Imam W. Deen Mohammed (1933-2008)

 America’s Imam

Warith_Deen_Mohammed-duaHe called himself Muslim American Spokesman for Human Salvation and encouraged the common people and leaders of all religious traditions to return to the purity of their faith.  Others called him “America’s Imam”; leader of the Muslim American Experience.  He defined it gave direction to it and devoted his life to it.  Imam W. Deen Mohammed worked for the establishment of Muslim life in America and for freedom, justice and equality for Muslims, African Americans and all people.  He both taught and demonstrated that Al-Islam is not only compatible with democracy but in fact gave birth to the same principles.  His followers have proven that there is no contradiction between living a Muslim life and that of an American citizen.  From 1975 to 2008 Imam W. Deen Mohammed traveled America and the world promoting interfaith cooperation and the common good for all so that humanity might achieve human excellence.

Reviver of Religion

Born Wallace D. Mohammed (1933-2008) he was the seventh child of Elijah and Clara Muhammad builders of the Nation of Islam (1931-1975).  Upon the passing of his father in 1975, as the heir apparent, he became leader of the Nation of Islam and immediately began to bring members of that community to the proper worship of G-d.  He praised his father, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for the good he did for forty years in raising the consciousness of the Black man and woman in America; equipping them with love for themselves and courage to do for themselves.  He said “That which is consistent with the Qur’an we will keep, and that which is not, we will let go.”  At the same time he addressed the psychological and social damage the Caucasian image of G-d imposed on African Americans as well as Caucasians for millennia. Within a span of ten years he had transformed the former followers of his father from the worship of G-d as a man to the universal religion of Al-Islam revealed in the Qur’an and the life of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (prayers and peace be upon him).   This made him singularly responsible for what many observers consider a “modern day miracle” – the largest conversion to Al-Islam in the world in the twentieth-century.  In 1977, he was responsible for leading the largest delegation of Muslim Americans in history to Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Introduced The Qur’an to Americas’ Conscious

Imam W. Deen Mohammed introduced the Qur’an as the verifiable authority that human identity comes from G-d and human beings were created in excellence.  This was the basis for his initiation of CRAID, (The Committee to Remove All Racial Images of Divine) in 1978.  CRAID energized significant dialogue among Christians and Muslims around the topic of the effects of racial images in worship.  This dialogue resulted in the attenuation of inferiority among African Americans and the removal of the Caucasian image of G-d from numerous church premises.

Recognized as one of the most significant religious leaders of the twentieth-century, Imam W. Deen Mohammed served as leader of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1995.  In March of the same year he was the keynote speaker at the Muslim-Jewish Convocation in Glencoe, IL and visited Israel and Jordan in 1999.  In January, 1997 he was appointed to President Bill Clinton’s Religious Advisory Council under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and offered the opening prayer at his Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Cathedral.  His relationship with the Focolare Movement of the Catholic Church and Lady ChiaraLubrich was unprecedented.  He remains the only African American and Muslim to speak from the pulpit of the Vatican – addressing over one hundred thousand – at the invitation of Pope John Paul II, in 1999.

Officially Changed America to Judeo/Christian/Muslim Country

His tributes include Signatory to the Williamsburg Charter Foundation “First Liberty” Reaffirmation Ceremony for the Freedom of Religion, June 25, 1988; the Cup of Compassion Award from Hartford Seminary; Honorary Doctorate Degrees and numerous other prestigious awards.  His portrait, commissioned by Morehouse College, hangs in the MLK, Jr. International Chapel with President Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. He was awarded the Gandhi-King-Ikeda Award and inducted into the MLK, Jr. International Board of Preachers, April 6, 2002.

His emphasis on the Revival of Religion included the Muslim world which in 1975 was dormant, mired in global polemical issues and not living up to the historical excellence of the traditions of Prophet Mohammed (prayers and peace be upon him).  As such, Imam Mohammed refused to align the new community of Muslims in America with any foreign government but said, “We only support the good they do”.  He rejected the language of Orientalists, such as the term orthodox Islam.  He avoided sectarian labels of Sunni and Shia preferring to define his followers as seeking to demonstrate the Uswaah (character) of the Holy Prophet Mohammed, (prayers and peace be upon him).    As a special guest of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) in Tehran 1997, he worked to erase distinctions between those called Sunni and Shia and reminded them that those descriptions did not exist during the life of Mohammed, the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him).  The distinction of being the first Muslim to offer the Invocation in the United States Senate February 6,  1992 was punctuated by the accolades offered by the three Senators who sponsored him, (Orin Hatch-R; Paul Simon-D; and Alan Dixon–D), and the 500 guest reception which followed.

Imam Mohammed was particularly sensitive to the relationship between Muslim African Americans and the larger African American community stating, “African American Muslims are not to separate from African American Christians.  We cannot separate ourselves from the Christian leaders who got us as far as we have gotten before we [re]connected with The Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammed (prayers and peace be upon him).”  “They are our brothers and sisters in humanity, in our life as people descended from African parents and as people oppressed in these United States.”

Champion for Women

From the beginning of his leadership, Imam W. Deen Mohammed championed the cause of women, as did his father.  He dismantled the male and female classes the FOI and the MGT-GCC without bloodshed or conflict.  Muslim Girls Training became Muslim Women’s Development Class which encouraged women to pursue their G-d-given talents in the home and the society.  CERWIS (Committee to Enhance the Role of Women in Society) was established to address the larger social issues that hindered the elevation of women in society.  He supported the equality of male and female citing the Qur’an and brought women into leadership positions while continually stressing the importance of moral behavior and family life.  To Imam Mohammed education was the number one priority of the Muslim community. He renamed the University of Islam schools, Clara Muhammad Elementary and Secondary Schools in honor of the dedication and sacrifices of his mother.  The schools have been lauded by government and civic leaders as models of educational excellence.

Brought Muslims into Electoral Politics 

In July, 1977, he held up the American flag told his supporters to vote and established New World Patriotism Day.  Parades were held throughout Chicago and other major cities.  He advised his supporters to claim their share of life in America.

On August 23, 1984, for the first time in American history, Imam W. Deen Mohammed took a delegation of 10,000 Muslims to the Nation’s capital for the first ever Muslim Political Convention.  Centered around the Washington Monument on the National Mall he addressed the theme “Building Political Responsibility”.   He later spoke to an audience addressing “The Earth – Our Home” promoting responsibility to the earth and the environment.

“I Will Never Give Up Al-Islam and My African American Identity”

In the early 1980’s Imam W. Deen Mohammed introduced the concept of New Africa and said “There are two things I will never give up, Al-Islam and my African American identity”.  He envisioned model communities that reflect the best of African, Muslim and African American identities and continued to stress economic development, do-for-self ownership and collective economics to provide economic stability

From Blackness to Human Identity

Imam Mohammed believed that with The Qur’an, skin color – Black – was no longer an organizing principle for African Americans; that the Nation of Islam’s focus on Blackness had sufficiently served its purpose.

A New People Born Out of Revelation

He said that Muslim African Americans were a new people born out of Revelation (The Qur’an) and he introduced the community to the Muslim African Ancestor, Bilal ibn Rabah, who provides dignity and direction.  Bilal was a slave to the Arabs, was liberated by Al-Islam and became the first Treasurer and Muezzin to the first Muslim community.  He was the trusted companion to the Holy Prophet Mohammed (prayers and peace be upon him).  Bilal called Believers to prayer five times a day.  Imam W. Deen Mohammed coined the term Bilalian in his honor to replace Black which did not have the depth of dignity required for a new people.  Bilalian was used only for a short period because some in the Muslim world and in America suggested he was developing a “cult”; to avoid that designation, he stopped using the term.  Imam W. Deen Mohammed said, just as Bilal stood on top of the Ka’ba and called the faithful to prayer, “It is the prophetic destiny of Muslim African Americans to call all of humanity back from idolatry (false worship)   to the true worship of G-d”.

For additional information, see: Project Gutenberg


The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975)

THEM In the early 1960’s, the popular magazine, Reader’s Digest called him “The Most Powerful Black Man in America.”  In 1962, American author and social critique, James Baldwin wrote in his #1 Best Seller, Fire Next Time, “Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers and committees and resolutions and reports and housing projects and playgrounds have failed to do:

To heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who came out of prison and to keep them out; to make men chaste and women virtuous and to invest both the male and the female with a pride and serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light.  He has done all these things, which our Christian church has spectacularly failed to do.” (p. 72).

Haley says Muhammad #1, Malcolm #2

In 1976, Alex Haley, author of Roots and collaborator on The Autobiography of Malcolm X said, “If I had to pick the single person who has been the most important figure for blacks in the black thrust from post-World War ll, I would unequivocally pick Elijah Muhammad.  Because it was he who….was like a lightning bolt in opening up the consciousness of black people…from this just blank psychic wall of just total fear of the structure in which we lived.  And I am saying these things clinically.  Underneath him I would put Malcolm X and Dr. King on equal basis.  They appealed to broadly different groups.  Dr. King…the church structure….Malcolm….the grass roots.” (Black Scholar, Vol. 8, No. 1, September, 1976 p. 37-38).

Selected 100 Greatest African Americans

In 2003, Molefi Kente Asante, scholar, professor and Chair of African American Studies at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA selected the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans.   Dr. Asante said his selection criteria represented the general will of African American people and not necessarily popularity or wealth.  That the broad struggle for justice and equality matters most to African Americans.  His criteria was:

  1. Significance in the general movement of African Americans towards full equality.
  2. Self-sacrifice and undertaking of risk for the collective good.
  3. Unusual will and determination in the face of the greatest danger and against the most stubborn odds.
  4. A consistent posture towards the social, cultural and economic uplifting of African American people.
  5. Personal achievement that calls attention to the capability and genius of African American people. (p.17).

Poverty, Persecution and Promise

Born Elijah Poole, in a small town a few miles from Sandersville, Georgia in 1897, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was raised in poverty and was one of thirteen children.  His father was an uneducated Baptist preacher, his mother a homemaker.  The family moved to Cordele, Georgia to seek a better economic existence by working in the cotton mills and on the railroad.  In was in Cordele, Georgia that he met Clara Evans.  They married, had children and migrated to Detroit, Michigan in 1923.  It was there in 1931 that they encountered W. D. Fard Muhammad and the Lost Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America.  They accepted Islam and became the leaders and shapers of that organization later called the Nation of Islam until 1972 and 1975 respectively.

During its development in the 1930’s and 1940’s the organization and members were consistently persecuted by Christian preachers, the business establishment and law enforcement.  Elijah Muhammad and his new Muslim community were demeaned in the newspapers, sanctioned, jailed and their Temples of Islam and schools, (University of Islam) were eventually shut down

Muslims Imprisoned for Refusing to Go to War

From 1931 to 1942 virtually all of the men at the Temples of Islam throughout the cities of Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. were incarcerated. The charges of sedition and failing to register for the draft during the early days of World War II were used to imprison them.   Historian and biographer, Claude Andrew Clegg III, wrote in  An Original Man, The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, “…the FBI used the arrest as a pretext for conducting a multistate assault on the Temple People.”(pp. 85 – 90).   Elijah Muhammad and his son were imprisoned from 1942 to 1946 along with approximately one hundred Muslim men.

Since his release in 1946, he lived with the scourge of being called a thug and criminal.  Such words were famously used in 1959 by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in describing him and the Muslim movement.  That opinion became polemical and was shared by those who sought to deter the growth of Islam in America and by Negro leaders who supported integration as a solution to the race problem.  Others vehemently disagreed. In particular, a response to Thurgood Marshall by George Schuyler, a Black conservative wrote in the Pittsburg Courtier, “Mr. Muhammad may be a rogue … but when anyone can get tens of thousands of Negroes to practice economic solidarity, respect their women, alter their atrocious diet, give up liquor, stop crime and juvenile delinquency and adultery, he is doing more for Negros’ welfare than any current leader I know.” (See Elijah Muhammad Dead: Black Muslim Leader 77, Special to The New York Times, February 26, 1975).

Within a span of 30 years, the leadership of Elijah Muhammad established the largest independently owned and operated school system, the University of Islam; the largest independent newspaper, Muhammad Speaks; a fish import business worth over $22 million dollars and a collection of small grocery stores, bakeries, sewing factories,  clothing shops and farm land which grew food for export.   No one in the history of the African American experience has acquired such accomplishments. The seminal study by Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America best delineates the social significance of the Nation of Islam, especially the school system.

He Called the White man the Devil and the World Changed

During the early years of his mission, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad – citing the 400 year tragedy of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow – called white people devils.   He declared that attempts by Black people to co-exist with them were fruitless and they should separate. The media broadcast of “The Hate that Hate Produced” in 1959, stressed hate and throughout his leadership there was a concerted effort to paint Elijah Muhammad as a black racist and equate him with the Ku Klux Klan.  The media continues to promote that distortion.

Did Elijah Muhammad teach hate?  He answered the question himself.   “They say I am a preacher of racial hatred.   The fact is white people don’t like the truth, especially if it speaks against them.  It is a terrible thing for such people to charge me with teaching race hatred when their feet are on my people’s neck and they tell us to our face that they hate black people.  Remember now, they even teach you that you must not hate them for hating you.”

In an interview on C-SPAN, historian, professor and biographer of Elijah Muhammad, Dr. Claude Andrew Clegg III noted, “The extensive FBI files on the Honorable Elijah Muhammad tends to be accurate with matters of fact.” For example where he was on a particular day, what he did, etc.”   “However, matters of opinion is where the FBI has its problems.”   “That is they saw communism and subversion, everywhere.  They thought the Nation of Islam was a radical group that was going to bring in the Armageddon and overthrow the U.S. government.  So as far as analyzing the facts that they had gathered the FBI had a problem because they were looking through the lens of a very anti-communist, anti-subversive pair of glasses.”

Elijah Dignified Blackness

When asked what is it about Islam that makes it attractive to African Americans?  Professor Clegg responds, “I think Elijah’s biggest legacy, biggest significance is that he makes Blackness respectable among African Americans.  He kind of sells black people to themselves. He rejuvenates people’s sense of pride, self-esteem and their pride in their racial and cultural heritage.  Also the economic initiate of the Nation of Islam – largely lower class people – pulling their resources together to buy a major newspaper printing press, farm land, grocery stores, a jet, a bank, etc.; creating an economic model of self-help by people who had never owned or contributed to such.”

He continued, “Also there is a moral significance although there were contradictions in his life and behavior.

The moral message of the Nation of Islam:  don’t beat your wife, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat pork, don’t do drugs, clean up your neighborhoods, hold a steady job, and don’t get on welfare.  I think that moral message created boundaries for those who did not have and needed structure.  Finally, I think the significance of the Nation of Islam is that it introduced African Americans to an alternative religious vision outside of Christianity.  If Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam had never existed I don’t think Islam would be the kind of force it is in some American cities and urban areas it is today.  So, making people aware of the Eastern faith of Islam, although Elijah Muhammad taught a very peculiar style of Islam, I think is very significant.”

For additional biographical information see: Project Guttenberg