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Influential Islamic Leader Steps Down

Some consider W.D. Mohammed's departure a terrible loss, but others say it may offer a chance to reinvigorate the black Muslim movement.

September 13, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The recent resignation of Imam W.D. Mohammed, arguably the nation's most influential African American Islamic leader, marks a defining moment for the group he had headed for nearly 30 years.

Some analysts fear that Mohammed's surprise resignation as leader of the American Society of Muslims could set that movement adrift, with no one to unify the 300-plus affiliated mosques across the nation.

"It will be a devastating loss," said Imam Saadiq Saafir of Masjid Ibadillah, a Los Angeles mosque on West Jefferson Boulevard. "The danger is that the community could become fragmented, where you have so many leaders taking the people in so many different directions. Some people may wonder if the community can actually survive."

Others, however, said Mohammed's resignation could encourage African American Muslims to take more individual initiative to advance their religion, improve blighted communities and become a powerful showcase for Islamic values in America.

"For African Americans, we're going to see the beginning of a renaissance for Islam in America," predicted Najee Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law who heads Project Islamic Hope, a Los-Angeles based social service organization.

Imam Fahim Shuaib, a Mohammed follower and leader of Masjid al Waritheen in Oakland, said the resignation could help the African American Islamic community grow beyond what he called a "victim-savior complex."

"It's recognized that this has been one of our crippling conditions: We've been too dependent on a charismatic figure to bring home the bacon while we sit on the sidelines," he said.

Mohammed, 69, has a mild-mannered mien that can mask his stature as one of the most pivotal figures in the history of American Islam. In 1975, he startled the world when he rejected the black nationalist vision of the Nation of Islam -- which was founded by his father, Elijah Mohammed -- and brought his community into orthodox Islam. The Nation of Islam was later resurrected by Louis Farrakhan, with controversial doctrines considered heretical by mainstream Muslims.

W.D. Mohammed said last month that he would continue to guide followers through his Chicago-based ministry, the Mosque Cares, but would no longer oversee daily operations of his association of mosques. He is still scheduled to inaugurate a new school at the Bilal Islamic Center in Los Angeles on Friday and next Saturday.

How his American Society of Muslims will fill its leadership gap remains unclear. Many imams say no single leader can replace Mohammed and are advocating a leadership council to make decisions collectively. Others are promoting individuals such as Imam Earl Abdulmalik Mohammed, the group's national spokesman, or leading imams in New York, Atlanta and Oakland to lead.

Ali said he was planning to poll followers nationwide to find out their top concerns.

Accurate statistics on the number of African American Muslims are not available. But according to Ihsan Bagby, who helped conduct a 2001 study for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, about 27% of the nation's 1,200 mosques were predominantly African American. Among those mosques, Bagby found, 67% were affiliated with Mohammed's American Society of Muslims.

According to Lawrence Mamiya, a specialist in African American religions at Vassar College, W.D. Mohammed moved his followers into both the Islamic and American mainstream. Although his father's Nation of Islam took an antagonistic stance toward the U.S. government, for instance, the younger Mohammed encouraged Muslims to join the military, run for political office and cooperate in interfaith activities.

His followers now comprise the largest presence of Muslim prison chaplains in the nation, and his affiliated mosques are the most active in providing social services to the homeless and hungry, to drug addicts and former prison inmates, Mamiya said. The Vassar professor is currently completing a study with Bagby on Muslim programs to help ex-offenders.

"They've had a tremendous impact on American life," Mamiya said. "You just don't hear about them because they're not controversial and they work in an unsung but very efficient way."

In Los Angeles, such social services are provided by both Project Islamic Hope and the Ilm Foundation -- a philanthropic organization directed by Saafir of Masjid Ibadillah. The Ilm Foundation, for instance, runs feeding programs, distributes free clothing, provides annual health checkups, works with ex-offenders and offers youth leadership training.

Despite those contributions, Mohammed expressed deep frustration with his movement's progress soon after his Aug. 31 resignation at the annual convention of his American Society of Muslims in Chicago.

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