Like other great religious leaders, W.D. Mohammed, the American Muslim leader who died Tuesday at age 74, showed us how to mature spiritually and more gracefully.
Imam Mohammed, who briefly followed his father, Elijah Muhammad, as leader of the black supremacist Nation of Islam, later rejected the radical and messianic teachings of his father and adopted a more traditional, humble and inclusive Islam.
“I had common sense, and my common sense told me this was ridiculous, the idea that God is a God that wants one people to dominate others,” W.D. Mohammed said in 1997. Mohammed said he knew that Master W.D. Fard Muhammad, the mysterious founder of the Nation of Islam, “was not God, and I knew he was not God, Elijah Mohammed was not a prophet.”
W.D. Mohammed, who dissolved the Nation of Islam in the 1970s and encouraged his followers (including Muhammad Ali) to become more orthodox Muslims, was less well known but much more influential than Louis Farrakhan, who broke from Mohammad and revived the Nation of Islam in the late 1970s.
Mohammed’s mainstream American Muslim Society is by far the country’s largest community of African-American Muslims. In 1992, he became the first Muslim to deliver an invocation to the U.S. Senate. In 1993 and 1997, he recited from the Holy Qu’ran at President Bill Clinton’s two inaugural interfaith prayer services.
“His intrinsic intelligence and high academic acumen made him wise, but his kind heart and charitable character is what made him so beloved,” Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), who is Muslim, said in a statement Tuesday.
Mohammed began to question his father’s teachings in the early 1960s, while he was serving time a federal prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He studied the Qu’ran and found its teachings didn’t match his father’s. After his father died in 1975, W.D. Mohammed disbanded the Nation’s militaristic security force, then dissolved the Nation entirely. He told his followers to become orthodox Muslims — to kneel in prayer five times a day, to read the Qu’ran in Arabic, to be more tolerant and generous, less dogmatic and political.
“We should realize that the first identity is not an African or a European or a Saudi,” Mohammed told PBS in 2003. “The first identity is a human being.”
Aug. 29, in his last Friday sermon, Mohammed addressed his followers in Detroit’s Cobo Hall. According to the , “he repeatedly praised Jesus and stressed the importance of living a moral life. In his talk, Mohammed urged personal responsibility and praised Jesus and Muhammad, Islam’s founder, saying both were great teachers.
“He stood on the podium slightly hunched over, a compact man with glasses and a modest brown suit who spoke in measured tones. ‘We all … should be trying to be Christlike,’ he said.”
We all should age so gracefully.