The Muslim Journal
Toward The Harmonious Living Of The Human Family: Faith Communities
Imam W. Deen Mohammed
(This interview conducted by Focolare representative, Ms. Paola Santosr-fano with Imam W. Deen Mohammed focuses on the upcoming event in Washington, D.C., themed "Faith Communities Together." On Nov. 10-12, 2000, 10,000 followers of diverse faiths are expected at the Washington Convention Center to hear addresses by the honorable Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement, and honorable Imam W. Deen Mohammed, leader of the largest group of indigenous Muslims in America.)
FOCOLARE: What are the events that led to the November event in Washington?
Imam Mohammed: In a few words, that really is not an easy question to answer, because really the events that have taken place since the very day I became acquainted with Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement, I would feel comfortable with starting there.
But I would say what really moved me to want to see this event was the cultural program that I witnessed overseas and the youngsters from the Focolare Movement whom I saw perform several times - in Mariapolis, N.Y., and at different locations -overseas also.
These performances by youngsters and by parents or middle aged people really, in my opinion, need to be witnessed by every good human being, not just a few. Although a crowd was there, but to me we should give opportunity for the good people of the United States to experience what I experienced. That is what I would love to see.
FOCOLARE: The event at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in 1997 was considered historic. What do you expect from the meeting at the Convention Center in Washington with Chiara? What do you see as Chiara's contribution?
Imam Mohammed: Chiara's contribution to our relationship or to this event?
FOCOLARE: To this event and also to our relationship.
Imam Mohammed: She is the key person for this event. We want the audience to see the Focolare Movement through Chiara Lubich, and she will address the audience there and it will get acquainted with her. We also will see performers performing and youngsters of the Focolare Movement singing and giving us a very beautiful presentation there. They will see all of this and witness all of this there.
But in my opinion, we will miss the real importance of all of this, if we don't know the ideology and ideas and the person who is responsible for making all of this happen for the Focolare and for our relationship also. And that is Chiara Lubich.
FOCOLARE: And you too, Imam Mohammed.
Imam Mohammed: Well, that is because of Chiara Lubich. She opened up something in me. She opened up another room in my heart and in my soul and made me feel more comfortable in expressing my desire to have Muslims and Christians know each other, so we can be better citizens with each other. Not just for ourselves but for each other.
FOCOLARE: You have been to Rome twice, once to the meeting of the Muslim Friends of the Focolare and you have visited the Focolare gathering in Amman. Could you share a few words as to what has remained with you after these events?
Imam Mohammed: A belief that not only America but the world is busy and filled with people and there is not enough room anymore for us to live isolated. We have to see each other daily or at least occasionally in traffic, in airports, etc., and this world has become one big place that brings us all together.
It is because of television and also because of travel and business interest, not to mention religious interests. Knowing that and being aware of that makes me want to introduce ourselves to more Christians.
And I would like to have the Christians acquaint us with them. What is the important life? What life do you want for yourself? I know what life I want for myself as a Muslim, and I want to know what life do you want for yourself as a Christian.
What stays with me is this awareness, and Chiara has made me see that this is where I should be focusing on, not just on my community but on my relationship with other good religious organizations.
What stays with me in our relationship with the Focolare Movement is a belief that we have a lot in common. I think it is not only because of Chiara Lubich, but Chiara Lubich makes it possible for me to be conscious of this closeness.
I think there is something about Catholicism that I personally appreciate and find a kinship with, I don't know if it is your love for Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, and your principle of the love that he preached. I think that it is in great part that, his love.
You know how we developed as an organization. We developed from church people who came together. My mother was a very serious church woman, and my father was not but he was a very serious Bible person. He really was running from his father, who was a Baptist preacher; he couldn't get my father into church because he was in the streets.
But he would read the Bible and try to interpret the Bible for himself. So he would argue with his father that he was not teaching the Bible correctly. So finally he changed his religion to a radical idea, as you know. But inside of that radical idea or inside the hearts of the people who accepted that radical idea was this strong love -love for G-d, love for religion, love for church.
My mother loved the church, and the people who my father attracted loved the church. That was in them. I have told you all many times, as I have spoken to mixed audiences many times of Muslims and Focolare Christians, that I use to hear my mother when cleaning in the kitchen in early mornings. She would be the first one up with my father who would be working on business things, and I would hear her singing these Christian songs, Christian spirituals. She would just change certain words, so that it wouldn't be in conflict with the new idea.
So I think there is something that I see that really has spiritual connection for me with Catholicism and definitely for me with the ideas that you have that started the Focolare Movement, that birthed the Focolare Movement through Chiara Lubich.
I think another part of it is the role of pristine nature as a partner working with the enlighten soul, that has been enlighten by the Word of G-d. I can't think of a better way to put it. I am sensing that we have something in common, more so than I have with my Baptist friends and others.
I value this relationship. I have met many leaders and have associated with many churches, but nothing has touched me as deep in my soul as my acquaintance with Chiara Lubich and the Focolare Movement.
FOCOLARE: The world saw the embrace between you and the Pope in October, 1999, It must have been quite a moment for you. Can you tell us something about it?
Imam Mohammed: Yes, I have admired for a long time the more recently Popes, at least the last three Popes. And I welcomed it and I never saw Christianity as I have begun to see it. To see the Pope have an interest in humanity, and I'm sure this has always been in the Catholic church leadership. To see him in the press on television, going to different parts of the world speaking to Catholics.
But not just for Catholicism, but also for the betterment of the human being, for the better human conditions all over the world. That is what I believe G-d wants and that is what I believe all religions should be about. Serving human life and spiritual life, so that we can be in a better condition and situation to manage this big-heavy responsibility and material life and material world.
For relieving misery. That is the Bible, and I have read the Bible. It is to relieve misery and to encourage others to cooperate and work together and relieve misery and make life better for human beings. I have seen the Catholic church in that role in such a beautiful way, that it makes me want to be a Catholic, if I were not already committed to Islam.
This is not just me. I believe that when other members of other religions see the Catholic church in this new vigorous activity, strong activity going on all over the world, and the Pope is leading it, those people too would have to be drawn into it. It is powerful.
The Pope is not President Kennedy; he is bigger than President Kennedy. He represents nations, not just one nation. He is very big and we have always known that. Some of us did not like to say that, because we were not always pleased with the Pope. But this is the new Pope that we are seeing, who is expressing himself and going out of the church into the world to serve G-d and the blessed Jesus Christ.
This is very much appreciated by us. And it draws us into your field of sensitivities. We share with you these sensitivities.
FOCOLARE: So, for you, it was important when you met the Holy Father?
Imam Mohammed: I met that great man. And what was I experiencing? I was thanking G-d. Because I know where I came from, and this was almost like a blessing from heaven for me. That I was being received in The Vatican by the Pope of Rome. That was a very, very special experience.
And I don't think it was something that just happened in my life. I think it was G-d's blessing to me. To have me welcomed in The Vatican in the audience of Pope John Paul II.
To be truthful with you, the first time I saw him there was a feeling that I didn't know if he knows me; I didn't know if he was comfortable with me. The second time when I was invited with other religious leaders to be there, I didn't feel that at all. He looked me right in my face, right into my eyes and I saw love. I wanted to kiss his hand, but we don't do that. I don't allow anybody to kiss my hand.
If anyone were to try to kiss my hand, I would stop them. One time, someone did it quickly, so I said; "Let me kiss your hand." But I know what it means to the church, that tradition and that respect. I was almost moved to kiss his hand, but that would not be right for my image and people would think that I am Catholic. That is the only reason why I didn't do it.
FOCOLARE: But you did embrace him.
Imam Mohammed: I greeted him as I would greet a Muslim leader of high respect and high esteem and highly reverenced person.
That's the way I greeted him. And I also greeted him with love and affection, and that was not what I got from him but what I got from Chiara Lubich and the Focolare Movement. I love him because of you all. I respect him because of my knowledge; I love him because of you all.
FOCOLARE: We hear there is .a great excitement about the November Event. Can you share something about its preparation?
Imam Mohammed: We appointed Imam Izak-El Pasha to work with the Focolare in New York, with Julian and Sherri, and we think we are making progress. I am really very pleased with the program and the brochure that will be published in our paper. I am pleased with that.
I am not sure if Imam Pasha understands how important it is to us, that is to my office, to have musical presentations by a person we have selected. Salimah Omar is a jazz artist with a lifetime achievement and is 80 years old. She is well known in the jazz circle and has experience with jazz artists of New York and other places.
She composes, she's a pianist, she sings, and we have asked her to be responsible for our presentation. I don't know if Imam Pasha has made that clear to you and Sherri. We are preparing. We also have Wali Ali, who is a professional guitarist and vocalist. We also have a gentleman who is not known at all from Memphis, Tenn., and he has a trio and their performance is beautiful.
We are asking Salimah to work with them, and she wants to bring together some young children, too, to sing some songs she has written, some going back to the time of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad. She thought it was a good song, and I do too, if she makes some word changes and she has made these changes.
When she sings, you will feel the church influence, when this song is sung. The church influence is in us because of our background. But this is not to imply that our religion has been weakened or that there is some kind of amalgamation or something.
No, because of the Qur'an and my leadership, our religion is pure; it's not mixed with Christianity or anything.
But for our own personal lives and souls, the imprint of church principles and Christian love and Christian spirit, to me, my religion as I understand from Qur'an and Muhammed the Prophet welcomed that. It does not say, "Get that out." No, it says, This is the good Muslim." of much of our Christian life that is compatible with Islam. I wish all our people understood that. What is compatible with Islam, we should not think that because it is Christian, it is no good.
This is touchy, but it is important for me because I couldn't be the person that I am. I wouldn't have been prepared for Islam, for the Qur'an and Muhammed the Prophet had I not been influenced the way I have been influenced by my mother and the membership that came from the church.
(To be continued)