Sherman Jackson on WDM, divisions among Black Muslims, and the road ahead

As a commenter astutely noted, not all Black Muslims in this country looked to W.D. Mohammed for leadership. Many assimilated fully into mainstream, majority-immigrant mosques and institutions, in some cases going abroad for traditional training, as well.

Dr. Sherman Jackson, one of the most important North American Muslim jurists, scholars and community leaders–not to mention the author of an extremely important book on American Islam –has penned a fascinating reflection (posted on the old faithful Manrilla Blog) about Imam W.D. Mohammed’s legacy and the complicated relationship he and the community he led often had with other Black Sunni Muslims.

It illustrates a very important aspect that I left unmentioned, partly out of a sense of my “place”  and in the interest of space. The worst scorn and sniping often came from fellow Blacks, not immigrants.

Dr. Jackson doesn’t make this point, but personally I think it’s fair to say that this is partly due to the disproportionate role long played by Wahhabism in one form or another in non-WDM urban mosques. Not because they “infiltrated” inner cities, but 1) because their strict, cut & dried approach naturally appeals to those who feel their world has gone to Hell in a handbasket (not unlike the militant preaching one regularly encounters at urban, “front-line” churches) and 2) they were willing to invest in desperately need urban Islamic infrastructure when others weren’t (even if said funding sometimes came with Faustian conditions).

For many years in urban Muslim life, the Muslim community was tri-polar, with the most prominent Islamic culturo-religious institutions on the ground being in the orbit of either WDM’s community, Wahhabism or the Nation of Islam. There have no doubt always been many individual exceptions and some local anomalies (e.g., the Naqshabandis under Sheikh Kabbani in Los Angeles, whom I think had some success in reforming some gangbangers, getting them to if you will exchange the 40 Ounce for dhikr), but I think those have been the organizational players in urban Islam on the national stage. (Incidentally, I’ve seen claims of Shia inroads in some places. If anyone has info, please chime in.)

That’s not to say (as Azhar Usman’s moving apology shows), that he consistently got the respect he deserved within majority-immigrant communities, but more often than not when immigrant leaders contributed to this problem it was in a more passive manner, whether damning with faint praise or just cold ignoring him entirely (presumably simply out of ignorance in many cases). When he and his community were openly attacked, to the contrary, it often usually by other Blackamerican Muslims, and some really went for the jugular.

Only a few years ago, I was shocked to see, on a mailing list of Muslim grad students and academics, a knowledable and traditionally trained Muslim grad student who was Black quip brazenly that the “W.D.” might stand for “Weak Deen”. At the time, I went ballistic and made rather pointed comparisons between WDM’s accomplishments on the ground in American society and those of most prominent immigrant Muslim leaders who sniffed at the homespun delivery of his message. Hopefully, such slights will no longer be socially acceptable after this outpouring in his honor.

The Manrilla Blog | Life. Art. Religion. Culture. » Imâm W. D. Mohammed and The Third Resurrection by Dr. Sherman Jackson

I remember Philadelphia in the late 70s and early 80s, when Imam Mohammed was in this midst of his history-making transition. Those of us converts who had been blessed with greater access to (what we thought was) traditional learning would deride the way members of the World Community of Al-Islam in the West recited al-Fâtihah, joke about how they gave salâms and relish their inability to keep up with us on all of the irrelevant minutia on which we so self-righteously prided ourselves. We were better than them; for we were real Sunnis, not half-baptist wannabes. For all our ‘knowledge,’ however, we were completely devoid of wisdom and even more ignorant of the Sunna of Muhammad (SAWS). Of course, our high-handed arrogance would produce over time an understandable counter-arrogance. To the Imam’s community, we were confused, self-hating Negroes, wannabe Arabs, fresh off the back of the bus onto the back of the camel. If what we displayed was what the so-called Islamic sciences were supposed to be about, they would have little use for them. Ultimately, this would lead to a quiet resentment, mistrust and even hostility, not only towards us but also towards the so-called Islamic tradition that we so dismally (mis)represented. Of course, there were those from Imam Mohammed’s community who managed to transcend some of this alienation. But this was far more the exception than it was the rule.

  • Swarth Moor

    I think the issue that people are failing to address with the passing of WD Mohammed is what did the man actually teach for most of his life (although there are some claims that he changed in recent years). People are making the argument in his defense that “he called people to Sunni Islam.” The same argument–following such a line of reasoning–is that Elijah Muhammad and Farrakhan (who were/are FAR MOOR popular) have called people to Islam.
    When we examine the practices/claims of WD Mohammed absolutely contradict Sunni Islam. WD, for instance, did not follow a madhhab or traditional scholarship. To the contrary, he actually considered madhhabs a “foreign” importation and had little to offer his followers. He considered those people “fools” (his words–not mine) if they were to think that HE would follow a Madhhab. That certainly isn’t the position of Ahl-us-Sunnah wal-Jamaah. His `Aqidah was not that of the Islamic orthodoxy. To the contrary, one can find very little where he ever taught anything about the `Aqidah. What is confirmed from him is that he claimed that Christianity is a valid religion and that (mukallaf) Christians need not embrace Islam to be saved in the Hereafter. By following this invalid line of reasoning, he claimed that it was permissible for the Muslim female to marry the Christian male–a matter which blatantly contradicts the Qur’an (60:10) and the Ijmaa` of the Ummah. His so-called “imams” performed many such (invalid) marriages. So in addition to various peculiar practices promoted by his organization, such as, proms with jazz musicians and inter-gender dancing, he also opposed matters in the Usul of the Religion. WD/his followers adopted numerous heretical positions that are not remotely related to any of the recognized Madhhabs of Ahl-us-Sunnah.
    What people have done is erroneously assume that his rejection of his father’s ridiculuous doctrines is to be equated with orthodox (Sunni). Rejection of one, however, does not necessarily entail the embracing of the other. To the contrary, one should examine whether or not the person’s practices and doctrine conform to the Sunni norm. WD’s certainly didn’t. Lastly, in drawing people’s attention to the NUMEROUS strayings advocated by an individual does not make one a so-called Salafi or an extremist. It is done merely to protect the Religion of Allah, warn people against ascribing a status to a person who does not deserve it, and to make the halaal distinct and clear from the haraam.

  • svend

    Salaams, Swarth Moor
    First, my compliments on a brilliant handle.
    Don’t have time now to respond at the moment, but thank you for the very thoughtful response.
    I look forward to doing so, as best I can, soon, insha’Allah.
    In the meantime, let me just note that that I realize there are, depending on one’s position on these questions, legitimate objections about various aspects of WDM’s approach and I don’t mean to imply that he never made mistakes.
    But sometimes one can be wrong on details but right on the bigger picture. Sometimes one’s instincts are rooted in deep understanding even if one has trouble articulating the complexities of one’s conclusions. I think there’s a tendency to mistake total recall for insight and mastery (which brings to mind, of course, a famous Quranic parable involving donkeys laden with books). One needs both memorization and higher level analysis, and the latter is something a lot of traditionally-trained scholars seem allergic to.
    Also, my problem isn’t with those who humbly and respectfully critiqued what they see as mistaken. As you might imagine, it’s with those who backbite and mock well intentioned efforts by a fellow Muslim which they may not fully comprehend.

  • Swarth Moor

    @ Akram
    Let me say that WDM was not TOTALLY wrong. There is a challenge to establish (genuine) Islamic institutions in America and that African-American Muslims come from a unique set of circumstances. Nonetheless, all that we do must conform to the Sacred Law. If it doesn’t then one falls into all sorts of sins–such as, misguiding others (wherein one bears the sins of those whom he misguided).
    Knowledge preceeds deeds. If we are sincere, we have to GET TO THE BOTTOM OF ISSUES–and see who is right and who is wrong–AND WHY. WDM simply was not equiped with an adequate degree of religious knowledge to deal with the monumental task(s) he was confronted with. As a result, he passed Religious pronouncements in ignorance (which in itself is an enormity) and he misled A LOT of people. Furthermore, open disdain for traditional scholarship tht he held for many years made it all the more impossible for him to actually fix the problems of African-American Muslims.
    Again to be fair, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. African-American Muslims often do not have the same concerns that middle class immigrant suburbanites have, and something needs to be done to address their concerns. But those concerns must be addressed with traditional Religious Knowledge. As an African-American student of traditional knowledge who worked for almost a decade in the inner city da`wah scene (largely African-American population), i don’t see where the Religion (and classical scholarship) fails to meet the needs of black folks. The problem isn’t in the religious knolwedge or scholarship, the challenge is getting African-American Muslims to implement that knowledge–which will benefit them in this life and save them in the Hereafter.
    With Allah is th success.

  • natural detox

    ly noted, not all Black Muslims in this country looked to W.D. Mohammed for leadership. Many assimilated fully into mainstream, majority-immigrant mosques and institutions, in some cases going abroad for traditional training, as well.Dr. Sherman Jackson, one of the most impor