The spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam (the Black Muslims), the “Messenger of Allah” was born Elijah Poole in Georgia in 1897. From the beginning, he was a sensitive child, one who seemed to love learning.
In 1931, he met Master W. D. Fard, founder of the Nation of Islam, in Detroit. Elijah Poole became a ministerial student of Fard and, before long, took the name Elijah Karriem. When Master Fard disappeared in 1934, Karriem was renamed Elijah Muhammad and became Fard’s successor as leader of the Nation of Islam. Because of the jealousy of other ministers, he was forced to flee from city to city, and in 1942, he was imprisoned for draft evasion. Upon his release in 1946, he became undisputed head of the Nation of Islam.
The characterization of Elijah Muhammad in the book falls into two distinct parts. In passages written before Malcolm’s split with the Nation of Islam, he is depicted as a dedicated, selfless servant of his people, devoted to freeing the black man from the white “devils.” To Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad was his personal savior. It was primarily he who lifted Malcolm out of the depths of ignorance and crime while in prison. Therefore, he is depicted as being nearly perfect — and above criticism.
But after Malcolm’s “divorce” from the Nation of Islam, a new picture of Elijah Muhammad begins to emerge. Malcolm’s disillusionment with the Black Muslims was partially due to the Muhammad’s unfaithfulness to his own moral codes. It becomes increasingly clear to Malcolm, and through him to the reader during the latter stages of the book, that Elijah Muhammad is nothing more than a self-serving hypocrite, feeding off the false hopes of his followers. His eagerness to seize upon Malcolm’s “biblical” interpretation of his sins is perhaps the best evidence of this. The final impression of Muhammad is of a cunning old man who will stop at nothing, including the murder of his most faithful and trusted lieutenant, to achieve his ends.