Salaams and Strategy: The Impact of Islam on American Black Civil Rights

The NOI offered another path to Black freedom.


Source: AP/AURN Graphic
Reading Time: 3 minutes

As I commemorate another Black History Month during this time of deep democratic turmoil, I look back at the leaders and movements that have shaped America’s Black consciousness. This February marks 56 years since the assassination of Malcolm X. Malcolm X and his racial and religious ideologies were influential in fortifying the movement for Black nationalism and inspiring a new wave of Black civil rights. What is unique to Malcolm X’s political beliefs is his grounding in a deep conviction of Islamic doctrine.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, as Jim Crow laws continued to terrorize Black communities across America, many Black Americans began denouncing Christianity due to its long, familiar history as a tool to justify slavery and oppression in the United States and beyond. The Pan-African movement, born and spread by Marcus Garvey, influenced how African Americans perceived their race within a global context and popularized the practice of religions that originated in Africa, like Islam.

The Nation of Islam (NOI) emerged as an alternative religious community whose goal is to, “improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of African Americans.” Originally established in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad in Detroit, Michigan, the NOI’s membership and renown grew under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, expanding to mainstream followers like Muhammad Ali.

FILE – In this Feb. 28, 1966 file photo, Muhammad Ali listens to Elijah Muhammad as he speaks to other black Muslims in Chicago. Two days after the 1964 fight with Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Cassius X. He would later become Muhammad Ali as he broke away from Malcolm X and aligned himself with the sect’s leader, Elijiah Muhammad. “What is all the commotion about?” he asked. “Nobody asks other people about their religion. But now that I’m the champion I am the king so it seems the world is all shook up about what I believe.” (AP Photo/Paul Cannon)

NOI’s beliefs and practices differed from traditional Islamic sharia law and doctrine in fundamental ways. While traditional Islam teaches that Allah is one God and the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is his only prophet, the NOI teaches that Wallace Fard came to earth as God incarnate and that Elijah Muhammad was a prophet sent to spread the word about Fard’s incarnation.

The NOI preached that the Black race is the original and superior race and that all white people are “devils”, while traditional Islam teaches that all humans are equal. While the NOI mentored key activists such as Malcolm X and poured into a rhetoric that uplifted Black power, Black self-defense and Black economic autonomy, it diverged from the Civil Rights Movement’s goal of racial integration through nonviolence.

After returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca and leading up to his death, Malcolm’s own beliefs began to diverge. He cut ties with NOI and Elijah Muhammad and started his own separate organization named Muslim Mosque. He was taken by the unity he saw displayed among diverse people in devotion at Mecca widening his perspective on racial separatism. Malcolm X publicly renounced NOI as an organization that misused Islam for ulterior motives—in many ways repeating the same offenses it promised to protect against. In the end, it would be NOI members who eventually assassinated Malcolm X shortly after in 1965.

After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his son Warith Deen Muhammad assumed control of NOI and started a national transition to orthodox Islam. Louis Farrakhan would later break off from this group and start his own revival of NOI original doctrines based on Dianetics. However, by that time several different Black Muslim communities had been established around the country.

Though Islam, like other religions, was used by Black leaders to assert political control in the United States, it has also been an invaluable asset in uniting parts of the Black community and restoring a pride in Black racial identity. Today, the Pew Research Center reports that Black Muslims account for a fifth of all U.S. Muslims, and about half are converts to Islam.

Islam is practiced in a variety of forms, communities, and places across the United States, but in many ways the American Muslim community still has a long way to go in addressing the racial relations of its past and present. As more Muslim immigrants came to America in the mid 90s, existing tensions grew within the community between Black and non-Black Muslims—most notably as part of the George Floyd case in Minnesota. In a post-9/11 and BLM world, Muslims across America continue to contend with their faith and define it on their own terms. 

advanced divider
advanced divider