The NOI was founded in Detroit in 1930, by Wallace Fard Muhammad, also known as W. D. Fard Muhammad. His goal, according to the Nation of Islam, was to "teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough Knowledge of God and of themselves, and to put them on the road to Self-Independence with a superior culture and higher civilization than they had previously experienced." According to the NOI, Fard chose Elijah Muhammad to be his assistant in 1931. According to Muhammad, Fard trained him daily for nine months, then less frequently for about two years. In May 1933, shortly after naming Elijah Muhammad Minister of Islam, Fard disappeared without notifying his followers or designating a successor. In the wake of Fard's disappearance, several potential leaders emerged. Muhammad asserted that Fard had selected him to be his successor and trained him "day and night" for three years. He argued that Fard was God incarnate, and that Fard had revealed this to him alone. Muhammad established a newspaper, The Final Call to Islam, initially referring to Fard as a prophet and later as Almighty God. He prevailed over his rivals as leader.
In 1942, during World War II, Elijah Muhammad was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act and jailed. Many other Nation of Islam members were similarly charged, as NOI opposed serving in the United States military. Upon his release in 1946, Elijah Muhammad slowly built up the membership of his movement through recruitment in the postwar decades. His program called for the establishment of a separate nation for black Americans and the adoption of a religion based on the worship of Allah and on the belief that blacks were his chosen people.
During this time, the Nation of Islam attracted Malcolm Little. While in prison in Boston for burglary from 1946 to 1952, Little joined the Nation of Islam. He was influenced by his brother, Reginald, who had become a member in Detroit. Little quit smoking, gambling and eating pork, in keeping with the Nation's practices and dietary restrictions. He spent long hours reading books in the prison library. He sharpened his oratory skills by participating in debating classes. Following Nation tradition, Elijah Muhammad ordered him to replace his surname, "Little", with an "X", a custom among Nation of Islam followers who considered their surnames to have been imposed by white slaveholders after their African names were taken from them. The X was meant to represent a lot "lost heritage and a personal unknown history."
Malcolm X rose rapidly to become a minister and national spokesperson for the NOI. He is largely credited with the group's dramatic increase in membership between the early 1950s and early 1960s (from 500 to 25,000 by one estimate; from 1,200 to 50,000 or 75,000 by another). In March 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation due to disagreements with Elijah Muhammad; among other things, Malcolm X cited his interest in working with other civil rights leaders, saying that Muhammad had prevented him from doing so in the past. Later, Malcolm X also said Muhammad had engaged in extramarital affairs with young Nation secretaries—a serious violation of Nation teachings. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York. In March 1966, three NOI members were convicted of assassinating Malcolm X.
A crowd of Muslims applaud during Elijah Muhammad's annual Saviors' Day
message in Chicago in 1974
In 1955, Louis Wolcott joined the Nation of Islam. Following custom, he also replaced his surname with an "X". He was given his new name, "Farrakhan", by Elijah Muhammad. In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Farrakhan emerged as the protege of Malcolm. Like his predecessor, Farrakhan was a dynamic, charismatic leader and a powerful speaker with the ability to appeal to the African-American masses.
At the time of Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, there were 75 NOI centers across America. The Nation's leadership chose Wallace Muhammad, also known as Warith Deen Mohammad, the fifth of Elijah's sons—not Farrakhan—as the new Supreme Minister. At the time, Nation of Islam was founded upon the principles of self-reliance and black supremacy, a belief that mainstream Muslims consider heretical. He shunned his father's theology and black pride views, forging closer ties with mainstream Muslim communities in an attempt to transition the Nation of Islam into orthodoxy more similar to Sunni Islam. Under W. D. Mohammed's leadership, the Nation of Islam decentralized into many bodies of followers led by many different leaders. This made it hard to track the exact number of NOI members, but it is estimated to have been in the tens of thousands.
In 1977, Farrakhan resigned from Wallace Muhammad's reformed organization. He worked to rebuild the Nation of Islam upon the original foundation established by Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan traveled across America speaking in cities to gain new followers. Over time, Farrakhan regained many of the Nation of Islam's original properties. There are now mosques and study groups in over 120 American cities attributed to Farrakhan's work as a leader.
In 1995, the Nation of Islam sponsored the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. to promote African-American unity and family values. Estimates of the number of marchers were between 400,000 and 840,000. Under Farrakhan's leadership, the Nation of Islam tried to redefine the standard "black male stereotype" of drug and gang violence. Meanwhile, the Nation continued to promote social reform in African-American communities according to its traditional goals of self-reliance and economic independence.
Under Farrakhan's leadership, the Nation was one of the fastest-growing political movements in the country. Foreign branches of the Nation were formed in Ghana, London, Paris, and the Caribbean islands. In order to strengthen the international influence of the Nation, Farrakhan attempted to establish relations with Muslim countries. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991 and had a near-death experience in 2000 due to complications. After that, Farrakhan toned down the politics of the NOI and attempted to strengthen its relations with other minority communities, including Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.
On May 8, 2010, Farrakhan publicly announced his embrace of Dianetics and has actively encouraged Nation of Islam members to undergo auditing from the Church of Scientology.
Since the announcement in 2010, the Nation of Islam has hosted its own Dianetics courses and its own graduation ceremonies. At the third such ceremony, which was held on Saviours' Day 2013, it was announced that nearly 8500 members of the organization had undergone Dianetics auditing. The organization announced it had graduated 1,055 auditors and had delivered 82,424 hours of auditing. The graduation ceremony was certified by the Church of Scientology, and the Nation of Islam members received certification. The ceremony was attended by Shane Woodruff, vice-president of the Church of Scientology's Celebrity Centre International. He stated that, "[t]he unfolding story of the Nation of Islam and Dianetics is bold, [i]t is determined and it is absolutely committed to restoring freedom and wiping hell from the face of this planet."