The cause of intergroup understanding lost a courageous champion September 10 with the death in Chicago of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, head of The Mosque Cares organization and the most widely respected leader of America’s black Muslims.
Mohammed was born in Detroit in 1933, the seventh child of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the black separatist Nation of Islam. Groomed to be his father’s successor, he was instead excommunicated after questioning black supremacy and other doctrines. Father and son reconciled, but then fell out again, going through repeated cycles of excommunication and reconciliation. After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son was chosen to succeed him, edging out the fiery Louis Farrakhan.
The younger Mohammed instituted a swift series of reforms. He abandoned racial supremacy, dropped the name Nation of Islam, adopted a more orthodox Islam and ended centralized rule in favor of congregational independence. In 1977, Farrakhan angrily broke away to re-establish the Nation of Islam with its traditional racialist doctrines — and a fraction of the membership.
In the three decades since then, while Farrakhan grabbed headlines by fanning hatred, Mohammed quietly built a vast network of mosques, schools and businesses, while traveling tirelessly to advance his ideas of peace and interfaith dialogue. In 1992 he became the first Muslim to offer an invocation in the U.S. Senate. In 1995 he gave the keynote address at a Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Chicago, co-sponsored with Judaism’s Reform movement. In 1998 he went to Auschwitz to attend a three-day “conference on religion and peace,” sponsored by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University. A year later, in 1999, he shared a stage with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama for a massive peace rally at the Vatican.
Later that year, Mohammed went to Jerusalem to attend an interfaith conference for world peace and then went on to Amman, where he was elected president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. And in 2003 he joined with a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy to send an open letter to President Bush, urging him to press harder to implement his road map to Middle East peace, end Palestinian violence and bring about a peace agreement between a Palestinian state and the “Jewish state of Israel.”
W. Deen Mohammed was not given to flights of passionate oratory. He could go a year without appearing in public. He was not a household name. But he was a powerful force for peace in Islam. He was revered among Christian and Jewish clergy and peace activists for his patient devotion to his vision and his fearlessness in facing down extremists. He held firm to his vision through years of tension and violence, building bridges, keeping lines of dialogue open and showing others a path to peace. He will be missed.