Reflecting on Imam Warith Deen Mohammed

Reflecting on Imam Warith Deen Mohammed

By Duston Barto

Imam Warith Deen Mohammed in perhaps his last portrait before his death in 2008.
Imam Warith Deen Mohammed in 2008

“I’m compelled by his legacy to be here today. … He personally brought me to where I am today,” said Imam Siraj Wahhaj at the janazah (funeral prayer) of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. After dying of a heart attack in early September, 2008, it only took a few days for over 8,000 Muslims to be able to gather in honor of “America’s Imam” to pray at his passing. Such was the attention that this man brought. His passion for the community led to a wildfire of Islamic awakening in America.

The Foundation of a Leader

W. D. Mohammed was born as Wallace Muhammad in 1933 as the seventh child of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. He was exposed to the teachings of Black Nationalism, which the Nation of Islam used to help organize and mobilize African-Americans in the fight for civil rights. Often inaccurately referred to as a sect of Islam, Nation of Islam had strong sociopolitical goals and used the language of Islam to promote the sense of community, strength, and righteousness. There were many deviant teachings in the Nation of Islam. In an interview with PBS in 2003, Imam Mohammed revealed that even at the age of 13 he had a hard time reconciling the teachings regarding God and his message. During this young age he appealed in prayer, “Oh Allah, if I’m not seeing you correctly, please help me to see you correctly.” According to Imam Mohammed, this began a series of incidents wherein he would question his father’s teachings and the doctrine of the Nation of Islam. In late 1958 Elijah Muhammad appointed Wallace to the position of minister in Philadelphia. While there, Imam Mohammed taught people the basics of proper Muslim prayer and began reading from the Qur’an. This marked the first time that anyone had read directly from the Qur’an at any Nation of Islam temple.

This quest for Islamic knowledge only grew within Wallace Muhammad and, after a time, Elijah Muhammad supported it. Though there were many rifts between them, Elijah Muhammad reinstated Wallace to the full position of minister in the Nation of Islam in 1974 and chose him to be the successor of leadership. Then, forty years ago in February of 1975, Wallace Muhammad assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam and made sweeping changes. First, he reinforced the Qur’an and Sunnah as the two primary sources of Islamic Law. Following that fundamental change, he converted all temples into mosques; all ministers would be called imams. The dress code would be abolished, and the principles of modest dress as outlined in Qur’an and Sunnah would replace them. The militant side of Nation of Islam, called FOI (Fruit of Islam) was disbanded, and the principles of peace and coexistence were instituted. Wallace adopted the name Warith Deen Mohammed at this time, and, over the next five to seven years, slowly migrated thousands of people from the actions of a sociopolitical movement into the path of Islam.

If one reads the language of articles written by Imam Mohammed in the mid to late 1970s, he or she would see verses from the Bible, terminology leftover from the Nation of Islam, and interpretations that don’t seem to make sense to someone coming from a purely sunnah background. However, this was wisdom in motion as Imam Mohammed understood that rapid change would cause many people to leave in frustration and perhaps join the newly reformed Nation of Islam under Minister Louis Farrakhan. Others, like Imam Siraj Wahaj, became frustrated with how slowly the migration was taking place and left to establish or join other sunnah masajid. Now, forty years later, we can see the wisdom of the slow migration as it helped people to respect the background from which they came while embracing the truth of Islam as it was revealed through Qur’an and Sunnah. When conversations arose about whether they would be following this path or that path, Imam Mohammed silenced the debate with, “Just call yourselves Muslims.”

Imam W. D. Mohammed shakes hands with Pope John Paul II and holds his arm while speaking to the pontiff.
Imam W. D. Mohammed meets with Pope John Paul II in October of 1996 at the Vatican

The Uniqueness of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed’s Teaching

One of the stark differences found in Imam Warith Deen Mohammed’s teaching styles is that he rejected a strictly literal interpretation of Qur’anic events. For instance, in Surah 30:30 reads, “Then set your face upright for religion in the right state– the nature made by Allah in which He has made men; there is no altering of Allah’s creation; that is the right religion, but most people do not know.“ What Imam Mohammed took from this verse is that Allah created humanity in a form that would never change. The implication of this is that supernatural miraculous events do not happen today because they did not happen thousands of years ago. Imam Mohammed felt that these expressions of supernatural miraculous events were symbolic teaching of morality or a way to tell a story with multiple meanings. In order to support this argument, Imam Mohammed referenced Surah 2:26 and 17:89 which says, “Surely Allah is not ashamed to set forth any parable– (that of) a gnat or anything above that; then as for those who believe, they know that it is the truth from their Lord, and as for those who disbelieve, they say: What is it that Allah means by this parable: He causes many to err by it and many He leads aright by it! But He does not cause to err by it (any) except the transgressors, “ and, “And certainly We have explained for men in this Quran every kind of similitude (example), but most men do not consent to aught but denying. “ According to Imam Mohammed’s interpretation, in both of those verses Allah reveals the use of examples, metaphors, and parables; therefore, Imam Mohammed felt that he was submitting to the nature that Allah had created by using his intellect as deeply as possible to interpret the Qur’an via this methodology and, while he encouraged his students to do the same, most of them adhere closely to the interpretations that Imam Mohammed himself taught. To be clear, this does not mean that we should dismiss the miracles revealed as just fables, but that we should not be hung up on a strict literal understanding of them.

Additionally, Imam Mohammed supported the use of parable interpretation by analyzing the authentic ahadith which involved miraculous occurrences to illustrate that these events did not physically happen, but that they were representative of ideas and thoughts in order to better illustrate a teaching. One stark example of this is the following:

Abu Hurairah said that he heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “While a lady was nursing her child, a rider passed by and she said,’ O Allah! Don’t let my child die till he becomes like this (rider).’ The child said, ‘O Allah! Don’t make me like him,’ and then returned to her breast (sucking it).
(After a while) they passed by a lady who was being pulled and teased (by the people).
The child’s mother said, ‘O Allah! Do not make my child like her.’
The child said, ‘O Allah! Make me like her.’ Then he (the prophet) said, ‘As for the rider, he is an infidel. While the lady is accused of illegal sexual intercourse (falsely) and she says: ‘Allah is sufficient for me (He knows the truth).’” her.’ Then he (the prophet) said, ‘As for the rider, he is an infidel. While the lady is accused of illegal sexual intercourse (falsely) and she says: ‘Allah is sufficient for me (He knows the truth).’”

In this hadith, Imam Mohammed is saying that the prophet used the story to teach a lesson akin to “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” but that the events did not actually take place. In the lineage of prophets, the use of parables and metaphors is well known especially in the case of Jesus (AS), but most of the prophets of Jewish tradition also have a record of telling stories in parable form to express a spiritual truth and give a moral lesson. Therefore, Imam Mohammed postulated, it is not a far reach to suppose that the grand teacher of all humanity, Allah, would do the same.

“We want knowledge,” Imam Mohammed said, “we don’t want to just go through rituals forever not knowing anything. The rituals are here as a sign that there was knowledge. The great teacher, he has passed away, but the Qur’an is here and the rituals are here. The Qur’an is living proof that there has been revealed divine knowledge to people and the rituals are proof that there is wisdom in the people that followed the Prophet.” Launching from this thesis in the book Prayer and Al-Islam, Imam Mohammed breaks down and analyses every aspect of the form of salaat including the act of making wu’du. Through this undertaking, the servant of Allah can be reminded of many aspects of his religion every time he makes salaat whether it is the act of returning to the substance of creation by using water for ablution or reinforcing the seven plains of paradise by the points of the body which connect to the ground (feet, knees, hands and forehead make seven points of prostration).

Therefore, it is through the analysis of symbols provided by Allah in our worship and in the creation around us that Imam Mohammed challenges the worshipper to increase and enhance his knowledge in a way that is not only beneficial, but in a way which allows him to make remembrance of Allah and al-Islam in every action of daily life.

The Argument for a Muslim American Madhab

Imam Mohammed grins excitedly as he receives his PhD after many years of study.
Imam W. D. Mohammed receiving his PhD

“I don’t have to follow the Maliki school or the Shafi school or the Hanbali school. I don’t have to follow any of the four schools… Maybe, God has chosen me to bring about a new school.” In February of 1986, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad made this statement which set minds in motion toward the establishment of a new way of thought in Islamic jurisprudence. Why not? Most postulated, after all; each of the respected Imams and founders of the great schools of thought were rooted deeply in the land that they lived. The differences of the teachings were done with appreciation for the variation of the culture and the application of Islam within the life of the common person at that time and in that place.

There is an ongoing effort to codify the teachings of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed into a set of rules which govern the interpretation of Islam in the modern, American context. The Muslim American community has gotten together, most recently in September of 2014, to extract the methodology of establishing the madhab. The consensus view seems to be that Imam Warith Deen Mohammed’s madhab would not be established as a “school of thought (past tense)” but more of a “school of thinking (active tense)” since the majority of the Imam’s lessons were to help Muslims focus on expanding the understanding of things and applying new knowledge to comprehend the wisdom of Islam in a deeper fashion.

A Community Established and Guided

Today, the community under the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad reaches over 200 mosques. Estimates place the number of worshippers at over 100,000 across the United States. Each mosque is connected to one another through sections and a national shuraa council. When a masjid cannot resolve a situation, or when they see it is greater than just the local area, it is passed to the sectional shuraa who reflect upon it and determine if it is of national importance. When a matter is brought to the national shuraa, then it is evaluated and then sent back down to the rest of the sections and to the individual masajid. This methodical structure of shuraa governance is the perfect expression of Imam Warith Deen Mohamed’s leadership style, to take knowledge from the smallest parts of the community and make sure that it is shared equally; to connect every Muslim to every other Muslim and bind them together in faith. This sort of pure representative democracy in shuraa is remarkable and perhaps unique among Muslim Americans.

In addition to spiritual guidance, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed also directed the community to be strong in business and prosperous in trade. It was his teaching that through the prosperity of independant business that the community could grow strong. As Muslims conduct business with one another rather than relying on non-Muslim resources for goods and services; the community becomes more interconntected and everyone in the community benefits. As the average income level of the community increases, then the community becomes more capable of caring for the poor and sick. The economically strong community also becomes more attractive to non-Muslims while showing that it is strong enough to defend itself from the attacks from outside. Since charity is the third pillar of Islam, it becomes easier to complete the practice of one’s faith when the believer is economically prosperous.

A green Qur'an lays open on a field of red with brilliant yellow rays coming out of it.
The emblem of the community of Masajid established through the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.

With beginnings in the struggle for civil rights and human rights, the students of W.D. Mohammed continue to fight for social justice and strengthening of the local community. Emphasis is on the African American community simply because they face the greatest rates of poverty and the harshest challenges as a group; however, aspects of Black Nationalism are purged from the dialog of the community. Arab, Pakistani, and Caucasian imams deliver khutbahs alongside the African American imams who maintain and build the community. This has become America’s masjid established by America’s Imam. May Allah be pleased with the efforts of his dedicated servant, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.

Thank You to the many Imams who were students of Imam Mohammed that assisted with information and resources for this article. Jazakallahukhair!

“We want to make it very clear to you what this mission is all about. We are here to remake the world, not just the world of mosques, but the world of America and the world outside of America.” – Imam W. D. Mohammed in his 1975 speech outlining his vision for the community

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