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The Imam's Next Move : W. Deen Mohammed has moved the black Muslims in his ministry toward reconciliation with other races and religions. Now, he wants the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to put aside his separatist sentiments and join him.

August 04, 1994|JUDY PASTERNAL | Los Angeles Times

CALUMET CITY, ILL. — In the cluttered basement office of the Imam W. Deen Mohammed, on a wall behind his desk, hangs an illustrated poster depicting the history of black Muslims in America.

Among the portraits are his own, his friend Malcolm X, and his father--the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the builder of the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975.

Conspicuously absent is the face of Louis Farrakhan.

Both Farrakhan and W. Deen Mohammed served as top advisers in Elijah Muhammad's Nation. Both claim to be carrying out Muhammad's wishes--Farrakhan through his Nation of Islam and Mohammed through his Ministry of W. Deen Mohammed. Both touch hundreds of thousands of lives as teachers and spiritual leaders. They are nearly the same age--Farrakhan, 61, and Mohammed, 60--and through relatives who have married they share family ties.

But the two men have chosen strikingly different paths since they formally severed ties 17 years ago. They espouse philosophies that contrast as sharply as Farrakhan's commanding demeanor and Mohammed's thoughtful presence.

While Farrakhan's scalding racial rhetoric has propelled him into the center of controversy and onto front pages, Mohammed has labored more quietly to bring African Americans to Orthodox Sunni Islam. He has emphasized ties to world Islam rather than social change in the United States, and is seen internationally as an important leader in the faith. He also works to improve relations between Islam and other religions in this country. Fittingly, his first initial stands for both his birth name, Wallace, and his Arabic name, Warith. He does not chose between them.

Now, a challenge is brewing. Mohammed expects to move next year to Newark, N.J., a Muslim center with a large African American population that is "ready-made for conversion," as C. Eric Lincoln, who has written extensively on black Muslims, observes. Mohammed will be closer, too, to the great media crucible of New York City, where reputations are forged and burnished.

Even sooner, on Aug. 13, Mohammed plans to journey to the Harlem mosque where Malcolm X and, later, Farrakhan preached as his father's followers. On handbills advertising Mohammed's "special address," he assumes his father's mantle: "The son of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad is coming . . ."

Under a tent on an adjoining lot, Mohammed says, he will call upon Louis Farrakhan to change.

"I believe that he is a person who's in conflict with himself, in serious conflict with himself," Mohammed says. "I believe he's not living the Farrakhan he wants to live." He will urge Farrakhan, he says, to "say nothing in the name of Islam that would be damaging to the name of Islam." And that means, he says, that it is time to put aside separatist sentiments and to accept all people, no matter what their skin color.

For, while he praises Farrakhan's Nation of Islam for the strong attractions of "the neatness, the discipline, the love of family, the loyalty to husband and wife, the better showing of business," he condemns as "trouble" the minister's bitter talk about whites in general and Jews in particular. Most of Farrakhan's disciples, he says, "are good people. I want to save them from something that I see as a time bomb."

Farrakhan has nothing to say at this time. He did not return telephone calls and faxes seeking a response to Mohammed's remarks.

Other Muslim leaders are leery of criticizing Farrakhan publicly, but they support Mohammed's plans. "This is a good idea," says Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. "Of course, everyone feels that way."

The timing is crucial for Mohammed. In the past, he has appeared to be the most mainstream of the two--Mohammed was the first Muslim to offer morning prayers before the U.S. Senate and was the Muslim representative at Bill Clinton's Inaugural Interfaith Prayer Service. But Farrakhan is becoming accepted in the United States as a major player and was given forums this year by such established organizations as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.

And while Mohammed has represented American Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco, Farrakhan's message is gaining a hold in Africa and the Caribbean. His Nation of Islam plans a convention in Ghana this year.

"Wallace either has to be confrontational or he has to be eclipsed," Lincoln says. "And he knows that."


Confrontation does not appear to be his strong suit. Mohammed is short, bearded and graying, with a paunch and an unassuming manner. "He has all the charisma of an accountant," says Steven Barboza, a New York journalist who is both a practicing Muslim and a chronicler of the faith's progress in the United States.

But Mohammed has now secured his own base, Lincoln notes.

He may have as many or more supporters than Farrakhan, Lincoln says, while emphasizing there is no way to accurately determine how many people look to either of them.

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