Editor’s Note: This article is part of a larger series about lesser-known religions called “Understanding Faith.” Today’s subject is the Nation of Islam. In the past, we’ve covered Chrislam and Sikhism, among other faith systems. 

You’ve likely heard or read about the Minister Louis Farrakhan and his fiery sermons about race, politics and Allah’s impending wrath upon America (TheBlaze has covered Farrakhan extensively). But do you know much about the Nation of Islam (NOI) — the controversial faith system that the infamous preacher leads?

Patheos, a web portal that reveres itself as the WebMD of faith and religion, defines the NOI as a, “Religious and cultural community based on Islamic concepts that evolved in the 20th century in the United States out of various black nationalist organizations.”

Despite having the word “Islam” in its title, the faith system is not what one would think. Contrary to the centuries of Islamic history that have abounded, NOI is less than 100 years old. The religion’s roots date back to the 1930s, when Wali Fared (also known as W.D. Fard) set its foundations. At the time, Fard was going door-to-door in Detroit, Mich., selling goods and telling African Americans about his theological views.

After he disappeared in 1934 and was never heard of again (the church’s official web site refers to his disappearance as a “departure”), Fard passed leadership of the group to a man named Elijah Muhammad (real name: Elijah Robert Poole), who then led the denomination from 1934 until his death in 1975. Under Muhammad, Fard was revered as “the long-awaited ‘Messiah’ of the Christians and the ‘Mahdi’ of the Muslims” — a controversial claim to say the least.

What Is the Nation of Islam and What Do Its Members Really Believe? | Louis Farrakhan

Minister Louis Farrakhan speaks during the Saviours’ Day annual convention at the U.I.C. Pavilion in Chicago, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Credit: AP 

Under Muhammad, some of the denomination’s most controversial ideas were manifested. He maintained that he was Allah’s prophet. Additionally, contentious ideas about whites commenced during his decades in NOI leadership. Later, though, his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, attempted to de-radicalize the group, bringing it back to a more mainstream version of Islam. Discontented with this decision, Farrakhan broke away to create the fiery branch that continues to captivate headlines.

Beliefnet provides this contentious history in more detail:

Elijah Muhammad taught that American blacks, a group that includes all people of color, were descended from the ancient tribe of Shabazz that had originally settled the holy city of Mecca, and that blacks and whites can share no real community. Malcolm X was his closest collaborator until a quarrel between the two men in 1964. Malcolm X then went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he saw people of every race worshiping side by side, and he became convinced of the hopelessness of racism.

He returned to the United States and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which preached black nationalism but not black separatism. He was shot and killed while speaking to a large gathering in New York City in 1965. After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son Warith Deen Muhammad radically transformed the Black Muslim movement, opening it to whites and renaming it the American Muslim Mission. In 1979, Louis Farrakhan broke away from the Mission, establishing the more radical Nation of Islam, which restricts membership to blacks and advocates a separate black social structure.

As Beliefnet notes, NOI’s focus is on the advancement and sustainability of non-whites. Considering Farrakhan’s sermons, which range from curious to troubling, this notion of an ethnic or race-based theology is evident. The faith leader and others in the nation often demonize Caucasians, referring to them as “the enemy” and decrying their mere existence.

What Is the Nation of Islam and What Do Its Members Really Believe? | Louis Farrakhan

Members of the Nation Of Islam cheer as minister Louis Farrakhan speaks during the Saviours’ Day annual convention at the U.I.C. Pavilion in Chicago, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Credit: AP 

Farrakhan has repeatedly said that the human race was originally black and that whites are, as Beliefnet notes, an “aberration.” Rather than preaching a message of unification, NOI calls for segregation and separatism. On the group’s web site, the denomination is clear that it wishes for African Americans to live separately from whites.

“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 that the area must be fertile and minerally rich. We believe that our former slave masters are obligated 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.

Since we cannot get along with them in peace and equality, after giving them 400 years of our sweat and blood and receiving in return some of the worst treatment human beings have ever experienced, we believe our contributions to this land and the suffering forced upon us by white America, justifies our demand for complete separation in a state or territory of our own.”

Farrakhan and other leaders have maintained that whites were created by a renegade black scientist known as Yacub (some claim he is known as Jacob in the Bible). The church’s message has essentially been rooted in the notion that blacks are superior to their white counterparts, while regularly condemning whites and placing a major focus upon the horrific treatment African Americans once received in the U.S.

When NOI began, its members were implored to follow strict rules. In addition to being prevented from eating pork, they could not smoke or drink. Their clothing was conservative in nature and they were also forbidden from marrying outside of the race (something that still seems to be a rule of sorts, based on the NOI web site).

Beliefnet also contends that leaders within the movement once told members to avoid the draft, as the military was seen as a tool of white oppression. The group, as seen by Farrakhan’s continued visibility, has been successful.

“By turning racist ideas around to oppose whites, the movement has attracted many adherents and has had particularly good success in converting prisoners, criminals, and drug users,” Beliefnet notes. “Black Muslims have financed the construction of mosques, schools, apartment complexes, stores, and farms.”

What Is the Nation of Islam and What Do Its Members Really Believe? | Louis Farrakhan

Beliefnet’s chart showing the differences between Nation of Islam and traditional Islamic belief. (Photo Credit: Beliefnet)

Widely seen by other Muslims as an outside movement, the NOI, headquartered in Chicago, Ill. (Mosque Maryam), has brought itself more in line with mainstream Islam of late. Fasting for Ramadan and Friday prayers (rather than Sunday) are just two of the changes that were purportedly made to sync the denomination up with Muslim tradition.

In addition to referencing the Koran during his sermons, NOI reveres a number of other texts. Fard’s “The Secret Ritual of the Nation of Islam” and “Teaching for the Lost Found Nation of Islam in a Mathematical Way” — two booklets that he wrote before his disappearance — serve as guidance for members, among other texts.

A media outlet called Final Call also serves as a newspaper and online web site, offering members news and information through an NOI lens. As far as the Bible goes, the church believes that it must be interpreted so that alleged falsehoods that are presented in it can be corrected.

“We believe in the truth of the Bible, but we believe that it has been tampered with and must be reinterpreted so that mankind will not be snared by the falsehoods that have been added to it,” the NOI web site proclaims.

What Is the Nation of Islam and What Do Its Members Really Believe? | Louis Farrakhan

Members of the Nation of Islam cheer as minister Louis Farrakhan speaks during the Saviours’ Day annual convention at the U.I.C. Pavilion in Chicago, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Credit: AP 

It’s difficult to pin down the number of adherents in NOI. A U.S.-centric faith, the majority of believers reside within the nation’s borders. While Beliefnet estimates that there are 100,000 people who embrace Farrakhan’s controversial theology, Patheos reports that the number is somewhere between 10,000 and 70,000, but calls that wide range “disputed.”

You can read all of the NOI’s “wants” and “beliefs” on the group’s web site. From a request that African Americans be exempt from taxes to a push for the release of Muslims held in federal prisons, the list is extensive.

Other Must-Reads: