Warith Deen Mohammed (1933-) Successor to Elijah Muhammad as head of the Nation of Islam and founder of Muslim American Society (Calumet City, Ill.).
W. D. Muhammad, born 30 October 1933, is the son of Clara and Elijah Muhammad. The birth of this “favored child” was foretold by W. D. Fard, founder of the Nation of Islam, who named him Wallace Delaney Muhammad and predicted he would succeed his father, already tapped to be Fard’s successor, as head of NOI.
W.D. Muhammad began working in the NOI hierarchy after completing high school. Although his rise through the ranks was not smooth, the day after Elijah Muhammad died, this son was named his successor, and unanimously approved during Savior’s Day celebrations on 26 February 1975. He began a process of Islamization of NOI that resulted in the splintering of the organization. A dissident group, loyal to Louis Farrakhan, resumed the NOI name and variant theology while W. D. Muhammad formed the American Muslim Society, bringing his followers closer to mainstream Sunni Islam in both theology and practice.
In 1961, W.D. Muhammad refused military draft and was sentenced to three years in jail. While there, he began reading mainstream Islamic doctrine, and noticed contradictions with NOI theology. The resulting ideological rift with his father caused him to leave NOI in 1963. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, he returned to the NOI ranks, but was suspended by NOI for his “dissident views” in 1969 and again in 1971.
However, when W.D. Muhammad was installed as Supreme Minister of Nation of Islam in 1975, he immediately began to reformulate his father’s beliefs and practices to bring NOI closer to American Sunni Islam.
His assumption of the leadership was not without controversy. Another top NOI official, Louis Farrkhan, believed he should have been named Elijah Muhammad’s successor. Farrakhan disagreed publicly with W.D. Muhammad in 1977 over NOI’s move toward Sunni Islam, and took a minority of NOI members with him into a splinter group. In 1981, Farrakhan announced restoration of the “old” Nation of Islam, and went forward with Elijah Muhammad’s NOI teachings. He continues to be the more media savvy of the two successors, and was responsible for the dramatic Million Man March in 1995.
Continuing his reform movement within NOI, W. D. Muhammad publicly shunned his father’s theology and black separatist views. He forged ties with other American Muslim organizations and renamed his own the World Community of al-Islam in the West in 1976. That year, he changed his title from Supreme Minister to the more Islamic one of Imam and adopted the name Warith Deen Mohammed. Membership was opened to all believers. Two years later, he changed the name of his organization to American Muslim Mission.
W.D. Muhammad’s embrace of mainstream Islam was rewarded with political and economic benefits. In 1975, he met privately with Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat in Chicago, and 1976 he received a gift of $16 million from Sheikh Sultan Ben Mohammad al-Qasmini, head of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, to purchase a mosque and build a school. In 1992, he was the first Muslim imam to offer morning prayers in the United States Senate, and later participated in two Interfaith Breakfasts hosted by President Bill Clinton. He was invited to meet Pope John Paul, II at the Vatican in 1996.
W.D. Muhammad resigned as spiritual leader of the American Muslim Mission in 1978. In 1985 he dismantled the leadership council he had set up. While each mosque then became an independent entity with its own name and leadership, most remained affiliated to the successor organization, the Muslim American Society (also known as the Ministry of W. Deen Mohammed), based in Calumet City, Ill. (Note: this Muslim American Society is not the same group as the Muslim American Society based in Falls Church, Va.)
Integration of the MAS, still overwhelmingly African-American, with mainstream Sunni Islam in the U.S. is by no means complete 25 years after it began. Mosques, schools, businesses and organizations (including the International League of Muslim Women) affiliated with W. D. Muhammad’s MAS retain their distinctiveness through separate conferences and networks. Also, they cooperate in distribution of the organization’s weekly newspaper. Headquartered in Hazel Crest, Ill., “Muslim Journal” was known as “Muhammad Speaks” when it was the official publication of the Nation of Islam.
—by Susan McKee
Ansari, Zafar Ishaq. “W.D. Muhammad: The Making of a ‘Black Muslim’ Leader (1933-1961),” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 2 (1985): 245-262.
Gardell, Mattias. In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Duke University Press, 1996.
Marsh, Clifton E. From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Transition from Separatism to Islam, 1930-1980. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1984.
W. Deen Mohammed Ministry website: http://www.WDMonline.com
Muslim American Society website: masba.com