2016-06-30
It may have been the most earth-shaking news to hit American Muslims since Sept. 11, 2001, but you wouldn't have known it from reading the morning paper. Warith Deen Mohammed, spiritual leader of the American Society of Muslims and perhaps the most influential American Muslim ever, announced over 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 are African American-and most follow W. Deen Mohammed or some other orthodox
teacher. (By comparison, Louis Farrakhan, head of the more famous Nation of Islam, leads an estimated 100,000). In stepping down, Mohammed implicitly criticized some of the American Muslim leaders for not taking orthodox Islam seriously enough.  "I have tried over the last 10 to 12 years to encourage them to get more religious education, but I have made no progress," he told the Chicago Tribune. "American Society of Muslim leaders don't support me, but the followers do." The favorite son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammed, W. Deen Mohammed 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 with separatism and racial hatred--he led his flock on a dramatic new journey toward orthodox Sunni Islam. Like Malcolm X had done more than a decade before, Mohammed rejected his father's racism, emphasized Islamic ritual observance and gained the respect of Muslim leaders worldwide. And he brought hundreds of thousands of people with him. David Shaheed, now a criminal court Judge in Indianapolis and a leader in the American Society of Muslims, was one of countless college students who joined the Nation during this dynamic period. He credits
Mohammed with changing the course of history for all Americans. "Instead of having revolution in the streets," Shaheed says, Mohammed led a quiet revolution of his own: "He took the Qu'ran and made better citizens for the community." Mohammed focused on education, encouraging his followers to learn Arabic and read the Qur'an for themselves. He emphasized daily prayer, charity and the other basic pillars of the faith. Perhaps most inspiring for Shaheed, Mohammed found connections between Islamic values and American ideals of democracy, equal rights and justice for all. Mohammed didn't stop breaking ground. In 1977, he led what was then the largest delegation of American Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1992, he became the first Muslim to deliver the invocation opening the U.S. Senate. He first met the pope in 1996, and in 1999 he addressed a gathering of 100,000 at the Vatican. He has met with presidents, the Dalai Lama, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious and political leaders worldwide. He built a network of schools, business ventures and mosques. Nearly 30 years after his historic move to orthodoxy, it's difficult to
imagine the movement without him - the bond is so tight that his name is embedded in the ASM's mission statement. Supporters say he will continue to operate independent ministries, including an outreach program called The Mosque Cares and a concern that helps African American businesses do collective purchasing. Still, a few voices question whether Mohammed's influence is waning. Immigrant Muslims and their children are gaining prominence in American society, and other groups have arisen to give voice to so-called "indigenous" Muslims, including MANA, Muslim Americans of North America, led by a former follower of Mohammed. Aminah Beverly McCloud, an Islamic studies professor at DePaul University in Chicago, notes that the ASM has lost membership in recent years and predicts the group will splinter without Mohammed. Mohammed's resignation took most in the ASM by surprise, but it wasn't the first time he had resigned to shake up his flock. In the mid-1980s, he announced his resignation and disbanded the organization, urging the mosques to continue their work independently and laying out a vision for their future. He returned months later at the urging of many followers. "He has always resisted organizational confines, and I emphasize confines," says Ayesha K. Mustafaa, editor of the Muslim Journal, the ASN newspaper. "He always had a sense that the organization confines you too much. When he came into office he changed the name three or four times, 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 always sway. "There were, among the many good leaders, those who refused to move, 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 in 1987, was at the Hyatt Regency Chicago when Mohammed made his recent announcement. While agreeing that the group's imams need more traditional training, he argues Mohammed should have worked harder to set the example. "He did training programs of his imams, but his particular model of instruction was not traditional theological in the Sunni sense," al-Deen says. "His model was of someone who speaks from inspiration after reading 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 African Americans don't know nothing." McCloud, the Islamic studies professor and al-Deen's wife, contends the group has been closed to outside scholars. She says she and other African American Muslim scholars have found Mohammed disinterested in their 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 fill Mohammed's shoes. She predicts a body known as the Islamic Affairs Council, based on the Islamic concept of "shura" or consensus, will set the course for the future. All 17 members, a mixture of lay people and imams, men and women, are Mohammed appointees. Among his admirers, Mustafaa included, his story is not that of an autocratic leader losing hold of his management team. The prevailing image is that of an aging, benevolent father telling his kids to shape up. How has such an important leader kept such a low profile? "It's because the world likes terminators. Somebody that takes names and kicks ass," says Shaheed, facilitator of a 17-person council that may help set the course for the ASM's future. Mohammed is soft-spoken and polite, a man more given to long, philosophical speeches than sound bytes or scandals. "He isn't a great speaker," says Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar. " My colleague Dr. C. Eric Lincoln used to say W. Deen Mohammed is like Fidel Castro. He can speak for hours but he doesn't have the charisma." Mamiya, who spent the summer visiting many American Society of Muslims mosques, or masjids, for a research project on their outreach to ex-criminal offenders, continues: "He is a charismatic personality, but his is a spiritual charisma. People trust him. Compare him with Louis Farrakhan. He can draw thousands of people but not many people feel they can trust him." "The only thing you can do is rear your child for so long and then they are off on their own," says Saudia Mohammed, a loyalist who came to Islam as a college student and now leads the Chicago chapter of the International Society of Muslim Women. She has faith the group will survive without him. "We have the religion. We have the Qu'ran, the Sunnah of the Prophet. And that's all we need." She also believes the world hasn't heard the last of W. Deen Mohammed. And maybe this time, more people will pay attention.

"He can't be tied down, a man of his dimension," she says. "He's too big for just one organization, one group of people. He's an imam for all righteous people."