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Did Shakespeare actually author the work attributed to his name? Did Marco Polo ever reach China? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?
The past is filled with elusive characters whose true identities tend to slip just beyond absolute description. That’s not to say that anyone so amorphous is not capable of producing very absolute effects on history. In fact, some of the most mysterious individuals who have graced this Earth have left the most indelible marks upon our books and records.
In 1930, W.D. Fard, a man who the FBI alleged used 58 aliases during his lifetime, visited Detroit. He was ultimately forced to leave Detroit because of an allegation that he encouraged one of his followers to engage in a ritual of human sacrifice. But perhaps most notably, he was the man who founded the Nation of Islam, a political and religious organization that brought Malcolm X, one of the 20th century’s most important Americans, into the spotlight.
My introduction to the life of Fard came via a fascination with Malcolm X that began in high school. In devouring his autobiography, I learned of the Nation of Islam’s charismatic and influential leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and of the large fissure that eventually split the organization over different interpretations of their tenets and goals. This cursory bit of knowledge was enough to satisfy my curiosity for many years, during which my contact with the Nation of Islam was limited to regularly buying bean pies from neatly dressed men standing on Livernois who were also peddling the group’s newspaper, The Final Call.
Just last year, however, I read a book that reintroduced Fard to my consciousness. Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, which could justly be called a Detroit epic, includes a fascinating chapter in which the matriarch of the Stephanides family, Desdemona, takes a job as a silk worker at the Nation of Islam’s headquarters on Hastings Street. She is employed despite her ethnicity because the managers are desperate for someone with a working knowledge of silk — they rationalize the hire by discovering that her place of birth was Turkey, a Muslim country, although she is a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian.
After Desdemona is hired and settles into a familiar routine of caring for the delicate silkworms the Nation of Islam breeds to make cloth, she discovers that she can hear the speeches of Master W.D. Fard through a vent. She is first hypnotized by his voice, then by his message.
In Middlesex, Fard is revealed to be Desdemona’s brother-in-law, who had been presumed dead after a rum-running incident. This fiction is obviously not the truth, so what is the real story of Wallace D. Fard?
Fard had an East Indian appearance, and was a dapper dresser with perfect white teeth and dark eyes. He told followers he was born in the holy city of Mecca, and his light-skinned appearance, courtesy of his Russian Jewish mother, was “pre-ordained” so that he could more easily mix with white people. He claimed to have attended Oxford and the University of California, and then to have begun training as a diplomat for the kingdom of Hejaz (now a part of Saudi Arabia). He was drawn to return to the United States in order to liberate the African-Americans from their “half-slave and half-free” condition. He arrived in Detroit’s Paradise Valley on July 4, 1930, in order to achieve this goal.
Fard worked the streets as silk peddler, but his real sales pitches were religious beliefs and dietary restrictions. He gained a reputation as a healer when his customers, after having adhered to the pork-free diet that Fard espoused, began noticing improvements in their health. His main goal, he often stated, was to bring salvation to African-Americans, whom he often referred to as his “lost uncle in the wilderness of North America.”
Fard taught that approximately 6,000 years ago a black scientist named Yakub conducted gene-manipulation experiments that resulted in the creation of the inferior white race. Their tainted, weakened blood was to blame for the white race’s immorality, which they frequently used to keep the black race in a perpetual state of half-freedom. His concepts attracted hundreds of followers to the Allah Temple of Islam (ATI), as he called his group.
Fard’s demise as the leader of the temple was brought upon him when, on Thanksgiving Day in 1932, one of his followers, Robert Harris, renamed Robert Karriem, committed a human sacrifice in order to bring himself closer to Allah. Karriem cited a quotation from a book entitled Secret Rituals of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, authored by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad, which read, “The believer must be stabbed through the heart.” This quote, as well as another stating, “Every son of Islam must gain a victory from a devil. Four victories and the son will attain his reward,” convinced the Detroit Police Department — motivated in part by the anti-Muslim hysteria fueled by media coverage of the event — to seek out Fard in conjunction with the murder.
Karriem was found to be legally insane and was committed. Fard, facing possible charges, confessed that his teachings were dangerous and that he would use his influence to disband the ATI. He agreed to leave Detroit forever in order to receive immunity, and boarded a train bound for Chicago on Dec. 7.
The ATI was disbanded as ordered, though in name only; as the Nation of Islam, it continued to grow. Fard snuck back into Detroit in January 1933, but was identified by authorities, arrested in May and again ordered to leave the city.
He returned to Chicago, was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace through his preaching, and again returned to Detroit. After another brush with the law in April 1934, Fard left Detroit for good. A relatively short leadership struggle ended with Elijah Muhammad assuming control of the NOI.
The true origins of W. D. Fard remain mired in obscurity. In contrast to Fard’s story, Karl Evanzz, noted NOI authority and author of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, has argued that Fard was born Wali Dodd Fard in New Zealand in 1893. His parents were Zared Fard (a New Zealander whose parents were from an area of East India that eventually became Pakistan) and Beatrice (of New Zealand’s minority British population).
Evanzz believes that Fard immigrated to the United States via Canada in 1913. He earned his living at various times as a restaurateur, gambler, bootlegger and traveling salesman. Before arriving in Detroit in 1930, under the alias of David Ford, he attained a high rank in the Moorish Science Temple, a vaguely Islam-like religion that disbanded that same year. Evanzz reported that Wallace D. Fard died in Chicago in 1971 at the age of 78.
To further muddy the waters, C.E. Lincoln, author of The Black Muslims in America, originally published in 1961, recounted a legend that described Fard as the black Jamaican son of a Syrian Moslem. Another story described Fard as Palestinian.
On the other hand, in a speech made on April 1, 2001, titled “The Greatness of Master Fard Muhammad,” the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan reiterated Fard’s origins in the Holy City of Mecca, and referred to him as the “Mahdi,” a man absolutely guided by God in the Islam faith. Farrakhan referred to the knowledge that Fard passed onto the NOI as “actual facts.” (The speech is at the Nation’s Web site at www.noi.org.)
It is important to realize that Farrakhan is the current leader of one of two main NOI factions that emerged after the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s death on Feb. 24, 1975. Two days later, Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace Muhammad, was named leader of the NOI, and quickly distanced himself from certain aspects of his father’s teachings — most notably those denouncing whites as devils. Farrakhan, a high-ranking member of NOI at the time of Elijah Muhammad’s death, became disillusioned with the new direction and quit the NOI in 1978. After Wallace had renamed the group the World Community of Al-Islam (one of many name changes to follow), Farrakhan was able to reconstitute the NOI under his own auspices in 1979.
Via e-mail, I asked Claude Andrew Clegg III, author of another Elijah Muhammad biography, An Original Man, to give me his take on the controversy. Clegg, a history professor at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, responded: “The version of the story that characterizes Fard as being of Pakistani descent and having a criminal background seems to have some validity, though neither allegation has been conclusively proven. What seems most remarkable is that Fard seems to have utterly disappeared from the government’s (especially the FBI’s) radar after leaving Detroit in 1933. There were rumors about his whereabouts until the 1990s, when some believed he was still alive and living somewhere in California. Whatever the case, Fard was a master at remaking himself and was apparently a very charismatic man. Also, in many ways, the Nation of Islam’s depiction of him as God could only work and be credible to potential members if his origins remained obscure and his disappearance permanent.”
Obviously, there are some major differences of opinion here. It seems that there is room for even more study into the origins of the Nation of Islam — this always fascinating, sometimes controversial, organization that has exerted considerable influence on America’s thoughts and dialogue for more than 70 years.
The organization’s humble origins in the Hastings Street Temple of Detroit’s Paradise Valley are little known, as is the story of the enigmatic Wallace D. Fard. Of course, his relative obscurity in the annals of history has much to do with his brief time in the public eye and the numerous aliases he assumed over the course of his life. Despite a lack of fame, Mr. Fard’s legacy lives on to this day — whether most of us know it or not.
Kelli B. Kavanaugh covers the history of Detroit for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.