Without Burnsteen Sharrieff Mohammed’s secretarial and clerical skills and her intuitive understanding of W.D. Fard’s beliefs and principles, the Nation of Islam might never have blossomed. Much has been written and discussed about the emergence of the NOI, but rarely do they include the indispensable contributions of Mohammed or Muhammad. It was her ability to decipher Fard Muhammad’ notes, to develop his concepts and to structure his vision that gave life to an organization later brought to prominence by Elijah Muhammad.
Much of this history, for so many years missing, came to light after Mohammed’s siblings found the documents in the house where their mother lived. (She died Feb. 28, 2002.) Six years ago, they took the rare documents, including letters from W.D. Fard, plans and a syllabus for a University of Islam and policies governing the organization, to Detroit attorney Gregory Reed. Reed helped the family secure the documents and prepare them for exhibit and a national tour.
Reed also began the process of creating a The Fard Center for Research and the possible publication of some of the more relevant documents.
The discovery was a trove of information about the early years of the NOI and the life and times of W.D. Fard, particularly his relationships with Mohammed and Elijah Muhammad.
According to her brief autobiography, Mohammed first encountered Fard in October 1932 in Detroit’s Black Bottom when she was 17. “Every Tuesday we had a picnic with Muslims only,” she related after noting the location of the Temple of Islam over the Castle Theater on Hastings Street. “We danced, played games, especially baseball. At the picnic, we would win prizes.”
But beyond the games and recreational activity was her commitment to help Fard transcribe and circulate his dictations. “I converted from long hand into typing,” she continued, something she could do with great speed and accuracy after studying at the city’s Commerce High School. “Of the first nine laborers chosen by Master W.D. Fard, I was the only female laborer.”
She recalled that Fard wrote her lines at the bottom of his notes and letters. “‘Always re-read what you type,’” he insisted. “‘Don’t close your eyes and trust in God!’ Now he taught us that the Black people were the god, so when I would say my prayers, I’d shut my eyes and envision that great mass of people as God.”
Not much is known of Mohammed’s early years, other than she was born July 14, 1915, and attended Commerce High School, where she was among the best students in acquiring secretarial and clerical skills, including her ability to type nearly 100 words a minute without errors.
Her proficiency was so important that Fard made her his secretary and gave her the title of “The Reformer.” And even with her great skills and insight, it must have been a challenge at times to fully discern all of Fard’s ideas and creativity. Consider this problem that was part of the papers discovered by attorney Reed and transcribed by Mohammed:
“The uncle of Mr. W. D. Fard lives in the wilderness of North America, and he is living other than himself; therefore, he weighs more than his height and his blood pressure registers more than 31. This killed him at the age of 44 years. The average person breathes three cubic feet of air per hour, but the uncle of Mr. W. D. Fard breathes three and seven-tenths of cubic feet of air per hour. How many cubic feet of air did Mr. W. D. Fard’s uncle breathe in 44 years? How many atoms does he breathe in all of his 44 years when one one-hundredth of a cubic inch contains two hundred million atoms?”
And this problem was one of the easiest of the exam questions that converts had to answer and memorize, questions that required basic comprehension of calculus, algebra and trigonometry. Students at the University of Islam were required to remember the lessons without referring to the texts, and Reed has in his possession an original copy of “The Secret Ritual of the Nation of Islam,” which converts never actually saw but memorized in certify their membership and grades from the University of Islam,
At a news conference in the summer of 2010, Reed said, “The collection illustrates how the Nation of Islam was created … and the items are being secured in a vault, scheduled for exhibition, and preserved for scholars and others interested in learning about this great organization.”
Mohammed was 20 when she married John Muhammad, Elijah’s brother, in 1935. John, who was born Herbert Poole in Cordele, Ga., and was the first assistant principal at the University of Islam and taught the beginners’ class, died May 3, 2005. He was 95. He and Mohammed produced 14 children and had 34 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren and 3 great-great grandchildren.
The ingenuity and structuring of the University of Islam, the development of the curriculum, largely based on the dictations Mohammed received from Fard, was formatted and designed into departments, according to the documents in Reed and his Keeper of the Word Foundation. Among the possessions are rare signed and handwritten documents detailing the internal departmental process: Application to be a member, the department of justice and court discipline methods that were later exercised when Malcolm X was disciplined and silenced, as well as what was required of students to complete their graduation from the university.
All of this work was facilitated by Mohammed, and we are still waiting to see if the research center project will be completed and the extent to which her role in the history of the NOI will be duly recorded.