One of America’s most revered religious leaders died Tuesday in the south suburbs.
According to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, 74-year-old Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, longtime leader of the millions-strong American Society of Muslims, was pronounced dead shortly after noon.
”He was encouraging his followers to accept the best of their humanity and to extend the moral and ethical values of Islam to the general American public.”
Dawud Walid, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations
”He was a great African-American Muslim leader who opened up Islam to the wider American public.”
Lawrence Mamiya, a religion professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
”He was the imam of America. His humbleness was the most paramount feature in his life.”
Malik Mujahid, head of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago
”He was trying to move a community that called itself an Islamic community closer to Islam without losing its roots and trying to situate itself in the context of American culture.” Jimmy Jones, a Muslim chaplain and religion professor in Purchase, N.Y.
Sources say he was found in his Markham bathtub by a family member. There were no signs of trauma.
The son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Imam Mohammed (who changed his name from Wallace Muhammad) left a rich legacy of tolerance and interfaith bridge-building.
“Imam Mohammed was more than just a faith leader, he was a community leader and a community builder,” Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, said in a statement. “He was a visionary who developed successful grass-roots economic plans to help those living in hardship pull themselves up despite difficult historical odds. … For Imam Mohammed, ignorance was the enemy and education was man’s best ally.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Imam Mohammed “was a man of great spiritual integrity and philosophical depth. He was an authentic Muslim and a social servant who was quiet in his manner, quiet spoken, but powerful in his impact as a teacher and a leader. A very positive man.”
In the early 1960s, Imam Mohammed was imprisoned for draft evasion. After his release in 1963, he left the Nation, rejoined a year later, but was excommunicated several times thereafter for his refusal to believe Elijah Muhammad was a prophet.
When his father died in 1975, Imam Mohammed took the Nation of Islam’s reins and steered it in a far more orthodox direction that preached racial acceptance and shunned incendiary rhetoric. Whites, for example, were no longer viewed as “blue-eyed devils.”
Minister Louis Farrakhan split with Imam Mohammed and, in 1978, resurrected the original and more controversial Nation of Islam, which he leads to this day.
The two men came together in 2000 and proclaimed their rift healed. “I think we can bury it now, and never look back,” Imam Mohammed said at the time.
Said Farrakhan, “After 25 years, you and I can walk together as brothers.”
Attorney Joseph Morris knew Imam Mohammed through Imam Mohammed’s late brother (and boxer Muhammad Ali’s former manager) Jabir Herbert Muhammad, who died two weeks ago.
Morris called Imam Mohammed’s death “a loss to the Chicago community and to the interfaith community.”
Throughout Imam Mohammed’s decades-long run as an influential faith leader, he gave an invocation at the U.S. Senate, spoke before throngs of people at the Vatican and had many audiences with world leaders, including Pope John Paul II. His realm also encompassed businesses and mosques.
Imam Mohammed’s life “is an example of what it means to be a great American and a devout Muslim,” Junaid M. Afeef, Interim Executive Director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said in a statement.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina, said, “He certainly was a great gentleman and a great witness not just to Islam but to the best of people in his embracing of all people.”
Imam Mohammed stepped down from his post with the American Society of Muslims in 2003, but remained busy lecturing and directing his charitable ministry, the Mosque Cares.
Contributing: AP, Sun-Times, Beliefnet.com, Britannica.com
Copyright © 2008 Associated Press