Emphasizing change, particularly new ideas he is trying to bring to the World Community of Islam in the West, once known as the Black Muslim faith, Wallace Muhammad spoke for almost two hours last week to an enthusiastic audience of about 2,000 persons at Howard University.
In a rambling speech that included touches of sermonizing and even comedy, Muhammad left no doubt that he is continuing his quest to win the complete allegiance of Muslims who once followed his late father, Elijah.
Elijah Muhammad died three years ago after leading the Black Muslims for 41 years, and Wallace assumed leadership of the Muslims.
The Howard audience gave him three rousing ovations starting with loud acclaim as he entered the staged during an address by another speaker.
Muhammad seemed disorganized and ill at ease early in his speech as he offered several disjointed apologies for what he called "recent criticisms" of his leadership. Although he did not mention him by name, Muhammad's reference here apparently was to Abdul H. Farrakhan, who has organized a group of Muslims opposed to Muhammad's policies.
In the last three years, Muhammad has moved to put considerable distance between his polices and those of his father, and criticism has resulted.
Among Wallace Muhammad's controversial changes is the selling of Muslim businesses he has described as unprofitable. "In many cases," he told the Howard audience, "those businesses were just shells fed by charity. Who wants a show (of) business supported by poor people? . . . They should be supported on their own strength."
In duscussing other variations on his father's policies, Muhammad said, "I'm not walking in his shoes. These shoes belong to me . . . "That brought him rousing applause.
Last year, Muhammad made a surprising disclosure through a representative that his father, once called "The Messenger of Allan," or the human representative of God, would be considered merely a leader . Muhammad eschewed any claim of divinity himself by taking the title "imam" or minister. Orthodox Muslim religious leaders are called imams. They have no authority and are respected only for their piety and religious scholarship.
About two years ago, Muhammad began a campaign to urge followers to refer to themselves as "Bilalians" or "African Americans" instead of "black" or Afro American."
Use of the term Bilalian seems to have caught on only among ardent followers, though the Muslim newspaper "Muhammad Speaks was renamed "Bilalian News" and Muhammad apparently uses the term unfailingly, as he did at Howard Friday night.
Bilal is said to have been the darkest-skinned personal associate of the prophet Mohammed. "He was a slave, but he held up under pressure from people who wanted to destroy the faith," explained Talib Siraaj Shahid, a member of the Muslim Students for Universal Peace. He said the 10-member group, which sponsored Muhammad's talk, was formed last November. It is estimated that Howard has 400 Muslim students.
Muhammad has taken several trips to the Middle East and met with many religious and political leaders there. Arab, Bengali, Pakistani and other Muslims in Washington no longer view the religious creed of the WCIW as differing substantively from their own and frequently worship in the local "Masjid" or mosque at 1519 4th St. NW.
The fruit of Islam, a male-only military branch of the old Nation of Islam of Black Muslims, which lent the group a violent air, was disbanded under Muhammad's leadership.
He referred to it obliquely when he said the rumor was "I just tore the FOI up and threw the captains out into society . . . We have phased the old FOI movement into a new phase of coummunity service." He said many captains in the Fruit of Islam were given business training courses and now are running many of the "Shabazz" businesses.
He said some business in the organization are run through "stealing" and "violence." "There are small pockets like this," he said. "If they don't reform, they're going to be served from this community." He did not specify whether any such groups exist in the Washington area.
The reversal of the segregationist policy of the group was not apparent in the makeup of the crowd, which contained only a handful of whites. But Muhammad spoke warmly of "Caucasians" in general.
At one point, he said his father's racial policies and leadership purposely had the effect of influencing followers "as a herd awakened by a gunshot; it is time to be led by a shepherd with a ration 1 rod in his hand."
"The white man's been in the masjid (mosque) ever since time began," he said. "To invite Caucasians into this community will allow us to try and meet the challenge (of brotherhood) . . . Our message is too powerful for some Causasian devil to come in and start something."
But he pointed out that the "devils" come in all colors, adding, "There are many that with blacks sins who are working against his community . . . It so happens that the recent history of the world is of the Caucasian devil kindom. Even some of you have joined the devil kingdom."
He advised the crowd to "forget about whitey. the Causasian doesn't want to be called racist. He wants to get along with you. They have confessed. They aren't going to do anything to us. They want to get along with us. Leave them alone! Give them a chance to recuperate."
He generally denigrated the American black community, saying "the most primitive masses can be found in the United States of America."
"You can lead a whole neighborhood of Bilalians," he said. "You better throw in a few reefers (marijuana), and you've got it made." The crowd whooped.
Much of his nearly two-hour speech was spent defining his concept of the "devil" in American society. He attributed much of current-day "suffering" to the marketing of goods and films.
"Superfly wasn't a natural (development). It was planned (to sell) superfly clothes and superfly shoes, superfly everything . . . They want you to support the market . . . Right now, the fool is being made. The market is waiting."
He said the freedom to choose is the "greatest burden for human beings. Born free. Thta's for fools. The intelligent people who run the world know that."
He made a plea for a drastic change in life style for the crowd. "We are not rich. We should be in a suit that costs $20." He said "the devils" create the appetie in people for things they cannot afford, which leads to frustration and crime. Then they call us "criminals".
"The devils are ploting the destruction of human form."
He said if people tried, they could "live happily in a housing project with one big mess hall" and "one bathroom per floor." The crowd fell silent. Then he told them. "If you're not ready for this, you're not ready to rise up out of your condition."
The subject of world commerce also was a recurring theme for Muhammad. His father did a lot of food importing to bolster the profits of Shabazz food concerns.
"You have got to come out of your fear," he said. "If American citizens are going to Red China to do business, you have the same . . . right. So take it!
"There are Americans over in the Middle East saying 'A Salaam Alaikum' (peace be unto you, the traditional Muslin greeting), and they are Christian American Causasians . . . We should be doing business there."