February 26 is Saviors’ Day, the birthday of the founder of the Nation of Islam. Master Fard Muhammad will probably never get his due for his contribution, for a few reasons: 1) after more than eight decades, white people still aren’t ready to be called devils; 2) Sunni Muslims might love the Sunni fruits of Fard’s tree (most famously Malcolm X, but hundreds of thousands more), but they don’t want to see the tree that produced them; 3) in all honesty, Fard might have spoken the truth, but he also dressed it up in stories that many will have a hard time taking seriously.
The biggest challenge to fully appreciating Master Fard Muhammad may be that he so effectively escaped history. For decades, no one had any idea where he had come from, and even if we can now trace his origin to a town called Shinka in Afghanistan, or possibly Pakistan, we still have no idea where he ended up after his disappearance in 1934. For the most part, our source on Master Fard Muhammad is his student, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for whom Fard was literally, physically God—not a “manifestation” or “incarnation” of God, but God. While working with the bare skeleton of biographical details and much more hagiography, it’s hard to make authoritative statements on Fard. But this is also part of the master teacher’s usefulness. In escaping history, Fard can become almost whatever people need him to be.
His public mission began in 1930, when he walked the poorest black neighborhoods of Detroit with an armful of silks, going door-to-door and trying to sell them to people with no money to spend. Even when he couldn’t make a sale, he regaled his customers with tales of the silk’s origin in what he called their “homeland,” a utopia across the ocean where people lived longer because they lived better—they had not been brainwashed by living in the Devil’s kingdom into eating the wrong foods and praying to a blue-eyed Jesus. People often invited Fard into their homes to tell them more about Africa. When he stayed for dinner, Fard always ate what he was offered, but then told his hosts that they should not eat such food, because people in their homeland did not eat it.
Fard was eventually preaching to packed basements, telling his audiences that they had lost the knowledge of themselves to the devil: they did not even know their real names, but instead wore names that had been given to their ancestors by devil slave owners. Fard gave his followers new names such as Sharrieff and Ghulam. The majority of his converts had come to Detroit in the Great Migration, during which masses of African Americans left the south with hopes of greater economic opportunities in the major cities of the North. Life in a new urban context was disorienting and traumatic for many migrants, and the existing religious structures were not prepared to support them. With thousands of migrants dissatisfied with the North’s established black churches, countless storefront churches opened in cities such as Detroit and Chicago, and many seekers relocated their selfhood in new religious movements, such as those claiming that black people were the true Israelites. In Fard’s basement mosque, he told his followers that they were righteous muslims by nature, the true heirs to the glories of a “Nation of Islam” that was older than the sun, moon, and stars. They had no birth record, he told them. As black men, they were the fathers of civilization, gods of the universe.
Outsiders routinely mock Fard’s narrative of racial origins, in which white people were created by a megalomaniacal scientist named Yakub roughly six thousand years ago. Yes, the Yakub story is bad science, but still better science than a human being coming back to life after being dead for three days, or another human being flying on a horse to paradise and having conversations with dead prophets. In America as Fard experienced it, however, the assumptions about “race” that drove his Yakub myth weren’t bad science. They were just science. Eugenics was mainstream enough to be taught in public schools and even to influence US immigration policy. Scientific journals of the day praised systematized infanticide in ancient Greece as crucial for building a nation and advancing civilization. Fard just took the science of his day and flipped it to inspire the oppressed rather than excuse the oppressors. In Fard’s science, eugenics in ancient Greece only made a devil who would rape the earth until his time ran out.
Despite police harassment, Fard managed to build up a community of followers between Detroit and Chicago until 1934, when he had his student, whom he had named Elijah Muhammad, drive him to the airport. With tears in his eyes, Elijah begged his teacher not to go. Fard only answered that Elijah could fulfill the work on his own. Fard gave him a list of books to read and then he was gone.
In Fard’s absence, the community was torn apart by factional schisms. Elijah’s supporters eventually gained control and Elijah would lead the Nation of Islam for roughly 40 years, outlasting the reign of his chief adversary, J. Edgar Hoover, as head of the FBI. After Elijah’s death in 1975, his son Warith Deen Mohammed embarked on a radical reform of the Nation of Islam, steering the community towards Sunnism. Warith Deen’s reforms did not involve an immediate disavowal of Islam as understood by his father and his father’s teacher. Rather, he relied on his role as their divinely appointed successor to transform their teachings, claiming that this Sunnification had been their plan all along. Forty years after Master Fard Muhammad’s disappearance without a trace, Warith Deen even claimed that he spoke regularly to Fard, but not in a “spooky way”—he just picked up a phone and called the man.
There’s a story that a man whom Elijah had appointed to tutor Warith Deen in the late 1950s, a scholar named Muhammad Abdullah, was actually Fard Muhammad in disguise. When Elijah passed, Muhammad Abdullah helped Warith Deen reform the NOI, serving as imam to the NOI’s Oakland mosque and instructing its Muslims in more conventional prayer and practice. According to popular legend, this was Fard’s way of undoing his work. The Fard-as-Abdullah narrative has not been proven conclusively, but I know of major players in the Bay Area’s Sunni scene who have accepted the story as true, even offering prayers for Fard at Muhammad Abdullah’s grave in Hayward.
Because Master Fard Muhammad effectively blanked his own biography, these remakings of him are possible, and they do not take place at the expense of other versions of him. For Louis Farrakhan, Fard was God himself, who loved his people so much that he chose to walk among them, even in the most miserable conditions of post–Depression Detroit ghettos. Minister Farrakhan has interpreted Fard’s work as that of God's described in the Qur’an. In the Qur’an’s account, God creates from nothing by simply saying “Be!” According to Farrakhan, God came to America, visited families and communities that had been reduced to nothing by generations of oppression, and turned them into a nation of gods with that same power to say “Be!” and remake themselves.
As my own conversion to Sunni Islam was inspired by The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I am also a fruit of Master Fard Muhammad’s tree, even if Fard himself would have had nothing to do with a devil such as myself. You can’t choose your descendants. There are many white Muslim converts who were drawn to Islam by Malcolm, but only the comfortable post–Mecca version of Malcolm, the Malcolm who would have prayed with them. I’m not sure that most of these white converts are able to seriously consider the genealogy of Malcolm’s Islam, the figures who made Malcolm’s hajj possible and the America that made them.
Of course, when Malcolm went to Mecca and experienced his second conversion to Islam, overwhelmed by the Brotherhood and the apparent dissolving of racial prejudices, he was, like Fard, speaking within the science of the day. Fard offered Islam as an answer to racial oppression at a time when eugenics was seen as legitimate science. Malcolm presented Islam as the antidote to racism at a time when science was already starting to abandon “race” as a meaningful category. We can only think and speak in the language that makes us. In Fard’s 1930s, the term “racism” had not yet found popular usage. There wasn’t even a word for the reality that Fard and his followers experienced.
When I reflect on this Savior, I remember a man who made choices with the resources that were available to him at the time. From those choices, we get a tradition that later gives us Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. For those of us who found ourselves in this tradition, Master Fard Muhammad’s choices gave us ourselves: 60, 70, 80 years after his disappearance, he pulled off our old names and gave us new ones. He said “Be!” and here we are.
Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) is the author of nine books, including Tripping with Allah, an exploration of Islam and ayahuasca, and Why I am a Five Percenter, a reflection on the Five Percenter movement.
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