The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad
by Karl Evanzz
New York: Pantheon, 1999. 667 pp. $28.50.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
Evanzz, a reporter at The Washington Post, went through the vast archives of the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies and the results are impressive. He establishes a number of facts and makes important points: (1) The founder of the Nation of Islam (NoI), W.D. Fard, was not, as is often thought, of Lebanese origin. In fact, he was Indian, from what is now Pakistan. This explains his espousing an "Asiatic" identity for American blacks: it was his way of transposing his own ethnic identity. (2) Antisemitism became a prominent feature of the NoI only in the late 1950s, as it came into sustained contact with Muslims of the Middle East. (3) Elijah Muhammad did not appoint W. Deen Mohammed to be his successor; rather, W. Deen Mohammed in 1975 arrogated this position. (4) Louis Farrakhan's break with W. Deen Mohammed and his reestablishment of the NoI along Elijah Muhammad's lines resulted in part from the Church Committee of the Senate having released information about informers in the NoI.
Evanzz relies heavily on police reports, perhaps too much so; his biography could almost be subtitled "The Life of Elijah Muhammad as Recounted by the FBI." He provides inside dope on discussions between the FBI's Washington headquarters and Chicago field office but says almost not a word about the NoI theology. He purveys family gossip (Muhammad's wife complaining to her daughter-in-law) but omits vital information about Muhammad's financial holdings. We find out about his wife's tending to her aged father but almost nothing about Muhammad's very important trip to the Middle East. Further, heavy dependence on police records gives the narrative a lifeless quality, with cardboard characters, stories bouncing from one topic to another, and facts at times overwhelming the storyline.
It also leads Evanzz on occasion to make mistakes, some major. Following the information in an FBI/CIA report, he has the first Muslim missionary from abroad landing in the United States in 1910, ten years before he actually arrived; Evanzz has this missionary in 1912 converting Timothy Drew, the African-American who founded a precursor religion to the Nation of Islam, an event that did not happen. The author shows little interest in the many ways the NoI differed from standard Islam and at times inaccurately implies they are the same. This leads to some awkward and even fallacious statements, such as his reference to a former NoI member who went on to join standard Islam as a "former Muslim." Worse yet is a statement like this: "Muslims revered the Messenger [i.e., Elijah Muhammad] as a god-king." One chapter has a title of pseudo-Islamic gibberish ("Kaaballah"). Friedrich Engels was not a Jew. When it comes to Islam and the Middle East, Evanzz makes amateurish mistakes. He refers to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as "President Pasha" – like calling Dwight D. Eisenhower "President General." Anwar as-Sadat was not vice president of Egypt until ten years after Evanzz appoints him to that job.
Related Topics: African-American Muslims, Muslims in the United States | Daniel Pipes | Winter 2000 MEQ
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