Writer Steve Schramm explores the history of the Nation of Islam and their central beliefs. How are they distinct from Islam proper? And where do they differ from Christianity?

The Nation of Islam (NOI), not to be confused with Islam proper, is a belief that originated in the mid-20th Century. It claims to form its foundation in Islam but holds many beliefs that place it far outside of Islamic orthodoxy.

In fact, many Sunni and Shia Muslims consider the NOI to be heretical.

This piece will highlight the key figures in the movement, what they believe, how they differ from traditional Muslims, and how the NOI differs in belief and practice from Christians.


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Key figures

As with many world religions, there are a few key historical figures in focus:

WD Fard (also known as Wallace Fard Muhammad)

WD Fard founded the Nation of Islam (NOI) in Detroit in 1930. He is considered by the NOI as the “Mahdi” (guided one) or the “Messiah”, depending on the source.

His teachings focused on black empowerment, self-reliance and the belief that African Americans are the original people of Earth.

Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole)

He was WD Fard’s main disciple and later became the leader of the movement.

Under his leadership, the NOI expanded significantly. He emphasised the teachings that white people were “devils” created by an evil scientist and that God would bring about a day of reckoning.

Malcolm X

Perhaps the most famous member of the NOI, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was a charismatic spokesman and leader.

However, after a pilgrimage to Mecca, he distanced himself from the NOI’s racial teachings, which eventually led to tensions with Elijah Muhammad and the NOI leadership. 

Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

Louis Farrakhan

He became the leader of the NOI in the late 1970s, reviving the group and emphasising its original teachings.

Farrakhan is a controversial figure, often criticised for his inflammatory rhetoric.

What does the Nation of Islam believe?

A helpful assessment of any world religion begins with understanding the landscape of its belief patterns. Some religions are deep, but not necessarily wide. Some are wide, but not necessarily deep. Some are both.

In the case of the NOI, actually, this religion is neither very deep nor wide, though there are certainly a number of writings and publications by NOI leadership they are expected to read and understand as part of the movement.

Probably the most well-known of these writings is ‘Message to the Blackman in America’. This book outlines the primary beliefs of the NOI, including the idea of the black man’s divinity, the story of Yakub (the evil scientist who is said to have created white people), and the importance of black self-reliance.

Black divinity and supremacy

It is important to note that the NOI is fundamentally racist in nature. They believe that all humanity was originally created black, and that an evil scientist named Yakub (who’d been banned to the Isle of Patmos around 6,000 years ago) created white people through a hundreds-of-years long selective breeding program.

Allegedly, it was prophesied that about 6,000 years later, the black man would once again rise. According to NOI teachings, Fard arrived in the black community in Detroit in the early 1930s, marking the end of the 6,000 years of “white devil” rule that began with Yakub’s experiment. His coming is viewed as the start of the rise of the black man and the fall of the oppressors.

Fard is considered the Mahdi, or Messiah, in NOI teachings. In Islamic eschatology, the Mahdi is a prophesied redeemer who will appear before the day of Judgment to guide the righteous and establish justice. While Sunni and Shia Muslims have their own interpretations of the Mahdi’s attributes and role, the NOI’s understanding is distinct.


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Economic self-reliance and separatism

NOI members are encouraged to be self-reliant and to avoid consumption of products from mainstream society, emphasising the importance of owning and supporting black businesses.

Moreover, given the history of oppression and the challenges of integrating into a society that has historically marginalised black people, the NOI has often advocated for a separate nation or territory for African Americans.

Dietary and moral laws

The NOI teaches that adherents should live a morally separated life, abstaining from drugs, alcohol, and illicit behaviours. As with most world religions, there is an emphasis on being kind and treating others well, but of course, that is not necessarily the case outside of the black community.

Also, there are many dietary laws, which were written about in ‘How to Eat to Live’ (Books 1 & 2) by Elijah Muhammad. These books provide dietary guidelines based on Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. 

The NOI’s dietary laws are distinct, emphasising certain foods and prohibiting others, with the aim of promoting physical and spiritual health. Pork and certain other foods are strictly forbidden, and there are other specific dietary rules distinct from traditional Islamic halal dietary laws.

Distinctions from mainstream Islam

It is unclear why the NOI, which differs to the point of heresy from traditional, mainstream Islam, uses Islam as its “baseline” to create an offshoot religion.

As mentioned above, many mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims consider the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI) to be heretical or outside the bounds of orthodox Islam. There are a few different reasons for this.

1. Theological differences. The fundamental belief in Islam is the oneness of God (Tawhid). The NOI’s characterization of WD Fard as a divine figure or the “Mahdi” is in direct conflict with this concept. In traditional Islam, attributing divinity to a human being is considered shirk (associating partners with God), which is a grave sin.

2. Racial teachings: The NOI’s teachings about the inherent evil of white people and the superiority of black people are not found in mainstream Islamic theology. Islam, as taught in the Qur’an and Hadith, emphasises the equality of all believers regardless of race or ethnicity.

3. Scriptural interpretations: While the NOI references the Qur’an and uses Islamic terminology, their interpretations of these sources differ significantly from mainstream Islamic interpretations.

4. Distinct beliefs: Certain beliefs unique to the NOI, such as the story of the evil scientist Yakub who allegedly created white people, are not found in traditional Islamic teachings.

5. Practices and rituals: As mentioned above, the NOI has specific practices, rituals and dietary rules that are distinct from mainstream Islamic practices.

In the 1970s, under the leadership of Warith Deen Mohammed (the son of Elijah Muhammad), a significant faction of the NOI moved towards orthodox Sunni Islam, distancing itself from many of the original teachings of the NOI. This group is now generally referred to as the American Society of Muslims.

However, another faction under Louis Farrakhan decided to revive the original teachings of the NOI and continues to operate under the “Nation of Islam” name.


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Comparison to Christianity

It is actually quite difficult to create a direct comparison between the NOI and Christianity, because they are so far apart from each other that there is virtually no overlap in their goals or practices.

In this writer’s estimation, there are three primary differences between Christians and the NOI worth noting.


Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. The NOI and traditional Islam are united in belief that the Christian scriptures are inaccurate with respect to the details about God’s nature, the Messiah and more.

As mentioned above, though, the NOI does not strictly adhere to the teachings of the Qur’an or the Hadith (traditional Islamic religious texts). Instead, the writings mentioned above (as well as others by key figures such as Elijah Muhammad) guide the NOI’s beliefs and practices.


There is a distinct difference between how both Christianity and the NOI view of humanity. In Christianity, God created all humanity equally. There is no precedent for judgement or discrimination on the basis of race. All humans are created in the image of God.

For the Nation of Islam, the black man was the originally created race, and the “white devils” were created through the selective breeding process mentioned above, by the evil scientist Yakub. 

They do not merely believe that Black people are important, they believe that Black people are the only true humans and should live separated, distinct lives.

Salvation/ resurrection

While there are “sins” of note within the NOI teaching, there is not necessarily a way to be “saved”. 

The concept of resurrection is more sociological in nature. This teaching refers to the state of ignorance and oppression that black people have experienced in America.

The “resurrection” is a metaphorical awakening to knowledge, self-awareness and empowerment. Through the teachings of the NOI, black individuals can rise from a state of mental death (lack of knowledge about their true history and potential) to a state of enlightenment and power.

The only way

At its core, the fundamental difference between Christianity and every world religion is the free offer of grace made possible by Jesus Christ.

Insofar as one trusts in a man—even himself—for his salvation or redemption, he will be ever yearning. Even the traditional Islamic concept of God is impersonal, and ultimately, requires a strict adherence to the law in order to be saved.

Only through Christ can one accept the free gift of salvation he offers, and then, being motivated by that grace, show genuine, love, mercy and compassion toward others.


Steve Schramm is an autodidactic writer, Bible teacher and host of the Bible Nerd Podcast. He’s authored four books, including Truth Be Told: A Believer’s Guide to Sharing Christianity, Overcoming Objections, and Winning More Souls for Christ