One Nation, under Islam

CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 09:  Minister Louis Farrakhan speaks to Nation of Islam followers at Mosque Maryam November 09, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois. During his address Farrakhan praised President-elect Barack Obama and said his election would create a new beginning for race relations in America.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

So the Associated Press has this really interesting story about how early Nation of Islam documents were found in the attic of a Detroit home. Totally a Middlesex plot come to life, right? The documents apparently detail the early structure and teachings of the group. The article quotes attorney Gregory Reid whose Keeper of the Word Foundation oversees various collections. The significance of the find is explained here:

Lawrence Mamiya, a Vassar College professor of religion and Africana studies, said the documents should be most revealing and rewarding for scholars and others outside the movement. He said the Nation of Islam has a significant collection that isn't shared with nonmembers.

"I think this trove of 1,000 documents is very important for scholarship and for the writing of the history of the Nation," he said. "It won't change much for the Nation itself, but it may change things for people like myself who have never seen these documents."

But when we get to the part of the story that puts the Nation of Islam in context, it's a bit vague:

Fard attracted black Detroiters on the margins of society with a message of self-improvement and separation from whites. Fard said whites were inherently evil because of their enslavement of blacks.

The Nation of Islam was rebuilt by Farrakhan in the late 1970s after W.D. Mohammed, the son of longtime leader Elijah Mohammed, broke away and moved many followers toward mainstream Islam.

The Nation of Islam continues to be led by Farrakhan, who has haltingly moved toward mainstream Islam but maintains a separatist ideology.

Nation of Islam members traditionally have believed that God came in the form of Fard; Islam recognizes only one God.

In the past, Farrakhan's most inflammatory comments have included referring to Judaism as a "gutter religion" and calling Adolf Hitler "wickedly great." Farrakhan has over the years denied claims of anti-Semitism, arguing his remarks are often taken out of context and that criticism of Jews in any light automatically earns the "anti-Semite" label.

I'm just not really sure what the second and third paragraphs in the excerpt mean. How, exactly, did Elijah Mohammed break away and move many followers toward "mainstream Islam"? And what, exactly, is meant by "mainstream Islam" other than non-Nation of Islam-Islam? And what does it mean to be moved haltingly toward mainstream Islam, particularly when we're told that Nation of Islam members believe that God came in the form of Fard?

The article does a great job of building interest in where the Nation of Islam sits in relation to traditional Islam, but I can't quite get a handle on what the precise differences are at present. This recent history could be illuminating and I can't imagine a better hook. Diana Eck discussed the rise of black Islamic movements in America in her A New Religious America, for those interested in the history.

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