Rethinking the Nation of Islam through Muhammad Ali

Introduction

It’s not an attack on black people, it’s an attack on their souls. Oppressors don’t have a problem with skin color, they have a problem with someone different rising up and inspiring change (Muhammad Fithrah, Sabir Albert, Shareef Talib).

One of the greatest fighters of the twentieth century may not have existed without the Nation of Islam (NOI). This radical religious organization gave Muhammad Ali the confidence and security to break away from the “Good Negro,” “Bad Negro” stigma. The NOI gave him the tools, community and discipline to become the fighter he was. Without the NOI, who knows if Ali would’ve become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Muhammad Ali was one of the lucky African Americans who spread their message without fear. Others like Tarana Burke were not so lucky. Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement was excluded from the 2017 TIME Person of the Year cover because the editorial board, “didn’t see fit to place her on the cover” (Estrada). Keep in mind, the TIME cover was about the “Silence Breakers” of the movement Burke created. Like Ali, the MeToo movement was given a platform. This platform differs in that the movement took off when Hollywood found it and made it what it is today.

Muhammad Ali Background

Muhammad Ali, originally Cassius Clay, and was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He was born into the “black middle class.” This is not the same as the “white middle class,” but Clay was better off than his challengers (Remnick, pg. 81). Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr., painted religious murals for a living while his mother, Odessa Clay, worked as a house-maid for upper-class white people. Muhammad Ali had one other sibling, Rudolph, who was born in 1944.

When Ali abandoned the name Cassius Clay, he would refer to it as his “slave name.” However, his family took satisfaction in the name because there was a nineteenth century abolitionist named Cassius Clay. This abolitionist was white and held slaves of his own. However, he was one of the first people to free his slaves in the state of Kentucky. The reason why the Clay’s chose this white abolitionist was because Cassius Clay’s grandfather was raised on the land of the abolitionist (Remnick, pg. 83).

In October of 1954, Cassius was twelve years old when he and his friends were riding their bicycles. Clay had a brand new bike that ended up being stolen that night. He wandered into the Columbia Gym, expecting to find a police officer that would assist him. Instead, the officer in the gym invited Clay to join the gym. He started going to the gym and learning the rules of boxing. When asked why he became a fighter, Clay would answer, “I started boxing because I thought it was the fastest way for a black person to make it in this country” (Remnick, pg. 88).

NOI Background

During the 1930’s, Wallace D. Fard randomly popped up in Detroit, Michigan, claiming he is the leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the incarnation of Allah. Fard declared Islam was the religion of black people while Christianity was the religion of the “blue eyed devils” who were subordinate to black people. Fard developed this theology and became a door-to-door salesman for his new religion. It gained a following because it centered around the black man. Fard himself believed that he was the incarnation of Allah and he preached about the recovery of the black man’s Islamic culture. He also promoted the idea of self-help, cleanliness, and hard work. However, most of these ideas came from other American sources like Booker T. Washington, Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America, and various sermons from black churches (Remnick, pg. 130).
Elijah Muhammad and the NOI wrote a book titled, The Father of Man-Kind, which illustrates how a scientist named Yakub created white people. The story goes that around 6,600 years ago, a black child named Yakub was born with an unusually large head. He became known as the “big head scientist.” By the time he was out of college, Yakub was preaching dangerous theology and was exiled to a small island where he killed off his fellow followers and created the “devil race.” Through the process of selective breeding, the “devil race” went from black to brown to yellow and then to white. Eventually the whites came to be dominant and imported slaves from Africa when exploring the New World. The white people forced the slaves to become Christian and that’s why the religion of Islam was lost amongst the black people.

Major fundamental desires of the NOI include, seeking complete freedom, justice, and equality of opportunity. Some of the more radical desires include establishing an independent and separate state, prohibition of interracial marriage, and the release of all black Muslims from federal prisons. By obtaining a separate state, the NOI wants the former slave masters to provide fertile land and supply their needs until this state becomes self sufficient. The NOI believes they cannot get along with the white people after 400 years of slavery and unfair treatment. By the government granting the organization their own state, they believe this justifies the last few hundred years of oppression. The desire for the prohibition of interracial marriage is because the organization wants their Islamic teachings to be free of “hindrance or suppression” (NOI.org).

Some major beliefs include the belief in only one God whose name is Allah, the belief in the Qur’an, and the truth of the Bible but not putting faith in the Bible because it’s flawed. One of the beliefs that is not found in orthodox Islam is the belief in resurrection. This isn’t resurrection of the physical body, but resurrection of the mind. NOI believes they are God’s first choice for resurrection because “God would choose the rejected and the despised” (NOI.org). Another belief not commonly found in orthodox Islam is the belief of separation between white and black people. The organization thinks the thought of integration is “hypocritical” and is offered by those trying to “deceive” the black people into believing their “400-year-old enemies” are their friends (NOI.org).
Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 and that’s when his son, Wallace D. Muhammad led the organization to a more orthodox sect of Islam (BlackPast.org). However, some were unhappy with the direction the movement was heading so minister Louis Farrakhan created the “new” Nation of Islam that still exists today.

It’s important to ask, “What is the Nation of Islam?” Is it a cult or a sub-sect of Islam? Keep in mind that a cult is just a small, or baby religion. It does not imply any of the negative connotations that are tacked onto the word today. DeCaro implies that the NOI surpasses the category of cult because it has bettered so many lives. Taking this into account, the Muslim world will not consider the organization a sect of Islam, rather it’s a cult to them. Even though the Nation has touched so many, it still doesn’t follow the fundamental practices of Islam which the orthodox Muslims see as a problem (DeCaro). Maybe this is a matter of opinion that depends on the person.

Despite the NOI’s radical views and black nationalist ideas,  we as a society should not label them as a negative organization as we often do. Instead, we should think of the NOI as a product of American society. Mixing over 200 years of slavery with about 100 years of oppression and unequal treatment produces unimaginable anger. This anger leads to the creation of organizations like the NOI. This movement was not uncalled for and was to be expected after the unequal treatment of the African Americans.

Muhammad Ali and the NOI

In March of 1964, Elijah Muhammad gave a radio speech dedicated to announcing Cassius Clay as a member of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad announced that the name Cassius Clay lacked “divine meaning” and needed to be replaced. Elijah Muhammad states, “Muhammad Ali is what I will give him, as long as he believes in Allah and follows me” (Remnick, pg. 213). Elijah Muhammad didn’t give this name to Ali because he thought of him as a great follower, instead, giving Ali this honor was used as a tool for recruitment and a way to use him against Malcolm X. This was around the time Malcolm X was starting to move away from the NOI and go towards a more orthodox sect of Islam. Elijah Muhammad did not want to lose followers, especially an important follower like Malcolm X. So, Elijah Muhammad replaced Malcolm X with Muhammad Ali in hopes of replacing an important figure and keeping his followers.

Even though Elijah Muhammad used Ali as a political tool, Ali needed to feel empowered as a black man. It gave him a sense of power that he never found in Christianity. All Ali saw with Christianity was, “colored people fighting for forced integration and getting blown up” (Remnick, pg. 208). Over and over again, Ali states how he just wants to be happy with his own kind and the NOI gave him that happiness. He didn’t hate white people like he claimed, but he was angry with them and the NOI was a way to freely express his rage. It can be argued that Ali never joined the NOI because he was a devout Muslim. Alternatively, he joined for the community that fueled his anger but instead, found a religion that was full of peace and acceptance once Elijah Muhammad died.

Ali risked everything for the NOI. He refused the Vietnam War draft and lost his boxing title, the thing he had been working towards his whole life. When refusing the draft, he became a “unifying force” amongst the African American community and received support from both nationalists and integrationists (Smith). The NOI gave him the strength to stand up for what he believed was right. According to McCormack, the NOI to Ali was “a racialized expression of Islam that undergirded Ali’s racial pride, serving as a resource for resisting white supremacist assaults on black humanity, which were intended to destroy black self-worth and self-confidence.” In other words, McCormack believes the NOI was a shield for Ali against white supremacist actions and support his racial pride.

One interpretation of Ali is that he was a “self-made” product. Meaning, he completely rejected the “Good Negro” and “Bad Negro” stereotype that was prevalent during this time period. Ali responded to the public in different ways which had qualities of both stereotypes. For example, during the Olympics in Rome in 1960, he conformed to the “Good Negro” by claiming America is the greatest country in the world. There was no mention of the social injustices going on back in America. Then, during the Ali-Liston fight, Ali’s trash talking became excessive and this became a quality of the “Bad Negro.” He never stayed in one category. However, once Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, Smith argues that Clay loved playing the role of the “All-American hero” who never condemned his country nor tested the social order (Smith). A reason why Ali may have conformed to the “Good Negro” is because he didn’t have a secure community to back him up. The NOI gave Ali the platform he needed in order to break away from the social order. The religious organization gave Ali the confidence to be a little out there with his rhetoric because he had a whole group of people to back him up.

I personally met with the Muslims at Masjid Muhammad, a mosque built by the NOI in Washington D.C.. They said they did not believe in the stories Elijah Muhammad preached. One said, “It was meant to be more allegorical than anything. Something to make us feel empowered and superior in some way” (Muhammad Fithrah, Sabir Albert, Shareef Talib). Many of the members that joined in the 1960’s came from a background like Ali’s. They started out as Christians, making an effort to integrate with the white people, but saw it wasn’t getting them anywhere fast. The NOI was going somewhere during that time. Many have African Americans have testified that before their conversion, “they had previously “suffered from a lack of self-esteem [but] found that Islam offered a way out of a psychological depression or alienation” (Curtis). The NOI was making progress in the direction the African American community wanted to go and the end result was peace between whites and blacks due to the desire for segregation.

Another thing our hosts at the mosque emphasized was their lack of knowledge about Islamic practices. They didn’t know how important the Qur’an was, they didn’t know about Ramadan, or the five pillars of Islam. Malcolm X, a famous face for the NOI said, “Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and not knowing the prayer ritual” when he was on his pilgrimage to Mecca (pg. 333). This leads to the argument that the NOI decided to use the religion of Islam as a platform to promote their nationalist ideas and not actually because they were Muslims following orthodox traditions.

Muhammad Ali followed Wallace D. Muhammad in to a more orthodox sect of Islam in 1975 where he stayed for the rest of his life. After September 11, Ali stayed the most popular American Muslim celebrity (Caldwell, pg. 147). After September 11, Ali traveled to Ground Zero and declared, “I’ve been a Muslim for twenty years… People recognize me for being a boxer and a man of truth. I wouldn’t be here representing Islam if it were terrorist… Islam is peace” (Caldwell, pg. 147). It should be pointed out that Ali claimed he had been a Muslim for “twenty years,” that would mean he became an official Muslim around 1980. This further proves that Ali never joined the NOI because he was interested in the religion of Islam. It was because he needed the support that the organization gave him. Only after Wallace D. Muhammad moved the Nation towards orthodox Islam did he learn what it really meant to be a Muslim.

White Privilege in the #Metoo Movement

Valerie Morales, a non-fiction author on race and culture, wrote a compelling opinion piece for the Huffington Post. In this article, she argues how people of color are the “invisible” victims of the #metoo movement. The founder, Tarana Burke, created the movement to empower colored sexual assault survivors. However, once Hollywood jumped on the movement, Morales argues how it has empowered the “privileged” survivor but has ignored the disadvantaged one. It has “re-traumatized” these survivors by making them feel unimportant and overshadowed (Morales). Morales states, “the survivors in Hollywood become heroes while the black girls of Compton and the black girls living in the West End of Atlanta and the black girls in Hyde Park in Chicago are faceless and nameless.” This draws attention to white privilege and how it’s still prevalent in our society.

The #MeToo movement is an example of how white privilege overshadows people of color in many different areas of life. On more than one occasion, Ali was overshadowed by his white male counterparts just because he was black. Like the unprivileged girls from the #MeToo movement, Ali had to fight for his voice to be heard and the NOI gave him this platform to say whatever he wanted to. It benefitted both parties because Ali could unleash his anger and frustration and the organization would get recognition from Ali’s outbursts which furthered their agenda. Islam gave Ali the opportunity to have pride in his race and resist white supremacist attacks on African Americans self-esteem (McCormack). Unfortunately, Burke was overshadowed by famous Hollywood figures on the cover of TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year issue. The all-white, male editorial board didn’t see her “fit” to be on the cover about the movement she started (Estrada). Instead, all of the people on the cover are famous people in Hollywood. As for the unprivileged girls, Burke is working to make their voices heard.

As stated earlier, Ali would come to distance himself from the NOI and their ideas. For Tarana Burke, however, she has embraced the movement and the recognition Hollywood has given her. In an interview with Glamour she believes the next step is to, “[Help] women navigate what happens after they disclose an experience” (Leach). While Ali used the NOI as a temporary platform, Burke is embracing the exposure from Hollywood for the #MeToo movement to continue gaining momentum for the movement. Ali was probably grateful for the platform the NOI gave him, but the organization was not meant to be a permanent thing for him. For Burke, it seems like she’s in the movement and isn’t planning on going anywhere. She is dedicated to a life of obtaining social justice for others and fostering her movement into something bigger.

Conclusion

Now that the #MeToo movement has taken off, Burke hopes to move the organization into a different direction. She said to Leach in an interview, “the power of #MeToo isn’t just naming it. Naming it is just the beginning of the journey.” Burke thinks we have a window of opportunity to spread the message of the movement. However, we have to act fast because the window will come to a close at some point.  She believes “righteous anger” can be put to work to create a powerful movement because this will motivate and inspire change within people. Hopefully, Burke can inspire the change and reform society needs and the poor girls in impoverished areas can find their voice through this movement.

For Ali, he has already inspired change in so many and was a great leader in obtaining social justice for the African Americans. Much of his success is owed to the Nation of Islam for giving him access to a large audience and the security to spread his message. Ali became one of the first African American fighters to break away from the “Good Negro,” “Bad Negro” stereotype because of the NOI. He didn’t have to conform to society’s standards because of the community this organization provided him. Even though the NOI tends to have a unfavorable connotation, it was powerful enough to spark social change. It produced the change that was needed for the African Americans, including Ali, to feel important and that should not have a negative label attached. Instead, society should see the NOI as something the African Americans desperately needed.

References

Burke, Tarana, and Samantha Leach. “The #MeToo Hashtag Is Powerful-but What Comes After Is More Important.” Glamour, Glamour Magazine, 6 Dec. 2017, www.glamour.com/story /metoo-founder-tarana-burke-what-needs-to-happen-after-the-hashtag.

Curtis, Edward E. IV, and Danielle Brune Sigler. The New Black Gods: Arthur Fauset and the Study of AfricanAmerican Religions. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

DeCaro, Louis A. Jr. Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975, The Journal of American History. Oxford Vol. 94, Iss. 1, June 2017.

McCormack, Michael. Fighting Injustice and Intolerance: Re-Presentations of Race and Religion at the Muhammad Ali Center. Religions Vol. 8, Iss. 11, 2017

Muhammad Fithrah, Sabir Albert, Shareef Talib. Personal Interview. 14 May 2018.

Nation of Islam (1930– ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, www.blackpast.org/aah/nation-islam-1930.

Estrada, Sheryl. “TIME Magazine Excluding Tarana Burke from #MeToo Cover Speaks Volumes.” DiversityInc, DiversityInc, 6 Apr. 2018, www.diversityinc.com/news/time- magazine-excluding-tarana-burke-metoo-cover-speaks-volumes.

Smith, Johnny. Remembering Muhammad Ali: Myths, Memory, and History. Reviews in American History, Vol. 45, Iss. 1, pg. 177-186. March 2017.

Wagmeister, Elizabeth. “Tarana Burke on Hollywood, Time’s Up and Me Too Backlash.” Variety, 10 Apr. 2018, variety.com/2018/biz/news/tarana-burke-times-up-me-too-backlash- 1202748822/.

X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballantine Books, 1999.