May 20, 1994
The Imam W. Elaine Rivera Deen Mohammed-
Interview: Part 3
(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. )
IMAM MOHAMMED: I recall the last time my father dismissed me, I told him, "Daddy, I could be much more comfortable believing in you." My father said: "How can you say things like that, knowing how your saviour found me with nothing? I was a bum and had nothing in Detroit. My family was on welfare, and my pride wouldn't let me get on welfare. So I had to stay away from my family many times, because I didn't want to even face my wife. Look what our saviour has done for us." He was pointing to the mansion we lived in and everything.
I said, "Well, you knew your teacher. As far as I am concerned, he is your god. But I know you, and he is not my god. He still dismissed me, but I think I touched something in him. He let me stay out for a while, and then he called me back. He told my brothers to get in touch with me and tell me I could come back.
RIVERA: What did you do when you went out?
IMAM MOHAMMED: Well, I broke the rule. The rule was once you were rejected, you were not supposed to correspond, not call or nothing with any member of the family or any member of the Nation of Islam. I ignored that rule and I kept writing him. I got no replies, but I would write to him and would 'write to my mother. It was mainly to him; I wrote to my mother I think one time, but I wrote to him several letters.
Whenever he would have his conventions, for two years passed, I would write to him and wish him well and that I prayed to God that he had a successful convention!. I think it was just too much on his heart and he had to accept me back.
RIVERA: Where do your father's teachings come into what you teach as part of Islam? Does his teachings have a place?
IMAM MOHAMMED: I will tell you what my father said, and I have many witnesses from the national staff or the leading ministers or Imams in our community and from the secretaries and some others. They will tell you that the Hon. Elijah Muhammad once said, when he was trying to explain to us Fard's identity and Fard as a "god" and as an authority: That one day his authority would be over, and he would die just like other men. That was what my father said. Then he said, the next one that would come may use part of what we have now, or he might choose to use none of what we have now. That is what my father said.
I have to use my father's words, and in fact I am kind of moving from his own position that he took then when he said that. Although I don't agree with his belief in Fard I don't think we can use any of the Nation of Islam teachings, if we are going to say "this is Nation of Islam teachings." But if we are going to say "these are some teachings that are acceptable," then that is okay. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad taught moral discipline. He taught respect for authority. He taught the fear of God and many other things.
But if we say, "This is the Hon. Elijah Muhammad's teachings," that won't be acceptable. It is because to say that would make new followers or new people and even those of that time think that the religion that the Hon. Elijah Muhammad gave us had some legitimacy. It does not. As Islam, it has no legitimacy.
I find many denominations of Christianity closer to Islam than the religion that we received in the Nation of Islam that was called "Islam."
RIVERA: My understanding is that Islam in this country is the fastest growing religion.
IMAM MOHAMMED: That is what we are told.
RIVERA: And that many African Americans are abandoning Christianity to embrace universal Islam. Why is that?
IMAM MOHAMMED: Let me put it this way. Many African Americans or Blacks from Christian families are returning to Islam and embracing Islam. Not necessarily is it that they are from the Christian faith. Most of the people we are getting are people from the general public, and those people are not what I call devout Christians or very serious church goers. They are not.
Occasionally we will get a very serious devout Christian to come to Islam, but most of them are coming from what we call the streets or the general public. Now most of the people in the general public are identified as Christians. And if you ask them what is their religion, they will think about it and say, "I guess Christianity." But they are not the practicing devout Christians. And that is a pity that that is the majority out there in the street.
RIVERA: For the African American who leaves Christianity and turns to Islam, what do you think the appeal is there? What is it Christianity isn't offering?
IMAM MOHAMMED: The appeal is to the individual's pride. I think they see Islam as something that I would say gives approval to their own sense of worth. This world since slavery has done a lot to build a language environment all about us and about the achievements of the White race that are everywhere. This language environment has worked to give support to the White supremacist idea about what the worth of the Black man is.
When African Americans hear Islam, they don't identify Islam with western civilization. So they listen to it more carefully, more seriously. And when they hear the religion addressing the human worth and saying, "The Black is equal to the White and the White is equal to the Black, that there is no distinction," these things reach home with them.
Not that they have not heard similar things in America from a minority of good people here in this country, but they didn't hear it because it was coming from White folks. When it comes from Islam or from us, they hear it, and they open themselves and their hearts and their minds to Islam. Pretty soon, they are identifying very seriously as Muslims.
I think it's the support it gives to their belief in themselves as creatures of equal worth with all other people.
RIVERA: For centuries Arabs, Muslims and Jews have lived peacefully together. But since this volatile situation in the Middle East have there been confrontations and divisions. How do you feel about Judaism? How does it fit in the picture of the Islamic world?
IMAM MOHAMMED: Yes. I never had really a negative view of Jewish people. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad never taught us nor influenced us to look at the Jew and see the Jew as an enemy. He never did. He told us the enemy was the slave master and those people who kept the same attitude and kept up the same treatment of the slave master. Those were the people he told us were the enemies. He would say "the White race." But he would make a distinction between the White man in this country and the White man in Europe. He would say, "This is the real devil."
We never thought of the Jews as being any special enemy for Black people. In fact, on the whole my acquaintance with Jews has been good - personally. I have worked for Jews. I had a job working for a Jew at 7010 Stony Island in Chicago. He had a poultry market there, and I think half in his employment was Muslims. My brother and I worked for him and had a good relationship with him.
I am aware too that that is not the case for most Blacks who work for Jews. I hear most Blacks who work for Jews say. They give you nothing, and expect too much from you." But that wasn't my experience with the Jews that I have had contact with and the opportunity to work for.
When it comes to religion, I never thought of the Jews, to be truthful with you. I never thought of the Jews seriously as a religious community until I began studying the Qur'an with a free and independent mind. I'm speaking now of freedom from the religious ideas of the Nation of Islam under the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.
The language of the Qur'an has made me to accept that Jews are a legitimate religious community and the followers of Moses and the great prophets that we have as our prophets too. Moses and the other prophets of the Jews are also the prophets of the Muslims.
We don't believe those prophets were Jews. We believe the Jewish people identified themselves with those prophets. But we believe that any community of religious people on this earth regardless to their race and nationality, if they have the insight into the language of the scripture, they will see that those figures are not racial figures. Those prophetic figures are human figures and are the prophets of all people. That is the way we read the Qur'an.
I feel that the prophets of the Jews led them into the same insight of scripture and to the same identification with human excellence that we identify with. We see that human excellence mainly through the prophets; we believe they are figures of human excellence.
The language of our Holy Book, Qur'an, says about what you will find among the Jews, mind you, and this is given after addressing the Muslims. It says, "Among the Muslims there is a party that promotes justice." It also says, "You will find among the Jews a party that promotes justice." So I take this to mean that though we are Muslims and they are Jews, that both have people of excellence and people dedicated to promoting justice for society. I have to see in them, then, a partner on the religious battlefield. They are partners with us.
The same thing is said of Christians. "Among the Christians is a party who devote themselves to promoting jus-tie.'' We know that.
We know it in the history of America, that there have always been Jews in the forefront assisting those who initiated the effort or leading the efforts themselves. In the case of the N.A.A.C.P., we know that DuBois, the African American educator and philosopher, started it, but it was assisted by Jewish people. I don't think it would have received the funds and the assistance and been as successful as it was without Jewish support.
We know Jews lost their lives in confrontations, and not just in confrontations but in just visits to the south with Blacks. There is so much we have to look at, and when you look at it, it is almost a shame that any African American or any Black person can know that history of the Jewish people and make a statement condemning all Jews or condemning Judaism. We don't condemn all Jews and we don't condemn Judaism.
(To be continued)