Imam WD: The Muslim Martin Luther of America

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By Akbar Ahmed
Not long after 9/11, I was invited to the White House to attend an Iftar dinner given by President George W. Bush. Some of the most prominent Muslim leaders in the United States were there, including Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, the African American Imam who led his community to embrace Sunni Islam, altering the history of Islam in America in the process. Talking to him, I was most impressed by his humility and wisdom.

Although cross-cultural references can be misleading, it seems fitting to compare the impact of Imam WD Mohammed on Islam among African Americans with that of Martin Luther, who radically altered the course and content of Christianity. Like Luther, the Imam took on the entire establishment of what was normatively seen and accepted as Islam, giving it a new direction.

I had looked forward to interviewing Imam WD, as his followers affectionately referred to him, during fieldwork for my book Journey into America in 2008 but was saddened to learn while in Detroit that he had just passed away. We prayed at a majority African American mosque, the Muslim Center of Detroit, and found the congregation in mourning. In his eulogy, the mosque’s imam, Imam Abdullah Bey El-Amin, called him “the greatest imam that ever lived.”

The genius of Imam WD was that he single-handedly moved the African American community towards identifying with pluralist American identity while also moving away from Black Nationalist Islam. Today, millions of African-American Muslims are comfortable with being as strongly American as they are being devout Muslims, demonstrating the two are not incompatible. This achievement is due mainly to Imam WD.

It was not easy either. Imam WD was a member of the Nation of Islam, a Black Nationalist and separatist organisation whose members banded together to oppose white supremacy. Imam WD’s father, Elijah Muhammad, was the head of the Nation of Islam.

Yet, in a journey similar to that of Malcolm X, Imam WDbroke ranks with the Nation of Islam and suffered every kind of calumny. He was “excommunicated” several times, for example, for denying the divinity of Wallace Fard Muhammad, considered the founder of the Nation of Islam. The excommunication was particularly painful because it was executed by his father. But he would not relent. He was finally allowed back into the Nation of Islam in the early 1970s and after his father’s death was declared its leader.

Imam WD now set about instituting a major overhaul of the Nation of Islam to align it with orthodox Sunni Islam. He officially broke with the Nation of Islam and led the vast majority of its followers to embrace Sunni Islam in the 1970s. A smaller group of followers remained with the Nation of Islam, an organisation that still has a presence in many American cities.

To start with, Imam WD rejected the literal interpretations followed by his father and other Nation of Islam members. He also rejected black separatist views, removing references to Yakub, the scientist the Nation of Islam held to have created the “devil” white race in a breeding experiment. This act alone removed the theological justification for a negative perception of whites. On the contrary, Imam WD argued, whites are fellow worshippers. He also encouraged the learning and recitation of the Quran in the community and laid the foundations for an entire generation of Islamic scholars.

Emphasising the personality and history of Hazrat Bilal, the African slave who was appointed the first muezzin in Islam by the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Imam WD introduced the word “Bilalian” to refer to the African-American community to draw strength and pride from Bilal’s analogous experience. This direct link with the origins of Islam imbued the community with a sense of history and honour. The focus on Bilal also allowed Imam WD to avoid falling under the cultural and theological influence of contemporary Arab Islam, which he did not find particularly attractive.

Imam WD’s other great contribution was his interfaith initiatives, especially with Jews and Christians. In 1978 he became the first Muslim to address a large gathering of Jews and Muslims at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, then headed by Rabbi Joshua Haberman. Over the years, he continued his interfaith initiatives and in 1998 spoke at Auschwitz in Poland. Imam WD also reached out to the Catholics, meeting the pope on several occasions and addressing a gathering of 100,000 at the Vatican. In addition, he kept a busy schedule within the Muslim world, meeting its leaders including King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and President Anwar el-Sadat. In 1977 he led the largest delegation of Muslim Americans—some 300 strong and consisting largely of former Nation of Islam members—on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Imam WD was not only a visionary but also a practical leader. His videos, audiotapes, and television programs ensured that his message was reaching the community.

By the 1990s, mainstream America had begun to acknowledge Imam WD’s stature as a great American in the best pluralist tradition. In 1992, he was asked to give the first invocation by a Muslim in the US Senate. The next year saw him offering the Islamic prayer at the inaugural interfaith prayer service hosted by President Bill Clinton.

Imam WD’s faith sustained him in a life filled with personal turmoil. In his twenties, he was sent to prison for over a year for refusing induction into the US military as a conscientious objector. Spending time there studying the Quran in depth, he developed an approach to Islam that caused him to become estranged from his father, although their relationship thawed toward the end of his father’s life.

In an interview at Imam WD’s memorial service in Chicago, the imam’s grandson Kevin Walker, a college student at the time, remembered especially his grandfather teaching him “different things about the religion, and how I should pray and be kind to people. When I was little I used to kill bugs ’cause I didn’t like them, and he used to tell me that everything was equal, and ask why my life is more important than the bug’s life, so I should care for the bug and let it outside, so it could be where it belongs.” Tariq Mohammed, Kevin’s younger brother, loved his grandfather, who was both a teacher and a hero to the boy: “When my great-grandfather, Elijah Muhammad passed, he [Imam WD] built the bridge for mainstream Islam.”

As a result of Imam WD’s struggle, after 9/11 American-Muslims were ready to build bridges. Numerous mosques, imams, and America’s two Muslim congressmen, the African Americans Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, all reflect Imam WD’s philosophy of peace, learning and humility.

The American mainstream—as well as, sometimes, the non-African American Muslim community—too frequently overlook African American Islam and thus Imam WD and his achievements. It is imperative that they learn about African American Islam and leaders like Imam WD as they have been effectively able to balance Islamic and American identity, equally comfortable in both. They thus present a model to be followed.

(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.)