Two books on Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam usefully complement each other. Magida, a journalist for the American Jewish press, delves into Farrakhan's life and stresses his tortuous relations with Jews. Gardell, a Swedish professor of theology, explores the Nation of Islam (NOI)'s religious side. While both books have significant faults, in part because they bend over too far in the attempt to be fair to Farrakhan, together they provide a more detailed and reliable picture than has previously been available.
As his title suggests, Magida structures his account around the biography of Farrakhan, telling about his growing up in Boston, succeeding as an entertainer, joining the NOI, competing with Malcolm X, involving himself in Malcolm's murder, and, to his disappointment, not succeeding to the leadership of the NOI upon Elijah Muhammad's death in February 1975. Farrakhan then felt increasingly alienated as the movement moved rapidly toward Sunni Islam; in November 1977, he finally announced the resurrection of the NOI. Since then, he has been the organization's top theologian, administrator, and spokesman. Magida reviews some of Farrakhan's record over the subsequent years (for example, his efforts to court mainstream black leaders), but focuses mostly on his complex relations with Jews. In addition to the well-known anti-Semitic comments (Judaism is a "dirty religion"), Farrakhan also shows the typical anti-Semite's fascination with things Jewish (for example, structuring the Million Man March along the lines of a Yom Kippur atonement).
Gardell's impressive research results in a far richer and more subtle account of the NOI and Farrakhan. Immersing himself in the writings of the movement and in much else related to it (such as its connections to the FBI, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, and rap musicians) he has produced an impressively thorough account. The study usefully covers other NOI branches, including the Lost Found Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation of Islam, and the Ansaaru Allah Community. Here's where to find out about the NOI's tentative moves toward mainstream Islam, its connections to American neo-Nazis, and its challenge to the black Christian churches. Gardell's book is highly unusual in one way: although the author has many strange and tendentious ideas (that Reagan planned "for a war on Libya" in 1986, that Farrakhan is not an anti-Semite, that a mistress of Elijah Muhammad's was his "Islamic wife," that the 1992 Rodney King riots were "the bloodiest uprising of the twentieth century"), he does not slant the evidence but scrupulously offers information that directly disproves his own arguments. Most readers of In the Name of Elijah Muhammad will want to read the study for its facts while keeping a distance from Gardell's conclusions.