Mohammed says he considers himself a "rational man" who thinks through every possible angle of an issue. But he admits with a big laugh, his eyes twinkling, "I've made some female choices that weren't rational."
He has been married four times, twice to the same woman, his first wife. He has nine children, ranging in age from 12 to 42. Several of his children work for him, including Gina Muhammad-Ali, director of advertising at his community's newspaper, the Muslim Journal.
A few years ago, he and NGina attended a Prince concert together. He greatly admires the rock star. "I've been following Prince since he was outrageously nasty," he says. "I was able to see past the nastiness. I saw him as a very intelligent man with a cause. He was in a spirit to lead people away from the grip of the world and free their minds."
Mohammed also has a lifelong love of movies. He used to have to sneak to see movies when his father was alive, because movie-going was prohibited in the Nation of Islam. He once put on a fake mustache and sunglasses to slip unseen into a show. When he took over the Nation, he lifted the ban.
For decades after it was founded in 1930 in Detroit, the Nation of Islam thrived and survived on rigid rules, discipline and blind loyalty. Conformity was a virtue, independence a sin. In the Nation, a Muslim man better have his suit pressed. His hair cut. His fingernails clean. His weekly quota of Muhammad Speaks newspapers sold. The Fruit of Islam, the Nation's security force, was watching.
Wallace Muhammad was always different. Quirky. When he wore a suit, folks say, you'd remember, because it didn't happen often. He had other things on his mind.
It was easy for Wallace to be different then. He was The Elijah Muhammad son, a prince of the "Royal Family." When the Royals came to a Nation gathering, the sea of believers would step aside to clear a path. But being Elijah Muhammad's son did not protect him from Elijah's wrath, especially when he questioned his father about the Nation's theology. Physically, The Messenger was a small man, frail and tormented by asthma. Yet he blew away challenges to his authority like a hurricane. The Nation was not a democracy.
Over the years, Elijah Muhammad banished his son at least three times for heresy. Wallace never could accept the idea that God was a man who walked the Earth in the person of Master W.D. Fard Muhammad, the mysterious founder of the Nation of Islam. The man Wallace was named after.
The believers called such banishment being "put out." For the devout, it was a harsh punishment: Friends wouldn't talk to you; your own blood would turn their backs if they saw you coming down the street.
In the early 1960s, Wallace was put out for being too close to The Messenger's former acolyte, Malcolm X. Both were disillusioned by revelations that Elijah Muhammad had children outside his marriage. Both loved The Messenger, but questioned his message. Both wanted him to change.
"I was influenced by my father all my life," Mohammed says, a trace of sadness in his voice. "And by Malcolm."
The Nation sought to be self-contained, and it had almost everything a believer would ever need--grocery stores, restaurants, schools, clothing shops, cleaners, a bank, farms, a fleet of trucks, a jet, an army of men, office buildings, apartment houses and 80 temples around the country and overseas.
"We were isolated and insulated," says Imam Darnell Karim, Mohammed's friend of more than 60 years. "We shut our ears to everything. We heard only one voice, the leader's."
Then in the late 1940s, Elijah Muhammad invited in the outside world, hiring a Muslim from the Middle East to teach Arabic at the school. Wallace, still a teenager, began reading the Koran with fresh eyes and started seeing more and more discrepancies between the Koran's Islam and his father's. What he learned greatly disturbed him. "All my life I had been trying to understand what my father was teaching," he says. "When I decided it was not acceptable, I really started searching the Koran, looking for answers."
Still, he tried to keep his doubts to himself. He wanted to be an obedient son. He went into the family business, becoming a student minister in the Nation of Islam, speaking publicly at the mosque for the first time at age 17 or 18. His friend Karim remembers him being so nervous that he gripped the rostrum like a life preserver as he spoke. Mohammed remembers speaking for only a few minutes. But he says his closing words shot through the Nation: "We give more attention to the Devil than to Allah."
Mohammed quickly climbed the ranks of the Nation, from foot soldier in the Fruit of Islam to student minister to chief minister of the high-profile Temple #12 in Philadelphia in 1959. "He didn't teach like the other ministers," says his nephew, Wali Muhammad. "He talked much more about the spirit and the soul. He talked much more about the Koran.
Two years later, on his 28th birthday in 1961, Mohammed was sent to federal prison in Minnesota for refusing induction into the United States military. Once again, he was being the obedient son: His father and many of his followers had been imprisoned during World War II for refusing induction. They considered themselves citizens of the Nation of Islam, not the United States. They would not defend a country that lynched their brothers and humiliated their sisters, segregated their families and told their children they were no good, a country that had turned its back on them and pretended they were invisible.
In his 14 months in the Minnesota prison, he spent most of his days and nights studying the Koran. He became even more convinced that the Nation of Islam had to change its message. But he had no idea how. His father had all the power, befitting the Last Messenger of Allah.
When the prison gates opened in 1963, Mohammed returned to the Nation, looking for allies. He found one in Malcolm X, who was becoming openly critical of Elijah Muhammad. In 1964, this association was what got Mohammed "put out" for the first time. His rejection of his father's basic teachings that Fard was God led to his banishment again in the late '60s and for the last time in the early '70s.
On the outside of the Nation, wanting back in, Mohammed and his family were living in Chicago in the early 1970s. To make ends meet he drove a cab, worked as a welder and did whatever else he could find.
When Mohammed was finally readmitted to the Nation in 1974, Elijah Muhammad had only six months left to live. Mohammed says his father gave him great support in his last days. "He told [his staff] I was free to preach. He wasn't holding me to their language any more."
The Elijah Muhammad died the day before Savior's Day, the annual celebration honoring W.D. Fard Muhammad. That year the 20,000 Muslims who filled the hall roared their approval when Wallace, with his family's backing, was proclaimed the supreme minister. According to family and Nation legend, Wallace had been preordained for this moment. The story goes that when Clara Muhammad was pregnant with her seventh child, God, in the person of Fard, told her husband Elijah that the child would be a boy, a special boy, whom they should name after him. The boy would help his father someday and do many great things.
One Muslim says family legend wasn't the only reason Wallace was named the new leader. Many of the ministers who supported him did so "because they thought he was like King Tut, a fool they could control. He fooled them," the man says. "He fooled them all."
Mohammed knew he had to move fast to assert his leadership once his father was gone. "I felt there could be trouble," he says, from potential rivals who might emerge "and maybe start preaching the old way. I also thought the people should have a change right away, while they were mourning my father's death. That would be the time they would be most serious and respectful."
The changes came fast and furious. He had years of pent-up ideas and frustrations. He ordered the chairs ripped out of the mosque so worshipers could prostrate themselves in prayer on the floor like Muslims all over the world. He stepped from behind the rostrum to teach the congregation the proper way to pray. Bilal, the mosque secretary, remembers the "officials gritting their teeth when they bumped their heads on the floor."
He disbanded the Fruit of Islam security force. When he was in exile in 1964, openly criticizing his father, he accused the FOI of stalking him and threatening him with harm. And he once described the FOI as a "punch-your-teeth-out" squad.
He ended the policy of requiring male members to sell 300 copies of the Muhammad Speaks newspaper each week and buy any they did not sell. The circulation of the paper dropped. So did the revenue. "I could have kept the money coming in, just like my father," he says, "but I knew it was un-Islamic. Getting poor people to pay more than they can pay is against the religion. As a Muslim, you should be helping them."
He decentralized the mosque structure, giving individual mosques across the country control of their own affairs.
He said whites could join.
Heads were spinning.
He moved too fast, says Aminah McCloud, an Islamic expert at DePaul University. The people did not have a chance to soak in one change before another came hurling at them from the rostrum. "The people were being psychologically whipped to death."
One of the first whites to join was Dorothy Fardan, a 35-year-old former Catholic with a doctorate in sociology. She walked into the mosque in Albany, N.Y., in the summer of 1975. Her musician husband, Donald Elijah Muhammad, was a longtime member of the Nation of Islam, and she had tried to join years before. The Elijah Muhammad, however, had disapproved of interracial marriages, and certainly did not approve of devils in the mosque.
"I felt no resentment towards the Honorable Elijah Muhammad," Fardan says. "I admired him. I felt he told the truth about the United States. I never personally felt I was a devil."
Fardan, who now teaches at Bowie State University in Maryland, eventually drifted away with her husband from Mohammed's community, though she is still a Muslim "under the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad." They were unhappy with The Change, although she thought Mohammed sincere and not lusting after power.
One of the things Fardan objected to was Mohammed's embrace of patriotism in 1976. He walked across a stage carrying an American flag, saying it was time for Muslims to recognize and celebrate the U. S. as a great country. Today, he has American flag decals on his car and his hat.
It wasn't easy selling patriotism to his followers in the beginning, he says. He argued that black people had fought and died in every American war. They had blazed trails across the West and designed cities in the East. They had contributed their blood and brains to building the country.
He is not selling a love-it-or-leave-it brand of patriotism, he says, more of a love-it-and-make-it-better. He knows that race matters, that black boys and girls still have a higher hill to climb. And he is not happy about talk of a unilateral invasion of Iraq or about the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and its chief ally, the United States.
"Muslims," he says, "get whipped on too much."
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he notes, there was harassment of Muslims, including his 12-year-old son, the youngest of his nine children. "Even now," he says, "we have to be somewhat fearful." But he says the attacks also "woke everybody up" in his community to the need to be more involved in the larger society and its political life.
"I think we have some of the best Americans around," he says. He particularly wants them to get busy in businesses. "Now that the soul is right," he says, "we have to finance the religion. Our imams have to depend on charity."
But he does not want to repeat the mistakes of the Nation's past. He does not want the imams or their mosques controlling and operating the businesses, as was the case in the old days when temptation led to corrupt management. He wants a high wall between God and commerce.
His plan is to find Muslim entrepreneurs and support them with loans and other assistance. His followers operate a meat-processing plant in Hazel Crest and an export/import business and other concerns across the country.
Meanwhile, Mohammed fights the cult of personality every chance he gets. It bothers him that people still want to know if the imam approves even the smallest tasks before anything gets done
"That's from the old school," he says ruefully in an interview. "My father had such control over the people. When he passed, a lot of people were numb, dead almost."
He tells young Muslims at the annual convention not to put him on a pedestal. He insists he's a little guy, and he rattles off some of his I-don't-haves to prove it.
"I don't have a PhD," he says. "I don't have a master's degree. I don't even have a BA. But I'm connected to something mighty great," he continues. "It makes me respectable, honorable in the company of kings, queens and presidents."
What he has, he says, is the same thing the roomful of 250 teenagers share with a billion people around the globe.
"That," he says, "is Islam."
Inna Lillahi wa inna Ilayhi Rajiun
May Allah Bless Warith Muhammad's Soul and grant him jannati ferdaus.
The man who brought back a people back to the correct teachings of Islam .
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