Warith Deen Mohammed was born Wallace D. Muhammad. He was the seventh child of Elijah and Clara Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad, referred to as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad by his followers, led the Nation of Islam, an organization considered by some to be a kind of black Ku Klux Klan. But for the many African-Americans who became members — and for thousands of sympathizers — the Nation of Islam provided an answer to racial oppression.
Self-reliance and "knowledge of self" were the driving philosophies of the Nation. Elijah Muhammad preached that the black man needed to stop looking to the white man for acceptance and learn to accept himself. Muhammad encouraged blacks to start their own businesses, and to stay in their own communities. In effect, he advocated a black "nation within a nation."
The Nation of Islam taught that black people were the "original people" with a divinity bestowed upon them from God. In this theology, white people were considered devils --- and Elijah Muhammad was God's Messenger on earth.
Wallace Muhammad grew up listening to his father’s teachings, and he believed them as a child. But as he grew older, he was increasingly aware of the discrepancies between the Islam his father taught, and the Islam taught in the Qu’ran and practiced by millions of Muslims worldwide. Breaking with his father and the Nation would prove emotionally difficult and physically dangerous, but Wallace’s faith eventually led him to guide the Nation away from a separatist, race-based theology and towards the world community of Islam.
A CHILD'S AWAKENING
When he was 13 years old Wallace was left alone while his family attended a meeting. Scared, he began to pray. But he couldn't summon an image of a God to call on for comfort. Wallace had been taught to tear up pictures of white men, even when he saw them in the paper, but pictures of the Nation of Islam's founder and "Savior" W.D. Fard showed a fair-skinned man. Wallace couldn't resolve the contradiction. Finally, he began his prayer: "Oh Allah, if I'm not seeing you correctly, please help me to see you correctly." This was the beginning of a journey on which Wallace would repeatedly question the teachings handed down by his father. As he told producer Valerie Linson, “I believe much of the Nation of Islam’s theology was intentionally made ridiculous so that we would one day be too smart for it, and would look for something better, and would search for our own way to freedom. That’s what I think my father wanted.”
In late 1958, Elijah Muhammad appointed his 25-year old son as minister of Temple #11 in Philadelphia. There, Wallace began to acquaint the Philadelphia membership to orthodox Islamic practices. He taught the basics of Islamic prayer and introduced them to readings in the Qur'an - which was never read in Nation of Islam temples. But he was careful not to raise doubts about the leadership or divinity of his father.
FREED BY PRISON
In 1960, Wallace Muhammad, was convicted of draft evasion. Even though he could have performed community service as a conscientious objector, he chose to serve three years in Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution. He made that decision because his father insisted. At his sentencing hearing, he recalls, the judge said, “the young man is dominated by his father.”
Every night for three years, those words rang in his ears. He resolved to study, become stronger, to become a better leader for the Nation of Islam. But the more he prayed, studied and read the Qu’ran, the more he came to believe that Muhammed, who lived in Arabia and received the Qu’ran 14 centuries ago, was the messenger of Allah and the last prophet. In accepting this, he had to reject what he had been taught. He made up his mind never again to preach that his father was the messenger of Allah and that W.D. Fard was God incarnate.
At 32, Wallace Muhammad was released from prison. It was February 1963, months before the March on Washington. By then, the FBI had the Nation of Islam under constant surveillance. Elijah Muhammad was attacked by the media for leading a hate group, and by Malcolm X, who resigned amidst allegations that Elijah Muhammad had fathered several children out of wedlock. Confused, but still trying to protect his father, Wallace poured through the Bible and the Qu’ran to find justification for his father's extramarital relationships. In a letter to the Nation of Islam’s top ministers, Wallace Muhammad, he urged them to tell the truth. At the same time, he urged them to stop referring to Elijah Muhammad as the messenger of God.
EXCOMMUNICATED AND DISOWNED
Wallace was excommunicated from the Nation of Islam five different times for refusing to accept the divinity of Elijah Muhammad. He was forbidden to contact family members, including his mother. Meanwhile, his wife and child were harassed by Nation members who considered them traitors. Wallace and his family were subjected to threatening phone calls at all hours. Once, Wallace was nearly run over by a car. During these periods, Muhammad worked as a general laborer: welding and, on one occasion, mixing soup at the Campbell Soup factory.
REINSTATEMENT AND LEADERSHIP
In 1974, Wallace was permanently reinstated into the Nation of Islam and allowed to teach in the temples. Elijah Muhammad's health had been failing. When his father died in 1975, Wallace assumed control of the Nation of Islam. Within a year, he changed the name of the organization to the World Community of al-Islam in the West and later changed his own name to Warith Deen Mohammed. He did away with the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s paramilitary organization, and abolished the Nation’s dress codes for men and women. Ministers became Imams and temples were renamed mosques. Followers were taught to pray as orthodox Muslims, to study the Qu'ran, and follow the five pillars of Islam. Warith Mohammed also taught that Elijah Muhammed was not a prophet, and that whites were not “blue-eyed devils.” He encouraged members to vote and enlist in military service. Although several thousand followed Louis Farrakhan when he split from Warith to re-establish the Nation of Islam, most members remained with Warith as he rapidly moved his community from the race-based, separatist beliefs of the Nation of Islam toward the orthodox practice of Sunni Islam. His thoughtful demeanor and profound spiritual conviction inspired a community of people steeped in the idea of self-reliance and spirituality.