Review: The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad

The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad by Karl Evanzz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much of what was said about Clegg’s book An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad can be said here, for more see my review of his work at the link above.

Karl Evanzz packs an explosive amount of information into this volume. Much more than a mere analysis of Elijah the Movement or Elijah the Man, Evanzz attempts to set the context in which the NOI developed, chronicling Elijah’s life, and attempting to draw connections between the movements and men that surrounded him. He covers the Moorish Science Temple connection, something that Clegg completely disregards. While there does seem to be sizable evidence that Elijah was a member, I find it hard to believe that is was as life changing or such a source of solace as Evanzz’ prose would make you think. If that was the case, and Elijah was such a devoted member, he probably would have heard of the schism in leadership after Drew Ali’s demise. If he had heard of it, then how could Fard be such a mystery man to him, given that Fard was a supposed successor (however nominal) to Drew Ali?

While both Evanzz and Clegg draw on UNIA influence and mention other messianic figures and movements that preceded the NOI, and Evanzz draws on MSTA connections, no connection whatsoever is made to the early predecessor to both the UNIA and the MSTA, that being Duse Muhammad Ali’s Universal Islamic Society established in 1926 in Detroit. Sunni currents present in the US are underscored in Clegg’s work, while Evanzz makes hardly a mention of them, much less highlighting Sunni opposition to the NOI as Clegg does. Instead, he present Elijah and the NOI as attempting to court foreign favor and funding. This last point is but contradictory, and warrants further analysis. Why would they court foreign powers, yet espouse do-for-self? Why would, if Clegg’s depiction of vehement Sunni opposition to NOI doctrine in public is true, would such foreign power’s believe Elijah Muhammad over one of their own, such as Jamil Diab? I feel that Malcolm X here factors into the equation much more than is let on, and that it was probably his insistence that lead to these meetings, not Elijah himself. Add to that that Malcolm quickly reconnected with these people after excommunication, and the picture becomes clearer. It may be, as is suggested about Ernest X McGee (Hamas Abdul Khaalis), that there was a nascent Sunni under current in the NOI, one that sought to change things from the inside out.
This point is lost on the author and he doesn’t fully hash out the ramifications of some of his suppositions, however plausible as understood from the sources, and their effects on his work. Had he handled this and other points as he did with Joseph Gravitt Jr.’s (aka Joseph X aka Yusuf Shah) usurpation of power on the NOI’s East coast, and his ability to blackmail Elijah based on what he knew of his involvement with the MSTA along with Gravitt Sr., more sense could have been made of this episode and an inner window into the reality of Elijah’s relationship with WD Fard would become clearer.

Was the relationship between the two really the hero-worship and eventual deification that became NOI canon, or was it a ruse invented by Fard and Elijah to take advantage of down and out Blacks in depression era Detroit?

Contextualization is a strong point of the book; at times when reading Clegg’s work I was unable to relate to the reasons why certain things were while in Evanzz’ work the rhyme and reason is easily discernible. Clegg’s work almost wholly whitewashes the Black power struggle post-Malcolm/Martin, while Evanzz goes into great detail, almost burdensome at times. However burdensome Evanzz’ context might seem, is adds to a holistic view of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI in historical, ideological, and theological context.

For example: Why would a such strong connection be drawn between Asian cultures, and particularly the Japanese, when discussing worldly retribution against the White race?

Obviously, one can just accept NOI theology on the issue, but the context in which these connections were drawn informs us of so much more; a Japanese agent (Takahashi) working to drum up support for the Japanese war effort and cause sedition against the Allied powers was actively influencing Black nationalist movements with rhetoric and financial support. Add to that news of flying saucers and Japanese air power, and a recipe for a highly suggestive narrative is born.
This whole dimension of Elijah’s life is left unexplored in Clegg’s work, where he characterizes Elijah’s days on the run as a result of personal power struggles between him and other Fard followers. Evanzz’ brings much more detail, showing Elijah’s hegira to be a culmination of his claims to prophecy and succession which other WD Fard followers rejected along with his revisionist theology of Fard’s nature, as well as a result of government persecution and pursuit for draft evasion and sedition (a result of his dealings with Takahashi).

This Asian connection, along with the supposition that WD Fard was actually of partial South Asian origin, shows clearly why Fard would describe himself as an “Asiatic” Black man and the effect this would have on NOI theology as a whole.

Evanzz capitalizes on the FBI files on Elijah, Clara, and all the surrounding cast of the NOI and rival organizations. Of course this is used as reason to reject his conclusions by some, and the fact that Evanzz doesn’t make his disdain for Elijah and his inner circle a secret certainly does not offer any support to the veracity of his claims. The FBI and police files used do however give very interesting insight into Elijah and his movement, and is almost the sole source for information on WD Fard’s connection to the movement outside of NOI canon.

Fard’s identity is explored in some detail, and interesting facts are mentioned from non-governmental sources. For instance, Elijah contends that Fard gave him an English translation of the Quran from Pakistan, but Pakistan didn’t exist until the early 50’s. While neither Clegg nor Evanzz make the connection, Elijah’s more than spurious travels to Pakistan from the 50’s then on seems to lend credence to either Fard’s presence there, or at least the connection that the NOI had early on with the Indo-Pak world (specifically Ahmadiyya movement therein). Evanzz deduces that Elijah’s statements exhibit an on-going relationship between the entire Muhammad family and Fard, to the exclusion of Malcolm X. Claims are even made that Fard remained in the US, and Hamas Abdul Khaalis’ statement that Fard was present and known to James Shabazz and others is used to give credence to this claim, along with the involvement of people using some of Fard’s aliases around the same times and places presented. If his presence was known, but Malcolm X was kept outside of this Fard-ian inner-circle, what would the reasons be? Would not Elijah want Malcolm, whom he considered to be the son he never had, to meet that man (nay god) whom had been the source for both his and Malcolm’s transformation? If not, is this evidence of greater collusion?

Evanzz’ splices his literally style with fact, narrative, and a bit of vitriol. He goes into much more detail about Elijah’s affairs, mentioning intimate details not covered by Clegg. He characterizes Clara Muhammad’s indignation of her husband’s actions, and presents her feelings in a very personable way. Family life (or lack thereof) is explored in more detail, with Elijah’s children being setup for materially by their father but being made wholly dependent on him for any means of success outside the NOI. WD Muhammad’s struggle with his father is gone into in much more detail than Clegg, as is Akbar Muhammad’s interactions and subsequent departure from the NOI.

His corrosive tone increases towards the end of the book, especially when surfaces. One point is clear, if Malcolm’s demise meant the end of righteousness and discipline in the NOI, then the rise of Louis Farrakhan nee Wilcott signals their end. He all but indicts the later of ordering for Malcolm X’s assassination and insinuates his involvement of the festering of the criminal element within the NOI. Despite this he only passingly covers Elijah’s complacency to this element, and instead focuses on how the largest Black nationalist movement in the USA was increasingly being run by whites, a clear contradiction and what some saw as blatant hypocrisy.

His tone settles when dealing with Elijah towards the end of the book, where he almost seems to present him as a man whom both time and bad health had whittled away at, characterizing him as softening on his separatist and racist beliefs. Several instances, other than Elijah’s famous Savior’s Day remarks on whites, exhibit some sort of repentant tone.

The author instead places the onus of blame on Elijah’s followers as being responsible for destroying his legacy. The only one to escape this is his son WD Muhammad, whom he credits with being the only credible person to represent Elijah’s legacy, not in theological terms, but in having stayed true to the essential do-for-self methodology first espoused by his father, while all others simply denigrated into selfish opportunists insistent on bilking their followers.

This is an essential work on the subject, but is marred at times by stylistics and emotions that peek through the facts and assumptions. Another low point is the haphazard quoting of facts and statements before introducing, or re-introducing, the person involved; this leaves the reader at an immediate loss, and sends him scurrying to reconnect with previous pages and chapters; Clegg’s work does not face this problem even once.

Both books offer a wealth of information and personalities that deserve their own works or compilations. Evanzz’ is a good addition to Clegg’s work, but if your goal is to gain a more holistic idea of who Elijah Muhammad was, it should be just that: an addition to Clegg, not a replacement.

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