It may have been the most earth-shaking news to hit American Muslimssince Sept. 11, 2001, but you wouldn't have known it from reading themorning paper. Warith Deen Mohammed, spiritual leader of the American Society ofMuslims and perhaps the most influential American Muslim ever, announcedover 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 areAfrican American-and most follow W. Deen Mohammed or some other orthodoxteacher. (By comparison, Louis Farrakhan, head of the more famous Nationof Islam, leads an estimated 100,000).In stepping down, Mohammed implicitly criticized some of the AmericanMuslim leaders for not taking orthodox Islam seriously enough. "I havetried over the last 10 to 12 years to encourage them to get morereligious education, but I have made no progress," he told the ChicagoTribune. "American Society of Muslim leaders don't support me, but thefollowers do."The favorite son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammed, W. DeenMohammed 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 withseparatism and racial hatred--he led his flock on a dramatic new journeytoward orthodox Sunni Islam. Like Malcolm X had done more than a decade before, Mohammed rejected hisfather's racism, emphasized Islamic ritual observance and gained therespect of Muslim leaders worldwide. And he brought hundreds ofthousands of people with him. David Shaheed, now a criminal court Judge in Indianapolis and a leaderin the American Society of Muslims, was one of countless collegestudents who joined the Nation during this dynamic period. He creditsMohammed with changing the course of history for all Americans. "Instead of having revolution in the streets," Shaheed says, Mohammedled a quiet revolution of his own: "He took the Qu'ran and made bettercitizens for the community."
Mohammed focused on education, encouraging his followers to learn Arabic andread the Qur'an for themselves. He emphasized daily prayer, charity andthe other basic pillars of the faith. Perhaps most inspiring forShaheed, Mohammed found connections between Islamic values and Americanideals of democracy, equal rights and justice for all. Mohammed didn't stop breaking ground. In 1977, he led what was then thelargest delegation of American Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca. In1992, he became the first Muslim to deliver the invocation opening theU.S. Senate. He first met the pope in 1996, and in 1999 he addressed agathering of 100,000 at the Vatican. He has met with presidents, theDalai Lama, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious and politicalleaders worldwide. He built a network of schools, business ventures andmosques. Nearly 30 years after his historic move to orthodoxy, it's difficult toimagine the movement without him - the bond is so tight that his name isembedded in the ASM's mission statement. Supporters say he will continueto operate independent ministries, including an outreach program calledThe Mosque Cares and a concern that helps African American businesses docollective purchasing. Still, a few voices question whether Mohammed'sinfluence is waning. Immigrant Muslims and their children are gainingprominence in American society, and other groups have arisen to givevoice to so-called "indigenous" Muslims, including MANA, MuslimAmericans of North America, led by a former follower of Mohammed. Aminah Beverly McCloud, an Islamic studies professor at DePaulUniversity in Chicago, notes that the ASM has lost membership inrecent years and predicts the group will splinter without Mohammed. Mohammed's resignation took most in the ASM by surprise, but it wasn'tthe first time he had resigned to shake up his flock. In the mid-1980s,he announced his resignation and disbanded the organization, urging themosques to continue their work independently and laying out a vision fortheir future. He returned months later at the urging of many followers."He has always resisted organizational confines, and I emphasizeconfines," says Ayesha K. Mustafaa, editor of the Muslim Journal, theASN newspaper. "He always had a sense that the organization confines youtoo much. When he came into office he changed the name three or fourtimes, and at one point he said don't let anyone define you for you."
Imam Abdur-Rahim Muhammad said W. Deen Mohammed's message didn't alwayssway. "There were, among the many good leaders, those who refused tomove, to change, or to grow. Again and again, Imam Mohammed warned,connected, chastised and cajoled his Imams to get them to represent him(and not themselves)," he explained.Frederick Thaufeer al-Deen of Chicago, an imam who broke with the ASM in1987, was at the Hyatt Regency Chicago when Mohammed made his recentannouncement. While agreeing that the group's imams need moretraditional training, he argues Mohammed should have worked harder toset the example. "He did training programs of his imams, but his particular model ofinstruction was not traditional theological in the Sunni sense," al-Deensays. "His model was of someone who speaks from inspiration afterreading a religious text." "If I were one of those imams I would feel sort of racially put upon,"al-Deen continues. "He's saying what so many people say: those AfricanAmericans don't know nothing." McCloud, the Islamic studies professor and al-Deen's wife, contends thegroup has been closed to outside scholars. She says she and otherAfrican American Muslim scholars have found Mohammed disinterested intheir input or guidance - and his followers are now paying the price. Mohammed denied a request for an interview for this story. Meanwhile,the future of the ASM remains uncertain. Although there have been reports of a drive to select a new leader,Muslim Journal editor Mustafaa doubts any single man could fillMohammed's shoes. She predicts a body known as the Islamic AffairsCouncil, based on the Islamic concept of "shura" or consensus, will setthe course for the future. All 17 members, a mixture of lay people andimams, men and women, are Mohammed appointees. Among his admirers, Mustafaa included, his story is not that of anautocratic leader losing hold of his management team. The prevailingimage is that of an aging, benevolent father telling his kids to shapeup. How has such an important leader kept such a low profile? "It's becausethe world likes terminators. Somebody that takes names and kicks ass,"says Shaheed, facilitator of a 17-person council that may help set thecourse for the ASM's future.