The passing of Imam Warith Deen (W. D.) Mohammed is not only a loss for his community and the world of Islam but also for all of us. He was truly an extraordinary man and religious leader, a charismatic figure whose profile seemed to defy the usual definition of the term. Indeed throughout the years the militant and more physically imposing Louis Farrakhan, who in fact enjoyed far, far fewer followers, managed to overshadow W. D. Mohammed in media coverage.
I first met Warith Deen at a small Catholic-Muslim gathering and discussion group hosted by the then Cardinal of Baltimore. The Vatican’s top official for inter-religious dialogue was also present. Two memories stand out. At first, as I sat at the discussion table, I couldn’t recognize who W. D. Mohammed was. There was little in the way he carried himself, spoke or acted that signaled that there was a prominent personality at the table. He neither dominated nor pontificated. Second, after the meeting when I was out on the street on my way home, I noticed an incredible entourage of cars with an imposing police escort. I was sure, it was the Vatican’s cardinal being whisked to the airport and accorded the security he warranted. As the entourage passed, there was W. D. Mohammed in the main limo.
Warith Deen Mohammed (then known as Wallace D. Mohammed) became the Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam upon the death of his father, Elijah Muhammad in February 1975. Soon after the son set out on what would become a substantial reformation of the doctrines and organization of the Nation. He integrated the Nation within the American Muslim community, the broader American society, and the global Islamic community.
The Nation and its teachings were brought into conformity with orthodox Sunni Islam. Wallace Mohammed made the pilgrimage to Mecca and encouraged his followers to study Arabic in order to better understand Islam. The community came to observe Islam’s Five Pillars and black separatist doctrines were dropped as they community proceeded to participate within the political process and system. The equality of men and women believers was reaffirmed; women were given more responsible positions in the ministry of the community. The name of Nation was initially changed to the World Community of al-Islam in the West (WCIW); Mohammed Speaks became the Bilalian News, named after the first black convert to Islam.
In 1980, as if to signal his and the community’s new religious identity and mission, Wallace changed his name to Warith Deen Mohammed, renamed the WCIW the American Muslim Mission, and the Bilalian News became the American Muslim Journal (later renamed Muslim Journal). While the great majority of the Nation followed him, a number of dissidents resisted the changes; Louis Farrakhan broke ranks and revived the name “Nation of Islam” in 1981. Many years later, in 2000 W.D. Mohammed and Farrakhan publicly embraced, and declared unity and reconciliation
W.D. Mohammed became a prominent figure in inter-religious affairs. He was the first Muslim to give an invocation in the U.S. Senate and in 1993, he offered the prayer during the first Inaugural Interfaith Prayer Service of President Bill Clinton. On September 11, as Americans commemorate the attacks and tragedy of 9/11, Warith Deen Mohammed will be buried. His passing and the memory of his accomplishments are a witness and fittingly a reminder of the heart of Islam and the vast majority of its followers.