The Evolution of the Nation of Islam: The Story of Elijah Muhammad
by Jesus Muhammad-Ali
In the eight years since the Million Man March, there has been a panoply of books that seek to cast some light on the esoteric shadows of the Nation of Islam. Sonsyrea Tate’s Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam puts forth a look behind the veil from the perspective of a young girl raised in the Nation during the late-’50s and early-’60s. Matthias Gardell’s In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam is probably the most exhaustive examination of the religion’s turbid history since C. Eric Lincoln’s epochal The Black Muslims in America. The Farrakhan Factor is a compendium of essays from sundry vantage points that explores the meaning of black leadership since Louis Farrakhan’s rise to power. There are many other books on the subject, and while this is by no means a comprehensive list of published titles, it does represent the more articulate and unprecedented works that, directly or indirectly, respond to the mainstream media’s incessant demonization of the Nation.
Yet, while most of the aforementioned books have focused on the Nation of Islam under the aegis of Louis Farrakhan, Jesus Muhammad-Ali=92s The Evolution of the Nation of Islam: The Story of Elijah Muhammad offers an unique perspective, that of the grandson of the religion’s founder. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the life and ideology of Elijah Muhammad. Perhaps the most noteworthy work is that of Andrew Clegg, whose An Original Man is the most definitive biography of Muhammad so far written. Still, nothing has yet offered the intimacy that Ali’s book promises, a notion captured in the books opening sentence. “As a child who witnessed the level of humility shown him by my parents and by the thousands who followed him, then as a young man who grew to feel privileged to find myself in his company,” writes Ali, “this was the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (May Allah Grant him the Mercy), the man who I called grandpa.” Unfortunately, what has the potential to be a deeply personal reflection on the Nation’s past, present and future, devolves into a myopic and insincere rambling. It at times seems to exploit the author’s tenuous relationship with his grandfather, as if using one’s dead ancestor to make a quick buck.
The Evolution of the Nation of Islam’s most glaring shortcoming is the author’s failure to bring the story of the Nation to the present, thus belying the very notion of “evolution” alluded to in the book’s title. It is problematic that the name Louis Farrakhan is mentioned only once. When Farrakhan resurrected the Nation in the late-’70s, after the death of Muhammad, he created a viable cultural and political religious force, one that revolutionized the framework laid by the Nation’s founder. Somehow, the author fails to acknowledge intentionally or otherwise, the credibility and popularity Farrakhan has brought to Muhammad’s original message. Sure, this isn’t a book about Louis Farrakhan, but one cannot even begin to discuss the Nation of Islam’s evolution without conjecturing its present function. The word “evolution” denotes fluidity and mutability, yet Ali is unable to see beyond the death of his grandfather. As a result, he is resigned to reify the deeper meaning and function of the Nation of Islam.
Throughout, Ali unsuccessfully implies the religion’s impact on both black and white America. His attempt to historicize the Nation only scratches the surface and inane rhetoric is given precedence over anything historically or theologically substantive. Even when he does have a moment of acuity, he manages to follow it with the most absurd and unfounded claims. Such as when he posits that: “although not all of those affected by the message [of Muhammad and his ministers] left their churches, their lives or their spirits, the way they think, was impacted by these men and their gripping testimony of conviction and faith.” A few pages later: “Unlike the Freedom Riders,” asserts Ali, “Muslims were not under instruction to ever be reduced to beg from the white man.” What Ali hopes to accomplish with such a remark escapes me, for besides being grossly inaccurate, it has nothing to do with the story being told, except perhaps exposing some of the insecurities that continue to haunt the leaders of the Nation of Islam.
What is lacking in substance is certainly not made up in style. This book is plagued with numerous stylistic and grammatical errors that distract the reader from what little insight is offered. In the preface, Ali stridently decrees, “the reader should be aware this book is presented in my voice and has not been grammatically embellished.” Initially, the reader might be a bit confused as to what this means. Soon, however, it is clear that the author is simply offering a coy apology for the lack of any attempt to edit his book. Words are misspelled and misused, tense agreement is confused, syntax is thrown out the window as sentences start and stop wherever the author so desires and Ali is constantly stumbling over his thoughts. Some errors are outright egregious, such as when the author refers to Mike Wallace’s 1969 documentary on the Nation of Islam as “The Hate Which Produced the Hate,” and several pages later as “The Hate That Produced the Hate.” The program was actually entitled “The Hate that Hate Produced.” Suffice it to assume, any editor with the slightest knowledge of the Nation of Islam would easily have picked out this, and the many other, blunders that inevitably weaken the book’s credibility. The occurrence of each error only hinders Ali from telling his story in clear and logical fashion, all the while leaving the reader utterly bemused. More time is spent rereading sentences in a pointless attempt to discern meaning than actually digesting what could have been a tremendously edifying account of one of America’s most influential leaders.
Ali’s recollection of his grandfather’s influence over black America is too revisionist and aggrandizing. Elijah Muhammad was only the figurehead of the Nation of Islam. His ability to shape the evolution of the Nation was quite limited, and his ideology quickly became stagnant. Thus, it is no wonder that when Malcolm X disavowed Muhammad’s ideological tunnel vision, many left the Nation with him. It was Malcolm, and later Louis Farrakhan, who made the Nation of Islam a force with which to be truly reckoned. Still, Muhammad did provide the seed that was planted in the minds of Malcolm, Farrakhan and millions of other disenchanted black men and women. It is the seed of resistance to “the way things are”; a seed that warns of the imminent fall of white America, and that only those privy to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad (a prophet of Allah) will be spared. The sense of pride and self-determination instilled in the followers of Muhammad’s Nation of Islam back in the 30s is relevant today, as the Nation remains not so much a problem, as it is a symptom of America’s continuing refusal to face its own history.
Unfortunately, Jesus Muhammad-Ali fails to grasp that the Nation of Islam is still a mirror in which the hopes and frustration of black America, and the dastardly behaviors of the larger America, are reflected. Muhammad’s vision of a spiritually emancipated and self-reliant black America has made inroads to the present, and Ali fails to understand this as well. Subsequently his remembrance is at best sentimental drivel, and brings no additional substance to the conversation surrounding the indelible mark left on the soul of America by the Nation of Islam. The Evolution of the Nation of Islam is merely a testament to the fact that anyone who has a rudimentary grasp of the written word, and the slightest relationship with an historical figure, can get their work published.
JMA Publishing: http://jmamasterprints.com/