2016-06-30
This is written in tribute to my teacher, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, one of the greatest peacemakers, leaders, and unsung heroes the world has ever known, whose voice I first heard in the womb of my mother as she sat in the audience while my father, then a part of the Fruit of Islam (FOI), the Nation of Islam's (NOI) paramilitary unit, stood on honor guard in 1975 as Imam Mohammed was raised up high on the shoulders of several FOI. This celebratory moment marked the commencement of Imam Mohammed's leadership over the Nation of Islam upon the death of his father, Elijah Muhammad, a man whom Rev. Jesse Jackson once called the "father of black self consciousness" for his transforming black separatist movement that saved the lives of thousands of African Americans through mental, physical, spiritual, and economic rebirth.

On that historic day, Imam Mohammed faced the threatening winds of emotion that swirled around the inevitable changes to his father's "nation" and bravely commenced transitioning the community toward a mission to uplift all of humanity with the dignity, understanding, and universality of traditional Islam. He told the audience confidently, "This is a house built on strength, divine strength.let your winds of emotion come against this house, it stands forever!"

I was born one month after that defining moment, and it was Imam Mohammed's teachings that incubated the desire within me to become a scholar of religion and champion of peace. I recall fondly how my siblings and I would listen to the imam's radio broadcasts or attend his Friday sermons in Chicago. I remember we had great fun with a statement in one particular sermon when the imam shouted, with force and severity, "How you gonna try to hypnotize my child with a pair of Mickey Mouse socks!" Long after that day, we repeated those words over and over, imitating the imam's voice with great delight.

These are the little things that shape a child, make her strong, remind her not to worship images, to be a leader, not a follower, to not give in to subliminal seduction, and to understand the importance of recycling the dollar within a community that had been "downtrodden through the muck and the mire" of America's racism.

Though completely deserving, Imam Mohammed has never been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, or anything comparable to it, and even the most astute scholars of African-American studies, religion, and world history have often left him glaringly out of the picture. Unfortunately, few people know the story of this humble man, whose ministry is titled "The Mosque Cares," and how he taught hundreds of thousands (some studies report at least 2 million) of African Americans to be soldiers for universal human excellence and tolerance in the name of Islam.

Among his supporters are great contributors to the betterment of America and the global community. They include, but are not limited to, judges, doctors, engineers, state representatives, mayors, filmmakers, scholars, successful entrepreneurs, Olympic gold medalists, professional athletes, and men and women in every branch of the U.S. military.

Muhammad Ali once described Imam Mohammed as "a peaceful warrior, using his wisdom and kindness to fight for the betterment of all African Americans as well as Muslims." Malcolm X described him as an objective, strongly spiritual man with whom he shared exceptional closeness and trust. Even with all these praises, Imam Mohammed has an outstanding level of humility. I have witnessed him prostrate himself to God in front of audiences of thousands when excessively praised in order to remind those who laud him that the praise belongs to the Almighty Creator alone. His revolutionary vision is based in his belief that "the salvation of society and the survival of civilization depend upon establishing and preserving healthy, sound, truthful, and charitable leadership."

I often marvel at his courage.

  • He had the courage to question his own father's teachings on Islam and be exiled from the NOI and his family.
  • He later transitioned the entire NOI to Islam proper, which he then decentralized in order to encourage the people toward individual and local economic, educational, and cultural development.
  • He upheld patriotism even when criticized by many other Muslims. That "love-it-and-make-it-better" patriotism was rooted in his belief that it was his duty to his government "to call them back to spiritual development," a mission he expressed at meetings with U.S. Presidents from Carter to George W. Bush.
  • He had the courage to resign from the leadership of the community he painstakingly educated for 28 years as a sign of dissent from many of the leaders in the community because of their disregard for his initiatives and unjust leadership of the people.
  • These accomplishments prove his oft-repeated message to his followers: "It only takes a few good people to continue the productive lifeline of a people."

    Imam Mohammed has also stated, "God made me a person for all good people." He is not just a leader of Muslims but also a humanitarian who strives to live a model life and encourages the spiritual and practical development of religious education, business economics, and culture-upholding gender equality by putting women in his community in exceptional positions of leadership, and standing firmly against poverty, violence, immorality, and drug addiction.

    As a member of the international governing board of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, he meets with world leaders to work on improving the ailing human condition. His economic vision reaches beyond the American borders into places like Malaysia, the Caribbean and West Africa, where he emphasizes the importance of collective buying and changing exploitive practices. His business sincerity in evidenced in the fact that March 26, 1983 was declared, by then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, Economic Dignity Day, acknowledging Imam Mohammed's efforts toward economic progress and dignity for all.

    He even led an interfaith effort called C.R.A.I.D., The Committee for the Removal of All Images that attempt to portray Divine, which prompted many church leaders around the country to remove images from their churches.

    He renamed his own community several times, reflecting its constant evolution and his desire for it to be the best of examples.At first he chose the name Bilalians after Bilal, the Abyssinian slave appointed by the Prophet Muhammad as the first mu'adhdhin, or one who gives the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Bilal had heard the message of Islam and even under extreme torture from his master would not let it go. By doing this, Imam Mohammed sought to show how one can evolve from slavery to "dignified life" and hoped that the name would catch on with all African Americans as an alternative to being called "black." Eventually, the community's growth led him to a more inclusive name: American Society of Muslims.

    In addition, he is largely responsible for the widespread use of spiritually uplifting Muslim names among African Americans in general, based on his 1977 book of 1000 Arabic names that reflected the attributes of God. In that same year, he led a delegation of more than 300 African-American Muslims to Hajj, one of whom was my grandmother. It was the largest delegation of Muslims ever at that time to make the pilgrimage from the western hemisphere, and it strengthened his efforts to build bridges between the indigenous Muslims of America and the rest of the Muslim world.

    A full articulation of his devotion to God through his good works within the human family is too lengthy for one article. It is no surprise then that an uncomfortable quiet fell over the crowd of thousands Labor Day weekend when Imam Mohammed's national spokesperson announced the imam's resignation as the leader of the American Society of Muslims at their annual convention. This quiet was followed with a deafening roar of applause when the spokesperson stated emphatically, "No force of nature, no spirit, no influence, no person, no group can ever separate me from Imam W. Deen Mohammed!"

    I ask you, how can I be separated from my teacher, the one who stressed over and over that what is most important for Muslims is the vital relationships they establish, first with God, then the Muslim family and then the human family? Long before the horrors of 9/11, he taught that Muhammad the Prophet was a mercy to all of humanity and that therefore we are obligated as Muslims to build better relationships with our neighbors.

    The imam taught this without prejudice based on our race, nationality, socio-economic background or level of education, which has not been the case with many other Muslims who have sought to bring Islam to the African American community.

    The winds of emotion that now swirl around the imam's resignation with surreptitious and blatant speculation and criticism, not unlike the day he took over as leader in 1975, will not shake the foundation he has imparted to his serious students to build a model community witnessing to all people.

    Imam Mohammed never taught us that our devotion to God is contingent upon his leadership, and we will never turn back on Islam, as has been hinted by some. As he goes on to continue his ministry through The Mosque Cares and his humanitarian works in the global community, his words remain to lead us: "This is a house built on strength, divine strength.let your winds of emotion come against this house, it stands forever!"


    more from beliefnet and our partners