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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

An unlikely prophet

A vivid but uneven portrait of the founder of the Nation of Islam

By Jack E. White

Time magazine

December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)

Ever since the Nation of Islam was founded in the 1930s, its members have lived by the slogan "Those who say don't know, and those who know don't say." In his new biography of the sect's enigmatic former leader, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (Pantheon Books; 667 pages; $29), Karl Evanzz aims to pierce that veil of secrecy but misses the mark.

Drawn largely from files obtained from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act, The Messenger contains new revelations about the transformation of Elijah Poole, a semiliterate refugee from the Jim Crow South, into the self-styled Messenger of Allah who preached that whites were "blue-eyed devils." It is, as Evanzz writes, a tale "as incredible and multidimensional as that of his most important and loyal disciple, Malcolm Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X."

Or could have been, in the hands of a more skillful writer. Evanzz, an online editor for the Washington Post, has a nose for scoops. He establishes beyond all doubt that Wallace D. Fard, the mysterious silk salesman who convinced Muhammad that he was the embodiment of Allah on earth, was actually a New Zealand-born petty criminal. Evanzz adds fresh--if overblown--detail to the Muslims' pre-World War II entanglement with Satahota Takahashi, a shadowy radical who persuaded Muhammad that with Allah's blessing "the Japanese will slaughter the white man." Evanzz even provides snatches of FBI tapes of Muhammad bickering with his wife Clara over his philandering, which produced 13 out-of-wedlock children by seven different Muslim women.

The Messenger would have benefited from thorough editing. It is littered with clunky metaphors and minor errors, such as Evanzz's assertion that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed with a shotgun, not a high-powered rifle, that undermine its credibility. Those seeking a definitive biography of the Muslim leader should turn to Claude Andrew Clegg III's 1997 study, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, which covers most of the same ground but in a scholarly and far more convincing way.

--By Jack E. White


Cover Date: December 13, 1999

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