The origins of Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the first Nation of Islam (NOI) mosque in the United States, are somewhat unclear. He was known by at least five other names: Wali Farad, Farrad Mohammed, F. Mohammed Ali, Wallace Dodd Fard, and Wallace Dodd Ford. The year of his birth is disputed (1877, 1891), as is his birthplace (Oregon, New Zealand, New York, Mecca, California, West Indies) and his ethnicity (British, Polynesian, Arab, African-American). The FBI identified him by his fingerprints as Wallie D. Ford, an ex-convict from Portland, Oregon. His common-law wife claimed that he was born in New Zealand to Polynesian and English parents. NOI contends that Wallace Fard Muhammad (WFM) was Allah himself, incarnated as the Savior of the Black Race, and thus celebrates February 26th, WFM’s putative birthday, as “Savior’s Day.”
WFM was in Detroit in 1930, working as a door-to-door salesman peddling what he claimed were African silks to the city’s large black population, when he founded the Nation of Islam. He exhorted blacks to “return” to Islam, which he and NOI characterized as “the religion of their ancestors.”
WFM’s “theology” had little in common with traditional Islam, virtually ignoring the Five Pillars of the faith (acceptance of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, and the Koran; the observance of Ramadan; charity to the poor; making the hajj; and daily prayer). It focused instead on an elaborate myth in which a renegade black scientist named Yakub had created the white race 6,000 years earlier as both a curse and a test for the black master race. According to WFM, the black tribe of the Shabazz, despite a 66 trillion-year head start over the upstarts, was overcome by the inferior white race and its enslaving religion, Christianity.
That WFM was able to find listeners, let alone converts, speaks volumes about his target audience and the tenor of his times. Black separatist movements had become embedded in the intellectual landscape of the 1920s: Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association advocated black self-reliance and a return to Africa. Timothy Drew’s Moorish Temple of Science insisted on the Asiatic, Islamic origin of the black race and had fostered esoteric doctrines of black supremacy. And blacks who had migrated north to find employment in factories and on railroads, and to escape the South’s repressive Jim Crow laws and the re-emergent KKK, found themselves deprived of the deep cultural and spiritual roots of their churches and their homes. Consequently by 1930, as the Great Depression began to exact its toll on workers of all classes, some found hope in WFM’s racist cant.
By 1934, WFM’s Detroit temple had 8,000 members. Among his most important converts was Elijah Poole, an alcoholic grade-school dropout who eventually would become Elijah Muhammad. WFM sent the latter to Chicago to establish a second NOI temple (after having spent three years instructing him).
Some claim that Elijah Muhammad was entirely responsible for the identification of WFM with Allah, an identification employed to strengthen Elijah Muhammad’s own position in NOI as apostle-designate and successor to divinity incarnate.
In Detroit, WFM’s limited credibility with city authorities was severely tested by several run-ins with the law. In 1932 an NOI member confessed to murdering a man in a voodoo-type ritual allegedly sponsored by NOI. WFM himself was arrested at least three times and finally left Michigan for Chicago, where he was arrested again in 1933. He disappeared permanently after that, although his common-law wife claimed that he had visited her in Portland before migrating to New Zealand.