He risked his life by leading tens of thousands of African Americans toward mainstream Islam
One of the least appreciated figures in American religious history is Wallace Deen Mohammed. He was the son of Elijah Muhammed, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam (which wasn’t really Islamic) When Elijah died W.D., the designated successor, shocked the followers by declaring that it was time to follow actual Islam.
Adapted from Sacred Liberty
In the early twentieth century, religious entrepreneurs attempted to appeal to African Americans by recalling the substantial Islamic presence among slaves. Timothy Drew, who took the name Noble Drew Ali, founded the Moorish Holy Temple of Science in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913, arguing that all African Americans were Moors, and Muslim. Claiming to be a Muslim prophet, he recruited adherents in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. The FBI tracked and harassed Ali in part because he was what they considered “a fanatic on the subject of equality for all races.” In Anderson, Indiana, agents seized the temple’s possessions and closed its offices.[
The group faded away after Noble Drew Ali died in 1929, but it likely influenced Wallace D. Fard, a silk peddler in Detroit, who created the Nation of Islam. Fard taught that American blacks descended from a tribe called Shabazz that whites had enslaved. He disappeared in 1934 and was replaced by an autoworker named Elijah Poole, who changed his name to Elijah Muhammad and would lead the Nation of Islam from 1934 until 1975. The Nation of Islam offered a powerful message of self-reliance and empowerment that attracted thousands of “black Muslims,” including Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Farrakhan. It also advanced an extreme, separatist mythology: that white people are devils created by an evil scientist named Yakub; that Wallace Fard had been God incarnate; and that blacks in America should establish their own separate nation.
The trajectory of the organization—and of Islam in America—took a sharp turn in 1975. On February 25 of that year, Elijah Muhammad died and was replaced by one of his sons, Wallace Deen Mohammed. That same day, W. D. went to the Nation of Islam’s temple on the South Side of Chicago to present himself to the world. He mourned his father, praised his greatness, and then revealed that he was going to make a few changes. He held up a copy of the Quran and said, “We have to take this down from the shelf.” Laying the groundwork for a historic shift, he declared, “What my father taught that is in this book, we will keep. What is not in this book, we have to give up.”[
Having read the Quran carefully while serving in prison for refusing military conscription, W. D. Mohammed moved to correct what he deemed the Nation of Islam’s mistaken or blasphemous theology. Wallace Fard was not God. The last prophet was Muḥammad, not W. D’s father, Elijah.
Within two years, the temples were renamed “mosques.” The pews were removed and replaced by prayer carpets. Quotations from the Quran, often in classical Arabic writing, began to adorn the walls. The ministers became imams and were asked to learn Arabic and brush up on their Quran. Adherents were encouraged to pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, try to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and read the holy book.[ He encouraged them to take Muslim surnames instead of using “X,” as most Nation of Islam members had.
W. D. Mohammed also required all of the mosques to add one more sacred object to the décor—an American flag. His New World Patriotism Day on July 4 in Chicago attracted baby-kissing pols of all colors and encouraged African American Muslims to “come into the American spirit and identify with the land and flag.” He endorsed the racial self-empowerment of the earlier Nation of Islam but recrafted the message: Islam was a way to reclaim their African roots. In many ways, his message was fairly conservative. Listen to W. D. Mohammed talk about family values: “Respect for life is lost when people do not keep healthy family values. Great nations have not toppled because society failed, but because the family institution failed.” Mohammed endorsed President George H. W. Bush in 1992.[
His most notable convert was Muhammad Ali. Many Americans were exposed to the Nation of Islam after the boxer Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and regularly thanked “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.” He refused induction into the military because of his Nation of Islam faith and was banned from boxing for three years. Ali’s religion was held in contempt by many Americans, including some in the media. The New York Times insisted on calling him Cassius Clay in more than one thousand articles after Ali announced the name change.] But Wallace Deen taught the boxer that the Nation of Islam ideology—including its racial separatism—was un-Islamic. “Wallace taught us the true meaning of the Quran,” Ali said later. “He showed that color don’t matter. He taught that we’re responsible for our own lives and it’s no good to blame our problems on other people. And that sounded right to me so I followed Wallace.” By the time he lit the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics, Ali was viewed as a world treasure, his religion no longer disqualifying him from iconic status.
After 9/11, Mohammed offered a clear-headed piece of advice to other American Muslims. “We should not look to the Muslim world any more for leadership,” he said. “The hope is not there. Don’t expect anything from these governments but more disappointment, until they repent.” He argued that the Quran and the Hadiths could guide American Muslims toward a truer form of the faith. “We see the world of Islam in the condition that it is in and that alone should make us more spirited, more courageous, more determined to establish a beautiful society of Muslims in America which is the highest mountain on earth in terms of government.”[
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Wallace Deen Mohammed risked his life in breaking away from the Nation of Islam. (Malcolm X was assassinated in part for following the same path.) As of mid-2018, about one-quarter of the roughly 3.4 million Muslims in the United States were African American, most of them practicing Sunni Islam rather than the theology of Elijah Muhammad. When W. D. Mohammed died, in 2008, he was the spiritual leader of about 185 mosques.[