What path to follow?

The American Society of Muslims faces an uncertain future after the resignation of its longtime leader

In 1975, when W. Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad, began teaching orthodox Islam to members of his father’s racial separatist organization, the Nation of Islam, many wondered whether the controversial religious sect could make the transition.

American Islamic events
1935: Elijah Muhammad founds the Nation of Islam, a political/religious sect that teaches that whites are the sworn enemies of blacks and calls for separation.

1952: Malcolm X leaves prison and joins the Nation of Islam. His scathing analysis of U.S. race relations attracts followers and greater visibility.

1963: Malcolm X befriends Olympic boxing gold medalist Cassius Clay.

1964: Malcolm X splits with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and forms Muhammad Mosque Inc.

1964: Cassius Clay, after defeating Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title, announces that he is a Muslim and takes the name Muhammad Ali.

1958-65: FBI agents infiltrate both organizations to monitor their activities

1964: Malcolm X makes a hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca and embraces orthodox Islam, changing his name to El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and founding the Organization of African American Unity.

1965: Malcolm X is assassinated by alleged members of the Nation of Islam.

1965: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is released.

1975: Elijah Muhammad dies. His son, W. Deen Mohammed, takes the helm of the NOI, disavowing racial separation and moving the organization to Sunni Islam. Changes name to World Community of Islam in the West.

1978: Louis Farrakhan revives Nation of Islam and teachings of Elijah Muhammad.

1992: Mohammed becomes first Muslim to give the invocation on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

2003: Mohammed resigns from American Muslim Society.

Apparently not as fast as Mohammed had hoped. Mohammed resigned Sunday, saying he was frustrated that some of his ministers have not fully embraced the religious teachings of mainstream Islam.

Although he had scuttled old racial rhetoric, changed the group’s name and moved his followers into line with traditional, or Sunni, Islam, Mohammed, 69, told the crowd at the annual convention of the American Society of Muslims in Chicago that he wants to take his message to a wider audience.

He is responsible for transforming the group from a black nationalist, social reform movement designed to uplift disenfranchised African Americans to one in which the universally recognized tenets of Islam are practiced.

But Mohammed’s critics say that more assertive action may be needed to change the conditions facing inner-city blacks.

Mohammed could not be reached for comment, but the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune reported that Mohammed told his followers he was resigning to free up more of his time to work on projects to change the negative image of Islam in the United States.

“I’m getting ready … to do more, to be more productive and to contribute to the good life of the believers,” Mohammed said in his keynote speech.

Many in attendance at the convention were reportedly surprised by the announcement, but local Islamic ministers (imams) associated with the American Society of Muslims were not.

“I don’t think the imam is going anywhere or abandoning the community,” says Omar Shareef, resident imam of Masjid As-Sabur, a mosque in Oak Park. He was in Chicago for the convention.

“Imam Mohammed has resigned from the position of leadership and giving the community direction because he wants the community to establish leadership at the local level. He said he wants to free up time so that he can be more effective on the world scene.

“Our dependency upon the imam has been too much, and that kind of pressure on one individual creates a strain,” Shareef says.

“He has been teaching and leading our community for more than 25 years. We should be able to be effective leaders in our own right. And if we haven’t gotten it yet, then it’s a shame.”

Some followers question Mohammed’s focus.

“It is difficult to pray and look for religious salvation as a complete answer when you live in a minority neighborhood that is being overwhelmed by gang violence, unemployment, lack of health care and education,” Najee Ali told the Chicago Tribune. Ali is the director of Project Islamic Hope, a social organization for African American youths in Los Angeles.

“These are social problems young blacks face, but these needs were not met under W. Deen Mohammed’s leadership,” said Ali, who is also Mohammed’s son-in-law.

Mohammed told the Chicago Tribune that he was leaving in part because too many imams under his leadership were slow to embrace the theological changes that he sought for the organization.

“American Society of Muslims leaders don’t support me, but the followers do. I have tried over the last 10 to 12 years to encourage them to get more religious education, but I have made no progress,” Mohammed said.

Since Mohammed assumed leadership of the organization at the death of his father in 1975, Mohammed has changed his name and the name of the organization — which has an estimated 2 million members — several times, seeking to distance the group from its original separatist and mythical doctrines.

When Elijah Muhammad died, Mohammed — an Islamic scholar fluent in Arabic — surprisingly gained the support of the Nation of Islam’s leadership, including Louis Farrakhan, the group’s national spokesman at the time.

Mohammed immediately took strong control of the organization, disbanding the Fruit of Islam, the organization’s highly disciplined militaristic arm, and decentralizing the leadership. Mohammed worked tirelessly to teach Sunni Islam. He debunked the Nation of Islam’s beliefs regarding God and the origins of the “white blue-eyed devil,” pseudo-religious doctrines and practices that were condemned as heresy by orthodox Muslims. For his efforts, he gained the respect of Muslims worldwide.

Imam Metwalli Amer, chairman of the board of SALAM, the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims, was shocked to hear of Mohammed’s resignation.

Amer said he had invited Mohammed to Sacramento to speak to SALAM in the 1980s.

“I was very impressed as a Muslim with his leadership of his congregation, especially after his father passed away and he decided to follow mainstream Islam,” Amer says. “His followers seemed happy to be led on the correct path of Islam.”

But according to Tribune reports, Mohammed said his efforts were hampered by older imams who were originally ministers under Elijah Muhammad and who failed to undertake the years of theological training required to preach Sunni Islam with authority.

Farrakhan initially embraced Mohammed’s leadership but left the group in 1978 and, under the name of the Nation of Islam, revived much of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, stating that he believed African Americans were still in need of a message that specifically addressed their political and economic reality as well as their spiritual needs.

The two men and members of their organizations had strong disagreements but in recent years joined together across those differences to promote Islam among African Americans.

Dawud Abdul Salaam joined the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad but made the transition to mainstream Sunni Islam.

He has been a Muslim chaplain for the California Department of Corrections for more than 20 years and a resident imam in Sacramento during the 1990s.

Abdul Salaam says his group will continue to carry out Mohammed’s vision. “I have seen him move the community from false concepts of Islam to pure concepts of Islam, and that is the best you can do.

“Leading is a very tireless job. It should be a relay race,” Abdul Salaam says. “You take the baton … and you pass the baton. You don’t have to wait till you die.”

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