If you haven't heard, I'm sorry to inform you that a great American leader has left us. Imam Warith Deen Mohammed passed away yesterday. May Allah grant him paradise, give strength to his family and comfort the many who will be devastated by his departure from this plane.
Imam Mohammed is best known outside the Muslim community for courageously repudiating the racialized theology of the original Nation of Islam and leading its community into Sunni Islam after he took over its leadership upon the death of his father, Elijah Muhammad.
But that's just the beginning of the story. It's not a story I could do any justice, so let me just say since that fateful day he has, I think, been the preeminent African American Muslim leader, one of America's most important spiritual leaders, and the often unsung (not to mention occasionally maligned) hero of Muslim integration into American life (e.g., he gave the first Islamic prayer in the U.S. Senate, in 1990).
Imam Mohammed was a leader in the fullest sense of the word, and he took a lot of heat for it. (The sniping against him always outraged me.) Back when many prominent North American Muslim leaders were, let's face it, high on various sterile imported ideologies that impair one's rational faculties and narrow one's vision of the human family, Imam Mohammed was preaching his own–if I may borrow a metaphor from a leading voice of reform today– "radical middle way". He was promoting common sense, moderation and dialogue at a time when none of these were politically correct in wide swathes of the community. He didn't fall for all this pseudo-intellectual junk theology that so many of us are still painfully shaking off today.
As we celebrate this humble, unassuming man's momentous achievements we'd be remiss not to pause and ponder how so many of his once vocal critics have either been consigned to the dust bin of history (for example, these jokers, or these schizophrenic dinosaurs) or have been forced by history to hastily reinvent themselves in his mold in recent years (e.g., yesterday's critics of Muslim involvement with democracy and the "Kuffar" who are today's most eager participants in post-9/11 interfaith dialogue). No one is perfect, we all have our limitations, and no leader can avoid mistakes, but overall he was far ahead of his time–he got the biggest challenges facing American Muslims before they were even on the radar screen of many other leaders who took him to task for dogmatic technicalities–while so many of those who attacked him were, in contrast, holding theirs back.
Granted, for years he has been rightly praised across the spectrum of Muslim America, but it's a shame it took, as the saying goes, so long for this prophet to be fully accepted by his own people. Imagine how much good he could have done if all these more "learned" traditional scholars and leaders that gave him (and the balanced and dynamic community he led) short shrift for so long had had the humility to give serious thought to his deceptively simple and profound vision of common sense, dialogue and down-home ihsan, say, a decade earlier?
Inna lillahi wa innaa ilayhi rajioon. From God we come and to Him we return.
His janaza (funeral) service will be streamed live today by the Muslim Journal at 1:45 PM Central Time.