WASHINGTON – Catholic interreligious leaders mourned the death of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who after his father’s death assumed the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a controversial U.S. “Black Muslim” group, and guided it toward more conventional Islamic faith and practice.
“He was an extraordinary person for what he did,” said John Borelli, special assistant to the president for interreligious initiatives at Georgetown University in Washington and a former associate director in the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Imam Mohammed, who took part in interfaith dialogues with Catholics and Jews over the years, died Sept. 9 in Chicago at age 74. No cause of death was immediately given.
Borelli, in a Sept. 15 telephone interview with Catholic News Service, recalled the tumult within the Nation of Islam, much of which involved Imam Mohammed.
“He and his father (Elijah Muhammad), who had pretty much shaped the Nation of Islam for what it had become in the 1960s, had several falling-outs,” Borelli said, and those often included the father excommunicating the son. “They were getting reconciled, and then his father decided he wanted his son, Warith Deen, to be his successor.”
When Imam Mohammed spoke to the Nation of Islam leaders, Borelli said he told them, “If I’m going to be your successor, you’ve got to know that we’ve got a lot of work to do … and I’m going to lead you to places you may not be aware of.”
The Nation of Islam later split into two groups, one headed by Louis Farrakhan and the other headed by the imam, who changed its name to the World Community of al-Islam in the West. The imam later changed the name again to the American Society of Muslims.
Borelli credited Imam Mohammed for his efforts to “remove the teaching of racism and hate and so forth” from the Nation of Islam and for “really making sure that people had adequate teaching, and correct versions of the Quran. It was a long task, and not one without controversy. But he stayed the course” and “he remained a significant leader in the African-American community.”
Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., recalled meeting with Imam Mohammed while he was an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore. In 1995, Imam Mohammed met with Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who was in Baltimore to give a talk at Catholic Relief Services headquarters on Christian-Muslim relations.
After the talk, Imam Mohammed met with Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore “with his entourage,” Bishop Ricard recalled. After the conversation, Cardinal Keeler thought that the Focolare movement, a lay-led unity movement founded in Italy during World War II, would be a good fit for Imam Mohammed.
Bishop Ricard, in a Sept. 15 telephone interview with CNS from Pensacola, said Imam Mohammed met with Focolare co-founder Chiara Lubich and “took the movement into his own heart.” When Focolare had a convention in 2000 in Washington, he added, Imam Mohammed “was at the event and present on the stage with Focolare.”
A Focolare statement Sept. 10 said Imam Mohammad “made history” when he invited Lubich to speak to 3,000 of his followers at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem in 1997. The imam got the movement’s Luminosa Award for Unity later that year for his work in promoting unity and dialogue.
Imam Mohammed, who met Pope John Paul II in 1996 and 1999, was “deeply committed to building bridges between African-American Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East and Asia,” the Focolare statement said.
“I found him to be a gentleman who had the best interests of the community in his heart,” Bishop Ricard said.
Borelli said that after the 9/11 terror attacks, Imam Mohammed “wasted no time” in signing on to an interfaith declaration condemning the attacks and expressing solidarity with the victims, their families and the American people.