Beliefnet News

By Tina Shah
2008 Religion News Service

CHICAGO — W. Deen Mohammed, the former leader of the Nation of Islam who broke with the racially tinged teachings of his father, Elijah Muhammad, and inspired thousands of African-American Muslims to follow mainstream Islam, died Tuesday (Sept. 9), his family said. He was 74.
Mohammed died on the ninth day of the holy month of Ramadan, and was pronounced dead in his home in Markham, Ill., according to a spokesperson from the Cook County medical examiner’s office. A cause of death is pending an autopsy.
In a statement issued Tuesday, and posted on the Muslim Journal’s Web site, his family said, “We ask that you pray for our father and leader.”
Muslim leaders and community members across the nation mourned the loss of a key African-American figure who worked to unite Muslims of different races to follow an orthodox form of Islam.
“For those in his community, it is a dire loss. For those not in his community, it is both the loss of a pioneer and a very influential person,” said Aminah McCloud, director of the Islamic World Studies program and a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago.
McCloud, who attended several conferences with Mohammed and knows members of his community, described him as a “kind, gentle and knowledgeable man.” She said he regularly worked with Christian and Jewish leaders to include Muslims in interfaith dialogues.
Mohammed was born Wallace D. Muhammad on Oct. 30, 1933 as the seventh son to Elijah and Clara Muhammad in Michigan. He grew up listening to his father preach black supremacy and denounce whites as “devils” to the followers of the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group that initially shunned standard Islamic practice, such as reading the Quran or praying in Arabic. Mohammed soon learned that his father’s beliefs did not coincide with what he read in the Quran.
Mohammed assumed control of the organization in 1975 after his father’s death and opened the movement to all races and led Muslims down a path of orthodox Sunni Islam.
“He really unified the African-American Muslim community with a common force,” said Mohammed Zaher Sahloul, president of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Ill.
Sahloul said despite his accomplishments of leading African-American Muslims who were part of the Nation of Islam into mainstream Sunni Islam, Mohammed remained a humble man. “I think we lost a great leader.
It will take a long time to have a leader with similar qualities,” Sahloul said.
Mohammed instituted several reforms to the Nation of Islam in an attempt to bring thousands of Muslim-Americans closer to mainstream Islam and promote religious tolerance. He dropped the Nation of Islam name, loosened the strict dress code, encouraged followers to practice the five pillars of Islam and rejected black supremacy.
In 1979, Minister Louis Farrakhan revived the Nation of Islam with African-Americans who continued to believe in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
Mohammed and Farrakhan eventually reconciled and publicly embraced at a Chicago ceremony in 2000 in an attempt to unite Muslim factions as Farrakhan began to publicly back away from some of his controversial views.
“We mourn the loss of our brother Imam W. Deen Mohammed,” Farrakhan said in a statement issued on Tuesday. “We thank Allah for him and his great contribution to the ongoing work of Prophet Muhammad and his work of helping to create a better understanding and image of Islam in America and throughout the world.”
In 1992, Mohammed became the first Muslim to deliver the invocation opening the U.S. Senate. In 1993 and 1997, he offered Islamic prayers at the interfaith prayer services for President Clinton’s two inaugurations.
In 2003, Mohammed unexpectedly resigned as head of the American Society of Muslims but remained active as a religious leader and scholar, regularly speaking at major Muslim conferences and gatherings.
He continued to head a charitable group known as Mosque Cares.
Mohammed’s survivors include his wife, Shirley, nine children and several grandchildren, the Chicago Tribune reported.
A Muslim prayer service for Mohammed is planned for Thursday at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, Ill., according to the Muslim Journal’s Web site. The Muslim community will also remember him during Friday prayers and plans to hold a memorial service for Mohammed on Saturday afternoon.

— Jeff Diamant and Mark Mueller of The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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