On the west side of 73rd and Stony Island, there is a plaza containing a chop suey joint, an H&R Block, a Subway, an insurance office, and a Harold’s Chicken Shack. On the east side, across the street, is Mosque Maryam, the largest mosque in Chicago and the national headquarters of the Nation of Islam, the syncretic African-American Muslim group led by Louis Farrakhan. The mosque is separated from the street by a wrought-iron fence and a wide parking lot. A star-and-crescent symbol stands on a pole atop its golden dome, overlooking the neighborhood.
On Sundays, the gates to the mosque are open, and the Nation of Islam’s Chicago congregation, which numbers in the thousands, flocks up the wide front steps to hear a sermon from Farrakhan or another high-ranking minister. During the rest of the week, the only traffic to Mosque Maryam comes from the operations of Muhammad University, a K-12 school run by the Nation of Islam, but at all times the premises are heavily guarded and monitored. All visitors to Muhammad University must submit to a bag check and a pat-down search.
Despite the flashing electronic sign advertising Farrakhan’s weekly sermon series, “The Time & What Must Be Done,” Mosque Maryam holds itself at a remove from its immediate surroundings, and for all its attempts at widespread proselytism, the Nation is still very wary of outsiders. As it attempts to remain relevant both on the South Side and in the national consciousness, the strict discipline and radical doctrine that distinguished it in the first place may now be what keeps it distant from the surrounding community.
On a recent morning, I visited Muhammad University with a photographer, having been given permission to take pictures by one of the school’s administrators. While the photographer was taking a picture of the mosque, again with permission, two Nation members (apparently guards) came out of the mosque and asked us to come inside and explain our reason for being there. We were put on the phone with Minister Jeffrey Muhammad, a high-ranking official, who told us that despite what we had heard, we were not, in fact, permitted to take pictures even of the mosque’s exterior. He explained that my colleague and I should leave the grounds and return to take pictures at our next scheduled visit. We agreed to do so and left. At our next visit we were also not permitted to take pictures while on Mosque Maryam’s premises; the photos in this article were taken from the sidewalk and the surrounding area on Stony Island.
The Nation almost never speaks openly to the media; stories about them in the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and The New York Times rarely include original quotations. I made several visits to the Mosque Maryam campus and had numerous conversations with Nation officials of all ranks, but despite repeated requests for interviews with Nation ministers, a (later canceled) interview appointment with Minister Ishmael Muhammad, and subsequent agreements by the Nation to answer questions sent to them via email, at the time of writing the Nation has still declined to comment on its current state of affairs.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Nation of Islam was one of the most important African-American organizations in the country, and its headquarters on the South Side (then known as Temple #2) was a constant hive of activity. Fronted by an enigmatic man known as The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (whom members of the Nation believe to be a messenger of Allah) and his outspoken mouthpiece Malcolm X, the Nation promised to liberate the oppressed blacks in Harlem and beyond from the chains put upon them by the “white devils” in America. But by the time he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had rejected the Nation as corrupt and condemned Elijah as a fraud. Ten years later, Elijah himself was dead and the Nation had begun to lose relevance.
Elijah’s son and successor, Warith Deen Muhammad, steered the Nation’s party line towards traditional Islam, but Warith’s tenure at the forefront of the Nation did not last long before Louis Farrakhan, a high-ranking minister within the Nation and a colleague of Malcolm X, rose independently to national prominence. With his charismatic speaking style and radical adaptation of the Nation’s program, Farrakhan quickly became the central figure in the Nation and pushed the Nation’s party line back to the teachings of Elijah (see sidebar). For the rest of the twentieth century, Farrakhan kept the Nation relevant mostly through polemical public statements and national campaigns for the black male such as the Million Man March, a D.C. demonstration hundreds of thousands strong.
In the twenty-first century, Farrakhan has remained a household name for his extreme public statements, many of which have been called anti-white and anti-Semitic. But neither Farrakhan nor the Nation remains a major national force in the lives of African Americans. Indeed, other than occasional media attention on Farrakhan for his controversial remarks or involvement with controversial figures like former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Nation rarely makes headlines. Today the Nation’s membership, estimated at around 20,000 to 50,000, is well below the hundreds of thousands of members it had in the 1960s and 70s.
Despite this slide away from national relevance, the Nation retains a considerable local presence on the South Side and in the neighborhood of South Shore. The enormous Mosque Maryam building, converted from a Greek Orthodox church in the 1970s, occupies a wide berth on the otherwise unremarkable 7300 block of Stony Island. Much of the Nation’s on-the-ground social work involves outreach in the area immediately surrounding Mosque Maryam, including the South Shore and Auburn Gresham neighborhoods.
It is in these neighborhoods that members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s order of protectors and guards, sell and distribute the Nation’s newspaper, The Final Call, on streets and on exits off the Dan Ryan. In addition to advertising upcoming Nation of Islam events, the Call acts primarily as a mouthpiece for Farrakhan’s commentary on world events. Many articles are write-ups of sermons by top Nation ministers that address national topics like Ebola, police brutality, and hip-hop music from the Nation’s perspective.
In the past few years, the Nation has also drawn citywide attention for its efforts to combat crime in the neighborhoods surrounding Mosque Maryam. One professor who researches the Nation of Islam and who chose to remain anonymous describes the Nation as a “unifying force fighting against drug and gang activity” on the South Side. In 2012, on certain summer nights, Nation members walked the streets to guard against potential gun violence. Rahm Emanuel praised their attempt to “protect” and “clean up” Auburn Gresham and South Shore, a statement for which he received considerable backlash in light of Farrakhan’s history of controversial remarks.
In July 2012, an article in the Sun-Times describes community members awestruck at the sight of an “army” of Nation of Islam members deployed in their neighborhoods. Male members of the Nation, all of whom are technically members of the Fruit of Islam, still dress in full suits and bow ties; in its activities and practices, the Nation emphasizes discipline above all things.
In the 1960s, even critical writings about the Nation (including C. Eric Lincoln’s seminal 1961 book The Black Muslims in America and James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “Down on the Cross”) cited the success with which it was able to turn around the lives of black drug addicts and prisoners by encouraging them to forswear sex, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, and pork. Malcolm X himself was one such convert. Their grandiose claims about salvation through Elijah’s teachings, Baldwin notes, appeared to be supported by evidence: conversion to the Nation of Islam entailed a complete transformation of character, and even secular programs like Alcoholics Anonymous were taking cues from the Nation’s addiction recovery program.
According to Farrakhan (and, thus, according to the entire Nation of Islam), the Nation’s religious doctrine and focus on self-discipline still represent the best and the only antidote to the perils of black life on the South Side and in America. He and his ministers continue to appeal to Chicago’s impoverished African-Americans through sermons at Mosque Maryam and outreach to the community.
The Nation’s message and its social work target the predominately black community of the South Side in much the same way Elijah did in the 1960s across the country, specifically in Harlem. The cultural items on the agenda have changed with the times—gang and gun violence are now the most talked about moral evil—but in many ways, Farrakhan’s sermons chart the same course Elijah Muhammad charted fifty years ago when he advised black men to give up alcohol, prostitutes, and other sinful temptations he contends are pushed upon them by white society.
Farrakhan frequently rails against gun violence, drill music, and white control of the mainstream media. In a sermon this past summer he outlined a utopian plan for black nationalism in which he proposed reaching out to gang members to convert them into “protectors” of a new, collectively owned African-American state. At various points during Farrakhan’s speech, Nation members and ex-gang members in the audience stood up, many of them crying, to voice their agreement.
The Nation needs such soldiers to defend it, insisted Farrakhan, because the government is trying its best to dismantle his campaign for “black consciousness” in America. “Really, they want to kill Farrakhan,” he said while discussing police brutality during the Ferguson riots. “But I say to the United States government: I’m not running from you! I am backed by a power that can destroy you!” The audience erupted with screams and applause.
What made Farrakhan so relevant in the beginning, says Vibert White, a professor of history at the University of Central Florida and an associate member of the Nation of Islam, was his ability to “tap into and provide an uncompromised viewpoint about current issues.” Farrakhan made it a practice to say controversial things that got picked up by the mass media in the 1970s and 1980s, when he spoke out against Ronald Reagan and America’s involvement in foreign scandals like Iran-Contra. In his sermons today, he continues to offer his perspective on global phenomena such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, modern drug culture (“What is it called again, Molly?”), and the Ebola outbreak. But in the twenty-first century, noted White, his visibility has diminished.
“In the 1980s and even the 1990s, Farrakhan was everywhere, with the Million Man March and campaigns like that,” said White. “But although the media are familiar with his views today, especially the more controversial ones, he doesn’t get as much attention as he used to.”
White is the author of the book Inside the Nation of Islam, which describes and at many points criticizes the Nation’s policies from the 1970s to the end of the century. White admits that his writings against Farrakhan and the Nation have drawn the ire of some of his fellow brothers and sisters, but he insists that he has not burned all his bridges with the Nation; that is to say, he still identifies as being as “inside the fold.”
However, even though White spoke of Farrakhan as a “natural leader” for the Nation, a “central figure” without whom the group would have by now disappeared into irrelevance, his analysis of Farrakhan’s campaign in Chicago was not entirely charitable. He went on to explain that a key motivation behind Farrakhan’s proclamations about gang members being soldiers—and by extension, perhaps, the Nation’s attempts to convert these gang members—is his desire to maintain this visibility in the media.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Nation was a widespread national force whose power was largely based in Chicago, but now, as Farrakhan loses influence in the mainstream media, the organization’s strongest influence is local: in addition to being home to all of the Nation’s leading ministers, Chicago is also home to the Nation’s largest congregation. Even this local following, however, is not immune to decay. White noted that in the past two decades more and more members of the Nation have used their membership as a stepping stone to other religious organizations. These range from mainstream Islamic ministries (such as Warith Deen’s organization, The Mosque Cares, which did not respond to requests for comment) to other “nationalistic black churches in Chicago” and to South Side spiritual leaders like Jesse Jackson and Michael Pfleger, whom Farrakhan considers his peers.
As the time for a successor draws near (Farrakhan is eighty-one and has had documented health issues since the turn of the century) and as the Nation continues to lose relevance even under Farrakhan, it will need to extend its impact beyond its inward-facing foothold in South Shore.
Though it receives considerably less press than Farrakhan’s pronouncements or the Fruit of Islam’s vigilante activities in Auburn Gresham, Muhammad University of Islam (MUI) is almost as old as the Nation itself, and it remains one of the Nation’s main avenues into the community. During the Nation’s heyday the K-12 school had almost a hundred campuses across the country, but that number has since shrunk significantly: now there are around a dozen functioning chapters in America, of which Chicago’s is the largest by far. In this way, MUI typifies the Nation’s current position as a whole: though its ethos is global and its internal culture is strong, its only impact beyond its own preservation is local and limited.
MUI has a small enrollment of two to three hundred students and a yearly tuition of $4,800, which is on the low end for Chicago private schools. Around three-quarters of its students are the children of members of the Nation, and the rest of the school’s students enter from other families on the South Side. With a program based on the Nation’s religious teachings and founded on a belief in physical and mental discipline, Muhammad University seeks both to maintain the culture of the existing Nation and to transform youth from the South Side into righteous and upstanding men and women by the Nation’s standards.
On school grounds, students are separated by gender, and for the most part their teachers are also of the same gender. All food is cooked on-site, and no lunches are brought to school. MUI teaches standard core subjects including math, science, English, history, and a foreign language (Arabic), but the first class of the day is a course in what White calls the “fundamentals of basic Islamic scholarship.”
MUI’s outgoing national director, Larry Muhammad, told me that in MUI, “Islamic scholarship” means the doctrine espoused first by Elijah Muhammad and then by Louis Farrakhan. This includes, then, not only the belief in Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad as divine personages but also a belief in Farrakhan himself as divinely inspired and an acceptance of various theological developments under Farrakhan.
Both White and Larry Muhammad, however, are clear that the central feature of an education at MUI is not any sort of scholarship, even “Islamic scholarship,” but rather a practice of severe discipline that aims to transform boys and girls into upright, exact, self-restraining adults.
“Yes, they strive for excellence in education,” said White, “but the strength of it, the real distinguishing element, is the discipline. Not in the books but how they teach them to act.”
“We have a certain discipline, certain military-academy type structure to the school, and that makes a big difference,” said Larry. “So therefore some of the challenges that you get at a public school, a secular school, you’re just not going to get at our school. We don’t have a dropout problem. We do have children whose parents can’t afford it, but we don’t have a dropout rate, we don’t have violence, we don’t have any of that.”
Students at MUI begin the day with military-style marching drills in the school’s gymnasium. Boys and girls line up rank-and-file in separate groups and perform about-faces and salutes to the tune of what sounds like triumphant horn music. These drills, Larry says, are critical to instilling a culture of discipline in the student body. He also mentioned the almost total separation of sexes and the all-student uniform policy. All boys wear full suits with blazers and bow ties, while all girls wear identical blue robes and garments that cover their hair. The uniforms, Larry added, are integral in teaching students how to follow orders and adhere to systems of discipline. He claimed that Muhammad University was part of the reason why many CPS middle schools now have uniform codes, though they are not nearly as strict as MUI’s.
In teaching them how to exercise self-restraint and self-mastery, the school hopes to secure boys and girls against the various dangers—gang life foremost among them—that exist on the South Side and in similar communities. It is with this program of discipline that MUI seeks to reach and change the community that surrounds it, and it is this element in the Nation’s teaching that Farrakhan claims makes it the best and only place for African-American people to turn.
“That’s what separates man from animals, actually, is civilization and discipline,” said Larry. “When the minister [Farrakhan] says that these [gang members] are soldiers, the media paints it a certain way, but then we stop and think and we say, ‘Hey, that makes sense.’ These are people who kill for a living. But as opposed to them fighting for what they’re fighting for, imagine if they were fighting for business, or for the clean, organized community we’re fighting for?”
Farrakhan considers the work of Muhammad University integral to the future of the Nation. As Larry explains it, it was actually teaching and education that first made Farrakhan a well-known public figure.
“The reason why the Minister is so effective dealing with our problems here is because he has a mind and approach like a Steve Jobs, someone who can take ideas, and grow, and expand,” said Larry. “Most people can’t do that, you know? The Minister has managed to stay relevant in 2014, and we’re talking about someone who was with Malcolm in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s something to that. CPS is struggling, and Muhammad University is going slowly, but we have a culture, we have a leader. [Farrakhan] is a teacher, his whole focus is education, learning, and that’s why he’s relevant.”
But MUI, like the rest of the Nation’s institutions, has had to change with the times, tailoring its disciplinary approach to the most visible problems of the day. The Nation’s drug recovery programs in the 1960s reached prisons and cities across America, and a substantial part of the Nation’s twenty-first century following consists of prison inmates. But gang and gun violence are systemic issues, and the school only reaches a few hundred kids, many of whom have already been raised within the Nation. For MUI and for Farrakhan, a local influence—even a powerful local influence—is not enough.
“They can’t operate on a small scale,” said White. “The essence of the organization is global.” He spoke of Chicago’s South Side as a kind of testing ground for the Nation’s programs and activities, but stressed that their ultimate ambition is to convert the country’s entire African-American population into the citizens of a new separatist state.
“It needs to be prevalent and widespread,” said Larry. “If Muhammad University was used as a model and was helped—and when you’re talking about help, you’re talking about resources—and we got the opportunity to affect more kids and build more schools, you would see a big change.” He suggested that the school might develop programs for adults, such as GED courses or classes taught in prisons. “Muhammad University is a huge deal, but it’s almost like Starbucks,” he said, gesturing to the Starbucks in which we were sitting. “Imagine having Starbucks with the popularity you have now, but you only have five. It wouldn’t be ideal for Starbucks or for the people. But yeah, it would make a big difference if we could affect more children, if we could have an impact on the prisons.”
But MUI is not Starbucks, and before it can reach millions of followers, it will have to convert them. Though the school may represent the Nation’s most significant effort to reach Chicago’s African-American communities, its impact in these communities remains limited. Unlike the Nation’s ministry, it has no Farrakhan to draw the country’s attention to its actions.
But the Nation’s ministry, too, may soon lack its last avenue into the mainstream media. As its charismatic leader grows older and more ill, it becomes ever more important for the Nation to preserve and pass down Farrakhan’s radical presentations of the word of Elijah Muhammad. Even now, at the Final Call, Nation members are working to catalog and synthesize all the talks given by Farrakhan and his disciples in the forty years Farrakhan has been at the Nation’s helm.
Larry, who joined the Nation of Islam in St. Louis at the age of nineteen and has been an administrator and teacher at the Chicago campus of Muhammad University since 1994, says MUI and the Nation could not exist as they are without Farrakhan as a central anchor and arbiter.
“The Minister’s not just a leader for the Nation, he’s a leader for the world, black, Hispanic, white, Asian,” Larry said. “I mean, he has people all over the world who follow him. What he’s doing and teaching, like anything, it has to be codified, it has to be institutionalized…Minister Farrakhan’s done thousands of lectures. When he’s gone, that’ll be the beginning of the work. All of that will have to be formalized and put into practice.”
At the time of writing, Farrakhan has just returned (along with the rest of the Nation’s top-level ministers and a significant portion of its members) from a ceremony in Jamaica commemorating the anniversary of the 1995 Million Man March, but in the past few years he has fallen seriously ill and become much less visible at the Nation’s events and ceremonies. The Nation is now at least nominally controlled by an executive committee of ministers, and at Mosque Maryam, Farrakhan has largely handed the weekly sermons off to Ishmael Muhammad, his student minister and second-in-command. Ishmael is generally acknowledged as Farrakhan’s most likely successor, but White noted that despite being a son of Elijah Muhammad, Ishmael has none of Farrakhan’s fiery charisma. Ishmael also has no claim to divine inspiration, whereas Farrakhan’s authority was legitimized in the 1980s when he allegedly received a spiritual vision from the late Elijah Muhammad.
As successor to Farrakhan, Ishmael will face the same challenges Farrakhan has faced so far in the twenty-first century: he will have to figure out how to keep the Nation visible in the communities where it is based and how to bring its doctrines and practices to the wider African-American population. If Ishmael cannot bolster the Nation’s already diminished relevance in both local and national spheres, Mosque Maryam will risk completely withdrawing into itself, maintaining a loyal group of followers but closing its gates on the South Side and the world.