Warith Deen Mohammed: Imam who preached a moderate form of Islam to black Americans

The divisive Louis Farrakhan may be the best-known voice of America's black Muslims, but in recent decades, the most influential has undoubtedly belonged to Imam W. Deen Mohammed, who preached a more moderate and racially tolerant brand of the faith, and brought hundreds of thousands of his followers back into the global Islamic mainstream.

Imam Mohammed was the seventh son of Elijah Muhammad, who from 1935 until his death in 1975 led the Nation of Islam, the organisation set up by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930 to further the spiritual, social and economic identity of black Americans, and whose first name the baby was given.

From his early years, the child born Wallace Deen Mohammed was said to have been Elijah's favourite. He attended the Nation's school on the South Side of Chicago and learnt Arabic in order to read the Qu'ran in the original Arabic. He was widely considered to be his father's most likely successor.

However, at first gradually, and then dramatically, the two parted ways. For the studious and soft-spoken Wallace, the turning point came in 1961 when he refused to be drafted into the army, saying he would not fight for a country that practised racism and segregation against its black citizens.

Having turned down a plea bargain, he served a 14-month jail sentence at a federal prison in Minnesota. It was there that his views hardened against Elijah Muhammad's message of self-reliance and black supremacy. In his eyes, his father's teachings contradicted true Islam, and however noble its original aspirations, the Nation had become corrupt, even blasphemous.

Thereafter, relations between father and son grew ever stormier. Expelled, reinstated, expelled again from the Nation, and often disowned by his family, Wallace Mohammed worked variously as a welder, baker, carpet-cleaner and painter. "If he hadn't hurt me, I don't know that I would have come to Allah like I did," the future Imam Mohammed said years later. But at the time the process was deeply painful.

He grew close to Malcolm X, another disciple of the Nation increasingly doubtful of the course it had taken, until Malcolm was assassinated in 1965. Only in 1974 did he finally rejoin the organisation for good.

Yet the succession was never really in doubt. When Elijah died in 1975, his son was elected Supreme Minister by acclamation. The changes came quickly. The doctrine of black supremacy, held to be at odds with true Islam, was discarded, as was the insistence on the divinity of Wallace Fard, the Nation's founder. "He was not God, I knew he was not God," the new leader told an interviewer years later, "and Elijah Muhammad was not a prophet".

He promoted a new emphasis on the traditional tenets of Islam, including Arabic classes, prayer five times a day, the observation of Ramadan and the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a believer's life. In 1976, Elijah's son announced that he would be known by the modest title of Imam, instead of Supreme Minister. That year he also changed the Nation's name, to World Community of al-Islam in the West. Later it would become today's American Society of Muslims.

The new orthodoxy was predictably too much for the radical faction led by Farrakhan, who broke away and in 1977 reformed the old Nation of Islam, with the defiantly separatist, often anti-white and anti-Semitic views for which Farrakhan is best known.

Imam Mohammed, however, moved into the Islam mainstream, and so did his followers, their number estimated at anywhere from a few hundred thousand to 2m, the "silent majority" of the old Nation that was not wedded to Farrakhan. He strove to meld African-American Muslims with immigrant Muslim communities in the US, and to bring them firmly into the global faith of Islam. In doing so, Imam Mohammed became a notable figure on the world religious stage, meeting Pope John Paul II several times and taking part in high-level inter-faith meetings with Catholics and Jews.

At home, he became the first Muslim to give the traditional invocation in the US senate, and he led prayers at the inauguration ceremonies of President Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Four years later came the most delicate reconciliation of all, as Imam Mohammed and Louis Farrakhan made a public peace of their own.

Rupert Cornwell

Wallace (later Warith) Deen Mohammed, US Muslim leader: born Detroit 30 October 1933; married four times (nine children); died Chicago 9 September 2008.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
News
Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
peopleBut who comes top of the wish list?
News
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, right, with Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds in Newtown, Powys, as part of her tour in support of the party’s female candidates
general electionNick Clegg's wife has impressed during the campaign
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living