The Most Important Muslim You've Never Heard of

Warith Deen Mohammed, spiritual leader of thousands of U.S. Muslims, dramatically changed Islam in America.

BY: Monique Parsons


It may have been the most earth-shaking news to hit American Muslims since Sept. 11, 2001, but you wouldn't have known it from reading the morning paper.

Warith Deen Mohammed, spiritual leader of the American Society of Muslims and perhaps the most influential American Muslim ever, announced over Labor Day weekend in Chicago that he was stepping down. His action barely registered on the mainstream radar.

Yet some 20 percent of the roughly 3.5 million American Muslims are African American-and most follow W. Deen Mohammed or some other orthodox teacher. (By comparison, Louis Farrakhan, head of the more famous Nation of Islam, leads an estimated 100,000).

In stepping down, Mohammed implicitly criticized some of the American Muslim leaders for not taking orthodox Islam seriously enough.  "I have tried over the last 10 to 12 years to encourage them to get more religious education, but I have made no progress," he told the Chicago Tribune. "American Society of Muslim leaders don't support me, but the followers do."

The favorite son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammed, W. Deen Mohammed rose to power the day after his father's death on Feb. 25, 1975. Taking the helm of the NOI--a group that linked Islam with separatism and racial hatred--he led his flock on a dramatic new journey toward orthodox Sunni Islam.

Like Malcolm X had done more than a decade before, Mohammed rejected his father's racism, emphasized Islamic ritual observance and gained the respect of Muslim leaders worldwide. And he brought hundreds of thousands of people with him.

David Shaheed, now a criminal court Judge in Indianapolis and a leader in the American Society of Muslims, was one of countless college students who joined the Nation during this dynamic period. He credits Mohammed with changing the course of history for all Americans.

"Instead of having revolution in the streets," Shaheed says, Mohammed led a quiet revolution of his own: "He took the Qu'ran and made better citizens for the community."

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