W.D. Mohammed, 74, Transformed Nation of Islam

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W.D. Mohammed, who died yesterday in Chicago at 74, transformed the original Nation of Islam, led by his father, Elijah Muhammad, into a mainstream Sunni Muslim organization, rejecting its original black separatist ideology.

“It’s a great loss for the entire Muslim community,” the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, Dawud Walid, told the Associated Press. “He was encouraging his followers to accept the best of their humanity and to extend the moral and ethical values of Islam to the general American public.”

As leader of the American Society of Muslims, among America’s largest Muslim communities, Mohammed counseled peace and interfaith dialogue. He had meetings with the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II. The current Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan’s organization, was separately founded in 1977, following Elijah Muhammad’s death.

As his father’s successor, W.D. Mohammed insisted that his father had someday intended to transform his organization into something more mainstream and inclusive after first inspiring his black membership to self-reliance and pride through a separatist message. The group had initially drawn its membership from ex-convicts and other disenfranchised blacks, many of them galvanized by the preaching of Malcom X.

Born October 30, 1933, Wallace Delaney — later Warith Deen — Mohammed was tapped by the founder of the Nation of Islam, Wali Farad Mohammed, to be his father’s successor. But, trained from childhood in Arabic and in the Koran, he early came to reject the Nation of Islam’s racial theology and loopy accounts of the creation of the white race by a mad scientist. He also rejected his father’s contention that Farad, originally W.D. Fard, was divine.

“I shared something religious with my father,” he told the Seattle Times in 1997. “I didn’t like his language, but I shared his love of God and his desire to see his people in better circumstances.”

After spending time in prison in the early 1960s for refusing to be drafted, he was thrown out of the Nation of Islam for preaching his nonracial version of Islam. He continued to have a turbulent relationship with the organization and with his father, and after his father’s death in 1975, he was elected Nation of Islam’s supreme minister. W.D. Mohammed quickly instituted traditional Islamic practices, such as praying five times daily, and urged the study of the Koran. He disbanded the Nation of Islam’s military wing, the Fruit of Islam. He declared, “There will be no such category as a white Muslim or a black Muslim. All will be Muslims. All children of God.” He also changed Nation of Islam’s name to the Bilalian Community, after an early follower of the Prophet Muhammad. Today the group is known as the American Society of Muslims, and its members include boxing great Muhammad Ali.

Mr. Farrakhan’s breakaway Nation of Islam — which despite its notoriety is thought to be far smaller — holds that Elijah Muhammad is the final prophet, a teaching seemingly in conflict with Sunni Islam. W.D. Mohammed rejected the notion that his father was a prophet, and once called Mr. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam “a crippling force” for African Americans. But the two reconciled in 2000, after Mr. Farrakhan announced he was leading the Nation of Islam in a more orthodox direction.

In 1993, Mohammed became the first imam to deliver the prayer and invocation on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He was elected to the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and later became the ecumenical group’s international president. Much of his continuing work as an imam was concerned with economic and social uplift for his largely middle-to-lower-middle-class followers. Detractors criticized his lack of charisma and his failure to condemn the invasion of Iraq, as well as his refusal to confront racism. But W.D. Mohammed insisted on printing the American flag on the cover of his organization’s newsletter.

“We should love America passionately now that America has changed so drastically within a relatively short period of time,” he told the Jerusalem Post in 1994.

In retirement, he continued to snipe at the lack of proper religious education among America’s Muslim clergy.


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