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People & Ideas: W. Deen Mohammed

W. Deen Mohammed

Imam W. Deen Mohammed answers questions during a lecture in Little Rock, Ark., Friday, Aug. 10, 2007Source: AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Born in 1933, W. Deen Mohammed was the son of Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Elijah Muhammad, and named after Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of NOI. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, attended religious schools, and learned to read Arabic. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he served the church under his father.

In 1961, he refused the draft and was sentenced to prison. Like Malcolm X, Mohammed spent his time behind bars soul-searching. As he read the Quran for himself, he began to question some of the doctrines and the theology of his father's religion.

His father excommunicated him three times; each time they eventually reconciled. W. Deen Mohammed ultimately rejected many of the spiritual tenets of the Nation of Islam, including the divinity of Wallace Fard Muhammad.

Despite his skepticism and their many disagreements, Mohammed assumed leadership of the NOI when his father died in 1975. He quickly began to make sweeping changes to the organization, moving it toward mainstream Sunni Islam. He changed the name a number of times, eventually settling on the Muslim American Community. He did the same with his own name, relinquishing his given name of Wallace F. Muhammad for Warith Deen Mohammed, which is how he came to be known. The NOI title of "minister" became the more traditional "imam," and Mohammed encouraged followers to study Arabic and the Quran, and to follow the five pillars of Islam: faith, charity, prayer five times a day, fasting during Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca.

In an effort to bring Sunni Islam's emphasis on unity to the forefront instead of continuing the NOI's prior emphasis on racial separation, Mohammed abolished the NOI's paramilitary organization and moved away from its image as a black supremacist organization, a reputation gained in the early 1960s. He retained much of the Nation of Islam's original intent to fight for social justice, but sought to make this fight more unifying and conciliatory. Another member of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, revived the NOI with its original name and its original nontraditional Muslim beliefs and practices.

Active in interfaith initiatives, Mohammed sought cooperation with other religious communities, especially Christians and Jews. As the imam of the American Muslim Society, in 1992, he was the first Muslim to deliver an invocation at the U.S. Senate, and he led prayers, reading from the Quran, at both inaugural celebrations of President Bill Clinton.

He told PBS in 2003: "We should realize that the first identity is not an African or a European or a Saudi. The first identity is a human being. ... [W]e should just make all the progress we can, separately and all together."

On Aug. 29, 2008, he made what would be his last public appearance. He praised the teachings of Muhammad and Jesus and counseled, "We all ... should be trying to be Christlike." He died a month later, in September 2008.

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Published October 11, 2010

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