It’s a busy morning during Saviours Day 2014 festivities, a four-day conference in downtown Detroit where thousands of Nation of Islam (NOI) members meet and mingle with a mix of social and spiritual conviction. Stacy Muhammad, an African American woman shrouded from head to toe in customary Islamic clothing, quickly engages the crowd inside a busy conference room. Amid a flurry of inquiries and questions, the 20-year member of the Nation of Islam accommodates guests who’ve come to see the event she helped organize, the NOI’s historical exhibit. “I’m a little nervous,” says Ms. Muhammad, a soft-spoken, reserved and well-mannered Muslim from Michigan.
The idea for such a showing gained steam in 2006, when close family and friends of the Nation of Islam’s highly regarded former leader, Elijah Muhammad, contacted the NOI community with stunning news. “They came forward and said look what we have,” says Ms. Muhammad. “They actually had in their possession boxes of historical information dating back to the early 1930s.” Those conversations were the catalyst behind the exhibition’s first showing during 2007 Saviours Day weekend in Detroit.
Over the years, the event has showcased prized items such as a Holy Quran owned by Elijah Muhammad, historic photos, old organizational uniforms and garments, paper documents and expensive collectables that were given to the NOI by leaders of foreign countries. “It’s important for us to tell our history and keep it in its purest sense,” says Ms. Muhammad.
This year’s exhibit featured diverse forms of media that meticulously document the religion’s rise. Hundreds of rare photographs, old newspaper clippings, taped speeches and archival film footage were on display. Colored prints of a young, hip and dapper Minister Louis Farrakhan -presumably in his 20’s- routinely created a buzz among curious onlookers. But perhaps the most intriguing photographs chronicle the NOI’s cross-cultural appeal and ethnic diversity. “We have a large population of Latinos,” says Ms. Muhammad. “We have images of Minister Farrakhan speaking to the Navajo Indian community. We have images of Latino Muslims represented here as well.”
Civil rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have criticized the Nation of Islam over the years, accusing the religion of anti-Semitic teachings and anti-white rhetoric. But Stacy Muhammad strongly disagrees with those claims, and hopes the NOI's exhibit can be used to combat negative perceptions about her faith. “People have gotten fixated on certain language without understanding the meanings. We invite them to come and learn,” says Ms. Muhammad. “For so many years other people have been writing our history. Unfortunately, when they write it, it always has a different twist. If you’re going to talk about our history, you got to tell it correctly.”
Since 2007, the historical exhibit has been an exclusive part of annual Saviours Day gatherings. But Stacy Muhammad hopes to see it on display more often. She would like the vast array of collectables, artifacts, photos, films, documents and clothing to make appearances at Nation of Islam mosques across the country. “We can take it and go city to city,” says Ms. Muhammad, as she smiles and reflects. “This isn’t just our history to keep for ourselves. We’re not an isolated group of people.”