With the publication of these two books, all three outstanding figures of the Nation of Islam (Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan) are the subjects of top-notch, if overly sympathetically, full-length biographies.1
Elijah Muhammad has hitherto been the most obscure of the trio, a quiet, even shadowy figure far less conspicuous to the outside world than either of his spokesmen. Clegg establishes, however, that contrary to the almost universal opinion of outsiders, Muhammad had much more importance and power within the movement than either of the younger men-or anyone else, for that matter. His biography, the best volume ever written on the Nation of Islam, relies on a broad and impressive array of original documents, such as the will bequeathing Muhammad's slave grandfather from a father to his daughter and the extensive FBI records pertaining to the Nation of Islam. Perhaps most fascinating and original is Clegg's argument that no matter how radical Muhammad's rhetoric seemed, he had by 1960 become the captive of his own avarice, and that this imposed an operational conservatism, even a timidity, quite at odds with his fire-breathing talk. Interestingly, Clegg attributes this change in part at least to Muhammad's 1959-60 trip to the Muslim world, where he was appalled by the poverty and filth; henceforth, he stopped portraying the "Holy Land of Islam" as a place infinitely superior to the United States that would save American blacks. This implied a decrease in revolutionary expectations and more stress on the message of economic self-improvement.
Contrary to Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X has won more than his due share of attention. But he gained renown mostly for reasons having to do with his personal odyssey from petty thief to political figure of international stature, his black nationalism, and his scintillating rhetoric-not because he was a key figure in the growth of Islam in the United States. DeCaro fills this gap with an intelligent focus on his "religious life." Like Clegg, he relies on extensive research of primary documents; he finds much that is new about the man he terms a "religiously driven revolutionist." In particular, he shows where Malcolm X's famous Autobiography is either lacking important information or slanted to make a point: what Malcolm X actually did during his last year (after leaving the NOI and becoming a mainstream Muslim) and the parallels in Malcolm X's dual conversion (to the NOI, to Islam). From an Islamic viewpoint, On the Side of My People is of special interest for the way DeCaro pulls apart the myth Malcolm X had propagated about having learned of mainstream Islam only on reaching Mecca in April 1964; in fact, we find out here, he had for many months, even years, been tending in that direction. Reaching Mecca for Malcolm X was less a revelation than an opportunity to come out of the religious closet.
1 The third is Mattias Gardell, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996), reviewed in the MEQ, March 1997, pp. 91-92.