‘’Although much of what Imam Mohammed described as goals and objectives has yet to be accomplished, he left a community of people with a new mind, spirit, soul, and profound knowledge that, when put together and harnessed will lead to another profound chapter in the history of this community in America. The legacy of Imam Mohammed is not finished; its first phase is being completed with the preservation of his knowledge body. Its next phase is just beginning.”
If you think the great legacy of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed is the guidance of millions of African Americans from the doctrine of the Nation of Islam (NOI) to the Qur’an and the sunnah, you are not aware of the full scope of his work. While this achievement alone is enough to establish his place in Islamic and American history, his work has impacts and implications beyond this accomplishment. Imam Mohammed’s work had major impacts on American, African American, and Muslim American culture. His work also has implications for Islamic thought and practice. Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, witnessed the NOI rise to power and prominence as the preeminent voice of black pride, power and anti-white supremacy. As America reformed its unjust laws and attitudes, he understood that a new world was dawning, and that world was moving towards human rights for all. He understood that a new vision, new language, and new tools were needed to thrive in this new world of the near future.
He brought in new tools for understanding Al-Islam, for growing individual and community life, for organizing business, cultural, political and educational life, and new tools for the ex-slaves, whom he believed Allah was assisting as compensation for 400 years of slavery and destruction.
To position the NOI for the next stage in its history, the Imam skillfully brought the organization’s religious Islamic teachings in line with the Islamic teachings of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad, in which a billion and a half Muslims around the world believe. This transformation made it possible for sincere intra-faith relations to improve.
He also guided the organization from its separatist, black nationalist orientation into the mainstream of American society. He picked up the American flag and asserted a new patriotism, which moved his community from an outsider-adversary to the nation in which they lived to an insider-supporter of that nation. This was a momentous positive psychological transformation. He instituted new interfaith measures in order to promote harmony and understanding among Christians, Jews, Muslims and all other people. This was particularly significant for African American Christians, who were once mocked and condemned by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the NOI. It improved relations and harmony among all Americans, especially within the African American family.
These three measures alone brought the community in harmony with the Muslim, Christian, American, and African American mainstreams so that his community could join the society rather than be isolated and at war with it. The isolation and separatist policies of Elijah Muhammad were a necessary stage in the formation of this new community, but it was not to be the final stage of development.
After initiating the largest conversion of people to Al-Islam in the Western Hemisphere, Imam Mohammed continued the transformative process by educating his community into a new and unique perception and understanding of the religion. He spent the next two decades expounding on the deep message of the Qur’an and life of Prophet Muhammad, and its implications and applications for all aspects of life.
Imam Mohammed died in September of 2008. He left a wealth of knowledge at the disposal of his community. Although much of what Imam Mohammed described as goals and objectives has yet to be accomplished, he left a community of people with a new mind, spirit, soul, and profound knowledge that, when put together and harnessed will lead to another profound chapter in the history of this community in America. The legacy of Imam Mohammed is not finished; its first phase is being completed with the preservation of his knowledge body. Its next phase is just beginning.
Imam Mohammed’s approach to Al-Islam begins where all Muslim approaches begin with the two primary sources of Islamic guidance, the Qur’an and the life example of Prophet Muhammad. The approach of Imam Mohammed and his community is closest to those who call themselves Sunni, but there are some important differences. Thus, he instructed his community not to refer to themselves as Sunni Muslims. He said, “Just call yourselves Muslims, because that is what Allah calls you in the Qur’an.”
These differences are not based upon the Imam introducing foreign ideas or innovation into the religion as some of his critics claim. Nor are these differences based upon ideas that cannot be found or derived from the Qur’an or the Prophet’s life. Rather, these differences stem from his understanding, perception and approach to the meanings, logic and implications of Qur’anic verses and the life example of Prophet Muhammad.
While Imam Mohammed’s approach extends to business, education, culture and government, this article summarizes a few major characteristics of his theological approach to the Deen of Al-Islam.
A major characteristic of Imam Mohammed’s approach is based upon Surahs 4:105 and 5:48, where he says we judge and evaluate all things through the eyes of the Qur’an, including all previous scriptures and all reports (ahaadith) about the Prophet’s life. Imam Mohammed is not a Qur’an only advocate, but he is also an advocate for independently evaluating ahaadith in light of the Qur’an and re-explaining, reinterpreting, making optional or discounting reports that are in conflict with the letter or spirit of the Qur’an as he understands the Qur’an.
Imam Mohammed interprets and explains the scriptures, both Bible and Qur’an, as contrasted against a literal reading of the Qur’an. He approaches the miracles as metaphors and parables, and he argues that the proofs for this approach are the verses of the Qur’an itself.
For example, Surahs 30:30 and 35:43 are two well-known verses. The first verse speaks about Deen Al-Fitrah; the way Allah made the creation, the way He made human beings patterned after the way He made the creation, and the fact that these creations or patterns cannot be changed or altered. The second verse speaks about the Sunnah of Allah and the fact that the way Allah does things can never be changed or altered.
For Imam Mohammed this means that the laws of nature (creation) work the same way today as they did during the days of the prophets. If supernatural miracles are not happening today, supernatural miracles didn’t happen then. Thus, if the miracles in the scriptures are contrary to the laws governing Allah’s creation and there can be no changes in these laws, these stories must be metaphors or allegories.
Hence, a second major characteristic of Imam Mohammed’s approach is the interpretation of the meanings of the stories in Qur’an and Bible where most others believe these stories literally. An example of this is the story of Noah’s Ark. Most Muslims treat this story as a literal event; Imam Mohammed explains this story as an allegory with basic lessons on the literal surface and deeper meanings requiring insight and interpretation, which he provides.
Imam Mohammed points out that he has not dreamed up the notion that the Qur’an is full of parables, but that it is Allah who proclaims this. One example is Surah 24:35, where Allah explains His own light by using a parable and then says He guides whom He wills to the understanding of His light (through these parables), and says that He makes these parables for mankind’s guidance. Another major feature of Imam Mohammed’s approach is his interpretation of the signs in Allah’s creation and applying those interpretations to verses in the Qur’an to help unlock the meaning of those verses. Surah 45:3-6 and other verses like these make clear that Allah teaches us wisdom through all objects in His creation. Imam Mohammed is obedient to this truth, while the majority of Muslims avoid interpreting these signs because of the dangers of speculation. This is understandable, because as mentioned in the verse above, Allah guides to the light whom He pleases. It is believed by many that Imam Mohammed is not speculating but has been guided to the light of interpretation and is among the uluu al-baab, people of deep insight, and has grasped the understanding (Surah 3:7).
There are other major characteristics of Imam Mohammed’s approach to the guidance of the Qur’an and the Prophet, such as contemplating the uswah (character, intention, and purpose) of the Prophet as a major factor in understanding the Prophet’s sunnah and his explanation of the wisdom in all of the rituals connected to religion, such as the wisdom in the ablution, prayer positions and times, rituals of Hajj, etc. (based upon Surah 22:67).
The work of Imam Mohammed is far from over; his legacy far from complete. His approach is not yet organized or codified; there is much more to be done. But, there is life-giving benefit in the body of knowledge he has produced. I encourage all of you to learn more.
Dr. Mubaashir Uqdah has been a student of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed since 1977 and has written several books expanding upon the Imam’s teaching. Currently he is the administrator of the online presence for the national community of Masajid established under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed.