Imam Warith Deen Muhammad: A Muslim for Our Times
by Imam Zaid Shakir
Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, who passed away September 9th, in Chicago, Illinois, was not the best known American Muslim of his generation. Unlike his friend Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), he did not become a symbol of black rage with excerpts of his speeches innovatively spliced into the songs of contemporary artists who define the evolving hip hop movement.
Unlike Minister Louis Farrakhan, he was not a charismatic orator capable of mesmerizing crowds for hours on end. His recordings are not circulated widely among Muslim students on college campuses across this country like those of Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Perhaps, fittingly, this is not the case, for Imam Muhammad will always be best remembered for what he did, not for what he said.
His father, Elijah Muhammad (ably assisted by Malcolm X), built the Nation of Islam into a movement that came to epitomize, in the hearts and minds of many urban African Americans, black pride, self-sufficiency, and militancy. However, for white Americans familiar with its teachings, the organization was a mysterious cult-like group that in the name of combating white racism, countered with a menacing brand of black racism, whose signature slogan, "The white man is the devil," served to place a wedge between the "Black Muslims" and mainstream American society.
Imam Warith Deen Muhammad assumed the leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1975 upon his father's death, and worked doggedly to remove that wedge. He introduced his followers to Islam as a universal religion whose ranks include adherents from every race and ethnicity around the world. He initiated reforms that led members of the organization to adopt the traditional Islamic rites of prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage and still maintain an emphasis on black pride.
However, for Imam Muhammad, black pride did not mean identifying with cultural relics foreign to an American frame of reference. For the Imam, black pride was manifested in the moral and academic excellence that constitutes the true basis for the greatness of any people. That message resonated in the hearts of his followers. Today his community boasts scholars such as Intisar Rabb, who has completed a JD at Yale and is currently finishing her PhD at Princeton; athletes like Shareef Abdur-Raheem, an NBA All Star; and multitudes of upright men and women who have been inspired by the Imam's teachings.
Perhaps the greatest of Imam Muhammad's work was his effort at "indigenizing" Islam in America. At a time when many converts to Islam were led to believe that being Muslim involved dressing like an Arab or a Pakistani and cultivating a bitter anti-Americanism, Imam Muhammad encouraged his followers to wear business suits and make a strong commitment to their families.
His approach in this regard was not in the spirit of an uncritical "Uncle Tomism." Rather it was a realistic acknowledgement of the fact that whether we like it or not this is our country, and true Islamic teachings urge us to acknowledge this fact and work for the common good.
Today, we find that forces of obscurantist bigotry are working to place an intractable divide between Islam, Muslims, and America. Those of us who are Muslims living in this country must work to keep the mission and message of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad alive. This is indeed our country. We are not Africans, Arabs, or Asians. We are Americans, and we must do everything in our power to advance the common good.