides an appropriate lens for examining how W. Deen Mohammed was able to use rhetoric in speeches, writings and interviews to transition most African American Muslims into Sunni Islam.
According to Tweed, religions enable practitioners to make places for themselves and also to move through space—these are his concepts of “crossing and dwelling.” In other words, one of religion’s functions is to create a home or a homeland for people. He writes that“[religions] delineate domestic and public space and construct collective identity. Religions distinguish us and them—and prescribe where and how both should live.”
From the beginning, the Nation of Islam was about founding a “nation,” or a home, for African Americans. Two tools employed in the construction of this nation were strict rules and stringent separation from white Americans. Contrary to this tradition, W. Deen allowed non-African Americans to join his movement (renamed the American Society of Muslims), and he worked hard to establish a welcoming group for all. He created an identity that included “a worldview resting on faith in God, not on the inferiority or the superiority of races.” This identity united all members as part of one international Muslim community. In his speeches, W. Deen stressed that, “there is nothing better than the good family life and unity. That is for private life at home or wherever we are. And even more importantly, it is for the family of believers. Believers are a family; we are a community.”
In another speech, he explained that community is essential to Islam, as “Islam requires, I repeat, that Muslims belong to community life and be about establishing their own identity as a community.” W. Deen situated his followers within both the American community and the international Muslim community.
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Photo is from Oren neu dag, found here.
 Marsha Snulligan Haney, Islam and Protestant African-American Churches: Responses and Challenges to Religious Pluralism (San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1999), 79
 Aminah Beverly McCloud, African American Islam (New York: Routledge, 1995), 28
 Ibid, 33
 Ibid, 35
 Lewis V. Baldwin and Amiri YaSin Al-Hadid, Between Cross and Crescent: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Malcolm and Martin (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002), 67-68
 To prevent confusion with the Prophet Muhammad, Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad, I will refer to W. Deen Mohammed as W. Deen in subsequent references.
 Baldwin and Al-Hadid, Between Cross and Crescent, 59
 Thomas A. Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 54
 Ibid, 59
 Ibid, 75
 McCloud, African American Islam, 75
 Mohammed, “The Interests of All People at Heart.”
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