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What Is Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam and What Do Its Members Actually Believe?

"Spaceships hovering above the earth will eventually play a major role in smiting sinners and rescuing the righteous."

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

A heated clash in South Dallas between predominately white anti-mosque protesters and predominantly black supporters made headlines over the weekend, as the former set out to protest a local Islamic house of worship and the latter turned up in support.

But what some might not realize is that the mosque at the center of the dispute is affiliated with the Nation of Islam (NOI) — a group that embraces ideals that are quite different from orthodox Islam.

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. But how much do know about the NOI — his controversial sect that is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois?

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 86-year-old religious system is not what one would think when it comes to a traditional understanding of the Muslim faith.

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

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 reportedly going door-to-door in Detroit, Michigan, 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, whose real name was Elijah Robert Poole.

Muhammad 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," among the formation of some of the denomination's other most controversial ideas. He maintained that he was Allah's prophet. Additionally, contentious ideas about whites reportedly commenced during his decades in NOI leadership.

Later, though, his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, attempted to temper 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 noted, NOI's focus is on the advancement and sustainability of non-whites. Considering the contents Farrakhan's sermons, the 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," among other negative descriptors.

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. (AP) 

Farrakhan has repeatedly said that the human race was originally black and that whites are, as Beliefnet notes, an "aberration." Among some of his other more recent proclamations, Farrakhan has called Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton "wicked" and called for black Americans to “rise up” and “kill those who kill us” if the federal government fails to “intercede in our affairs.”

On the NOI'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 America.

The faith system also embraces the notion that "spaceships hovering above the earth will eventually play a major role in smiting sinners and rescuing the righteous," according to the New York Times.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speaks to Detroit City Council on Friday, May 17, 2013 in Detroit. Farrakhan said it's time for his movement to join others to invest in the struggling city where it was founded more than 80 years ago. He called on residents and religious leaders to "pool their resources" to buy distressed properties and create economic opportunities. Credit: AP Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speaks to Detroit City Council on Friday, May 17, 2013 in Detroit. (AP) 

As TheBlaze has reported, Nation of Islam theology teaches that the “Mother Wheel,” a massive spaceship, remains in orbit and will eventually rescue NOI adherents from earth. Farrakhan spoke about this spaceship theology in a 2011 speech:

“The final thing is the destruction. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad told us of a giant Mother Plane that is made like the universe, spheres within spheres. White people call them unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, saw a wheel that looked like a cloud by day, but a pillar of fire by night. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad said that that wheel was built on the island of Nippon, which is now called Japan, by some of the original scientists. It took 15 billion dollars in gold at that time to build it. It is made of the toughest steel. America does not yet know the composition of the steel used to make an instrument like it. It is a circular plane, and the Bible says that it never makes turns. Because of its circular nature it can stop and travel in all directions at speeds of thousands of miles per hour. He said there are 1,500 small wheels in this Mother Wheel, which is a half mile by-a-half-mile. This Mother Wheel is like a small human built planet. Each one of these small planes carry three bombs.”

Read more about the spaceship theology here and also explore NOI's integration of elements of Scientology into its practices.

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.

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."

Beliefnet's chart showing the differences between Nation of Islam and traditional Islamic belief. (Beliefnet)

Widely seen by other Muslims as an outside movement, the NOI 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.

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. (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."

A 2007 New York Times article said that the sect wouldn't specify its membership numbers, but that Lawrence A. Mamiya, a professor of religion and African studies at Vassar College, pegged the number at around 50,000. He said that there is a strong following in prisons, where some of the values involving racial identity and struggles appeal and resonate.

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.

This story is an update of an original primer on NOI that was published by TheBlaze in 2013.

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