(RNS) Muhammad Ali, laid to rest in the tradition of his Muslim faith this week, introduced many Americans to Islam.
But the group that brought Islam to Ali has diminished since the world’s most famous athlete called himself one of their own. Ali in 1964 announced himself a proud member of the Nation of Islam, and remained in the group for about a decade.
“Ali did more to normalize Islam in this country than perhaps any other Muslim in the history of the United States,” said religion scholar Sherman Jackson, speaking at his Muslim funeral service, Thursday (June 9) in Louisville, Ky.
But Ali did not normalize the Nation of Islam.
Today, the Nation of Islam is a condensed version of the mid-20th-century organization that attracted thousands of African-Americans with its message of self-sufficiency and piety, its mistrust of the white establishment, and its call for black separatism.
Though considered heretical by mainstream Muslims, it was for many at the time the face of Islam in America.
“In the 1950s and 1960s when you said you were Muslim, people immediately assumed you were a member of the Nation of Islam,” said Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a religion professor at Reed College. But since, “their numbers have dwindled significantly and their influence has dwindled significantly.”
During its heyday, it claimed half a million adherents. Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” a best-seller after its 1965 publication, details the civil rights leader’s experience with the Nation of Islam, where he served as spokesman before severing ties.
Malcolm X recruited Ali to the Nation of Islam. After the boxer’s conversion from Christianity, and subsequent refusal to fight in Vietnam, Ali made clear that his conscientious objections emanated from his new faith. It also grounded his black pride. Muhammad Ali was his “free name,” the former Cassius Clay explained, the name of a man who did not answer to white Christian America.
When Americans meet Muslims today, they are likely to be talking to a person who has never stepped foot in a Nation of Islam mosque. Though there are no independent statistics on the faith group from the time Ali converted, a comprehensive 2011 Pew Research Center study found that less than 5 percent of Muslim Americans claim membership in the Nation of Islam.
Increased immigration of Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims in the past decades has also diminished the proportion of native-born black Americans among the nation’s Muslims. And most African-American Muslims — who represent a quarter of all Muslims in the U.S. — identify as Sunni, the stream of the faith Ali embraced in 1975.
But as the young heavyweight champion, when Ali could not reconcile his international stature with his status as a black man under Jim Crow laws still in effect in the South, the Nation of Islam’s unapologetic message resonated: Black Americans were God’s chosen people who must throw off their white oppressors.
And the Nation of Islam’s interpretation of the faith undergirded Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam, wrote M. Cooper Harriss, a religious studies professor at Indiana University.
“To be authentically black like God, the Nation of Islam preached, is to be Muslim. Only by the recognition of and purchase into this identity may one become free — spiritually, to be sure, but free moreover from the colonialism of Christian America and its European adjuncts,” Harris wrote.
“This is the theology that underlies Ali’s famous resistance to military induction, diminishing any ‘quarrel’ with the Vietcong,” he continued. “U.S. police action abroad deploys poor and marginalized citizens overseas to enforce the same Gospel of white supremacy and economic domination that oppresses them at home.”
Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College, estimates that there are now about 30,000 members of the Nation of Islam in the U.S. and that it runs about 130 mosques.
The Nation of Islam still wields influence within some African-American communities in the Midwest and Northeast. Its footprint is far smaller in the South. Nation of Islam officials at its Chicago headquarters and at regional mosques did not respond to requests for comment.
Malcolm X explicitly broke with the Nation of Islam. Ali left more quietly. After Elijah Muhammad, the group’s charismatic leader, died in 1975, Ali followed his son and successor, Warith Deen Muhammad, who, rejecting the deification of the Nation of Islam’s founder, renamed the group and led most of its followers toward mainstream Sunni Islam.
Ali came to embrace this more inclusive Sunni religiosity, which is reflected in the diverse choice of speakers at his memorial service Friday (June 10), which drew 15,000 people — luminaries and ordinary people — to a Louisville arena. Those who eulogized Ali included former President Bill Clinton, Monsignor Henry Kriegel, the pastor of St. Patrick and St. Hedwig Catholic churches in Erie, Pa., and some of Ali’s Jewish friends and colleagues — comedian Billy Crystal and Rabbi Michael Lerner.
These interfaith friendships contrast sharply to the current Nation of Islam leader’s anti-Semitic record. Louis Farrakhan has often railed publicly against a group he has called “the so-called Jews,” trafficking in age-old stereotypes of Jewish people as warmongers who seek world domination.
Farrakhan resurrected the Nation of Islam, and led it to triumph in October 1995 with the Million Man March, an event that inspired black men from across the country — including Christians such as then Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama — to fill the National Mall and publicly embrace their responsibilities as fathers, brothers and sons. Estimates of the crowd ranged from the National Park Service’s low of 400,000 — to 1.2 million.
In the early 1990s Farrakhan punched above the Nation of Islam’s weight, drawing 30,000 and 40,o00 people to arenas in major cities, said Mamiya, who attended several of the gatherings. Like his predecessor Elijah Muhammad, he captivated his audience, telling black Americans that God would redeem them.
But Farrakhan has also compromised his influence.
In addition to railing against gays and Jews, he has claimed that 9/11 “was an inside job.” And he has pushed a thoroughly discredited claim that vaccines cause autism, particularly in black boys. And then there are his repeated assertions that he has visited a great wheel in space, a giant craft hovering over the United States and poised to annihilate the nation for its evil deeds. Though this spacecraft is not a new idea in the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan, who calls it “Allah’s calling card,” claims to have been transported to it from a Mexican mountaintop through a beam of light.
Organizers of the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, headlined by Farrakhan, invited women and children to join the men. It drew a much smaller crowd than the original march, “several thousand” according to reporters on the scene.
Aminah McCloud, a religious studies professor at DePaul University, said the Nation of Islam is a force for good in the nation today. “It has its place in the continuum of religious communities that worry about poor and disenfranchised economic classes” and memories of the Million Man March still resonate, she said.
But what becomes of the Nation of Islam when Farrakhan, 83, no longer leads it?
“In terms of naming a successor, he has not done that,” said McCloud. “It’s probably very scary to people in the community because no one has risen to his level of charisma.”