|Political group or a religious movement? Black Muslim or African-American? Sunni, Shiite, or Druze? Local or universal? What do you know about the Nation of Islam?IslamOnline.net conducted this exclusive interview with the author of Islam and the Search for African American Nationhood, Dr. Dennis Walker to tackle the history, ideology, and nature of the Nation of Islam.
Dr. Dennis Walker is a specialist in cultural nationalism in the Arab world. An associate of the Monash Asia Institute, Monash University, Australia, he is writing a monograph about the history of the Muslim minority in southern Thailand. His interests go beyond the Arab world; he reads five languages that are spoken by Muslim people.
Walker visited IslamOnline.net in May 2007, where he was interviewed about one of his areas of research, the Nation of Islam. His book, Islam and the Search for African American Nationhood: Elijah Muhammed, Louis Farrakhan, and the Nation of Islam, was published by Clarity Press, Georgia (USA), in 2005.
IOL: Tell us about your book on the Nation of Islam (NOI).Walker: Yes, that is correct. I wrote that book over 10 years. It was based on materials that some activists associated with the NOI sent to me from the US: newspaper articles, essays, other primary materials, and also my conversations with major Arab-American leaders who interacted with Black Americans in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Such leaders had an influence on the direction from which the NOI evolved.
IOL: The book mainly tackles the historical background of the movement and how it evolved, correct?
Walker: It is about the historical background. I covered the whole length of the history of the African-Americans in the US. I examined some enslaved Africans in the British period of North America and the new US who where Muslims, who were taken from Africa in chains and tried to preserve their religion in the US. I examined the Moorish Science Temple of North America led by Noble Drew Ali, which was the first important African-American group that tried to link again with the Arab and Muslim world.
And I examined the early history of the NOI under the leadership of the mysterious Wali Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad, then the new second generation. Then this sect as it developed under the leadership of Wallace D. Muhammad or Warith Deen Mohammad following the death of Elijah in 1975. I showed the changes and radical transformations in the NOI conducted by Imam Warith so it became a quasi-Sunni Islamic movement in North American. And then I examined the breakaway sect of Louis Farrakhan, who restored something like the old NOI. I examined his interactions with the Arab world, with Arabs, with mainstream Islam, with other groups in the US such as American Jews, and with the American system.
My book is very up-to-date because to the very last minute I was getting materials from African-American Muslims in the US. It carries the story right up to the end of 2005.
IOL: Let’s take it a step back. Does the NOI consider itself a group, a religious movement, or a political movement? How does it describe itself?
Walker: This of course is very ambiguous, because the black Muslims have never been simple-minded fanatics. There are different levels of meanings in their discourses, and there is perhaps a difference in beliefs between the upper levels of leadership and the lower, more popular levels of these movements. But I think primarily they are loyal to themselves, they want the sect to continue. I mean, the NOI is the nation of African-American Muslims in the US; this is what they want to see continue.
Farrakhan, of course, asserted himself as a leader for all blacks in the US, and he managed to build up his sizeable following and a united front relationship with Christian African-Americans in contrast to Warith Deen Mohammad who said that he just wanted to be an ordinary American Muslim group. Nonetheless, Farrakhan had a black nationalist discourse shaped by polarization against Jews or against the Zionist lobby or the Jewish nationalists in the US. Nonetheless, I believe that in his heart, the nation he believes in is the NOI, that is, this group that was influenced by Islam in the US and which he is determined to see continue. I think that this has always been his priority.
Farrakhan has on two occasions been able to get more than one million African-Americans, mainly Christians, to come to his mass rallies in Washington. He did say he was a leader for all African-Americans. Nonetheless, I believe that he has given priority to building his sect. If we say that in some respects he was a failure as a nationalist leader, he failed to follow through this mass rallying by building stable institutions. I believe that the reason would be that he was devoting his resources, which were limited, to building up the NOI, not building up African-Americans in general.
IOL: What kind of common ground did the African-Americans find with the NOI?
Walker: Farrakhan launched himself in American black politics as a figure who is in polarization against the American Jews and who was an enemy of Israel. One sees a certain connection between this and African-American Muslims on one hand and the new huge black bourgeoisie, which developed in the US following the civil rights movements, that is locked in ethnic conflicts with Jewish Americans, who are one of the most powerful and well-established minority groups in the US. There is a lot of competition for resources and limited jobs and places between African-Americans and Jewish Americans.
Farrakhan came as a godsend, because he was a Muslim figure linked to Arabs and he made American Jews extremely furious. One can see how the African-American Christian bourgeoisie would advance him as a symbol of their own conflicts with Jewish Americans. While as a leader of a sect, he also let them off the hook because they do not have to follow him all the way in his conflicts with Jews.
IOL: When Wali Fard Muhammad first came out, he was thought of being a messiah for Jews and of being the Mahdi for Shiites, then he passed away. Obviously, he turned out to be neither. Did that affect the movement itself? Did it make the movement go a step back?
Walker: We do not know the origin of Wali Fard Muhammad. He looked something like a white man. There are two hypotheses: One of them is that he was an Indian, his father migrated to New Zealand. Wali Fard Muhammad’s father came from the province of Sindh, Pakistan, which is one of the centers of Ismaili preaching in the Indian subcontinent. Some scholars believe that Wali Fard Muhammad was an Ismaili Muslim; others believe that he might have been the son of two Druze migrants — a man and a woman — who migrated from Palestine or Lebanon or Syria to the US.
My own research shows as a historical fact that there were many Druze as well as Sunni Muslims in Detroit, which is where the movement started. The Druze influence on their [NOI’s] ideas could have come by the Druze having already influenced those blacks who embraced the teachings of Wali Fard Muhammad, and the latter could have adjusted his teachings to Druze ideas. But there is quite a good deal of similarity between the NOI ideas and those of the Gholat Al-Shi`a — or the outer fringes of Shiism.
The atmosphere of the movement is a bit Shiite. Wali Fard Muhammad, like the 12th imam in Ithna Ashri [Twelvers] Islam, disappeared, then he was raised up to a god. This seems recognizable in Shiism and in Druzism. Also, in the teachings according to Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad never really died; there was a plot to kill him but God delivered him from it and raised him up in the heavens to the great mother ship that circles the earth and might sometime in the future destroy white humanity. This again is similar to Shiism.
IOL: So the movement connected many religions. Did that affect the universality and the global identity of the movement?
Walker: The movement has become global to some extent, actually. It used to only be confined to the cities in the north of the US; it now has mosques in all cities of the US.
IOL: Have the mosques become Sunni? Did they have a change in the belief from Shiite-Druze to Sunni?
Walker: I believe many things about their personality do not fit into Sunnism. Sunni Islam does not give all that much importance to leaders; it is the jama`ah — or the collectivity of the Muslims — that is important. The second caliph, `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, when he mounted the minbar [pulpit] to give his first khutbah [speech] on becoming caliph, he sought guidance from God that he would always remain straight, and one of the main members of the congregation said if you go crooked we will straighten you with our swords.
In Sunni Islam, the political leader is somewhat like a US president. He comes to power through a bay`ah [pledge of allegiance]. In the ideology of the NOI, the leader is an extraordinary man: He is very close to God, his knowledge is infinitely righter than that of the masses he leads, which is not a belief of Sunni Islam. The NOI leader cannot be deposed from power if he becomes corrupt, and because he does not become corrupt, he is infallible. These are all hierarchical ideas of successive rankings of authority that are rather similar to Shiite Islam.
But I must say about the beliefs of this movement that I believe that the majority of young people in Farrakhan’s NOI disbelieve a lot of these traditional theories. I believe that their attitude is that Wali Fard Muhammad was a religious leader, a human being who came to the blacks in a very desperate period in history following the Great Depression and the rise of racism and segregation in the cities of the north, and that he showed them a path to become a coherent nation instead of itemized individuals. Their attitude to Elijah Muhammad might be that he was a great but fallible human being. Privately, they might even question some [points] of Farrakhan’s leadership.
So in fact, there is a ferment in the NOI, and it has been a pattern throughout its history that the Arab elements have been constantly increasing, actually, and the links to the Arabs have been constantly increasing.
IOL: What kind of energy makes the NOI prominent, well-known, and having increasing influence in the US? Is it the funding, the ideology, the followers, or the connections it might have?
Walker: The followers are certainly very energetic and dynamic. The NOI would not be a place for anyone who wanted a relaxed quiet life because you are supposed to be hyperdynamic and sell a huge variety of newspapers published by the movement, which is one of the reasons that it has a mass circulation. It became a mass movement in the sense that most American blacks have at some time bought a newspaper of the NOI and read it.
The dynamism of the NOI has developed from the fact that they join together religion and nationalism. Nationalism brings out energy in people, and religion brings out energy in people. When you have nationalism and religion combined, you have a very high degree of dedication that is prepared to put up with defeats or delays in achieving success that secular nationalists would not be prepared to put up with. They just leave the movement.
In a way, to some extent they [NOI members] are similar to some Arab nationalists from the 1960s and 1970s. The Arab nationalists used to combine Islam and modernist Arab national identity; in a sense, the black Muslims are like them because they combine religion with a black nationalist identity. But, again, it is very ambiguous how far they want to have relations with other blacks who are not Muslims.
I believe that a lot of the activities that bring together the black Muslims and black Christians designed by Farrakhan and Warith Deen Mohammad were meant to provide a sort of setting in which they can inject Islamic ideas into the minds of the black Christians and hopefully convert them into Islam in the long term over a period of decades.
IOL: I have one last question: Was the preference of the dark-skinned people over others something of the past in the NOI or does it still prevail?
Walker: Sometimes, Farrakhan, and even some followers of Warith who go through pilgrimage to Makkah, have made disparaging remarks about Arabs. I think this is very natural because connecting two worlds is very hard and is bound to the regular tensions between groups who are disparate in their origins when they come together. Sometimes Farrakhan’s group criticizes Arabs when they try to interfere in the NOI affairs and tell the NOI followers what to believe and do. On the other hand, the definition of blackness in these African-American movements is a very loose one; they sometimes include Arabs and Latin-American Hispanics and so forth in the category of being black.
So theoretically, I suppose that any Arab in America could join the NOI; certainly, quite a few Hispanics have joined the NOI, I think theoretically now the NOI also accepts white American Anglo-Saxon converts as well. Of course, throughout its history the NOI has always had social relations with the Arab shopkeepers to whom the first converts to Wali Fard Muhammad’s ideas used to go long before he turned up in Detroit.
Detroit had the largest Arab minority in the US. There have always been teachers in the NOI schools from the Arab world to teach Arabic; there have always been social relations with Arab migrants. Usually, in any black Muslim publication there has always been one Palestinian American or Arab American who contributes articles to the magazine. So, I think, the relationship between Arabs and Muslim African-Americans goes back to the origins of these sects.
IOL: Thank you very much Dr. Dennis. We appreciate your presence with IslamOnline.net’s Muslim Affairs zone.
Walker: Thanks a lot, I am happy to be here.
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About the Book Author