Interviewed by Michael Vicente Perez, TIM’s Deputy Editor, in 2007.
The Islamic Monthly: In 1955, you joined the Nation of Islam. What attracted you to Islam and [what] attracted you to the Nation of Islam in particular?
Minister Louis Farrakhan: As a young man, I grew up as a Christian and I had a wonderful church experience, but the thing that disturbed me was that the church never focused on the plight of black people in America. And as a Sunday school student, I saw how Allah always raised someone among the downtrodden, the oppressed, [and] the enslaved to bring them a message that would liberate them from their oppressor. But here we were, in America, and we had no one. So I wondered, if God sent Moses to deliver the children of Israel, why hadn’t he sent someone to deliver us from the heavy hand of oppression that we were suffering? So even though I was in the church and I had no problem with Jesus, I had a problem with the hypocrisy of Christianity in that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America.
So I kept searching for something better. And in 1955, I heard the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I wasn’t ready to come out of Christianity and join Islam. I knew too little about it. But later that year, in New York, I heard Malcolm X and the things that he was saying concerning the plight of black people in America and how Islam would civilize us and solve the problems that we were having. This drew me to Islam, particularly to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
TIM: Have you ever struggled with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad? Was there ever a moment when you had to examine the differences between what Elijah Muhammad taught and what is considered Sunni orthodox Islam?
LF: No. I never struggled with the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad because I knew very little of what is called orthodox Islam. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad raised us in Islam in a way that we were not affected by orthodox Islam. He was very kind in that he always taught us respect, great respect for the Muslim world, but we also learned through our study that the Holy Prophet (pbuh) knew that our world of Islam would deviate from his path. And the Prophet, in his hadith, said that three generations after him would no longer be of him.
He did not want us to become a part of Sunni, Shiite, Hanafi, Hanbali or Sufi because he said to us that the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, knew nothing of these splits. He was a Muslim and he wanted all who followed him to be Muslims. And so even though there were these different sects, Elijah Muhammad taught us to respect any one who said “there is no God but God and Muhammad is His messenger” (Shahada in Arabic). So we never looked at one sect or another that followed the things that divided them. We saw all of them as Muslims and one Nation of Islam. And that’s the way he reared us, but he did not want us to be corrupted by the divisions that had come into our world of Islam that we’re suffering from as we speak.
TIM: So how would you address the charge by some Sunnis that the Nation of Islam is, in some ways, itself a sect?
LF: Well, from their point of view, they feel we are a sect and I understand their perception of us because we’ve come up in America. We’ve come up under white supremacy. We’ve come up under the evil and oppression of a government that has never respected us as an equal citizen in this country. We came up under white supremacy, where the color of our skin became a badge of shame, a badge of dishonor, so that if we were not white or near white, then we were not as good as someone who was white, whose hair was straight. And this was a problem that [existed] during the time of the Holy Prophet and, [even after] brother Bilal’s acceptance of the Prophet and Islam, there were [still] some [Arabs] who saw his blackness as a badge of shame or dishonor and it caused him suffering. But the Prophet, pbuh, gradually weaned his followers away from any type of expression of racism.
But in America, this is what America was founded on: it was founded on the myth of white supremacy and our subjugation for 310 years of actual chattel slavery. [And even] now, 150 years up from slavery, [we’re] still fighting for equality. So the methodology of the Nation of Islam had to heal [our] self-hatred: you can’t be a Muslim and hate the way Allah created you. And He created many different flowers and plants, and planets of different colors, rocks of different colors, he created the human being like that. I should not feel that I am inferior to you because my color is different, the shape of my nose is different, my hair is different; I should not feel that way.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, in his wisdom, taught us how to respect and love our blackness, which, of course, the foreign Muslims [say], “you know, this is not Islam, Islam does not deal with color.” No, not in its pure teachings, but we had to deal with the plague of white supremacy. And so he taught us how to love ourselves, how to respect and honor the way Allah created us and this is what propelled us and made us feel that Islam was ours. It wasn’t an Arab religion that we were accepting. So when I accepted Islam, I didn’t accept an Arab religion, I accepted my own religion, the natural religion of the human being. That meant that I could see an Arab, a Pakistani or a Caucasian Muslim and see them as they are but respect myself as I am because, in Islam, there is no Pakistani culture or Arab culture or Somali culture, there’s [only] the culture of Islam. But we had to grow into that and that took time.
So I can understand why some of the Sunni or orthodox Muslims would see us as a sect; because we were different in the way we were coming up. The fact that we were off and separate and the Sunnis, Sufis and others felt that we weren’t true Muslims, then the dialogue between our communities didn’t take place in order for us to understand orthodox Islam or for orthodox Islam to understand Elijah Muhammad’s approach.
TIM: You left the Nation after Elijah Muhammad’s son, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, assumed leadership. Then in 1978, you decided to rebuild the Nation. Talk about that decision and some of the challenges you faced as a leader rebuilding the movement.
LF: Well first, the Imam Warith Deen, I loved what he was doing to try to unite the followers of Elijah Muhammad with the Muslim world. For the first time, during Ramadan, we took Ramadan with the Muslim world and during the Eid, we [also] prayed with our brothers and sisters from all over the world, here in Chicago and in other places. I thought that this was wonderful. But then he spoke ill of Elijah Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad’s teacher, Fard Muhammad, and that disturbed me because there would’ve been no Nation of Islam for him to take leadership of if there was no Elijah Muhammad, and there would not have been an Elijah Muhammad if there wasn’t a Fard Muhammad. I thought that he should respect his father and respect his father’s teachings and then take us where he felt we needed to go.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us of Prophet Muhammad with respect but he never gave us intimate knowledge of the Prophet. Imam Muhammad, that was his focus and that was good for all of us. But when I could not endure the mockery of his father and his father’s teacher, and when I saw the effect it was having on those of us who had sacrificed, went to jail and even suffered death for our Islam, then I decided that I would try to rebuild the work of Elijah Muhammad. I could not bear the thought that after all that work that he had done, that he would be written out of history as a non-Muslim and somebody that didn’t understand Islam, that he was in error, his ‘akida (theology) was way off, etc. etc.
Well, it was at that point that I decided that I would rebuild the work of Elijah Muhammad, but rebuild it in a way where honor and respect to Prophet Muhammad would always be a part of our growth and development and that the study of the Prophet became central to understanding how he moved to establish Islam in Arabia is the same way we would have to move to establish Islam in America.
TIM: Do you think that race is a factor in the divide between the Sunni orthodox perceptions of the NOI and if so, how?
LF: Well race has played a part in the division among Muslims themselves. Some blacks do not feel comfortable during salat al juma in certain masjids where they feel that they are treated as less than they should.
When the Holy Prophet, (pbuh), started his mission, he was in Arabia and his mission was primarily to Arabs. Bilal was there, there were many blacks that were there, there were Christian Arabs that were there, there were Jews that were there, in Arabia, but the Prophet, pbuh, taught each one of them, the Christians and the Jews, according to [their] knowledge of the Torah and the injeel, and he focused on the Arabian peninsula.
We start like that. We start with a focus on Black people because we’re in a state of jahiliyah worse than the Arabs because the Arabs spoke their own language, they were in their own country. The difference with us is, we had been reared in America by an opponent of Islam and we had been reared in a way that is against the law of Torah, of injeel, and Quran, and we have been allowed education by the western standard of education so we already thought we knew Allah, we knew God, we knew religion, we thought we knew Jesus. So Elijah Muhammad ha[d] to empty the vessel of what it thought it knew and then put in the vessel what Allah revealed. Prophet Muhammad didn’t have that to do, he just had to pour the truth into an empty vessel that was ignorant but yet knowledgeable of its language, its culture and its oral history. We were deprived of all of that so it made the job of Elijah Muhammad much more difficult. But [by] the grace of Allah, we’re accomplishing the task.
TIM: When I came to Islam…in this society, I felt that it was empowering to become Muslim, the identity was empowering. But we have lots of immigrant families whose children have been raised in the identity of Islam and, for them, Islam isn’t the kind of empowering identity that others have coming into the faith. What would you offer, as a lesson from your experience, to the immigrant community about how to help their youth who are estranged from Islam and are hiding it in a sense because of the post 9/11 context in the United States?
LF: I think, as Muslims, we need reform. I don’t think it’s accidental that the Holy Prophet, pbuh, said that once every hundred years, a mujadid or a reformer would come and that mahdi would come to guide us back to the path of the Prophet. When I traveled in the Muslim world, in certain countries, in hot Africa, the men were in the mosques under air conditioned circumstances, the women were out in the yard, prostrating, prostrating in the dirt. This is not something I read about, this is something I experienced. When we went to hajj, and we were in Mina, we were in a building and, as men, we were in an air conditioned lunch room. Women were having lunch on the roof of that building in sweltering heat with flies every where. In the time of the Prophet, pbuh, women and men worshipped Allah in the mosque. They were separate but they were in the mosque. In some societies of Muslims, their culture has overcome the culture of Islam. Women don’t come to the mosque. Men come and bring the religion back home to the women. In this day of enlightenment, where women all over the world, are revolting against standards set by men that are not according to God, how do Muslim women feel? And if a Muslim woman is dissatisfied with the way she’s treated in Islam, how does she affect her children? So when the children grow up where the wife can’t go to the masjid, she’s put in a position where she feels inferior and the children will grow up watching this. So many immigrants are coming from the Islamic world into the context of America now and they’re trying their best to hold onto the culture from back home. But they’re not providing all of the arenas for true expression and their children feel somewhat ashamed, they want to hide their religion and gradually go away from Islam.
In America now, this is a licentious society, and you’re trying to grow your children up according to shariah; you’re gonna kill your daughter because she has a boyfriend when you can’t turn on your television without seeing sexually explicit movies, filth of every kind. We really need to find a better way to protect our young people than what we’re doing. So, in answer to your question, we really need to sit down and dialogue because this world is eating up our children. I think there are many things we could do within Islam to give greater freedom to our young people, greater freedom to ourselves but always within the context of the limitations imposed by Islamic law.
TIM: Today, there are Islamic organizations all across the United States. Most of these organizations seem to be working on some kind of agenda that relates to promoting the message of Islam in America. At times, that agenda has led to a distancing from the Nation. Has that affected the work of the Nation and are there any differences between the agenda other Muslim organizations are setting and what the Nation of Islam is setting?
LF: Well, I don’t think it has impeded our work. There was a time [about] 25, 30 years ago, when Muhammad Ali the boxer accepted the name Muhammad Ali. All over the Muslim world, Muslims who never cared about boxing became fans of Muhammad Ali. When he stood up and said “I’m not going to war to kill people in Vietnam, my religion forbids me to take the life of another human being outside of Allah’s command,” it went before the Supreme Court and he won. The Muslim world accepted Ali and now, in this climate, the Muslim world should close ranks. As the Quran teaches us in [the] surah “Those Ranging in Ranks,” we should be like a solid wall and we can’t be like a solid wall if we don’t break down barriers between us and our organizations.
I’m sure these Muslim organizations are doing a good work trying to spread the message of Islam. We could do it better if we sat in a room and dialogued about the message. What message should we, in this hour, project to the American people without disgracing ourselves as Muslims? We can’t act as though Islam doesn’t teach what it teaches in order to get friendship with the government of the United States or with the Christian and Jewish community, we cannot.
We should be able to defend every Ayat of the Quran in the presence of 9/11 and the hatred towards Islam. We, as Muslims, should dialogue on how [to] respond to what’s happening in Palestine? How should we respond to America’s invasion of Iraq under the pretext that we’re getting rid of a dictator and he had weapons of mass destruction? Was that America’s role to do that? What happened [in Iraq] and should I take the position that Bush is right in what he’s done or should I stand up and say “is this really a war against terrorism or is this a war against Islam?”
So there are Muslims who want to be moderate and acceptable to the government of the United States. We don’t care. If we’re acceptable to Allah, that’s sufficient to us. We would hope that our government would accept us, but you have to accept us on the basis of truth and justice. Anything else, if we compromise our faith to please you, then Allah is displeased with us.
TIM: The Nation of Islam has historically been a movement for alleviating the ills of the black community in particular. Looking back on the career of the Nation and on your career as its leader, how successful have you been and what do you see remains to be done?
LF: (laughs) The problems still remain and work still needs to be done. Islam is a civilizing force. Islam is a transformative force. And when a culture is degenerate, the people may like the message but not be willing to say “I am going to give up my alcohol, my marijuana, my heroine, my cocaine, my pork chops, and I’m not willing to give up romancing beautiful ladies.” “I like the teaching,” they will say, “but I’m not ready yet.”
There are millions that have agreed with the message, but the world has such a pull on them that they don’t want to be transformed. When I did an interview with Martin Bashir for Nightline, we talked about the condition of Black people. He asked me if the ills that remain in the Black community mean that I have been ineffective in changing the condition of my people. I said, in a sense you could say that. But the Q’uran never put on the prophet anything other than a clear delivery of the message. And Allah asked the Prophet, “why would you grieve yourself—or would you—because you can’t make them Muslims?” So I can’t grieve myself over the fact that my people are slow in responding to the call to Islam.
You preach to people because that’s your duty as a follower of the Prophet. You try to guide them; you try to warn them of a chastisement that will afflict those who reject truth. And then you wait on Allah. You work and you wait (laugh) and that is what we do because of our belief that Islam will be very successful in America in spite of the power of our government and the media control to poison the hearts and minds of the people against Islam. This is Allah’s religion and He will make the people to be Muslims in his own good time.
TIM: While most political commentators are focusing on Senator Barack Obama, little attention has been given to the fact that the US has its first Muslim Congressman, Keith Ellison. Mr. Ellison is a black man and a Muslim, two features that make him as controversial as he is promising. What can you say about his election and its implications, if any, for the future of Muslims in the US?
LF: Well we do need a Muslim voice in congress. It is our hope that Allah will bless him in spite of the forces that would like to use him, in a time period like this, as a poster child that America wants. They were very opposed to him and it was the Somali community that helped to put him in office. So he has to be very skillful because most of the congress, senate and House of Representatives are under the control of the Zionists and we fear for him, because whoever we send, the Zionists will always try to get them to bend or bow to Zionists designs and desires. And once you don’t bow to that, through AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee), they’ll send money into your community and raise up a candidate to defeat you because you are not going along with Zionist desires. So our prayers are that Allah guide him and protect him as he tries to serve his constituents and the best interests of the country.
TIM: Many people feel that Barack Obama has a very real chance at the White House. Does this mean that the US has progressed in terms of race and politics or is this an illusion?
LF: I believe that he does have a real chance. But that doesn’t mean that, if he gets the chance, he can change America’s course. There are too many forces that are already like leaches on him, right now, and one of them is AIPAC. And all of the congress members and senators and vice president and others that went to the AIPAC meeting, they all stumbled over each other to show their allegiance to the Zionist cause. Barack Obama was one of them, and no matter how fresh his approach is, and I believe he’s going to be very successful, I worry that it will be more of the same with a black face. And if he ever tries to really use the power of his office to change the direction of this country, he may end up like J.F.K. or other presidents that were assassinated by those forces that want the president to serve the multi-national corporations and the international bankers and their aims.
TIM: Was it an exception for him to get as far as he’s gotten or does he, as a politician, a black man who is active in American politics, reflect a genuine change in the attitudes of White America?
LF: I do think there is a change in the attitude of whites in America. I think he has more grassroots white, black and Hispanic support than Hillary Clinton. He has more support of young people between the ages of 18-35 who have not voted. I think he’s formidable and that does say that there is a change. When you see young whites and you go in their homes and there’s a picture of black athletes on their walls or, 80% or 60% of those who buy hip hop—maybe even more—are young white people and the hip hop artists are generally black, there’s a change in the youth. So for a young man like Barack Obama, who has that kind of appeal, which he does have, you can really cause a great stir in the Democratic Party and in the national political scene as well.
TIM: During the last Savior’s Day convention in February, you had Siraj Wahaj give the Friday khutba. Can you talk about that decision and tell us how close you are with brother Wahaj?
LF: You know he grew up in the Nation of Islam. And I felt very, very honored that he would give the khutba. He’s a very knowledgeable Muslim and the fact that he gave, and was very well received by the membership of the Nation, well, I feel that he, more so than many, could be a wonderful bridge builder and help us in our growth towards a more perfect representation of Islam. And I’m thankful for Imam Siraj and I look forward to his coming again, to feel the freedom to come again to teach whatever God has laid on his heart to give us.
TIM: Are the mosque doors open then for other brothers and sisters to come….
LF: Of course….
TIM: and share their teachings….
LF: Of course, of course.
TIM: In recent interviews, you’ve used the metaphor of a prison to describe your current state. What do you mean by that and in what sense can you say you are free?
LF: As you know, I have been charged in the general community as being anti-white, anti-Semitic, anti-American, anti-gay, and my statements changed or out of context makes me appear as that and since the media has designed a way for me to be seen, that way that they wish for me to be seen has become a prison. That they won’t let me out of on their own free will. Every time that I have a major interview they want to ask me “well you’re the man that called Hitler great” or “you’re the man that described Judaism as a gutter or a dirty religion.” And no matter how many times I have answered that over the last 21 years, it’s still dogs me because that’s where they want to keep me. And so I’m breaking out because white America now, is getting to hear me a little different than a sound bite. And I have many white followers now. They tell me that there’s a chat room on internet “The White Followers of Farrakhan.” Well I wouldn’t have white followers if they saw me as anti-white. I see that I’m gradually beginning to break through the propaganda and even my hardcore Jewish…I would call them detractors, they have to back up some because the masses of my people and now, there are gentiles listening to Farrakhan and have a different view of me altogether.
TIM: Where would you like to see the Nation of Islam in 50 years?
LF: I would like to see in every major city of America a muezzin calling to prayer as it is in Hamtramck, Michigan. I would like to see many of our women with long dresses and hijab, schools and hospitals and educational institutions, and greater economic development. I would like to see the day when opposition to Islam is no more so that America can freely hear the word of Islam and see the beauty of Islam. Islam is the only teaching that can save America from itself. Islam is the only teaching that can make black, white, brown, red and yellow a family. Christianity, as it is now, I don’t think can accomplish that, but Islam can. And we, it would seem to me, have to be—today—the example, not of what Islam looks like, but of what Islam is. It’s not a beard, it’s not a hijab, it’s not a jalabiya. Islam is a world. Islam has systems, economic systems, political systems, judicial systems, and I would like to see our way of Islam established in every form, not just a mosque where we go to pray or a school where we go to become educated, but that our way becomes the way, our law becomes the law.
50 years from now we can be a long way down the road towards that and this period after 9/11 gives us an opportunity to say to the world “this is what Islam is.” Our culture, our way, just imagine what America would look like if millions of people didn’t get drunk. How many accidents would there be on the highway with no drunks? Muslims don’t use drugs. What would America look like if ten million Americans refused to smoke marijuana, to drink alcohol, eat pork, fornicate, commit adultery, or commit violence against one another? We could transform this nation and it doesn’t take a lot. Just set a good example. I think that we have an opportunity in America to provide a good example for the American people and that’s our aim. Insha’Allah.