Since the seventh century, Islamic culture has provided positive contributions to human efforts to expand knowledge. History records Muslims' notable mathematical, literary, and architectural contributions to the Western world. In fact, the West owes its numerical system to the Arabs. It is, therefore, not completely unexpected that an African American religious group, the Nation of Islam (hereinafter, “the Nation”), that was founded upon pseudo-Islamic principles, would have the education of its members as a primary objective.
The emphasis on education in the Nation began with the “scientific teachings”—a type of numerology—of the group's founder, W. Fard (Fard Muhammad), which was continued by his chief disciple, Elijah Poole (Elijah Muhammad). The latter codified the teachings of the former into catechisms entitled Actual Facts and Student Enrollment, which contained, among other things, basic mathematical “facts” about the Earth and the universe. As part of their initiation, adult members of the Nation were expected to be good students and to memorize the catechism. Prospective members of the Nation were not granted membership until they displayed the ability to read and write; they were required to prepare and submit a letter requesting admission to the Nation.
Formal education—that is, elementary and secondary education—played an intriguing role in the Nation's early history. During the early 1930s, when the Nation was in its nascent stage in Detroit, Michigan, Elijah Muhammad and other Nation officials were arrested on charges of contributing to the delinquency of minors. They refused to place the children of members of the Nation in Detroit's public school system; the children were participating in an educational program in the Nation's “University of Islam,” which provided basic elementary and secondary educational instruction. Their arrests created an uproar in Detroit, but it was resolved when the State of Michigan and the Detroit public school system granted accreditation to the Nation's school.
During the early 1940s, when Elijah Muhammad was arrested and served 4 years in prison for refusing to register for the World War II draft, his wife and leader of the Nation during his incarceration, Clara Muhammad, helped maintain and extend the Nation's operations, including Universities of Islam.
With the help of Malcolm X, who joined in the 1950s, the Nation increased the number of its congregations dramatically during the 1960s. In the early 1970s, more than 40 Universities of Islam were in operation; some of these schools operated curricula comparable to those of public schools, while others were weekend instructional programs.
Universities of Islam maintained a curriculum that included the following courses: the 3Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), English, speech, biological and chemical sciences, geography, world civilizations, African American History, arts, crafts, drilling, Arabic, and Islamic Studies—mainly Elijah Muhammad's principles and philosophies. Extracurricular activities included sewing and jewelry making; school sports other than for physical fitness were shunned. Certain Universities of Islam followed a nearly year-round schedule, with classes lasting for approximately one-half day. Students wore uniforms reflecting a conservative dress code. These schools prepared students to enter college and to train in key fields that were open to African Americans during that era. For males, it was agriculture, business, and engineering; for females it was teaching, home economics, and nursing.
In 1975, when Elijah Muhammad died, his son Wallace D. (W. Deen) Muhammad assumed leadership of the Nation. The latter faced opposition for his effort to transform the Nation into a more orthodox Islamic religious group. In 1978, Louis Farrakhan, a longtime spokesperson for the Nation, split with W. Deen Muhammad, and the two headed up separate organizations: W. Deen Muhammad led the World Community of al-Islam in the West, while Farrakhan reconstituted a Nation of Islam group. Both leaders continued to emphasize the importance of education, and the two organizations continued to operate elementary and secondary educational institutions. The World Community of al-Islam in the West renamed its schools Sister Clara Muhammad schools, in honor of W. Deen Muhammad's mother. The new Nation of Islam continued to refer to its schools as Universities of Islam.
During the first decade of the 21st century, W. Deen Mohammed's (he revised the spelling of his name) group reported that at least 18 Sister Clara Mohammed Schools were in operation, while Farrakhan's Nation of Islam reported that 11 Universities of Islam were operational.
Clara Muhammad Schools, Religious-Based Education
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