The African American Muslim leaders are mostly comprised of converts to Islam. Most of them were born Christians and learned about Islam as they grew up. They developed doctrines that drew them closer to Islam so as to help them solve the problems faced by blacks in their immediate communities. This essay describes lives of three black Muslim leaders.
Elijah Muhammad was born on the 7th of October, 1897 in Sandsville, Georgia, and was known as Elijah Robert Poole. He was the seventh born in a family of thirteen children of Mr. William Poole and Mariah Hall. His father was a sharecropper and a Baptist lay preacher and his mother was a sharecropper and a housewife. He came from a humble background and went to school until fourth grade when he dropped out to work in brickyards and sawmills for sustenance (Lincoln, 1994). His childhood in Cordele, Georgia exposed him to cases of extreme prejudice and to some extent violence directed towards blacks.
In 1919, he married Clara Evans and together they had a family of eight children, six boys, and two girls. Due to the harsh economic status and inhabitable environment caused by the prejudice in the area, in 1923 he decided to move his own family, his parents and siblings to Detroit, Michigan. It is in Detroit where he found better employment in an auto factory (Smith, 2000).
In August 1931, Elijah met Wallace D. Fard who was a former salesman and was then a preacher. Fard was an Islamic preacher but had tailored his preaching to conform to the needs and provide solutions to the problems that black Americans were facing. It is believed that Elijah was persuaded by his wife to attend one of Fard’s speeches. Elijah gained interest and approached Fard after the speech and after that they became close friends (Smith, 2000). Within no time Elijah converted to Islam together with his wife and several of his brothers. He took the surname Muhammad and was Fard’s assistant in Nation of Islam, a black nationalists’ and religious organization. Fard founded this organization in order to empower the African Americans in believing that they can succeed through knowledge of God, racial egotism, discipline and physically detaching themselves from the white society (Lincoln, 1994).
When Fard moved to Chicago Elijah took over the leadership of the organization and in 1934, he took complete control when Fard mysteriously vanished and was entitled the “Minister of Islam”. His transition to the leadership of the organization had obstacles as he faced opposition from others who had the potential to become leaders, including his brother (Lincoln, 1994). These squabbles forced him and his family to seek refuge in Chicago as they became severe. He solely relocated to Wisconsin where he started another temple and lastly moved to Washington, D.C to start another temple there.
He was arrested for influencing his followers to avoid the draft during the World War II and was jailed from 1942 to 1946. When he was released he embarked on slowly solidifying the membership of the Black Muslims (Smith, 2000). His leadership positively influenced the organization to owning an array of businesses in different states. By 1972, the blacks had a major boost spiritually, economically and academically and all credits were accorded to Elijah. He passed on due to congestive heart failure in 1975.
Malcolm X was born on the 19th of May in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska and was known as Malcolm Little. He was the fourth born to a family of eight children of Louise and Earl Little. His mother was a housewife and the father was a preacher. His father was an active member of the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and also supported Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist leader. His father’s activism exposed the family to harassment from white supremacists and this necessitated the family to relocate to East lasing, Michigan (Lincoln, 1994). Things were not rosy in Michigan as a racist mob burned down their house and they were denied from assistance by the emergency responders. His father was lynched in 1931 and his body dumped on the town’s trolley tracks. His mother was hardly hit and suffered an emotional breakdown leading her children to be split as she was admitted to a mental institution.
He was the only black child in his high school and was an excellent student. Unfortunately, he dropped out of junior high school since his favorite teacher told him that he won’t make it as a lawyer because of his skin color. He lived in Roxbury, Boston where he did odd jobs until they moved to Harlem, New York where he started gambling, selling drugs and other criminal activities (Lincoln, 1994). In 1946, he was arrested for larceny and jailed for ten years. It was while in prison when he frequently read attempting to make up for the years he had missed out when he dropped out of school. Some of his siblings who had joined the Nation of Islam visited him and influenced him to convert to Islam while he was still in prison (Smith, 2000). He was released in 1952 and upon his release he dropped the name “Little “ terming it a slave name and adopted “X” which he said was an unknown name of his African ancestors.
He moved to Detroit and worked under Elijah Muhammad intensifying the scope of the organization and he was a minister for two temples, one in Harlem and another in Boston while simultaneously establishing other temples. In 1958, he married Betty Sanders who was also a member of the organization. They had six children. The wife became a radical activist following her husband’s demise and she was known as Betty Shabazz.
He was an eloquent speaker and this was a major advantage to his work as a minister in addition to his striking physical presence. This influenced the African Americans to join the organization in throngs monthly. Due to his confidence and popularity he managed to attend official functions and met leaders, such as Fidel Castro, Kenneth Kaunda and others who were impressed by his commitment to the blacks. He fought against racial segregation and worked in building the blacks’ belief that they are superior to the whites. He moved with the masses in speeding freedom, justice, respect and equality and did not believe that violence should be avoided so as to achieve this (Smith, 2000). He is credited with the conversion of Muhammad Ali to Islam. He left the Nation of Islam in 1964 following his ban from public speaking as he had criticized President Kennedy’s assassination. He was assassinated on 21st February, 1965 by members of the organization.
Wallace Deen Muhammad was born in 1933 to Clara Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam organization. His childhood was filled with his father’s doctrines and teachings (Smith, 2000). He went to the Muhammad University of Islam where he was taught Arabic. He was a minister under Elijah in Philadelphia.
In1961, he was arrested for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military and was jailed for14 months. During his time in the federal prison he read the Qur’an and had a mission to change the Nation of Islam (Smith, 2000). He was released in 1963 and after Malcolm X was assassinated he was readmitted to the organization.
He was appointed to lead the organization after his father passed on. Under his leadership, reforms were made to the organization so as to conform to the traditional Islam practices. He changed his title from the Supreme Minister to Imam (Lincoln, 1994). Around 400 temples were converted to mosques. He denounced the divinity of Fard and his father being Allah’s messenger. He negated the black’s superiority as portrayed by his father and Malcolm. He brought interfaith interactions and his message did not only appeal the blacks, although it was directed to them (Smith, 2000). The major change was in abolishing the security force, Fruit of Islam, which may have opposed his new doctrine.
He highly influenced the blacks irrespective of their religious affiliations. He was the first Muslim to open the U.S. Senate with prayer and later participated in Bill Clinton’s inauguration. He passed on with a heart disease and diabetes’ complications on 9th September, 2008.
Malcolm X was Elijah Muhammad’s avid follower although they fell out when Malcolm questioned Elijah’s children that were born out of marriage. Elijah did not respond to Malcolm and this created a rift between them. It was later revealed as Elijah spoke on Malcolm’s death that he did not support his preaching. Since the suspected killers were members of the Nation of Islam it clearly points out the grudge that was between them. Warith Muhammad was Malcolm’s good friend and although they practiced different doctrines as ministers they all worked towards the same purpose of empowering the blacks (Smith, 2000). His father denounced him several times since he failed to acknowledge Fard as divine. His differences with his father are largely portrayed in the reforms he made when he became the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Overall, the three leaders had a common goal and had the African Americans interests at heart. They endured hardships but stood firm in ensuring that the message of empowerment to the blacks was put into action and not only spoken. Their early lives subjected them to prejudice but this did not deter them from being ambassadors of change. Their achievements were long term and can be seen up to date with the successful blacks giving credit to the foundation laid by them years back.