Islamic Studies Elijah Muhammad
Herbert Berg
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0074


Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole in 1897, led the Nation of Islam from the time of the disappearance of its founder, Wali Fard Muhammad, until his death in 1975. In the 1960s he was described as the “most powerful Blackman in America” and remains among the most influential American Muslims. It is through his efforts that thousands of African Americans were first introduced to Islam and the Qur’an, including Malcolm X, his son Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan, even if the former two eventually moved to a more traditional Sunni understanding of Islam. Elijah Muhammad’s unique formulation of Islam—particularly casting Islam in racialist tones, including the origin of the white race six thousand years ago and the struggle between black Muslims and white Christians at end of the world—prompted many other Muslims to assert that Elijah Muhammad and his followers were not “real” Muslims. The scholarly literature is not vast, but Elijah Muhammad’s own teachings are found in hundreds of articles in various newspapers and speeches, many of which are to be found in posthumous collections.


Although many books on the Nation of Islam contain brief biographies of Elijah Muhammad, the release of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) files on Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad gave scholars significantly more material from which to reconstruct biographies. Clegg 1997 and Evanzz 1999 provide the most comprehensive biographies. Berg 2009 and Halasa 1990 examine Elijah Muhammad as a religious figure, the former in relation to Islam and the latter hagiographically.

  • Berg, Herbert. Elijah Muhammad and Islam. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

    Along with a providing a short biography, analyzes Elijah Muhammad’s formulation of Islam through his use of the Qur’an, the beliefs and practices he promulgated, and his relationship with other Muslims.

  • Clegg, Claude Andrew, III. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

    The most detailed biography of Elijah Muhammad, beginning with his ancestors. Places him and his followers in their historical and economic contexts. Of particular note is the coverage of the early decades of his leadership and the excellent analysis of the teachings and their appeal to many African Americans.

  • Evanzz, Karl. The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad. New York: Pantheon, 1999.

    A biography of Elijah Muhammad with a particular focus on his relationships and interactions with important members of the Nation of Islam and figures in the civil rights movement. Employs the FBI files and focuses on the agency’s surveillance and interference with the Nation of Islam.

  • Halasa, Malu. Elijah Muhammad: Religious Leader. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

    A biography that highlights the positive religious, economic, and political achievements of Elijah Muhammad, seeing him as part of the civil rights movement. Includes the history of his childhood and youth in the South, his early involvement with the Nation of Islam, his early ministry and imprisonment, and the rise and defection of Malcolm X.

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