Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, who passed away this past Tuesday, in Chicago, Illinois, was not the best known American Muslim of his generation. Unlike his friend Malcolm X (al-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz), he would not become a symbol of black rage with excerpts of his speeches creatively spliced into the songs of contemporary artists who have defined the evolving hip hop movement.
Unlike Muhammad Ali, his refusal to be inducted into the United States Armed Forces, and his resulting three-year prison sentence would pass unnoticed. Such was his life and example of courage, dedication and a stubborn defense of his principles. If one was not a member of his community, one would probably not notice his momentous deeds.
Unlike Minister Louis Farrakhan, he was not a charismatic orator capable of mesmerizing crowds for hours on end. His recordings are not circulated widely among Muslim students on college campuses across this country like those of Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and others. Perhaps, fittingly, that is not the case, for Imam Muhammad will always be best remembered for what he did, not for what he said.
During the 1950s and 1960s, his father, Elijah Muhammad, ably assisted by Malcolm X, had built the Nation of Islam into a movement that came to epitomize, in the hearts and minds of many urban African Americans, black pride, self-sufficiency, and militancy. However, for white Americans familiar with its teachings, the organization was a mysterious cult-like group that in the name of combating white racism, countered with a menacing brand of black racism, whose signature slogan, “The white man is the devil!” served to place a wedge between the “Black Muslims” and mainstream American society.
Assuming the leadership of that movement in 1975, upon his father’s death, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad worked doggedly to remove that wedge. He introduced his followers to the message of Islam as a universal religion whose ranks include adherents from every race and ethnicity on earth. He initiated reforms that led to members of the organization adopting the traditional Islamic rites of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage while maintaining an emphasis on black pride.
However, for Imam Muhammad, black pride did not mean identifying with cultural relics that have little to do with an American frame of reference. For the Imam, black pride was to be manifested in the moral and academic excellence that constitutes the true basis for the greatness of any people. That message resonated in the hearts of his followers. Today his community boasts accomplished scholars like Dr. Intisar Rabb, who has completed a JD at Yale and is in the process of finishing her Ph.D at Princeton; world-class athletes like Sharif Abdul Raheem, an NBA all star; promising businessmen and women, and multitudes of upright men and women who have been inspired by the Imam’s teachings.
Perhaps the greatest work Imam Muhammad engaged in was his effort at “indigenizing” Islam in America. At a time when many converts to Islam were being led to believe that being Muslim involved dressing like an Arab or a Pakistani, and cultivating a bitter anti-Americanism, Imam Muhammad was encouraging his followers to wear business suits, make a strong commitment to their families, and to embrace America as full participants in her ongoing saga.
His approach in the latter regard was not in the spirit of an uncritical “Uncle Tomism.” Rather it was a realistic acknowledgment of the fact that whether we like it or not this is our country, and true Islamic teachings urge us to acknowledge that fact and to do all we can do to advance the common good. For Imam Muhammad, pursuit of the common good did not mean an abandonment of the right to criticize and dissent, for often the common good can only be attained through dissent in the defense of truth and principle. We should never abandon this position.
Today, we find that forces of obscurantist bigotry are working to place an intractable divide between Islam, Muslims and America. Those of us who are Muslims living in this country must work to keep the mission and message of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad alive. This is indeed our country. We are not Africans, Arabs, or Asians. We are Americans, and we must do everything in our power to advance the common good.