Muslim leaders in the US often find themselves in the media spotlight, with all the attendant fanfare and occasional controversy. For the past few decades, however, one major Muslim American leader managed to keep a low profile while at the same time leaving a lasting impression on the greater Muslim American landscape. That man was Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, who rose to prominence through the Nation of Islam led by his father, Elijah Muhammad, to become a globally recognized Muslim leader. He died yesterday at the age of 74.
WD Mohammed eventually rose to prominence in both African-American and immigrant Muslim communities, became the first Muslim to offer an invocation in the US Senate, and served in leadership positions of countless Muslim and interfaith organizations. His unlikely journey over 30 years ago from the socio-politically motivated Nation to mainstream Islam – one which the majority of approximately 2 million African American Muslims followed – remains his most awe-inspiring achievement, one that balanced pride in American ideals with the responsibility to make it a better country.
Even though he was seen as the natural successor for leadership within the Nation of Islam, WD Mohammad became increasingly open about his rejection of his father’s teachings: the divinity of blacks, the divine origins of Nation founder WD Fard as “Savior Allah incarnate”, and the belief that whites were the Devil incarnate. While serving time in prison for concientious objection to the military draft, Mohammad studied the Qur’an and built up the courage to confront his father’s teachings, even as he was groomed to succeed him. Once released from prison, his rejoined the leadership of his father’s movement, all the while his doubts growing stronger.
His refusal to endorse the unorthodox teachings of the Nation, combined with his open confrontation of corruption within it, kept him in obscurity among other leaders of the group. It was not until ten years later, after the death of his father, that WD Mohammad was able to ascend to leadership and begin turning the movement towards the vision he had spent the last decade crafting. By 1977, he formally broke the Nation away from its original teachings and discarded the name, leaving it and its few remaining believers to Minister Louis Farrakhan, who runs a much smaller Nation to this day.
While WD Mohammad was determined to re-orient his organization towards orthodox Islam, he did so without rejecting the positive teachings that the Nation brought to that community, such as self-reliance and personal discipline. “[He] was able to do two remarkable things,” says Sulayman Nyang, a professor of African Studies at Howard University. “One [was] the re-Islamization of the movement; the second, the re-Americanization of the movement.” Under his leadership, Imam Mohammad’s community reached out to other faith groups, stressed civic engagement as a means of self-empowerment, and worked for economic self-sufficiency. By some accounts, the community under his influence grew to nearly one million people.
Imam Mohammad’s influence, however, was felt outside the African-American Muslim community as well. While some immigrant muslims were (and still are) unaware of what WD Muhammad gave to their community, his influence was most profoundly felt within Muslim leadership. As he reached out to predominantly immigrant Muslim organizations, he brought the lessons of nearly a half-century of organization and vision-making to the table. After his invocation to the US Senate in 1993, he led two more for President Bill Clinton. He shared a stage with Pope John Paul II and The Dalai Lama in 1999, addressing 100,000 people at the Vatican. In 2000, he had a public reconciliation with Louis Farrakhan, though that was seen as a sign of the Nation’s increasing subordination to the global, mainstream Islam Mohammed steered his community towards.
Towards the end of his life, Imam Mohammad stepped down from day-to-day leadership of the now-decentralized community that his father once tightly controlled. Shunning the spotlight until the end, WD Mohammad found refuge in an organization called “The Mosque Cares“, where he spent his remaining days speaking about Islam and the need to create bridges of understanding between different faith and ethnic communities. “I don’t have a PhD,” he says. “I don’t have a master’s degree. I don’t even have a BA,” he once remarked to a room of Muslim teenagers. “But I’m connected to something mighty great. It makes me respectable, honorable in the company of kings, queens and presidents.”
“His intrinsic intelligence and high academic acumen made him wise, but his kind heart and charitable character is what made him so beloved,” remarked Congressman Andre Carson. “I extend my sympathies to his family and friends as they mourn his passing.” Carson, who is one of two Muslims currently in Congress, embodies the spirit of public service Mohammed tried to instill in Muslim Americans, one that combines a core Islamic spirituality with a universal sense of service to humanity. The sea change he led within the African American Muslim community will not likely be repeated. But it must be preserved.
A Muslim prayer service for Imam WD Mohammed is planned for Thursday, September 11 at 1:45 p.m. at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, 300 West Highridge Road, Villa Park, IL 60181, followed by internment to Mt. Glennwood Cemetary, 18301 East Glenwood and Thornton Road, Glenwood, IL 60425.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.