BOSTON — Like he has most of the last 25 Labor Day weekends, Imam
Taalib Mahdee will spend this one in Chicago at an annual convention
organized by the Ministry of Warith Deen Mohammed.
The big difference this year? Mohammed, who died a few days after
last year’s convention at age 74, won’t be there.
Mahdee acknowledged that the death of Mohammed, whose moderation
earned him the respect of Muslim and non-Muslim leaders alike, had
“shocked” the community.
“Not hearing him and not seeing him, you can’t help but feel a
difference. But we know what he wants. We know his vision, and our job
is to carry it out,” said Mahdee, 59, of Boston. “And I’m going to show
In the year since Mohammed’s death, no one has assumed his mantle as
the country’s de facto Muslim leader. Rather than naming a successor,
the community elected a seven-member shura, or consultative council, in
June. The council’s success or failure could have profound implications
for Islam in America, and African-American Muslims in particular.
Mohammed preached living according to the Quran, full integration
into American life and working for the betterment of local communities.
For many African-American Muslims, Mohammed’s movement was an appealing
alternative to radical interpretations of Islam or the Nation of Islam,
the black separatist movement founded by Mohammed’s father, Elijah
Because this year’s convention is the first without Mohammed since
he took over the community after his father died in 1975, its success —
as measured by attendance, unity and donations — is seen by some black
Muslim leaders as a good barometer of the community’s overall health.
In recent years, the convention has attracted as many as 3,000
people, organizers said. This year, based on registrations, between
1,000 and 1,500 people are expected.
“It’s a time to sit back and take stock,” said Aminah B. McCloud, a
professor of Islamic studies at Depaul University who follows the black
Muslim community. “His death has made Muslims more conscientious of the
need for community.”
Mohammed was a revered figure whose legacy will be difficult to
follow. After assuming leadership of the Nation of Islam, Mohammed
abandoned his father’s black supremacist teachings and embraced
traditional Islam. The organization eventually became known as the
American Society of Muslims, and Mohammed became the best known American
Muslim in the world.
(In 1979, Minister Louis Farrakhan revived the Nation of Islam with
African-Americans who continued to believe in the teachings of Elijah
Muhammad. Farrakhan and Mohammed later reconciled, but kept each other
at arm’s length.)
Mohammed also founded The Mosque Cares, a non-profit organization,
and the Collective Purchasing Conference, a business initiative. Today,
more than 500 mosques in the U.S. are affiliated with Mohammed’s
In the last years of his life, Mohammed sought to decentralize the
movement. In 2003, he resigned as president from the American Society of
Muslims, turned control over to a council, and encouraged mosques to
become active in charity, education, and interfaith work.
“While the imam was seen as the leader of this community, he had no
legal ties to the body of Muslims who followed him,” said Imam Vernon
Fareed of Norfolk, Va., head of the community’s consultative council.
Several weeks before his death, according to Fareed, Mohammed told a
fellow imam, “If anything happens to me, keep things just like they
Last April, some 150 imams met in Louisville, Ky., to decide how to
proceed, and identified several concerns for the movement, including
whether or not to change the name, how to structure the organization,
and how to provide for the imam’s surviving family, which includes nine
children from five wives. After consulting the community, the imams
returned in June and decided against a name change and in favor of
continuing the shura council, whose members serve two-year terms.
“That’s what he always wanted. He wanted us to come together, to
work together, and a do a lot of other things together,” Fareed said,
“but he wanted us to come together freely.”
Supporters of the shura council acknowledge that some followers
dispute the council’s leadership and have left the community. On at
least one blog, some of Mohammed’s followers have urged that his
son-in-law, Earl Abdulmalik Mohammed, a former ministry spokesman,
become the new leader.
Nonetheless, the council hopes to carry out several projects
Mohammed had planned, including a curriculum for the 25 Clara Muhammed
schools (named for his mother) and building a “Model Muslim Community”
complex that would include a community center, school and Imam W.D.
Mohammed museum and archive.
In keeping with Mohammed’s wish that his followers be active in
American life, Fareed said the council has also reestablished “The
Coalition for Good Government,” a group of politically connected
followers whom the council can tap for advice or as delegates to
But like with the convention, success will depend on the leaders’
ability to sustain interest, said Imam Darnell Karim of Chicago, a
childhood friend of Mohammed who is leading efforts to build the Model
“This model would represent his legacy and his vision,” said Karim,
73, who estimated the complex could be built in one year. “But the
people have to want it.”
Mohammed also encouraged interfaith work, and cultivated a
particularly strong relationship with the Catholic Focolare Movement.
Monthly meetings between the two groups were established in several
cities and still continue. “All these imams that we knew want to
continue the relationship,” said Clare Zanzucchi, editor of Living City
magazine, a Focolare publication.
Mahdee, the Boston imam, and other Muslim leaders said they do not
believe Mohammed’s death will hurt their efforts to attract new
“We still have people coming into the masjid (mosque) accepting
Islam. That will always be there,” Mahdee said. “We have to make sure
we’re ready to provide the vehicle.”
By OMAR SACIRBEY
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
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