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

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:15

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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments