The Black Muslim movement in the United States was founded by a traveling salesman named Wallace Fard, who arrived from Arabia in 1930 and settled among the black community of Detroit. Fard disappeared in 1934, leaving his right-hand man, Elijah Muhammad (formerly Elijah Poole, 1897-1975), in charge of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, as it was then called. The number of Black Muslims in America soon rose to over a million, or roughly one third of all American Muslims at the time. Elijah Muhammad preached a mixture of unorthodox Islam and black separatism, claiming that blacks were the “original” race and that Caucasians were “white devils” who derived from a botched experiment on subhuman creatures by an evil wizard named Yacub.
Malcolm X (Malcolm Little, 1925-65), for ten years the major spokesman for Elijah Muhammad, became interested in authentic Islam and eventually broke with him after making the the hajj to Mecca, which revolutionized his thinking about the racial separatism espoused by Elijah Muhammad. He took the name al-Hajj Malik Shabaz and was later assassinated by religious rivals. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his seventh son, Warithuddin (Wallace Deen) Muhammad, took charge of the Nation of Islam. Rejecting his father’s teachings, he nonviolently returned the Black Muslims to conventional Sunni Islam. In 1985 he formally dissolved the movement, and its members became integrated with mainstream Islam, a continuing process referred to by African-American Muslims as “the change” or “the second experience.” Today Wallace Deen Muhammad has upwards of 250,000 followers, to whom he communicates with a weekly television program about Muslim life. He is considered by many as the most prominent and respected indigenous Western Muslim leader. In 1992 he became the first imam ever to give the invocation before the United States Senate.
As Wallace Dean Muhammad was beginning his move to orthodox Islam, a new Nation of Islam was formed under Louis Farrakhan in 1978. Once Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan, who as Louis X had played a role at a Boston mosque similar to Malcolm’s in Harlem, opposed and later replaced Malcolm at his Harlem mosque. He returned to the heterodox teachings of Elijah Muhammad, and neither he nor his splinter group have been acknowledged by orthodox Muslims in the Middle East or elsewhere. He has been widely criticized by non-Muslims for his promotion of racial separatism laced with anti-Semitism, although he has been quicker to advance women to the ministry, something that never occurs in traditional Islamic mosques. Farrakhan has only about 20,000 followers today.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of African-American mosques with no more connection to the Nation of Islam have become a strong presence in inner city communities, openly opposing drug dealers, abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and gambling, and promoting socially conservative attitudes toward dress, family life, sexual conduct, and religious worship. No longer strictly African-American, these congregations are accepting members of all ethnic communities. The best estimates of Islamic population in the United States range between six and seven million, of whom approximately 25 percent are African-American (the term Black Muslims no longer applies).
Sports figures like Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Marcellus Clay) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor), are not the only prominent black Americans to have embraced Islam over recent decades. A modest national following has developed around Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, who was known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, the civil rights leader and Black Panther. Of more than a dozen significant subgroups of black American Muslims in the country, most are aligned with mainstream Islam, but some theological splinter groups have survived, including the Moorish Science Temple of Noble Drew Ali (Timothy Drew, 1886-1929), founded in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913, and a minor offshoot of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, called the Five Percenters, which originated in Harlem in the 1960s. They are syncretists who combine an extremist political ideology with esoteric Eastern theology.