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Imam W. D. Mohammed: influential
US Sunni Muslim leader



Mohammed: jailed in 1961 for his refusal to serve in the US Army, he used his time behind bars to study the Koran

Imam W.D. Mohammed

Warith Deen Mohammed was an important Islamic leader in the United States. He succeeded his father, Elijah Muhammad, as the leader of the Nation of Islam but soon abandoned its teachings of black supremacy and led thousands of its followers away from a separatist ideology and into mainstream Islam.

When his father died in 1975, Mohammed — also known as W. D. or Wallace Mohammed — was named leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam. He quickly abandoned the organisation’s teachings, which combined black nationalism with the Islamic faith, and eschewed his father’s fiery style to force the changes that remade America’s largest Muslim community. He was considered a pioneer in the Muslim American community and was one of its first leaders to get Muslims to think about their faith in the context of a wider society.

His changes won the respect of Sunni Muslims worldwide but caused a split within the movement among members who followed a philosophy of black supremacy. W. D. renamed the organisation as the American Society of Muslims, but, in 1977, Louis Farrakhan revived the old Nation of Islam and its anti-Semitic and anti-white views.

Although less well known than Farrakhan, Mohammed led a far larger congregation of US Muslims. He was credited with influencing Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Sunni Islam after the boxer had previously aligned himself with Elijah’s Nation of Islam, speaking at rallies for the sect.

Wallace D. Muhammad was born in Hamtramck, Michigan, in 1933, the seventh of eight children of Elijah and Clara Muhammad. He later changed his name to Warith Deen Mohammed, one of several changes from his birth name. The renamings appeared to reflect his struggle to reconcile his triple identity of being a Muslim, an African-American and American.

His father was a follower of W. D Fard, a door-to-door salesman who founded a small sect in Detroit known as both the Lost-Found Nation of Islam and the Allah Temple of Islam. After Fard’s disappearance in mysterious circumstances in 1934, Elijah Muhammad proclaimed Fard to be God and announced himself as his messenger and prophet.

Even at an early age W. D. was sceptical about his father being thus anointed from above. “I had common sense, and my common sense told me this was ridiculous, the idea that God is a God that wants one people to dominate others,” he would later say, adding that “Elijah Muhammad was not a prophet”.

Mohammed attended the Nation’s school in Chicago and, in common with his siblings, had a private tutor to learn Arabic as his father wanted his children to read the Koran in its original language. That instruction reinforced his view that his father’s teachings were at odds with Islam. W. D. later went to Wilson Junior College and Loop College in Chicago.

He preached his first sermon as a Nation of Islam student minister when he was in his late teens and showed clear signs of not being his father’s son when he ended his sermon saying: “We give more attention to the devil than to Allah.” However, he remained a 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 a federal prison in Minnesota, having refused to serve in the US Army on the basis of his beliefs. He said that he would not defend a country where segregation, racism and lynching killed his people. He used his 14 months in prison to deepen his studies of the Koran and to re-evaluate the Nation of Islam’s teachings.

On his release he returned to Chicago and worked as a taxi driver; he had also been expelled from the Nation of Islam for criticising his father’s doctrine. During this time he became a friend of Malcom X, who had abandoned the Nation of Islam to embrace mainstream Islam. A pattern of expulsion and readmittance to the movement was to become a regular occurrence for more than a decade, and he was once more accepted into the fold in 1974, six months before his father’s death.

After Elijah Muhammad’s death, W. D. was proclaimed the supreme minister of the movement, a title he later dropped in favour of “Imam”. From that point he opened the movement to the world. He disbanded the movement’s militaristic security force, the Fruit of Islam, and decentralised its rigid structure. That decentralisation yielded a movement with numerous leaders and entities, and an estimated 50,000 followers who attend 185 mosques. He made each mosque autonomous but reacted impatiently when other imams failed to follow his path toward mainstream Islam.

He continued the Nation of Islam’s message that emphasised black economic self-reliance with the promotion of business projects. His own businesses imported clothing and invested in the development of property and skin-care products. He championed a range of social issues including education, improving access to healthcare and supporting ex-convicts.

He became the first imam to lead prayers on the floor of the US Senate in 1993 and was the Muslim representative at the inaugural interfaith breakfast organised by President Bill Clinton.

Mohammed retired from the American Society of Muslims in 2003 and then founded the charity Mosques Care. He continued to work on building interfaith relations, having met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1996.

Mohammed was married four times, twice to the same woman. He is survived by his wife, Shirley, and nine children.

Imam W. D. Mohammed, US Muslim leader, was born on October 30, 1933. He died on September 9, 2008, aged 74

Source :

(Alex Garcia/AP/Chicago Tribune)