Yesterday, iconic muslim-American leader Warith Deen Mohammed passed away. I want to reflect a bit on the significance of this man’s achievement and note what a landmark his life’s work was on the landscape of American Islam. But to understand the impact of what WD Mohammed achieved, it is necessary to remember another man, who died almost 44 years earlier: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, also known as Malcolm X.
Anyone who has read Malcolm X’s autobiography will recall that when X performed the hajj in April 1964, it was like a new revelation, completely transforming his militant views on racism. The spectacle of Hajj, with all race and class stripped away as men and women alike perform the simple acts of piety en masse, left an indelible impression upon him. As X wrote,
“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world.
They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans.
But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit
of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to
believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.
may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage,
what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of
my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my
previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my
firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and
to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge
unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the
flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent
search for truth.
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim
world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and
slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)-while praying to the same
God with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose
hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of
white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the
‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black
African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.
We are truly all the same-brothers.
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.”
The act of Hajj gave X the cumulative strength of Islam as his weapon against racism, and inspired him to embrace mainstream Sunni Islam. He had broken with the Nation of Islam only a month prior to embarking upon Hajj, and on his return established his own organization. The tension between him and the Nation of Islam ultimately led to his assassination, most likely at the direct command of Elijah Muhammed, then-leader of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm’s closest mentor, until their parting of ways.
Elijah Mohammed is W. Deen Mohammed father, and upon the former’s passing in 1975 it was WD Mohammed who took the reigns of the Nation of Islam. Consider the following facts about the Nation of Islam at the time:
- NOI was a black supremacist, black separatist organization.
- One cornerstone of NOI belief was that the white race was a genetic experiment gone awry.
- The Negro race is believed to be God’s chosen people upon the earth.
- NOI doctrine held that Wallace Fard Mohammed, the NOI founder, was literally Allah.
These views and beliefs are explictly stated in the official platform of beliefs written by Elijah Muhammad and published in 1965.
That was then.
Today, the black muslim-american community overwhelmingly embraces mainstream Sunni in its belief, apart from a splinter minority group (led by Louis Farakhan) that still holds onto the original Nation of Islam name. The mainstream black muslim community affirms the equal value of all races under God and seeks to work side by side other Americans of all faiths in doing good works for the community. And most importantly, the followers of WD Mohammed embrace the true shahada, that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad SAW is his only, and final, prophet.
It is said that if Mohammed SAW would not come to the mountain, then the mountain must come to Mohammed SAW. Literally, it was WD Mohammed who moved that mountain to the doorstep of the Holy Prophet SAW. It is hard to convey the enormity of the task that WD Mohammed had undertaken in his lifetime. Here is how his biography page at The Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam describes the task:
The change and growth which has characterized Imam W. Deen Mohammed´s leadership since 1975 has been a progression toward satisfying the essentials of Muslim life and identity, and in the measure required by the authentic sources of the religion of Islam – the Holy Qur´an and the life example of Muhammed the Prophet (the prayers and the peace be on him).
Through the arduous steps of evolution from the ´Nation of Islam´ (1930-1976) to the ´World Community of Al-Islam in the West´ (1976-1981) to the ´American Muslim Mission´ (1081-1985) Imam Mohammed has piloted his people to what is today a de-centralized and thriving society of Muslim Americans. With Mosques and schools in every major city in Ameirca, and in parts of Canada and the Caribbean, he has garnered a respect and acceptance for Islam in the West not known before. The facts and details of his record of transforming a people depicted at the extreme of a “proto-Islamic” idea which combined Black nationalism and religion, into a community of Muslim Americans esteemed in the international following of Muhammed the Prophet, stands as testimony to his courage, dedication, wisdom, and firm faith in G-d.
Arduous steps of evolution, indeed. In a sense, WD Mohammed followed the path of Malcolm X instead of the path of his own father, and in many ways is the true heir to Malcolm’s legacy. But I think WD Mohammed’s task was greater, and harder. May Allah reward him for his khidmat to his fellow man and the American ummah as a whole.