November 19, 1993
An Interview with Imam W. Deen Mohammed and the
British Broadcast Corporation — Part 3
BBC: Are they (African American Muslims) welcomed by other Muslim communities, say Arab Americans or South Asians from Pakistan or India?
IWDM: Now I would say so. But a few years ago that wasn't true. I would say eight years ago that was not true. But we started encouraging our Imams to meet with Imams who were naturalized citizens and with those who had just recently migrated but were interested in the image of Muslims in America. We have encouraged them to meet with them and to have dialogue with them and even to look for room where we can do something together, to cooperate with others for better schools for Muslims. They have done that.
The naturalized Muslims in this country have embraced them from the east coast and from the west coast. Especially on the west coast in California, in Orange County and also in Hayward and Oakland, California. Over the last five years we have made tremendous progress toward working together as one community of Muslims in the U.S.
We have separate mosques and separate schools. We have our African American schools and they have their schools. But we don't see ourselves anymore as separate from each other. We see ourselves as part of one religion and one community as Muslims in America. And we try as much as possible to look to see what kind of relationship we can have with persons from other nationalities and other ethnic groups who want to see progress for Islamic education and for our children in education in America.
There are also some political efforts being made where naturalized citizens and the African American citizens are working together.
BBC: As your community is taking on ever newer roles in politics, it may be a different question but do you think Islam has fulfilled its promise to Black Americans?
IWDM: No. But I think the circumstances are now favoring that happening. What I mean by that is first we had to have ourselves detached from an erroneous idea. Now a significant number of us are detached from the old (contrived religious) attraction, and we are free now to look at Islam with freer eyes (fearless viewing) and with sober minds.
That is happening now because of our own sincere interest, and a lot of credit is due to that old idea (the Nation of Islam Temples) for the excitement of our interest. A lot of credit is due to that declined authority once positioned over us for us having faith in ourselves, faith in our own mental capacity to study Islam for ourselves and to grasp the beauty of Islam for ourselves and to accept help from everywhere.
Yet, we insist upon being our own selves, our own man, having our own mind, our own opinions. Because of that I think Islam will soon fulfill its promise to the African American Muslims.
BBC: What about as far as helping them to find an identity? In a way it seems strange to me because I feel that to become a true Muslim Islam does not recognize any differences of race or any of those things. It seems as if it is a bit to lose identity rather than to gain identity.
IWDM: I think that is what has happened. I have found that I have had to lose identity, because I once thought of myself as a Black person separate and having a very distinctive and separate reality from the family of man. That was the idea given to me. I wasn't comfortable with it, but I accepted it. And I have come to accept that I am just a human being with all other human beings because of the influence of the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammed on us, the prayers and peace be on him.
I see myself as now having a new perception of my own identity and my own reality. But I don't have any less interest in building the excellence of African American people's life. And that excellence started long before we became acquainted with Islam. So I am too a believer in building a strong ethnic image — I won't say racial, because race has some bad connotations; there are bad messages that are sent off with the term race. I prefer to say ethnic.
We are very much interested in building upon the excellence of our life as an ethnic group. We think Islam is going to make a great contribution to us finding identity through improved diet. I don't think we will just eat foods and say, "This is halal."
I think we are going to have our own recipes like the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was doing. I think we are going to contribute our efforts to have our own recipes. And just like you can go to a Spanish restaurant or to a Pakistani restaurant or an Indian restaurant, or a Jamaican restaurant, you will be able to go to an African American Muslim restaurant and it will be ethnically distinct, and I think it will be great.
That is already developing. And again we owe some credit to the past, to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I think one day we will lead in our dress, because we don't like the extremes to which the fashion designers take us in America. First of all the trends are too expensive to keep up with.
I am encouraging our people to look at that and try to Islamize our cultural life, starting with the schools, to include Islamic studies in the curriculum and have Islamic knowledge influence our spirit and our investments for the future. When this touches our spirit, I think we are going to start singing differently, dancing differently and everything else — spending differently.
BBC: Of late, Islam amongst African Americans has had a lot of attention directed to it because of Spike Lee's film about the life of Malcolm X. You knew the man, of course, so could you tell us something about him and your relationship with him and his passage from the Nation of Islam to true Islam?
IWDM: I think Malcolm was always a man who was looking for a cause. He told me that in prison before he became acquainted with the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad that he was really considering becoming a communist. He knew something of Paul Robeson, the singer and dancer, and Robeson's ideas. Malcolm felt that Paul Robeson was persecuted and was not given a fair day by the government here, and he (Malcolm) was considering communism.
Malcolm told me, "When I learned what your father was teaching and saw what the Nation of Islam was, I immediately decided that I was going to be a Muslim." He said, "Wallace, this is it." I think this meeting with him now was just months after he was released from prison. He actually became a follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad while he was serving his sentence in prison. When Malcolm was released, he was already not only a convert but already a person who the Honorable Elijah Muhammad considered well versed enough in his teachings to be a minister (almost) immediately upon release.
There were a couple of other cases like this, but they were in prison with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and studied with him in prison and came out of prison as ministers. Malcolm was the only one I know who wasn't with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in prison and came out of prison and was immediately accepted as a minister. Malcolm impressed me the same way he impressed so many people.
Malcolm had a very warm smile. When he smiled his face would become reddish and his eyes would beam and gleam. His smile was so warm he could get into your heart right away, instantly. When I met him he was visiting my father's house for the first time. He looked at me and said, "This is Wallace. You are the Messenger's son." I said, "Yes." He had a way of saying something to you and saying more than what the words indicated. I felt he was telling me, "Don't forget you are Wallace. Don't forget you are the Messenger's son."
He was already recruiting young ministers to help the Honorable Elijah Muhammad build the Nation of Islam. He was sharp witted and charismatic, charming. But he was at the same time very firm and razor sharp. That piece of "silly" putty could become a sharp razor instantly, especially when the Nation of Islam's credits were threatened or challenged or condemned or when the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's image or credits were challenged. Then Malcolm would become the sharp razor cutting.
That was Malcolm. He was not a workaholic but he was a man who was energetic and was an organization man who stayed on top of all the important details. He would not leave chance completely to others. He would travel to a temple and see about the situation there himself. He (Malcolm) would insist that the minister accept that he give him some help, if he thought help was needed. If the minister refused him, he-would immediately go to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and tell what the situation was there and get the Honorable Elijah Muhammad to give him the authority to go back there. Malcolm was a trouble-shooter and a great producer for the Nation of Islam.
BBC: Then, like you, he changed and realized that true Islam was different. Do you kow how that came about?
IWDM: Earlier, I said to you that I believe there were many
— in fact, I know because after I became the leader they told me
— many of the followers of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad were so excited about the positive things that they just dismissed altogether those things that they were not comfortable with. Sometimes those things in that discomfort were very fundamental in the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, such as the "idea" of God and the myth of Yacub's history.
Malcolm was one of those. I am convinced that he was one of those who never bothered much with the myth of the origin of the Black man or the myth of the origin of the White race or the myth of the origin of the Nation of Islam.
I think Malcolm was so excited about the common-language things that he chose to just work as he said it in his own words: "Wallace, we are the modern Hebrews. Oppressive Egypt is America. The White ruling order is the Pharaoh. And your father is our Moses. "I was just meeting him and he was telling me this. He was not officially a minister, but Malcolm was already giving talks for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And his message caught on very quickly.
What I am saying is Malcolm never bit that "bait" of the Nation of Islam and swallowed everything. He dismissed bothering with certain things that he could not understand. He told me that. He said, "There are certain things I can't understand and I rather not be bothered with that. But I need help in this area, here and here."
So when he had difficulty with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in his personal relationship or private relationship, he had to fall back on something. What he fell back on was his own mind, his own thinking, his own intelligence. When he did that, then he had to look at those things he had put so far behind him.
There was the concept of God in real religion, in Islam. Malcolm had to bring all of that discomfort forward into his mind and into his view. When he did that, he had to make a decision. "I can't any longer say that Elijah Muhammad is the Messenger of God or a Prophet. I can't say anymore that Fard is God in person." Malcolm had to accept that.
But I will add that I do believe the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's own teachings also had something to do with the change — with us being able to successfully come out of a strong and magnetic corner of ideas to embrace the world Islam. I think that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad insisting we be curious minded to the point of questioning his own teachings (the N.O.I, lessons, problem book, etc.) had a lot to do with us coming to be free.
(To be continued)