Thursday, September 18, 2008

Muslim Americans, what now? thoughts on the the impact of W.Deen Mohammed and the future

The death of Imam W.Deen Mohammed, long time fixture in the Muslim American community, sent shock waves nationwide, affecting not only his followers, but the wider Muslim community as well. He was widely seen as a source of stability and confidence for U.S.Muslims, particularly African-American Muslims, many of whom also saw in him a symbol of pride and independence.

His death has re-ignited interest in an oft-ignored African American Muslim community, and has also prompted questions as to the past, present and future image of Islam with a distinct American appearance.

Who was W.Deen Mohammed

Son of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the 'Lost-found Nation of Islam' or simply Nation of Islam [NOI], a movement whose doctrines were a mixture of Islam, Christianity and a variety of race-based fictional accounts. It was founded in the days when discrimination and marginalization of Black Americans was a normal fact of life, also a time when various religious and political movements were vying for the Consciousness and loyalty of Blacks. Elijah Muhammad's interests were not religious alone. While he did view Christianity as a tool to put down Blacks, and Islam as a liberating religion for Blacks, he also had cultural, social and economic interests. He gave his followers the drive to be industrious, hard-working, and productive, opening a variety of restaurants, farms, and other business ventures. He advocated a rather unrealistis vision, complete separation of the races, that some land be set aside for Blacks only, for a Black nation!

It was this movement that produced well-known figures such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Although marginalized in historical accounts, this movement, despite its clearly odd patch job of a theology, played an important role in both the African-American struggle for human rights and the establishment of Islam in American life.

Upon the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his son Wallace [also known as Imam Warith-Deen ] became the leader of the NOI, and almost immediatly embarked on a program that led in the direction of accepting Orthodox Islam. Prayer, fasting, uncompromising Monotheism, all ignored in the days of his father, became the norm for his supporters.

Eventually, W.D. Mohammed dissolved all organizational structures, having for himself essentially a symbolic presence only, with no direct control of his followers' affairs. His style had an unique American approach. He seems to have sought to allow Muslims to be Muslims, while at the same time be American! This is a different approach from other Muslim movements, which finds acceptance of all things Western anathema to Islam. He was among the first American Muslim figures to encourage voting, and his preferred style of dress was a suit and tie, rather than a Jalabiyyah.

Of course there were many issues we can disagree with him about, but his impact cannot be denied. He was a sincere worker for the Islamic cause, with a mind of his own.

The future

The passing of Imam W.D. Mohammed reflects the natural changing of the guard. No longer should religion revolve around personalities. That has also been a uniquely American experience, but in Islam our religion is suppose to be about obedience to God above all else, about the Qur'an, the words of God and acting in accordance with justice and fair-play.

Rather than circling around a leader, I think the Muslims will, and actually should, broaden their religious interests, pursuing for themselves the avenues of knowledge and building for themselves all the goodly things needed for their lives and the well being of their communities. This was very apparent to me at the funeral, which I attended, when I saw Minister Louis Farrakhan [ft.1]. It hit me that he was the only other prominent fugure from those past days still active, who himself carried a charisma that is felt by Muslim Americans of all shades and backrounds.

American Muslims are in the process of creating their own identity. Times have changed, and Islam is no longer seen as a protest movement among Blacks. It is spreading fast among Whites and Latinos. Together with second-generation Muslims from Arab and South Asian backrounds, we will create something new and unique.

Muslims here will create their own clothing, that will conform to Islamic requirements as well as Western styles, in the same way Baju Melayu in Malaysia and the Shalwar kameez for the unique identity of Subcontinent Muslims. The future is very promising.

We will ask our readers to respect this process, to participate in this process, contribute to it and do not denigrate the past. We have seen that with the passing of Imam Mohammed, many have taken the oppurtunity to attack his personal, theological and political positions. This is not the time for that, as all that will do is create unneeded enmity and hatred. We ask our readers to put aside differences and to remember the Islamic principle of not speaking ill of the dead, especially one whose good actions outweighted any [percieved] wrong ones.


[1] Louis Farrakhan broke away from W.D. Mohammed upon the latter's acceptance of orthodox Islam, and revived the teachings and program of Elijah Muhammad.


Jamilah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shamsuddin Waheed said...

As salaamu 'alaikum,

Below is an email response I recieved about this article.

Assalamualaikum dear brother,

I read your article on Imam W Deen Mohamad’s passing with great sadness.

It is beyond me to describe him with the eloquence that should match such a towering figure, but above all descriptions he was a very father like figure to Muslims in America .

For an outsider like me, studying abroad as a Muslim student, I saw him as the figure that bridges the gap between the different brands of Islam or rather the image brought about by various kinds of Muslims in America .

With his passing, I am sure that he left a huge shoe to fill but for what he has done to the community, through his openness, his wisdom and above all his humility towards Allah I am confident that a new group of leaders will step up to fill the void and carry the cause of Islam in USA.

I am sure my brother that you are one of the many young leaders ready to ‘detraditionalise’ Islam from all of its negative cultural and conditional influences. I hope you will continue to do what you do and may Allah bless you always for this.

In Malaysia , similarly there are conscious efforts to disassociate Islam from racial politics, extreme nationalism, etc. I hope this will continue, and people like you, wherever your may be are definitely agents of change.

May this Ramadhan bring you peace, forgiveness and renewed spirit, despite the passing of an old good friend. I pray to Allah that the good old Imam will be suitably rewarded, as another of his pious and unselfish slave striving for His cause.

And I wish all the best for your endeavour and to your family too.

Your brother in Islam,