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The Nation of Islam (NOI) was founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace Dodd Fard, an itinerant salesman. Fard's movement was composed of traditional Islamic teachings augmented by, and interlaced with obscure mathematical, Gnostic, and heretical accretions, including an identification of all blacks as “Asiatic.” This message resonated among American blacks who had migrated north, seeking to escape racial oppression and rural poverty.
One of Fard's earliest converts was Elijah Poole, a grade-school dropout and alcoholic Georgian who had moved to Detroit in 1923. By 1931, Poole had become known as Elijah Muhammad, and upon Fard's sudden and mysterious disappearance in 1934, he became head of NOI.
Elijah Muhammad moved to Washington, D.C. in 1935 and began proselytizing for NOI in different cities throughout the U.S. He advocated the creation of a separate black nation on the U.S. mainland, separate from white society in every way -- economically, politically, and spiritually. He claimed that Fard was actually Allah, the reincarnation of Jesus, the prophet the world had been awaiting for the last 2,000 years, and the Son of Man. Muhammad was arrested in 1942 for refusing to register for the military draft; he urged all Muslims to resist fighting against Fascism, and openly favored the Japanese as Asiatic heroes resisting white oppression.
In 1965, Muhammad published a 300-page book titled Message to the Blackman in America, in which he explained that Allah had originally created the black race before all others, followed sequentially by the brown, red, and yellow races. The white race, said Muhammad, was created some 6,000 years ago, not by Allah but by a renegade black scientist named Yakub. In Muhammad's view, "the whole Caucasian race is a race of devils . . . the evil and murderous race.”
Under Muhammad's leadership, NOI engaged in economic ventures, built schools, and increased its own membership dramatically. It attracted many with its doctrine of strict moral discipline, religious observance, and apparent ability to redeem the lives of many individuals who had been considered "beyond hope."
Muhammad retained effective control over NOI for more than four decades, but by far the most visible spokesman of the movement was his protégé Malcolm X. Convicted of robbery in 1946, Malcolm Little converted to NOI in 1947, took a new name, and, upon his parole in 1952, began working for Muhammad as an organizer. A fiery speaker, he competed with Martin Luther King, Jr. for the affiliation of young blacks awakened by the civil rights struggle.
In 1964 Malcolm made a hajj to Mecca, which led him to reject his formerly held notion that all whites were evil. He embraced a species of revolutionary Marxism that was not overtly racist, and this attitude shift put him at odds with Muhammad. Also in 1964, Malcolm publicly revealed that Muhammad had impregnated several of his teenage secretaries; in blatant violation of Muhammad's own admonitions against sex outside of marriage (two of Muhammad's secretaries eventually filed paternity suits against him).
When Malcolm made these revelations, an anathema was pronounced on him and he was suspended from his post as the leader of the Harlem Mosque. He was replaced by Louis Farrakhan, who, outraged at what he perceived as Malcolm's traitorous disloyalty, denounced him in the NOI newspaper Muhammad Speaks. "Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm," Farrakhan wrote. "The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil, foolish talk about his benefactor; such a man is worthy of death." In effect, Malcolm had been fingered for assassination. Ten weeks later, on February 21, 1965, he was killed in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom by three gunmen with ties to NOI.
As recently as 1993, Farrakhan tried to justify Malcolm X's assassination when he said in a speech, "Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with [Malcolm] like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cut-throats and turncoats." In May 1995, however, Farrakhan spoke for the first time in repentant tones about the slaying, and he admitted to having "helped create the atmosphere" that led to it. "I may have been complicit in words that I spoke leading up to 21 February," he said. "I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being." Immediately thereafter, however, he named the U.S.government as the real villain that had fomented zeal and bitterness inside NOI's ranks.
In 1972, NOI was responsible for one of the most abhorrent murders of a police officer in New York City history when its members shot 31-year-old Officer Phillip Cardillo in Harlem’s 28th precinct on April 14, 1972. Cardillo and his partner, Vito Navarro, were the first to respond to what turned out to be a phony "10-13," meaning an officer in need of urgent help, that came from within the Nation of Islam Harlem Mosque located on West 116th Street. Upon entering the facility, the responding officers were met by approximately 15 to 20 men who assaulted them, stripped Cardillo of his gun, and shot him at point-blank range. A street riot involving mosque members and other local residents broke out shortly after the shooting. Cardillo died six days later, leaving behind a young wife and three small children.
In the early 1970s, within NOI there emerged a faction called the "Death Angels" who embraced the racist teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Between 1972 and 1974, this splinter group was responsible for the murders of 71 white people in the San Francisco Bay area. Four of the group's members -- Jesse Lee Cooks, J.C. Simon, Larry Green, and Manuel Moore -- carried out most of the killings. These were dubbed the Zebra Killings because of the radio channel used by the police investigating the case (channel Z). The name would take on a more sinister meaning as it became apparent that a group of blacks was systematically stalking and killing whites simply because of the color of their skin. Death Angels believed they could earn "points" towards going to heaven if they killed whites.
NOI paid for the legal representation of each of the killers except Cooks, who immediately admitted to his murders. In a 1975-76 trial, the testimony of 108 witnesses resulted in the conviction -- on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder -- of all four major players. Each was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Upon Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, his son Wallace Deen Muhammad (a.k.a. Warith Deen Muhammad) took over the NOI movement and attempted to integrate it with mainstream Islam. This attempt eventually led to a schism with Farrakhan’s group. At present three organizations -- one in Baltimore, one in Atlanta, and one in Detroit -- claim to be the authentic NOI, but by far the most recognized group is that headed by Farrakhan, headquartered at the Mosque Maryam in Chicago.
During his tenure as NOI leader, Farrakhan has set the tone for the organization's hostility toward non-blacks, particularly Jews. He has made many hateful references to the "white devils" and Jewish "bloodsuckers" who purportedly decimate America's black community from coast to coast. He has referred to Judaism as “a gutter religion.”
In the early 1990s, NOI entered into a "sacred covenant" with the NAACP, which was then under the leadership of Benjamin Chavis. Chavis, who would later join NOI and change his surname to Muhammad, pledged never to "forsake Mr. Farrakhan as my brother." In September 1993, NOI announced that it had joined in yet another "sacred covenant" -- this time with the Congressional Black Caucus.
On April 18, 2017, an NOI member named Kori Ali Muhammad walked through Fresno, California, shooting three men dead at random, including one in the parking lot of Catholic Charities. When he was arrested, he screamed “Allahu akbar!” As Islam scholar Robert Spencer noted: "[Muhammad] demonstrates yet again how members of the Nation of Islam, even though orthodox Sunni and Shia Muslims consider the Nation a heretical sect, can identify with the global jihad, and place themselves in its service. The most notorious example of this is the Beltway Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, who along with his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, murdered seventeen people in sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area in October 2002. Muhammad had joined the Nation of Islam in 1987; Malvo was discovered to have kept notebooks in which he drew portraits of Osama bin Laden and other jihadis and declared his determination to wage jihad himself.... Orthodox Islam does not blame the evils of the world on white people, but the Nation’s Jew-hatred is certainly mainstream Islam, and an indication of how the Nation is often a way station: African-American men convert to it and then pass from it into orthodox Sunni groups, or turn to jihad even without doing so. Kori Ali Muhammad is just the latest example of this."
NOI's position on most contemporary issues is dictated by Farrakhan, who regards the United States as an irredeemably racist, oppressive nation; he has consistently condemned American policies, both foreign and domestic. He opposes U.S. aid to Israel; opposes the war in Iraq; has been critical of the war on Islamist terror; and urges young men to resist any proposed military draft. He insists, however, that his anti-white, anti-American positions are overstated by a hostile, Jewish-dominated press.
On its website, NOI has posted a list of the things it demands from the United States government. Among these are the following: “We want our people in America whose parents or grandparents were descendants from slaves, to be allowed to establish a separate state or territory of their own -- either on this continent or elsewhere. We believe that our former slave masters are obligated to provide such land and ... to maintain and supply our needs in this separate territory for the next 20 to 25 years -- until we are able to produce and supply our own needs. … We want freedom for all Believers of Islam now held in federal prisons. We want freedom for all black men and women now under death sentence in innumerable prisons in … We want the government of the United States to exempt our people from ALL taxation as long as we are deprived of equal justice under the laws of the land. … We want all black children educated, taught and trained by their own teachers. … The United States government should provide, free, all necessary text books and equipment, schools and college buildings. … We believe that intermarriage or race mixing should be prohibited. We want the religion of Islam taught without hinderance [sic] or suppression.”
In March 2011, Farrakhan reported that Libyan President Moammar Qadhafi had lent NOI some $8 million over the years.