Little is known about the mysterious religious and political leader Wallace D. Fard, credited with founding the Nation of Islam. Only the years 1930 to 1934 are clearly documented. He claimed to have been born in Mecca, a member of the tribe of Kureish, to which the Prophet Muhammad belonged, and to have been educated in England and at the University of California. His detractors claimed he had been jailed in California for dealing in narcotics. Neither of these accounts of his life was ever confirmed.
Fard appeared in Detroit sometime before 1930, peddling silks and raincoats and declaring that he was on a mission to secure justice, freedom, and equality for American blacks. He professed that he was an Islamic prophet and that redemption would come through Islam. Fard quickly gained a following, especially among recent immigrants from the South who were undergoing severe economic hardship. In 1930 he set up permanent headquarters for what he called the “Lost-Found Nation of Islam” in the Temple of Islam.
He also organized the Fruit of Islam, a defense corps; the Muslim Girls Training Corps Class; and the University of Islam, a radically unconventional elementary and high school that Muslim children attended instead of public schools. Fard began the practice of substituting X for black Muslims’ last names—disavowing their identities as slaves. The names were intended to be replaced later by their “original” Arabic names. Fard asserted that blacks were the first people on earth, indicating their superiority to whites, whom he castigated as devils. Fard was a reputed nationalist, calling for racial separatism and self-determination in the form of an independent black republic within current U.S. borders.
The Nation of Islam gained mainstream public attention in Detroit in November 1932 when one of its members, Robert Karriem, “sacrificed” his border, a fellow Nation member, by plunging a knife into his heart. Press reports tried to link this crime to his involvement in the Nation of Islam. The movement, however, continued. After converting an estimated eight thousand Detroit blacks to the Nation of Islam, Fard disappeared in late 1933 or 1934. His followers used the mysterious circumstances of Fard’s disappearance to deify him further, maintaining that he was God, although his successor as the Nation’s head, Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975), claimed to have accompanied him to the airport when he was deported.
While Wallace Fard clearly was important in the 1930s, his legacy in the large and influential Nation of Islam is more significant. Although his tenure with the organization was short, he continued to be revered as its spiritual leader. The Nation of Islam stated in an official publication in 1942, “We believe that Allah appeared in the person of Master W. Fard Muhammad, July 1930; the long-awaited ‘Messiah’ of the Christians and the ‘Mahdi’ of the Muslims.”