May 6, 1994
The Imam W. Deen Mohammed Elaine Rivera
Interview: Part 1
(The following interview with Imam W. Deen Mohammed and Elaine Rivera, a reporter for New York Newsday, conducted in Calumet City, Illinois on April 11, 1994. will be printed in Muslim Journal in its entirety. This is the beginning of the interview. )
IMAM MOHAMMED: My name is Wallace D. Mohammed; I'm called W. Deen Mohammed. I am Imam or religious leader in Islam mainly for African American Muslims or Black Muslims in America who once followed the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, my father who passed in February, 1975. The following that I think of myself being representative for also includes some other nationalities and even some Blacks or African Americans who were not converted to the Nation of Islam under the late Hon. Elijah Muhammad.
My ministry came about because of the demand on me, because of conscience, because of my own way of looking at America and looking at Islam and how it should be lived by all people and especially in America.
I didn't feel comfortable as a Resident Minister or Resident Imam. The audience, to me, was limited because of the habit of the Nation of Islam following to think of their local leader as their spokesman. And when the local leader addressed issues or concerns that they couldn't readily identify with, they were somewhat turned off. So I experienced difficulty as a Resident Imam and I wanted to become a free speaker or spokesman for Muslims in the best light of the human beings.
So I started M.A.C.A. Fund — Muslim American Community Assistance Fund — to support me and be financed so I would not be obligated to any city or local organization. That was achieved, and to my surprise many more in the community than I expected expressed their pleasure and happiness over my establishing myself separate from the Nation of Islam or separate from the mosques and schools that were operating under my leadership at that time.
My ministry was introduced later, but actually it has been going on all these years since I was Resident Imam in Chicago. My ministry was conducted under the name of Muslim American Community Assistance. Now it is identified as the Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed.
RIVERA: So you do not see yourself as a leader in any way? You see yourself as a spokesman?
IMAM MOHAMMED: Yes, I would rather be identified as a spokesperson, because I don't accept to be responsible for the administration of mosques and schools.
RIVERA: What is your background as far as education? I know you went to Mecca.
IMAM MOHAMMED: Yes, I went to Mecca but not for education. It is my desire even now to go to Riyadh and to study there and also in Medinah (Saudi Arabia). Also I hope one day to study in Sudan and in Egypt. This is my desire. I would like to spend a half a year or a year in each of those places. But I haven't been fortunate enough yet to free myself from obligations here in America to do that. Some of those obligations are family obligations. But I am working very seriously on this.
I hope to perhaps within the next two years go abroad for at least six months and do some studies. If I am able to stay for six months, then I could be gone for two years or more doing special studies for work to help prepare myself. I think I know the areas of concentration for me would be classical Arabic language for a Qur'an translation. I want to do a translation of Qur'an, if God blesses me before I pass, and my people want me to do that. When I say "my people," I mean my supporters.
Also I want to do some books on the essentials of Islam, the beliefs and practices of Muslims. This is not just for America, I want to do them for the world. Because I believe our experience as African Americans striving to know what is Islam has brought us to an independent thinking and evaluation of Islam, its ideas, its philosophy — if we can call it a philosophy.
I think that one of us, if we are very sincere as religious Muslims, can make a contribution that will be not only to America but to the international community of Muslims and to the same subjects that are done by Muslims all over the world. These are subjects on the essentials of Islam or the basics of Islam, beliefs and practices.
RIVERA: Can you speak Arabic now?
IMAM MOHAMMED: I can't say I speak Arabic. I can make my way around and can go to Saudi Arabia and even to Egypt, and I know enough about the dialects of those countries to get around. But I don't feel comfortable saying that I can speak Arabic or read it.
I read the Qur'an, the Holy Book, and I understand the Qur'an. But there is what you call the colloquial language or daily language, and even with classical Arabic — I would not feel comfortable doing a speech in classical Arabic. It would take me a lot of time to stay in an Arabic speaking country and work with the educators or scholars of Islam, and I could accomplish that in six months to a year at the most. I do have a big Arabic vocabulary.
RIVERA: Where did you do your studies?
IMAM MOHAMMED: I studied only here, and I would say the beginning of my studies I owe to the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, the late leader of the Nation of Islam. He provided the school in Chicago with a very fine teacher, Professor Jamil Diab. Since then Professor Diab has gotten his doctorate. He loves us and loved my father, but he steered clear of my father. Professor Diab didn't believe as my father believed, but he didn't make trouble for my father. And he taught us Arabic and taught us some Islamic studies or gave us Islamic studies. So that was the beginning of my foundation.
RIVERA: So you had private studies.
IMAM MOHAMMED: Yes, in the Arabic language and in some Islamic studies.
RIVERA: You didn't go to the University of Chicago or anything?
IMAM MOHAMMED: I only went to our elementary and high school. I got these studies from Jamil Diab as a high school student in my last year of high school.
RIVERA: Were you discouraged to go to the universities?
IMAM MOHAMMED: No, I was encouraged. But my father told me at that time he could not afford to send both of us, so he sent my youngest brother, Akbar, who was very good in Arabic. Now professors have told me that Akbar's Arabic is as good as any Arab professor. They cannot tell any difference between his Arabic and their Arabic. He speaks Arabic fluently and has a great command of the Arabic language.
Actually, Akbar got his doctorate degree here but it began at Al-Azhar University in Egypt. He then went to Scotland when the war broke out in 1967 and he had to leave Egypt. Our government had called all American citizens out of Egypt, and he went to Edinburg, Scotland, and did some studies there and then completed them in the United States. He now teaches African history and is an assistant or head professor for Islamic Studies in State University of New York in Binghamton, New York.
RIVERA: So he is a follower of orthodox Islam?
IMAM MOHAMMED: Yes.
RIVERA: Are all your brothers?
IMAM MOHAMMED: All of my brothers and I identify with universal Islam.
RIVERA: How did-you start to learn about universal Islam?
IMAM MOHAMMED: I started from the curiosity that my father ignited in me. My father said: 'There is a lot that you can't see on the surface in the teachings and that I am giving." He was talking about his own teachings that he received from a very unusual kind of teacher — an unorthodox teacher. His name was Fard. My father said, "I hope some of my sons will learn Arabic so that you can read the Qur'an in Arabic." He said, "Look beneath the surface language of Fard."
So that is what I did. And when I did it, I came to see connections even in Fard's kind of mythical language with the real language of Islam and with world mythologies. That was the beginning of my recognizing universal concepts and universal values.
RIVERA: I understand you came back....
IMAM MOHAMMED: I came back to the Nation of Islam.
RIVERA: You basically challenged your father or confronted him and was thrown out a couple of times.
IMAM MOHAMMED: It was not because I challenged him. I always had great respect for him, and really I believed in him. I believed that he was sincere and was not a hypocrite. He was really sincere and thought that what he received from Fard was the supreme truth. He called it the "supreme wisdom." He really believed that.
I loved my father and had benefitted from him in so many ways. I never wanted to confront him, never. But I was charged with differing with him. An officer of the F.O.I., the Fruit of Islam or the military unit of the Nation of Islam, would bring me before him and charge me. They charged me twice with teaching something different that was making trouble.
RIVERA: Well, that took a lot of courage to do that.
IMAM MOHAMMED: Every time, the charge that my father would be disturbed by would be the charge that I didn't believe that "Fard was god."
(To be continued)