Mohammed, W(arith) Deen 1933–
W(arith) Deen Mohammed 1933–
W. Deen Mohammed is the imam, or spiritual leader, of the largest group of black Muslims in the United States. Though the movement has long been associated with Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam, Mohammed actually leads a larger group of the faithful, and one that has shied away from the political limelight that Farrakhan has pursued. The two groups are actually splinter factions of the church founded by Mohammed’s father in the 1930s, and after more than two decades of enmity began to move toward reconciliation in the first months of the new millennium.
Mohammed was born Wallace Deen Muhammed in 1933 in Detroit, one of seven children born to Elijah and Clara Muhammed. The following year, his father took over the Temple of Islam in Detroit after W. D. Fard, its leader, disappeared. The elder Muhammed created the Nation of Islam, which stressed black self-reliance and even argued for a separate, autonomous nation inside the United States for persons of African descent. It also maintained that the civil rights movement was futile, and black organizations that furthered the cause of assimilation were leading their members astray. Elijah Muhammed’s followers adhered to a strict moral code, and lived austerely. His own family eventually moved to Chicago’s South Side, where Mohammed was educated at the Nation of Islam’s traditional religious school. There, he was taught by emigrant teachers from places like Jordan and Egypt, and by the time he had finished his education, he could read Arabic.
The Nation of Islam movement gained ground in 1950s and 1960s, and eventually a more radical element arose within it. Malcolm X became the focal point of this dissension, and the strife would divide organization. When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, some suspicion fell upon the Nation of Islam itself for his murder. This occurred the same year that Mohammed was excommunicated by his father, for Mohammed’s deep immersion in the history of Islam had caused him to question some of the Nation of Islam’s tenets. In contrast to Elijah Muhammed’s dictum, for instance, Mohammed did not consider Fard divine. Eventually Mohammed was readmitted to the Nation of Islam, but he was excommunicated twice more before his father’s death in 1975.
Mohammed inherited the leadership of the Nation of Islam that year, but clashed with Louis Farrakhan,
At a Glance…
Born Wallace Deen Muhammed, 1933, in Detroit, Ml; son of Elijah (an imam) and Clara Muhammed. Religion: Muslim.
Career: Succeeded to leadership of Nation of Islam, 1975; disbanded group and founded Ministry of W. Deen Mohammed, 1975.
Addresses: Office— Ministry of W. Deen Mohammed, 929 W. 171th St., Hazel Crest, IL 60429.
leader of the Harlem mosque where Malcolm X had preached. They differed on the subject of black nationalism: Mohammed had come to reject his father’s oft-repeated pronouncement that the white man was the devil, and that blacks had created that devil. He wanted to re-focus the Nation of Islam on more spiritual matters. As he told Wall Street Journal writer Lisa Miller many years later, “Leaders who keep the issue of race in the air are doing a disservice to our own people.”
At this point, Mohammed changed the spelling of his surname—from Muhammed—to “Mohammed” —to signify a new direction in his life. He instructed the imams at his mosques across the United States to emphasize the Koran’s teachings, not those of Elijah Muhammed. He also urged them to practice a far more orthodox version of Islam, which requires, among other commands, that its followers pray five times daily. This placed the church more in line with the form of Islam practiced by the rest of the international community called Sunni Muslims.
This new direction for the Nation of Islam caused further internal strife within the Nation of Islam, and Mohammed was forced to dissolve the organization entirely. His more middle-class followers came with him, while those from the lower rungs of the economic ladder found Farrakhan’s message of separatism more appealing. From its headquarters in south suburban Chicago, Mohammed’s new organization—which called itself at various times the World Community of Islam in the West, the Muslim American Mission, the Ministry of W. Deen Mohammed, and later eschewed a name altogether—established schools, businesses, and mosques. It rescinded the longtime prohibition against military service, and encouraged followers to become politically active in their communities. Meanwhile, Farrakhan, who still advocated separatism, re-established the Nation of Islam, also from a Chicago base, and began to earn some degree of notoriety for his inflammatory statements.
Mohammed’s group, by contrast, sought to build bridges with other ethnic groups. “Man should not have pride in nation before he has pride in human life,” Mohammed said in 1994, according to Christian Century. “God’s aim is for all of us to accept each other as equal in the family of man.” Sunni Islam advocated peace among humankind, and did not consider other faiths inferior or hostile to Islam. Mohammed came to be recognized by other imams around the world as the leader of the African-American Muslim community. Though he traveled extensively to meet with other world leaders, he rarely made public statements, choosing to deliver a message only to his followers at an annual gathering. In 1992, he became the first Muslim cleric to lead opening prayers for the U.S. Senate.
The number of Mohammed’s Muslim followers in the United States had long been eclipsing Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam membership; by the mid-1990s, some estimates pinned adherents of Mohammed at 1.5 million, contrasted with just 20,000 Nation of Islam faithful. But Farrakhan won a great public-relations coup with the success of his Million Man March in the fall of 1995. Mohammed spoke out against the March in a rare press release issued by his organization, asserting the event was fueled by “an emotional rage directed at the past,” according to Christian Century. Mohammed urged blacks to move forward. Farrakhan, he said, “wants people to believe that God talks to him. If God is talking to him, I don’t like what he is saying.” The statements reflected Mohammed’s desire to distance himself from the new Nation of Islam, which many non-Muslims believed was the sole organization of African-American Muslims. An aide to Mohammed, Abdulmalik Mohammed, told Christian Century, the press statement was delivered with the aim of creating a wider gap between itself and the Farrakhan organization. “We don’t appreciate being characterized as followers of Louis Farrakhan,” the aide said. “The fact that Louis Farrakhan and his people have public relations ability doesn’t make him a real leader.”
By the end of 1998, some changes had occurred within the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan instructed his followers to begin celebrating the Islamic world’s month of fasting, Ramadan, on same schedule as the rest of Muslims around the world; the Nation of Islam had previously followed its own calendar. Then Farrakhan was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and Mohammed telephoned him on his birthday to wish him well. The exchange led to an historic rapprochement between the two groups. In early 2000, Mohammed and Farrakhan appeared on stage together at Saviours’ Day in Chicago. Farrakhan said that his brush with his own mortality had changed his attitude. “Twenty-five years later, I know that your father wanted this. I know it in my heart,” Farrakhan said to Deen before the crowd of 20,000, according to Jet. Mohammed told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m convinced Mr. Farrakhan is serious about having his following come closer to Islam.”
Mohammed’s goal, after bringing the two groups together, is to unite the entire American Muslim community-African Americans and immigrants both—into the ummah, or larger Muslim community. Like his father, he is a diminutive man, and, as he urges his followers to do, Mohammed lives frugally and drives a Dodge Neon. The imam “is recognized by historians of American Islam as the foremost spokesman for African-American Muslims in the United States,” wrote Clark Morphew of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. “His power lies not in huge gatherings nor in sound bites on the late news. Rather, he has been a steady presence, at first urging his followers to establish mosques and move onto the streets to evangelize youth.”
Christian Century, October 26, 1994, p. 978; November 22, 1995, p. 1107.
Jet , March 13, 2000, pp. 52-53.
Seattle Times , June 23, 1997.
Wall Street Journal , July 9, 1999, p. Al.
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