Elijah Muhammad, son of a sharecropper, was born into poverty in Sandersville, Georgia, on October 7, 1897. After moving to Detroit in 1923, he met W. D. Fard, founder of the black separatist movement Nation of Islam. Muhammad became Fard’s successor from 1934-75 and was known for his controversial preaching. His followers included Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. He died February 25, 1975, in Chicago.
Elijah Muhammad was born Robert Poole in Sandersville, Georgia, on October 7, 1897. He was one of 13 children of William and Mariah (Hall) Poole; his father was a sharecropper, and his mother was a domestic worker. He grew up in Cordele, Georgia, where he attended school only through the fourth grade and dropped out to begin working in sawmills and brickyards. At an early age, he witnessed extreme prejudice and violence toward blacks. He married Clara Evans in 1919 and eventually had eight children with her. In 1923, seeking better employment and a more tolerant environment, he moved his own family, parents and siblings to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked in an auto factory.
Nation of Islam
In 1931 he met Wallace D. Fard, a former salesman preaching a new form of Islam tailored to the needs and problems of black Americans. Poole converted to Islam and adopted Fard’s teachings, and Fard gave him a new name, Elijah Muhammad, and a new way of life. Some of Fard’s doctrines, such as a cosmology that identified blacks as the original race and white people as “devils” created later by a mad scientist named Yakub, are still difficult to interpret. Other teachings, such as self-reliance, clean living and the promise of a future in which blacks would no longer be oppressed, had obvious appeal for Muhammad and other black Muslims.
When Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934, the Nation of Islam split into several rival factions. Muhammad moved a group of followers to Chicago, where he established Temple of Islam No. 2 as the new headquarters of the religion. There he began to spread the word of the Nation of Islam, slowly but steadily attracting new members.
Muhammad was imprisoned from 1942 for 1946 for evading the draft. After his release, he returned to leadership of the Nation of Islam. He declared that Fard had been an incarnation of Allah and that he himself was now Allah’s messenger. Over the next 30 years, Muhammad built the religion from a small fringe group into a large and complex organization that attracted controversy along with its new prominence. He continued to preach financial independence for black Americans, racial separation rather than integration, and a strict code of moral behavior. His writings included Message to the Black Man (1965) and How to Eat to Live (1972).
Later Life and Legacy
When Muhammad died of congestive heart failure on February 25, 1975, he left behind a thriving religious movement with a membership as high as 250,000. Its social and political influence was matched by the success of its financial enterprises: real estate holdings, a national newspaper called Muhammad Speaks and numerous independent businesses. His most famous disciples included civil rights activists Malcolm X, who had first corresponded with Muhammad from prison, and Louis Farrakhan. He was succeeded as leader of the Nation of Islam by his son W. Deen Mohammed.
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