Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 3


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 3

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 13, Autumn 2008

The Prophet in Detroit: Fard Muhammad and the Origins of the Nation of Islam

Dawn-Marie Gibson
© Dawn-Marie Gibson. All Rights Reserved


The Nation of Islam (NOI) has been the subject of few scholarly critiques. Published works on the NOI rely heavily on secondary source material and often focus exclusively on Malcolm X or Louis Farrakhan. Moreover, the NOI’s founder, Fard Muhammad, has received little scholarly attention in exiting studies of the NOI. This article seeks to begin to address this deficit.

Fard Muhammad founded the NOI in Detroit in July 1930.[1] His Islamic doctrine borrowed from the Black Nationalist tradition of Marcus Garvey and the pseudo Islamic teachings of Noble Drew Ali. Fard attracted a following of nearly 8,000 in Detroit by 1933. However, at the height of his success, Fard abandoned the NOI, disappearing from Detroit and leaving his followers without a successor. Fard’s NOI has become the longest surviving Islamic cult in the African American community. Fard’s influence on the development of the NOI has been significant, despite the fact that virtually nothing is known or documented about him. Following his mysterious disappearance from Detroit, numerous theories about the true identity and affiliations of the NOI’s founder have been formed. The recent declassification of the FBI’s extensive files on Fard Muhammad and the NOI has reignited debate over the identity of the NOI’s founder. This article will provide an analysis and examination of existing schools of thought on the identity and affiliations of Fard Muhammad and challenge elements of each of the arguments set forth. It will also outline the eclectic philosophy of the NOI’s founder and examine the formative years of his cult, something that has been neglected by scholars.

The Schools of Thought

In 1963 a Nigerian scholar, Essien-Udom, began conducting extensive research on the NOI in Chicago and New York. Essien-Udom’s book, Black Nationalism: A search for Identity in America (1964) posited the first informed theory on the identity and affiliations of Fard Muhammad. Essien-Udom conducted a plethora of both formal and informal interviews with the NOI’s then leader, Elijah Muhammad, and his followers. The interviews that Essien-Udom carried out with NOI converts and Elijah Muhammad enabled him to gain insight into the eclectic religious philosophy of the cult, something that had long eluded outsiders. The fact that Essien-Udom was able to secure interviews with Elijah Muhammad is significant, given that Muhammad traditionally delegated such chores to his National Minister, Malcolm X.[2]

The eclectic amalgam of Black Nationalism and pseudo Islam that the NOI taught convinced Essien-Udom that the NOI’s founder had married the Black Nationalist tradition of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with the quasi-Islamic teachings of North America’s first Islamic cult, the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) in order to manufacture his own ‘home-cooked’ ideology. The high-regard in which Elijah Muhammad held both Garvey and Ali apparently aided Essien-Udom’s conclusions. In one of many interviews with Elijah Muhammad, he quoted the Islamic leader as having stated that:

I have always had a very high opinion of both the late Noble Drew Ali and Marcus Garvey and admired their courage in helping our people…The followers of Noble drew Ali and Marcus Garvey should now follow me and co-operate with us in our work because we are only trying to finish up what those before us started.[3]

Interview generated research further convinced the Nigerian scholar that the NOI had emerged as a splinter group of the MSTA and that Fard had likely been one of the many members of the MSTA to launch a succession bid when its leader, Noble Drew Ali, died in mysterious circumstances in July 1929.[4]

No published history of the MSTA exists, and with the exception of Arthur Fauset’s, ‘Black Gods of the Metropolis (1974), a study of several sects, including the MSTA, little is known about the cult. In his study of African American Christian and Islamic sects in North America, Fauset provides a short account of the MSTA’s birth and the character of its leader. According to Fauset, Noble Drew Ali was born Timothy Drew in 1886 in North Carolina. He founded the MSTA in Newark in 1913 as something of an ‘Islamic’ alternative to the spate of Christian sects in Chicago and other Northern states. Ali opened the headquarters of the MSTA in 1925 in Chicago, where he had gathered a significant following. He taught that salvation for African Americans lay in the discovery of their own national origin and encouraged his converts to attach the term ‘el’ or ‘bey’ to the surnames. Fauset notes that Ali taught from a Koran, consisting of sixty-four pages, that his followers were forbidden to read. His leadership in the MSTA was contested in 1929 when one of his followers, Claude Green, launched a bid to overthrow him. Green is reported to have died on 15 March 1929. Ali was arrested on suspicion of Green’s death but released soon after without charge. Ali died just weeks after his incarceration. The cause of Ali’s death was disputed amongst his followers, with some believing that their leader’s death was the result of injuries he sustained in prison.[5] The MSTA was gripped by power struggles in the immediate aftermath of Ali’s death, with several or more members claiming to be the re-incarnation of Ali.

Essien-Udom’s belief that the NOI grew out of a faction of the MSTA is well founded. The FBI’s extensive surveillance file on Fard Muhammad contains at least one reference to Fard’s activities in the MSTA. An informant at the time was noted as having stated that a man, known to Ali’s converts as Fard, had been ‘…instrumental in having many members leave the MSTA and affiliate themselves with a group which he referred to as the Muslims’.[6] Fard Muhammad was incarcerated at San Quentin penitentiary in June 1926 for dabbling in narcotics and released in May 1929.[7] If Essien-Udom is correct, Fard would have entered the MSTA just weeks before Ali’s death; in time to make himself known to cult members as a follower of Ali.

Essien-Udom’s theory is one of the most plausible schools of thought on the identity and affiliations of the NOI’s founder. Despite the fact that Essien-Udom lacked enough evidence at the time to prove his theory, many researchers have supported his conclusions. A much less plausible theory on Fard Muhammad’s identity and affiliations was suggested by Howard Brotz, author of The Black Jews of Harlem (1964). Brotz’s suggestion that Arnold Josiah Ford of the UNIA and active member of the Black Jews of Harlem, also known as the Commandment Keepers, and Fard Muhammad are ‘one and the same’ is severely flawed.[8] Robert A. Hill’s extensive papers on Marcus Garvey and the UNIA reveal that Arnold Josiah Ford was born in Barbados in 1877 and served as a ‘composer, musician, linguist and theologian’ in the UNIA.[9] Ford had regular disputes with Garvey, in large part, due to Garvey’s apparent favouritism for West Indian members in the UNIA and his refusal to accept Islam as the official religion of the UNIA.[10] Disillusioned with the UNIA and the Black Jews of Harlem, Ford repatriated to Ethiopia where he died in 1935.[11]

Garvey’s alleged favouritism towards West Indian members of the UNIA is something that has been noted by numerous scholars, including Nicholas Patsides, who argues that tensions between West Indian immigrants and African Americans spiralled in the 1920s as a result of Garvey’s economic philosophy:

Despite the relocation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association to New York City, Garvey continued to speak predominantly to West Indians at home and abroad, since he shared their colonial mentality and understood their migrant ideology—the search for economic gain abroad in order to multiply options back home. Garvey scholars have argued that black Americans benefited from Garvey rhetoric as much as West Indian migrants, but tensions between the two communities suggest that black Americans did not think so. Garveyism served to accentuate economic rivalries as black Americans suspected that migrants wanted to transfer their material success back home—indeed, Garvey openly encouraged as much.[12]

Brotz’s theory appears to have been informed solely by rumours that Fard had used the alias ‘Ford’ during the 1920s, he was known for example in Detroit as Professor Ford Muhammad. The research contained in Hill’s papers, however, prove Brotz’s theory incorrect.

Marcus Garvey is a controversial and contentious figure the history of pan-Africanism. Garvey’s UNIA was a successor movement to the nineteenth century back-to-Africa crusades. Garvey established the headquarters of the UNIA in New York in 1916 where he became a popular ‘race leader’ with the African American proletariat. Garvey argued in favour of establishing a ‘New Faith’, that was in essence Christian, minus its European connotations. In a speech at Liberty Hall in New York City in August 1929, Garvey outlined his belief that African Americans should establish their own faith:

‘God tells us to worship a God in our own image’, said he. ‘We are Black and to be in our image God must be black. Our people have been lynched and burned in the South because we have been worshipping a false God. But what can you expect when you have adopted the idolism of another race? We must create a God of our own and give this new religion to the Negroes of the World’.[13]

Garvey’s deportation in 1927 effectively crippled the UNIA and it soon fell into disarray. However, Garvey’s Black Nationalist philosophy continued to penetrate the African American community for decades after his deportation, offering the inspiration behind several Black Nationalist groups, including the NOI.

Scholarly research on the NOI in the late 1990s benefited from the declassification of FBI surveillance files on the cult and its leaders. The FBI files provided researchers with an abundance of new material to explore on the origins of the NOI, its maturity and the nature of its internal politics. The declassification of the FBI’s extensive file on Fard Muhammad provided a fresh insight into the actual identity and arcane character of the NOI’s founder. Fresh research saw a number of researchers, including The Washington Post, staff writer, Karl Evanzz, congregate around FBI sources, to support notions that Fard Muhammad was a fraudulent profiteer.

The FBI proved eager to find information that could prove Fard to have been a racketeer in the hope of discrediting the religious philosophy of the NOI:

If any further record of, or information concerning Ford is located, it should be thoroughly and imaginatively pursued to its logistical conclusion from all available records and / or possible witnesses. Any information developed concerning the actual origins or identity of W.D. Fard will tend to disprove the philosophy of the NOI and can lead to a better understanding of that organization by agents investigating the NOI.[14]

The documentation that the FBI released on Fard Muhammad reveal him to be a charlatan who willingly abandoned his wife and infant child in pursuit of a financially profitable career in cults and narcotics. The FBI had arrest records for him in 1918, 1926 and 1933.[15] The fact that Fard provided false accounts of his background, age and race when interviewed by local police departments in Los Angeles and Detroit exacerbated the FBI’s difficulties in tracing his origins. Tracing Fard Muhammad’s actual origins, history and, location after 1933 proved to be a financially taxing task for the FBI and they twice abandoned the investigation.[16] The bureau failed, despite extensive efforts, to locate an authentic birth certificate for Fard. In the absence of authentic legal documents, bureau agents began to conduct numerous interviews with those individuals who had wrote to Fard during his time at San Quentin Penitentiary, including his former common law wife, Hazel Barton. Barton was interviewed by the FBI on numerous occasions throughout 1957. Whilst investigative officers failed to point out discrepancies in her account at the time, the frequent inconsistencies in Barton’s narrative seriously injure the credibility of her status as a then highly prized witness. When she was first contacted by the FBI, for example, she made a point of stating that Fard had ‘sent her considerable amounts of money from time to time’; she then relinquished her statement to read that ‘when Ford did write he said that he had no money to send’.[17]

Barton emerges from the pages of the FBI’s reports as a woman uncertain of her former husband’s true identity. She relayed to the FBI, for example, that she had met Fard or ‘Ford’, as he was known to her, in 1919 whilst he was running a café on 347 South Flower Street in Los Angeles. Soon after meeting, Hazel began an affair with Ford and gave birth to his son Wallace Max Ford in 1920.[18] She described Fard as ‘male, white New Zealander, exact age unknown’.[19] Hazel’s suspicion that Fard had been born in New Zealand rested, solely, on the fact that she had known him to receive and write letters addressed to and from New Zealand.[20] In his much publicised book, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (1999) Karl Evanzz took Barton’s account at face value, relaying to his readers, in spite of substantiation, that Fard was born in New Zealand on 25 February 1893.[21] Evanzz, however, fails to provide his readers with a reference for the source of his revelation. In correspondence with Evanzz, he commented that Fard had told his wife he was born in New Zealand and that he had calculated Fard’s date of birth from police photographs he obtained from San Francisco.[22] Evanzz went on to claim that, furthermore Elijah Muhammad had once stated that Fard had been born in 1893.[23]

That Fard told his wife he was born in New Zealand is a misnomer. Barton told the FBI in 1957 that she suspected Fard to have been born there because he received letters from the country. Furthermore Fard Muhammad was known to have repeatedly provided police departments with false accounts of his date of birth, therefore San Francisco police photographs with Fard’s, alleged, date of birth are more than likely inaccurate. That Elijah Muhammad claimed Fard to have been born in 1893 is highly unlikely. Elijah Muhammad maintained throughout his forty year reign the NOI that Fard had been born in 1877 and the FBI largely accepted this date.[24] Furthermore, the Department for Internal Affairs in New Zealand have no record of Fard’s birth, death, or that of his alleged parents, Beatrice and Zared Ford.[25]

The last notable school of thought on Fard Muhammad’s identity and affiliations was suggested by Karl Evanzz. Evanzz’s belief that Fard Muhammad used the alias of George Farr whilst in the UNIA is well founded.[26] That Fard was a disciple of Garvey is widely suspected and in this regard Evanzz’s theory is not new. In the numerous interviews that informants carried out with UNIA members, George Farr appears to have been one of the most recalcitrant; his views echoing in detail those of Fard. Interviews and photographs compiled in Robert A. Hill’s extensive papers on Marcus Garvey and the UNIA demonstrate a close similarity in the physical appearance, outlook and affiliations of Farr and Fard.[27] One informant noted that although ‘Farr…claimed to be negro, his manner of talk, which had a little accent—’not the southern accent that is common to all negroes, but the accent similar to that of an American educated Hindu’.[28]

Evanzz could have, possibly, vindicated his theory, had he included in his research a search for authentic photographs of George Farr. Evanzz, however, seems to have overlooked the photographs compiled in Hill’s extensive papers, one of which reveals a remarkable similarity in Farr’s and Fard’s appearance.[29] Fard Muhammad’s true identity may forever elude researchers. The fact that he provided several different accounts of his lineage, all of which the FBI failed to confirm, makes tracing his actual identity and the extent of his affiliations in the U.S. difficult. It is widely suspected that although Fard was neither of African descent nor indigenous to the U.S, he did establish close liaisons with African American political and religious movements, including the UNIA and the MSTA. The various schools of thought presented, whilst invariably flawed, help shed light on the ideologies and religious encounters that likely shaped Fard’s philosophy and the development of the NOI.

The Formative Years of the Nation of Islam

Fard Muhammad’s NOI was the product of historical terror. Its birth in the early 1930s would have been inconceivable without the extensive course of systematic brutality that characterises, the enslaved history of the African American experience. In fact, the NOI’s birth owes little to the presence and influence of orthodox Islam in the United States.[30] The fact that the early Black Islamic sects in the Northern States were doctrinally far removed from their orthodox counterparts evidences the extent to which the Muslim population had failed to penetrate the African American community. Fard Muhammad appropriated and repackaged the traditions of the UNIA and the MSTA in order to manufacture a separatist doctrine that catered to the exclusive needs of the African American migrant community in Detroit. Fard’s NOI emerged in a national context of mass migration, religious dislocation and economic devastation.

The mass migration of African Americans to Northern cities during the inter-war years transplanted an essentially rural, deeply religious and ill-educated populace into the industrial reality of the Northern states. Detroit’s racial caste system matured alongside the steady influx of African Americans and consolidated the separate socio-economic worlds of African Americans and their white counterparts in what became central city ghettoes. During the first African American migration between 1910 and 1930, over one million African Americans moved to the North, largely in pursuit of economic opportunities and a life free from the South’s stringent partition of society along racial lines.[31] Life, however, in the so-called ‘promised land’ proved no better; in fact, in many cases it was worse: African American migrants from the South encountered equally entrenched racial segregation in the Northern cities and the promise of economic affluence that had attracted them was largely thwarted by the ensuing economic depression. The caste-like system that already existed in Northern cities, including Detroit, matured alongside the steady influx of migrants in search of jobs. Between 1910 and 1920 the Black population of Detroit increased from 6,000 to 41,000 and in Chicago from 44,000 to 109,000.[32] The swelling of Detroit’s Black population increased competition for low wage industrial jobs and intensified the stratification of the city’s ethnic communities.

The Great Migration uprooted men and women from kinship networks and institutions that had historically acted as ‘refuges’ from racism. In his seminal work, The Negro Church (1964), E. Franklin Frazier argued that the biggest casualty of the migration had been the separation of migrants from the Southern Black Church:

In the cold impersonal environment of the city, the institutions and associations which had provided security and support for the Negro in the rural environment could not be resurrected…The most important crisis in the life of the Negro migrant was produced by the absence of the church which had been the centre of his social life and a refuge from a hostile white world.[33]

Historians of Black America uniformly support Frazier’s contention that the Black Church traditionally acted as a ‘refuge’ in what was a ‘hostile white world’. Once in the North, migrants realised only too quickly that the same church structure that existed in the South was absent and the environment not conducive for the establishment of such a formation. In the absence of the church, a plethora of sects and Black Nationalistic cults emerged throughout the North, catering to the needs of the migrant community. The most potent of these groups became Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and Noble Drew Ali’s MSTA.

The economic depression crushed the aspirations of migrants throughout the North. The absence of meaningful employment in Northern Cities, including Detroit, forced migrants onto receipt of welfare. In a series of oral history interviews, published in Legacy Magazine, many former migrants spoke of the fundamental problems created by the lack of employment in Detroit in the 1930s:

Well, ’29 and up to ’35, ’36, was rough. There wasn’t anything like jobs. You didn’t even have to worry about trying to find a job because there weren’t any jobs to be found. The best thing you could do was go down there to the post office and get those applications, fill them out, and that was it. You had to wait and some people got lucky and got hired at times. So, during that time, I was more or less just hustling…during those years none of us had any money. We just hustled as best as we could, and somehow we got through it all.[34]

It was into this moment of religious and social crisis that Fard Muhammad arrived. Fard Muhammad is believed to have illegally immigrated into the United States in or around 1913.[35] He exhibited a rather shrewd understanding of the temper of the African American migrant community despite the fact that he was not of African descent. Fard introduced himself to the people of Detroit in July 1930 as a peddler. He soon worked his way into the homes of the local residents with relative ease, testing out his Islamic philosophy on the few individuals with whom he had managed to establish a confident relationship. In a short period of time his loyal customers began to invite their friends to their homes to hear the peddler teach them about their ‘natural’ religion and identity.[36] Interest in the peddler’s teachings grew so much so that the homes of the locals became too small to house all those who wanted to hear him. Despite the fact that many of his customers were in receipt of welfare, they managed to collectively finance the hire of small halls to host their ‘meetings’.[37] The peddler slowly began to introduce seditious features of his doctrine and implemented a hierarchy that enabled him to steadily withdraw from the NOI. In less than two years Fard built and structured a cult that amassed a following of nearly eight thousand. However, his stay in Detroit was cut short when he was arrested by the Detroit Police Department in May 1933 and ordered to leave the city.[38]

Little is known about the origins of Fard Muhammad or his whereabouts after 1933. Erdman Beynon, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, conducted the only contemporaneous study of the NOI during Fard’s tenure in Detroit. Beynon attended a small number of NOI meetings gathering research that he would later publish in 1938 and suggested that Fard intentionally marketed himself as a peddler to the locals in Detroit in order to gain access to a wide-spread audience, selling them commodities that he purported to have came from foreign lands:

He came first to our houses selling raincoats, and then afterwards silks. In this way he could get into the people’s houses, for every woman was eager to see the nice things the peddlers had for sale. He told us that the silks he carried were the same that our people used in their home country and that he had come from there. So we all asked him to tell us about our own country…[39]

Fard quickly gained his way into the homes of the local residents in the Paradise Valley vicinity of Detroit. As he steadily gained the trust of his customers, he began to criticise the black church and white Americans as purveyors of false religion. Fard’s criticism of whites gained momentum as his audience grew in size.[40] The peddler began to teach his customers about a new religion, which he called Islam. He based his teachings initially on the Bible and later the Koran, although it is doubtful that his adherents would have ever seen or read the Koran that he purportedly taught from. According to Louis Lomax, Fard based his teachings on the Bible because ‘it was the only religious literature known to the Negro’.[41]

The fact that many of Fard’s curious listeners were in receipt of welfare relief seems to have worked to his advantage. It is doubtful that many of his customers would have had sufficient time to entertain his teachings, had they been engaged in meaningful employment. As Beynon reminds his readers:

The Prophet’s message was characterized by his ability to utilize to the fullest measure the environment of his followers. Their physical and economic difficulties alike were used to illustrate the new teachings.[42]

The peddler borrowed and synthesised Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist ethos with Noble Drew Ali’s pseudo Islam in order to concoct a doctrine that put African Americans at the top of the social ladder and whites at the bottom. The fact that Fard’s philosophy was rooted in ideologies that were already familiar to his audience aided his success.

Fard’s listeners soon began to invite their neighbours and friends to their homes to hear Fard teach. According to Beynon, the economic plight of the migrant community in Detroit did not prevent them from collectively gathering the finances to pay for the hire of a hall in Detroit to hold their meetings.[43] Fard taught his customers that their ‘Natural’ Religion was Islam and not Christianity and that their names symbolized the remnants of slavery.[44] Fard argued strongly and convincingly that Christianity was an alien religion that had been imposed on their ancestors in order to foster self-abasement in them and make them better slaves. Fard soon began to introduce himself as a Prophet and a redeemer, Beynon, for example, recorded that Fard began to tell his followers that he had come from Mecca:

My Name is W.D. Fard and I came from the Holy City of Mecca. More about myself I will not tell you yet, for the time has not yet come. I am your brother. You have not seen me in my royal robes.[45]

The eclectic theology of Black Nationalism and pseudo Islam that Fard espoused so convincingly imply that he was an active follower, or at the very least a devout disciple, of both Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and Noble Drew Ali’s MSTA. Fard Muhammad, evidently, became intimately aware of the socioeconomic and political obstacles preventing the upward mobility of African Americans in the North. Whether due to a desire to liberate African Americans from their Duboisian ‘Double Consciousness’, or to create a market for his own philosophy, Fard began to distribute what he referred to as ‘original names’ for his followers, which he allegedly charged ten dollars for.

They became so ashamed of their old slave names that they considered that they could suffer no greater insult than to be addressed by the old name. They sought to live in conformity with the Law of Islam as revealed to them by the prophet, so that they would be worthy of their original names. Gluttony, drunkenness, idleness, and extra-marital sex relations, except with ministers of Islam, were prohibited completely. They bathed at least twice a day and kept their houses scrupulously clean, so that they might put away all marks of slavery from which the restoration of the original had set them free.[46]

As to whether Fard profited financially from his ministry is heavily contested. In 1963 a journalist working for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner penned a derisive attack on Fard, arguing that he was a petty criminal who ‘passed himself off as the Saviour’ and profited financially from his teachings.[47] Fard’s successor, Elijah Muhammad, argued vigorously that the NOI’s founder had not received any money from teaching his followers:

We did not pay Mr. Fard any money to teach us and there are many who will verify this statement who are yet alive. We could hardly pay the rent of a hall in those days. Sometimes they (The believers) would give Him (Master Fard Muhammad) gifts such as topcoats, overcoats, ties, shirts, or a few packages of hander kerchiefs—but money was so scarce in those days that we just did not have any. Just about everyone who believes was on the ‘Relief’ in Detroit including myself.[48]

According to Beynon, Fard’s organisation was initially known as the Allah Temple of Islam until he later renamed it the Nation of Islam.[48] The inspiration behind the cult’s name is not noted by Beynon and the FBI failed to account for when exactly Fard renamed the cult.[49]

Fard’s religious and social philosophy was deeply rooted in the UNIA’s Black Nationalist ethos. The Peddler’s teachings, however, proved to be an altogether fanatic version of anything that either Garvey or Ali taught. Beynon, for example, noted in his study, that Fard taught his followers that Caucasians were ‘white devils’. Fard’s NOI was and remains a deeply conservative organisation, something that it, no doubt, inherited from the UNIA. Fard Muhammad’s NOI was essentially an apolitical organisation. It advocated that its converts cut off contact with ‘undesirable others’ in order to insulate themselves from unnecessary racist encounters. NOI converts formed their own closed society in Detroit in the 1930s and eschewed participation in the American political process. Fard’s followers were instructed to refuse induction into the armed forces and forbidden to exercise their right to vote.[50]

As Fard’s cult grew in size, it took on an increasingly bureaucratic structure. Fard began to delegate the responsibility for the daily affairs of the NOI to a number of ‘supreme captains’ that he allowed his followers to elect. Fard also established a parochial school ‘The University of Islam’ for parents in the NOI to send their children to and the Fruit of Islam (FOI), a paramilitary division of the cult, designed to defend its members.[51] The peddler’s ability to establish a working bureaucratic structure for his organisation was no doubt an important factor in its survival after 1933.

Within three years the prophet not only began the movement but organized it so well that he himself was able to recede into the background, appearing almost never to his followers during the final months of his stay in Detroit. This was undoubtedly an important factor in the cult’s survival after the prophet’s departure.[52]

The peddler’s secretive cult was unveiled to the wider community in Detroit on 21 November 1932 when one of its, alleged, members, Robert Harris, sacrificed his room mate, John H. Smith.[53] The arrest brought Fard and his sinister cult to the attention of the police department and the wider community in Detroit. According to Beynon, rumours of NOI members engaging in acts of sacrificial murder had circulated prior to 1932. The arrest of one of Fard’s members initiated what was to become a long and expensive investigation into the NOI.

In the final months of his residence in Detroit, Fard appeared less and less to his followers, arguably preparing them for his eventual exodus from the cult. Following Fard’s exit from Detroit, his Supreme Minister, Elijah Karriem (later known as Elijah Muhammad) took over control of the NOI. However, the NOI underwent a series of internal power struggles after 1934, forcing Elijah Muhammad to transfer the NOI’s headquarters from Detroit to Chicago. The transformation of the NOI from a small cult in 1933 into a mass movement in 1960 was the result of Elijah’s leadership. Elijah Muhammad portrayed Fard as a Christ-like figure following his sudden exit from Detroit:

He (Mr. W. F. Muhammad, God in person) chose to suffer 3 years to show his love for his people, who have suffered over 300 years at the hands of a people who by nature are evil and wicked and have no good in them. He was persecuted, sent to jail in 1932, and ordered out of Detroit, on May 26, 1933. He came to Chicago in the same year and was arrested almost immediately on his arrival and placed behind bars. He submitted himself with all humbleness to his persecutors. Each time he was arrested, he sent for me so that I might see and learn the price of Truth for us, the so-called American Negroes…He was well able to save himself from such suffering, but how else was the scripture to be fulfilled? We followed in his footsteps, suffering the same persecution[54]

Fard Muhammad remains something of an enigmatic figure in the NOI’s historical trajectory. That Fard had been successful in his endeavour to build his own religious empire in Detroit is beyond doubt. Fard’s success in Detroit was largely due to the fact that his religious philosophy was now entirely new to the migrant community. The fact that the peddler rooted his doctrine in ideologies and religious principles that were already well known aided his success. Fard’s willingness to gradually delegate full control of the NOI to his subordinates suggests that he had begun to plan his exit prior to 1933 and had hoped that the NOI would survive his exit. Fard Muhammad remains something of a God-like figure in the NOI. The fact that little is documented about Fard, even within the NOI’s own literature, contributes to the aura of mystery that surrounds him. The high regard in which NOI converts regard Fard and his unorthodox teachings has long proven an obstacle to Louis Farrakhan’s numerous attempts to dilute and annul Fard’s racist teachings. Fard’s ideology caters to and exploits the history of race relations in the U.S. The socio-economic gap that has always existed between white America and Black America provides room in which ideologies such as the NOI’s can take root.

University of Ulster



[1] Jabril Muhammad, Inner Views of the Heart, Mind and Soul of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan (Chicago: FCN Publishing Co, 2006), p. 7.

[2] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Penguin, 1965), p. 370.

[3] E. U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America (New York: Dell Publishing, 1964), p. 55.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arthur Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), p. 44.

[6] Letter to Chicago. RE: Wallace Dodd Fard. 105-3642. P. 517 (FBI File: Fard, Wallace D / Reference Number: CG 25-20607).

[7] Records. Los Angeles Police Department: Wallace Ford. 5 March 1965. Reference Number: 100-43165-6 (FBI File: Fard, Wallace D).

[8] Howard Brotz, The Black Jews of Harlem (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 11-12.

[9] Robert A. Hill, The Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Vol 11, August 1919-August 1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 398.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nicholas Patsides, ‘Allies, Constituents or Myopic Investors: Marcus Garvey and Black Americans’, Journal of American Studies 41. 2, (2007), 279-305 (p. 279).

[13] Editor, ‘Garvey Preaches Faith in Black God’, The New York Times, 4 August 1929, p. 8.

[14] Office Memorandum: To: Director, FBI (105-63642) From: SAC, Chicago (100-33683) Subject: Wallace Fard, February 3rd 1958. p3 (FBI File: Fard, Wallace, D).

[15] Records Los Angeles Police Department: Wallei Ford, Los Angeles Police Department Number 16447. March 5th, 1965. (FBI File, Fard, Wallace, D).

[16] See Records from Washington Field Office, 1957. (FBI File: Fard, Wallace, D).

[17] Los Angeles Division. Reference Number: 105-48505, pp. 3-4 (FBI File: Fard, Wallace D).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, p. 3.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Karl Evanzz, The Messenger: The rise and fall of Elijah Muhammad (New York: Vintage Books, 1999) p. 400.

[22] Correspondence with Mr. Karl Evanzz, 6 May 2006.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Interview with Askia Muhammad, 13 January 2008.

[25] Correspondence with New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, June 2006.

[26] Evanzz, p. 402.

[27] Hill, pp.223-224.

[28] Robert A. Hill, The Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association papers, Vol IV, 1 September 1921-22 September 1922 (University of California Press, 1985) pp. 233-234.

[29] Hill, The Marcus Garvey Papers, vol 11, p. 398.

[30] Nuri Tinaz, ‘Conversion of African Americans to Islam: A Sociological Analysis of the Nation of Islam and Associated Groups (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 2001), p. 3.

[31] Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., eds, African American Religious Thought: An Anthology (London: John Knox Press, 2003), p. 534.

[32] Hans A. Baer and Merrill Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992), p. 45.

[33] E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1964), p. 48.

[34] Timuel D. Black, ‘Voices from the Black Belt Brings to Life Mid-Century Black Chicago’, Legacy Magazine (Fall 2006), pp. 80-81.

[35] To: SAC, Detroit, From: SAC, Chicago. RE: W.D Fard. P. 2 (FBI File: Fard, Wallace. D).

[36] The NOI maintain that Islam is the ‘natural’ religion of all people of African descent.

[37] Erdmann Beynon, ‘The Voodoo Cult Among Negro Migrants in Detroit’, The American Journal of Sociology (May 1938), 894-907 (p. 896).

[38] See Chicago File (FBI File: Fard, Wallace D).

[39] Beynon, p. 895.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Louis Lomax, When the Word is Given: A Report on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and the Black Muslims (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1963), p. 42.

[42] Beynon, p. 900.

[43] Ibid, p. 902.

[44] Ibid, p. 896.

[45] Ibid, p. 902.

[46] Ed Montgomery, ‘Muslim Founder, White Masquerader’, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 23 July, 1963, p. A2.

[47] Elijah Muhammad, ‘Beware of Phony Claims’, Muhammad Speaks, 16 August 1963, p. 1.

[48] Early records from the Chicago Field office reveal that the NOI was initially known to the FBI as the Allah Temple of Islam.

[49] No record exists to show as to when exactly the NOI was renamed.

[50] NOI converts continue to eschew service in the U.S. Armed forces.

[51] Beynon, p. 905.

[52] Ibid, p. 902.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America (Atlanta: MEMPS Publications, 1965), p. 24.