Some reflections on the tenor of criticism of W.D. Mohammed’s alleged “errors”

There’s been an interesting debate over on between Imam W.D. Mohammed’s defenders and his detractors.

Below is a comment I left, in reaction to Swarth Moor’s harsh pronouncements (who also left a comment here, to which I intend to reply soon, insha’Allah).

W.D. Mohammed: A Witness for True Islam |

I don’t at all agree with Swarth Moor’s conclusions, but I concede that these are understandable concerns for many given the gravity of the specifical [sic!] credal matters involved and how simplistically Islamic tradition is often presented. There’s no question that WDM was a maverick in some of his pronouncements and that he advocated reforms to which many traditionalists object strenuously.

For some, that automatically disqualifies him (and many, many others who are widely respected) as a Muslim leader. I see it differently in light of how many woefully wrongheaded ideas and ideologies have at times been promoted by impeccably traditional scholars. Assuming Swarth Moor’s critique to have some validity for the sake of conversation, WDM was by no means the only Muslim leader to arguably make some mistakes on aqidah (e.g., the all out assault on all forms of Tasawwuf that many traditionally trained scholars either personally waged or cooperated with until recently). While he may indeed have been “guilty” of modernism (which is in the eye of the beholder) in some respects–again, a rather common vice today; are we suddenly Khawarij?–he certainly never advocated dead-end interpretations and ideologies that paralyzed Muslims’ intellectually or politically, much less stoked takfir and needless hatred of non-Muslims, as did some arguably “traditional” scholars. He didn’t have to reinvent himself after 9/11 to be relevant.

When his ideas are examined, he should be extended the same common courtesy that we extend scholars on the other, equally misunderstood end of the spectrum. And an attempt should be made to understand how his ideas fit into his community’s context.

However, I have to lament how these sentiments are invariably expressed in the haughtiest and most biased, unobjective manner. What ever happened to “Allahu alim”? Just once I want to hear a criticism of this nature presented with some humility and an acknowledgment that *the critic* might be mistaken in some of his assumptions, whether merely about the target of his barbs or even the proper understanding of foundations of the Deen itself.

No doubt true scholars are able to answer many of these questions definitively, but they’re not us. It doesn’t follow that *follower* understands these things with that same degree certainty and is therefore entitled to make such categorical pronouncements (much less swagger about). When you’re criticizing a prominent leader you ought to do it with a certain amount of caution and circumspection. Even if you’re right, they’ve probably earned that courtesy by dint of service to Islam and the community.

My original intention was to make a totally different comment about the parallels between the preservation of Islam among African-Americans and Muslims in former Soviet Bloc nations, but that’ll have to be another time.

  • Omar

    Assalamu ‘alaikum.
    Many African American Muslims have voiced similar concerns regrarding certain credal positions of Imam WD. They have, thereby, been a bit more cautious in claiming him to be their leader. I think that many of those who push the idea of an American Islam (as opposed to an immigrant Islam), maybe du to their hope to have thier first indidgenous imam, have projected Imam WD’s role as a leader in a way that does not reflect how people in the American Muslim community have viewed him. Many of the people who hold some reservation about him being a leader due to credal matters do, at the same time, acknowledge the great good he has done for the American Muslim community.
    So to me, when we say he is a leader and use the title of imam, we should be a bit more specific as to what we mean. One thing that I understand is that for many of my African American brothers and sisters, Imam WD was a leader in many areas but not in credal matters. This is the impression that I have gotten from discussions with people who became muslim through the Imam’s community and then later left due to many reasons; one of them being credal matters.
    I would say, in the end, that we need to be more aware of our use of the term Imam and other terms that we use from out religious heritage.
    Allah the Exalted knows best.

  • svend

    Salaams, Omar
    Thanks for the comment. You make several excellent points.
    I agree that WDM didn’t meet the criteria for that title in the fullest sense, but this seems a rather technical point. We use “shaykh” in many different senses–I see no reason why the usage of “imam” must be limited so strictly.
    More importantly, I don’t agree with the common assumption that non-scholars are the only people who should have a place in discussions of faith, practice or even aqidah. Simply put, traditional scholars misspeak on various matters all the time without the world coming to an end. There are different kinds of knowledge and wisdom, and traditional institutions face unprecedented challenges today to produce scholars with the mix of in-depth knowledge and holistic vision that are required to tackle the thorny problems facing modern Muslims, especially in non-Muslim societies. We need to draw on more than just traditionally trained scholars for this discussion.