Warith Deen Mohammed (right), who succeeded his father, Elijah Muhammad, as head of the Nation of Islam, but then led his followers to mainstream Islam, died yesterday at 74. He was a significant figure in the history of Islam among African-Americans, setting into motion an important transition; today most African-American Muslims are adherents of mainstream Islam. (About 26 percent of Muslims in America are black, according to the Pew Research Center.)
There are several interesting obituaries in this morning's papers. The Chicago Tribune explains W.D. Mohammed's role:
"In 1975, Mohammed succeeded his father as leader of the Nation of Islam, a religious movement that melds black nationalism with the Islamic faith. He immediately tried to move its followers toward traditional Islam, which led to a split between those who agreed with Mohammed's approach and those who joined a revived Nation of Islam under Minister Louis Farrakhan. His followers refer to the period when Mohammed took over the Nation as 'The Second Resurrection.' I don't think people understand the tremendous change that occurred when he made that move,' said Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion at Vassar College. 'He moved people from that concept of black nationalism into universal consciousness of their faith.'"
In the New York Times, Douglas Martin writes:
"Imam Mohammed emerged from the cauldron of religious politics and internal rivalry that characterized the Black Muslims, as the Nation of Islam members were called, in the 1960s and 1970s. Following Malcolm X, who was drifting away from black separatism toward traditional Islam when he was assassinated in 1965, Imam Mohammed increasingly favored a nonracial approach to religion, without categorizing white people as devils, as Elijah Muhammad did. His father excommunicated him several times for this dissidence."
And from the obituary by Patricia Sullivan in the Washington Post:
"He disbanded the militaristic security force called Fruit of Islam and decentralized the rigidly structured religion. He removed chairs from mosques so its members would kneel in prayer five times a day. He advocated that observant members read the Koran in Arabic and urged the African American-centric organization to exhibit racial tolerance. The changes won the respect of Sunni Muslim leaders worldwide but startled longtime Nation of Islam members who were used to a philosophy of black supremacy and the practice of unquestioning loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. Those rapid changes caused a split in the old Nation of Islam. W.D. Mohammed changed the organization's name, reforming it as the American Society of Muslims. In 1977, his rival Louis Farrakhan revived the Nation of Islam and, with it, the often anti-white and anti-Semitic message. Although less well-known to the public than Farrakhan, the soft-spoken Mr. Mohammed led a far larger congregation."
(Photo, from 2002, by Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune, via AP.)
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Harvey Cox, the Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard University, marks his retirement by asserting a little-used right of his professorship -- to graze a cow in Harvard Yard. Photo, by Barry Chin of the Globe staff, taken on Sept. 10, 2009 in Cambridge, Mass.
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