Imam W. Deen Mohammed, the rebellious son of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad who broke from black nationalism and moved thousands of African-Americans to mainstream Islam, died Tuesday, according to family members.
“Brother Imam,” as he was known by his followers, was pronounced dead at his home in Markham, said a spokesman for the Cook County medical examiner. He was 74.
As Muslims marked the holy month of Ramadan, Mohammed was scheduled to speak Tuesday in Chicago, but many grew concerned when he did not appear. His last speaking engagement was at his regular monthly address delivered Sunday in Homewood and aired live to a radio audience.
“He was a pioneer in the Muslim-American community and was one of the first leaders to get Muslims to think about their faith in context of the larger society,” said Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which worked closely with Mohammed. “He was also a pioneer in getting Muslims to embrace their religious identity at a time when that wasn’t very popular.”
On Tuesday night, his family issued a brief statement announcing his death. “We ask that you pray for our father and leader,” the statement said.
In 1975, Mohammed succeeded his father as leader of the Nation of Islam, a religious movement that melds black nationalism with the Islamic faith. He immediately tried to move its followers toward traditional Islam, which led to a split between those who agreed with Mohammed’s approach and those who joined a revived Nation of Islam under Minister Louis Farrakhan.
His followers refer to the period when Mohammed took over the Nation as “The Second Resurrection.”
“I don’t think people understand the tremendous change that occurred when he made that move,” said Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion at Vassar College. “He moved people from that concept of black nationalism into universal consciousness of their faith.”
In a statement released late Tuesday night, Farrakhan said: “We mourn the loss of our brother Imam W. Deen Mohammed. 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. ”
Witnesses to ‘revolution’
Yvonne Haddad was a graduate student in the audience on the day in 1976 when Mohammed renounced his father’s teachings. The scholar seated next to her whispered, “We just witnessed a revolution.”
Now a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, Haddad said revolution became a reality under Mohammed’s leadership. He single-handedly re-educated many of the imams schooled by the Nation of Islam, restoring their American patriotism and the original teachings of Islam, she said. One of his highest priorities was uniting African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslim communities.
“He will be remembered as a person who brought the Nation of Islam carefully and consistently into mainline Islam,” Haddad said.
In his later years, Mohammed’s profile diminished somewhat. He focused more on his non-profit ministry, The Mosque Cares. He also worked on building interfaith relations, meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1996 and starting a dialogue with Cardinal Francis George.
Some saw his lessened visibility as the final steps in his efforts to restructure his organization into a loose group of organizations without a central charismatic figure.
“I don’t have a PhD. I don’t have a master’s degree. I don’t even have a B.A. But I’m connected to something mighty great,” he told a group of young Muslims in 2002. “That is Islam.”
Wallace D. Mohammed was born Oct. 30, 1933, in Detroit, the seventh of eight children of Elijah and Clara Muhammad. (He became known later as Imam Warithuddeen Mohammed.)
His father was a disciple of W.D. Fard, a door-to-door salesman who founded a small sect in that city known alternatively as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam and the Allah Temple of Islam. Upon Fard’s mysterious disappearance in 1934, Elijah Muhammad proclaimed Fard to be God and announced himself as his messenger, a divinely inspired prophet.
Imprisoned in 1961
W. Deen Mohammed was for many years an obedient son. He was the minister of the Nation of Islam’s mosques in Chicago and Philadelphia in the 1950s. On his 28th birthday in 1961, Mohammed was sent to federal prison in Minnesota for refusing, on the basis of Nation of Islam teachings, induction into the U.S. military.
But there were cracks in Mohammed’s loyalty to his father’s sometimes-harsh doctrine. He sneaked to movies when his father was alive, because moviegoing was prohibited in the Nation of Islam. While serving his prison sentence, Mohammed re-evaluated his father’s preaching.
In 1964, Mohammed told a reporter for Chicago’s American newspaper: “The man I looked to all my life, thinking he was loved and guided by God more than any man on Earth, turned out not to be that kind of man at all.”
Cabdriver, house painter
Expelled from the Nation of Islam for his criticism, Mohammed supported his family by driving a cab, welding, plucking chickens and working as a house painter and a junkman.
Mohammed publicly begged his father for forgiveness. He was readmitted to the movement only to be expelled several times again. He was finally restored to grace in 1974, six months before his father’s death.
Farrakhan was expected to succeed Elijah Muhammad. But a closed-door family council chose Mohammed to be the movement’s chief imam. When the decision was announced at the 1975 Savior’s Day meeting, the group’s annual gathering, 20,000 people at Chicago’s International Amphitheater roared their approval
He began preaching a more universal religious message. He also cut back on the group’s commercial empire, saying business ventures distracted the movement from its religious mission.
Mohammed’s changes produced a backlash within the group, which he renamed the World Community of al-Islam in the West. His movement counted at least 200,000 followers. It was reinvented and renamed several times. Of all his innovations, the most costly in terms of lost followers was his rejection of black supremacy.
In 1978, Farrakhan broke with Mohammed and formed his own counter-movement. He revived the name Nation of Islam, saying he intended to follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
But most observers think the greater number of African-American Muslims remained loyal to W. Deen Mohammed than to Farrakhan.
Despite their differences, Mohammed and Farrakhan reconciled in a series of joint appearances starting in 1999 and pledged to work together.
He achieved historic milestones for Muslim-Americans. In 1992, he became the first Muslim to deliver an invocation to the U.S. Senate. In 1993 and 1997, he recited from the Holy Quran at President Bill Clinton’s two inaugural interfaith prayer services.
On Tuesday, as Muslims of all racial identities mourned his death, it seemed his vision of Muslim unity was momentarily fulfilled.
“He was America’s imam,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Mohammed’s survivors include his wife, Shirley, nine children and several grandchildren.
Services are set to follow 1:30 p.m. afternoon prayers Thursday at the Islamic Foundation, 300 W. Highridge Rd., Villa Park. A memorial service is being planned for Saturday.
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