The news reports last week sounded like the premise for a novel: a treasure trove of Malcolm X's papers, provenance murky, to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Malcolm's copy of the Qur'an; notebooks of his trips to Africa and the Middle East, after which he renounced the Nation of Islam in favor of orthodox Islam; letters, drafts of speeches, and more: extraordinary. How to keep the collection intact and open its contents to researchers? You can bet the details will be worked out—and down the road, biographies and other scholarly studies will emerge, changing what we thought we knew. While we wait, close at hand is Karl Evanzz's recent book, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (Pantheon), essential reading not only to understand Malcolm X but also to provide some context for all those post-9/11 stories referring vaguely to the appeal of Islam among African Americans.

Rarely one to miss an occasion for poetry (or publicity), Jesse Jackson waxed eloquent at the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's funeral in Chicago on February 26, 1975. Muhammad had "turned alienation into emancipation," Jackson said. "He concentrated on taking the slums out of the people and then the people out of the slums. He took dope out of veins and put hope in our brains." Early Jesse, vintage stuff. Undoubtedly, Jackson meant to uplift: focusing not on the past but on things that last, he reached out (not down) to hearts torn apart. But, as readers of Evanzz's very fine biography of Elijah Muhammad will discover, the truth is a little more complicated than Jackson's rhymes suggest.

It is true, for instance, that Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI) gave a sense of purpose and dignity to many "alienated" blacks in urban American. But it's also true that, until the very end of his prophetic career, the Messenger preached hatred of Caucasians ("blue-eyed devils") and consistently blamed black Americans' problems on others—hardly a recipe for "emancipation." It's also true that many felons became law-abiding citizens upon their conversion to the religion of Elijah Muhammad; yet, at the same time, Muhammad had nothing to say against murderers within the NOI who killed backsliders and "hypocrites" such as Malcolm X and, in another case, a seven-day-old baby.

It's also true that thousands who sat under the teaching of Elijah Muhammad in the decades preceding his death gave up illicit drugs. But in his later years the Messenger did little to stop the peddling of narcotics by NOI ministers, chiefly those attached to the "mosque" in Philadelphia. Finally, there's no doubt that thousands of formerly promiscuous men settled into monogamous marriages at Muhammad's behest, and that is a clearly good thing. Meanwhile, Muhammad himself—devout sower of "divine seed"—was impregnating NOI secretaries at an alarming rate, and thus bestowed thirteen "illegitimate" children (Evanzz's term) on the world. Needless to say, Elijah Muhammad was and remains complicated.

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In Elijah Muhammad's own mind, he was the final prophet of Allah, who, in the words of the NOI creed delineated in a document titled "What the Muslims Believe" (see appendix E in Evanzz's book), "appeared in the Person of Master W. Fard Muhammad, July 1930." The Messenger actually believed his own message. Evanzz notes that a psychiatrist once determined that Muhammad suffered from delusions but was nevertheless functional.

As for Master Fard, Evanzz demonstrates that he was a New Zealand-born hustler of semi-Pakistani descent who looked white and who illegally entered the United States via Canada with his parents in 1913. A witness to the depredations some whites foisted upon American blacks in the early twentieth century, Fard despised Caucasians, preached hatred of them, and in the thirties and forties encouraged his disciples, Elijah Muhammad among them, openly to support Japan's military aggression against the United States.

One thing Fard never claimed to be was God. But he did give Elijah Muhammad permission to say whatever he wished following his death. Muhammad had once suggested to Fard that he thought his teacher was the Almighty, and after Fard's passing from the scene, Muhammad declared as much: Fard was Allah incarnate and Elijah Muhammad was his prophet. When Louis Farrakhan reorganized the Nation of Islam in the late 1970s (the sixties were a messy time for the Nation), he altered this tradition, claiming now that Elijah Muhammad himself was God and that Farrakhan was the last prophet. Contrary to what one might think, this shift didn't present a theological problem for Farrakhan's NOI: as readers of his newspaper the Final Call know, Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad communicate regularly, and it is assumed that the Messenger has given Farrakhan's revisions his approval. (Muhammad now inhabits and transmits messages from the Mother Wheel, a spacecraft.)

Two years ago, Farrakhan, having sustained a serious medical operation, decided to move the NOI toward orthodox Islam, and perusers of the Nation's website can see that traditional Muslim beliefs get more space in Farrakhan's pages than they used to. But if the Nation is really going to move toward the beliefs of historic Islam, then Elijah Muhammad will not get to be God anymore and Farrakhan will have to fully surrender his status as the final prophet to a different Muhammad of more ancient fame.

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While readers in search of a systematic account of NOI theology should consult Mattias Gardell's In the Name of Elijah Muhammad (1996), Evanzz regularly alludes to the Messenger's ever-evolving religious beliefs. When the maritally faithful Malcolm X asked Muhammad about his philandering, the prophet announced that, like some biblical figures, he was almost obligated to fool around so that Allah's will for him could be more fully revealed in the lives of his progeny. Soon thereafter, however, Muhammad denied his "affairs" altogether and thus helped to drive Malcolm out of the NOI: an enigmatic prophet Malcolm could handle; a bald-face liar he couldn't. So much for the Messenger's theology of marriage.

As for Elijah Muhammad's views on matters racial, there's good news: toward the end of his life he said that it was "time for us to stop calling white folks the devil because there's some black devils too." Unfortunately, the Messenger's equal-opportunity demonology didn't take immediate hold among Farrakhan and his crew, though since his serious medical operation Farrakhan has softened his tone. Three years ago one might have expected him to justify Daniel Pearl's murder in terms of "that's what the white oppressor gets." But in February, Farrakhan pointedly denounced Pearl's killers and said, in effect, that nothing could justify their wickedness. (The usual anti-American rhetoric accompanied Farrakhan's statement, but even that was more moderate than one would have expected a few years back.)

Evanzz, who ends his book with a surprising tirade against "pulpit pimps" such as Farrakhan and others who pretend to be Elijah Muhammad's true successors (Muhammad never designated an organizational heir), provides his readers with ample documentation for his claims, which undoubtedly have him in hot water with the NOI. Evanzz's bibliography, moreover, is impressive: he reproduces some 70 pages of primary sources—including recently declassified FBI documents—as appendices. The most fun of these is titled "Reported Aliases of the Messenger," and it is here that we learn that some of Muhammad's pseudonyms were Eli Muck Muck, Muck Eli Muck, Mohammad Muckmud, and Elijah Mut Mut. Among his duller nicknames (he had 126 in all) were Robert Pool and Charles Evans.

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His mother called him Elijah Poole. Little did she know that, in his own weird way, he'd pull himself up by the proverbial bootstraps and make a big name for himself in a country he despised.

Preston Jones is a contributing editor to Books & Culture. His essay "History, Discernment, and the Christian Life" is published in Best Christian Writing, 2001 (HarperSanFrancisco).

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Preston Jones's commentary, "My Farrakhan Obsession," appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Books & Culture, and his essay "Growing White in Black America" is published in The Emergence of Man into the 21st Century (Jones and Bartlett). He is a contributing editor to Books & Culture.

Other articles by Preston Jones for Christianity Today and our sister publication Books & Culture include:

Endangered Species | 3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages are scheduled for extinction by the year 2100. (B&C, March/April 2001)
Saint Teddy? | Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but didn't show much explicit personal devotion to it. (B&C, June 11, 2001)
How to Serve Time | There is a Christian way to study the past without weakening the truth. (B&C, March 23, 2001)
The Last Frontier? | "'If you see a moose, make sure you don't get between it and its calf.' This postprandial advice was offered to me by my mother-in-law, who knows something about moose … " (B&C, Jul/Aug 2000)
Aliens, A-Bombs, and Mastodons | Travels in Nevada and Colorado (B&C, Jan/Feb 2000)
California Haze | A review of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, and Eyewitness To the American West (B&C, Sept/Oct 1999)
Lord of the Pets (B&C, Sept/Oct 1998)
A Canadian with an Attitude | A profile of Canadian evangelicals that contrasts them with their counterparts in the American South. (CT, Apr. 7, 1997)

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