The seventh of eight children, Wallace would later be considered “NOI royalty,” inheritor of his father’s influential position and wealth. While his father was alive, Wallace rebelled continually. He was excommunicated five times and at one point, prohibited from communicating with family members.
Wallace attended an NOI school from 1952 to 1954 where he learned Arabic. In prison, where he was serving a term for draft evasion, Mohammed began studying the Bible and Qur’an and saw contradictions between traditional Islam and the NOI, which was a syncretic mix of freemasonry, Christianity, and Islam.
A year after his release, Mohammed officially left the NOI after rumors of his father’s infidelity surfaced. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, he re-entered the group.
By age twenty-five, he was leading Temple No. 11 in Philadelphia. Against NOI convention, he led followers in traditional Islamic prayer and read the Qur’an in services. While he was careful not to openly question his father and the Fard’s divinity, Mohammed carefully reinterpreted their work as allegorical.
Many were surprised when Mohammed was named successor upon his father’s death in 1975. Within two months, Mohammed redirected what scholar C. Eric Lincoln labeled a “proto-Islamic cult” towards orthodox Sunni Islam. By 1977, he led hundreds of followers on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Symbolically, he changed his name from Wallace D. Muhammad to Warith Deen Mohammed. In 1976, the Nation of Islam became the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, which in 1980 became the American Muslim Mission. The organization’s journal, Muhammad Speaks, was renamed Bilalian News, after the Prophet Muhammad’s African companion, Bilal ibn Rabah.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Mohammed’s congregation numbered 300,000. He gained acceptance in mainstream Sunni Muslim American organizations, and made peace with his father’s remaining followers, who had splintered away under Louis Farrakhan’s leadership in 1978.
In 1992, Mohammad led the first Muslim invocation in the United States Senate. He was involved in charity and interfaith work, developing friendly relations with the Vatican, and working tirelessly to integrate the NOI into mainstream American society.
On September 9, 2008, Warith Deen Mohammed died of natural causes in Chicago.
“Muhammad, Warith Deen,” in Larry G. Murphy, J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward, eds., Encyclopedia of African American Religions (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993); “Mohammed, W. D.,” Edward E. Curtis IV, ed., Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, vol. II (New York : Facts on File, 2010); http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/warith_deen_mohammed.html
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