The Nation follows many of the practices of traditional Islam and is an advocate of black nationalism. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled the organization a hate group.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Zain Abdullah, associate professor of religion and society and Islamic studies at Temple University, about the Nation of Islam.
On the core beliefs of the Nation of Islam
“The Nation of Islam sort of combined what we would call religious black nationalism with some of the traditional teachings of Islam globally. So the combination often confounded people because many people weren’t accustomed to a kind of nationalist dialogue rhetoric mixed with religion. And so they always have to sort of unpack that idea that they’re Muslims, but they’re also addressing a black condition of suffering.”
On if there’s a history of violence in the Nation of Islam, specifically black-on-white crime
“Early on, in its early history, the 1930s, there was one incident when that happened among the early members, and, again, it was a response to the lynching of over 5,000 black people, and with no kind of repercussion at all. But since then though, we actually haven’t noticed or heard anything like that.
“The Nation is a self-defense organization. They believe in self-defense, they don’t believe in turning the other cheek. They actually do not believe in perpetuating violence against anyone. Which you mentioned early about the Nation of Islam cosmology, the creation myth was just that. It was a way to explain how black people became disempowered, became victims of a white supremacist system. And many people who joined the Nation of Islam did not really rehearse that as much. I mean they understood the story, but they weren’t there for that story, they were there for black empowerment — economic, social, kind of unity, fight against police brutality, the kind of social conditions that drew them to the organization.”
On the Nation of Islam today
“The Nation of Islam today, the main group of the Nation of Islam, because they have some splinter groups, but the main group is headed by Minister Louis Farrakhan out of Chicago. And they have mosques, as they call them now — they used to call them temples — they have mosques throughout the country, perhaps over 100. They are involved with political activism, they’re involved in social critique. They’re involved, most importantly, in a kind of moral discipline that they try to rehearse constantly. And, again, they’re self-professed Muslims. In 1961, C. Eric Lincoln dubbed them ‘Black Muslims,’ which they rejected. They don’t see themselves as Black Muslims. They see themselves as Muslims who happen to be racially black.”
On facing rejection from other Muslims
“Well, many Muslims in the Muslim world, what we call Sunni Muslims or traditional Muslims, reject their rhetoric about God coming in the person of a man. That’s a huge violation in Islam. Also they rejected them for the way in which they responded to white racism by calling whites ‘devils’ and seeing them, mythically, as inherently evil. But again, that response was to the system of white supremacy.”
On Louis Farrakhan
“Mr. Farrakhan has been very controversial around these issues, but he has also tried to put his statements into context. Unfortunately, again, it’s political, but he tries to also explain that he’s not an anti-Semite, he’s not homophobic, he’s not a racist. But he does make these controversial statements, absolutely.”
On whether or not there is a movement within the Nation of Islam to separate the organization from past hateful rhetoric
“The Nation of Islam does not perpetuate hate of whites. But because they respond to white racism — in fact, the idea of calling whites ‘devils’ predates the Nation of Islam. Even the Chinese, during the Boxer Rebellion, called their white oppressors devils. So it’s a way of inverting or changing the narrative about demonized peoples or degraded peoples. As you say, words matter. So their words are a reaction to a kind of Jim Crow system. And so, this is their response, in terms of words.”
On the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of the Nation of Islam as a hate group
“When I talk to members of the Nation, they don’t think much of it. They believe that it is a mischaracterization of the group. Farrakhan continually denounces that moniker that they are a hate group. It’s very reminiscent of the program called ‘The Hate That Hate Produced,’ in covering the Nation of Islam. And so, I think, because they’re a black nationalist organization, they are seen as also perpetuating the same kinds of prejudice. And I just think there needs to be more information on that.”