On Oct. 7, 1897, Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah Robert Poole. While Muhammad did not launch the Nation of Islam religious movement, he is credited with taking the organization to heights its founder Wallace Fard Muhammad might not have ever imagined. Every year, Nation of Islam followers, and even non-followers, celebrate the birth of Muhammad, who died on February 25, 1975. This year is no exception and people honored Muhammad, who would have been 125 years old this year, with shoutouts on social media and celebrations.
Here is some of the admiration for Elijah Muhammad, past and present.
In the early 1960s, the popular magazine Reader’s Digest reportedly called him “The Most Powerful Black Man in America.”
Renown Black author James Baldwin once said, “If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him. I had heard a great deal, long before I finally met him, of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and of the Nation of Islam movement, of which he is the leader,” The New Yorker reported. The two met and shared a meal. During the meal, Muhammad asked Baldwin to join the Nation of Islam. Baldwin said that he “left the church 20 years ago and [he hasn’t] joined anything since,” but still seemed impressed by the NJOI leader.
Alex Haley, author of the book “Roots” and collaborator on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” reportedly once said of Muhammad, “If I had to pick the single person who has been the most important figure for Blacks in the Black thrust from post-World War ll, I would unequivocally pick Elijah Muhammad. Because it was he who….was like a lightning bolt in opening up the consciousness of black people…from this just blank psychic wall of just total fear of the structure in which we lived. And I am saying these things clinically,” according to Black Scholar.
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Dr. Charles V. Hamilton, a political scientist and member of the Columbia University faculty, told the New York Times, Muhammad “was one of the few who has been able to combine religion and race with a rather continuing economic influence.”
In its obituary of Muhammad, New York Times said, “Elijah Muhammad was a mystic. But his mysticism was applied; it always had a quite earthly purpose. Forerunning transcendental meditation and other modern popular sects, he saw the need for 20th‐century religions to declare themselves based on science, not faith. Islam was a science and a ‘way of life,’ not a religion, he said.”
Black conservative George Schuyler wrote in the Pittsburg Courtier, “Mr. Muhammad may be a rogue… but when anyone can get tens of thousands of Negroes to practice economic solidarity, respect their women, alter their atrocious diet, give up liquor, stop crime and juvenile delinquency and adultery, he is doing more for Negros’ welfare than any current leader I know,” The Times reported.
Historian Dr. Claude Andrew Clegg III, currently the Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke on Muhammad’s economic philosophy in an interview. “I think Elijah’s biggest legacy, biggest significance is that he makes Blackness respectable among African Americans. He kind of sells black people to themselves. He rejuvenates people’s sense of pride, self-esteem and their pride in their racial and cultural heritage. Also the economic initiate of the Nation of Islam – largely lower class people – pulling their resources together to buy a major newspaper printing press, farm land, grocery stores, a jet, a bank, etc.; creating an economic model of self-help by people who had never owned or contributed to such,” Clegg said.
He continued, “I think the significance of the Nation of Islam is that it introduced African Americans to an alternative religious vision outside of Christianity. If Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam had never existed I don’t think Islam would be the kind of force it is in some American cities and urban areas it is today. So, making people aware of the Eastern faith of Islam, although Elijah Muhammad taught a very peculiar style of Islam, I think is very significant.”
Respected historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke, a pioneer in the creation of Pan-African and Africana studies and professional institutions, once said of Muhammad, “Had Elijah Muhammad tried to introduce an orthodox form of Arab-oriented Islam, I doubt if he would have attracted 500 people. But he introduced a form of Islam that could communicate with the people he had to deal with. He was the king to those who had no king. He was the messiah to those some people thought unworthy of a messiah
“You thought Elijah Muhammad was hard when he dictated your diet and tastes, but your tastes had already been dictated to you by the Europeans!” said theoretical psychologist, social theorist, Pan-African thinker Dr. Amos Wilson of Muhammad.
Civil rights leader and vegetarian activist Dick Gregory once spoke of Muhammad’s influence on getting Black people off of drugs through diet.
“He took our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters,,nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and cousins and took them out to gutter hooked to all kinds of drugs, all kind of whiskey all kinds of everything with pockmarked faces and bloodshot eyes,” Gregory said. “And, when he gave them back to us, their faces was as smooth as velvet and their eyes was as white as snow and they walk with a dignity like the sun would touch the head.”
He continued, “How do you do it? He rearrange their diet. He took a Malcolm X who was a thug, a pimp, a dope addict and a dope pusher. And, when Malcolm left us he was one of the most honest, ethical human beings that ever lived in the history of this planet. How’d the old man do that? …He rearranged his diet.”
Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975, addresses the annual convention in Chicago, Feb. 26, 1966. (AP Photo)