Muslim leader urges shift from black theology


Monday, April 21, 2008

Bay Area residents had a rare opportunity Sunday to hear a man who may be the single most influential Muslim in America. But the limits of his reach were also on display.

When Imam W. Deen Mohammed stepped to the podium at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, there were perhaps 300 people in the audience, almost all of them African American.

Though most of his hourlong talk was not about race, the issue that made him a revolutionary in American religion, he didn’t shy away from it. He urged audience members to think of themselves not in racial categories but in human terms.

Mohammed spoke of how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. But after King’s death, Mohammed said black leaders chose another direction.

“Now how come after he died, our leaders talked nothing but ‘black’ to us,” he said. Mohammed said the use of the adjective “black” to describe the community’s achievements degraded them – and insulted others.

Noting that African American leaders in Congress refer to themselves as the Congressional Black Caucus, Mohammed questioned how people would react if there was a “white caucus.” Mohammed urged those gathered to think about the universality of all people – and that defining religion for any one race is dangerous.

“Black theology weakens our ability to gain from scripture, guidance from scripture, to make ourselves a better religious community,” he said.

The words are dramatic considering the path that Mohammed has taken.

Mohammed is the son of Elijah Muhammad, who for more than 30 years led the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religion that deemed all white people to be “devils” and black people to be “gods.” W. Deen Mohammed was chosen by his father to carry on his legacy.

But after Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, the son chose a different path. He gradually dissolved the Nation of Islam, leading believers toward the Sunni branch of Islam. All people were equal, regardless of race. Women were the same as men, except for physical strength.

While his father’s Nation of Islam explicitly referred to the U.S. flag as a symbol of “slavery, suffering and death,” Mohammed started New World Patriotism Day in 1979, according to Imam Faheem Shuaibe, who leads Masjidul Waritheen, an Oakland mosque.

The effort was intended to show that the ideals set forth in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the same ideals called for in the Quran.

“We should be most American,” Mohammed once said, according to Shuaibe. For a Muslim to reject those documents, Mohammed reportedly said, “You reject our greatest opportunity.”

Mohammed does not reject what his father did entirely, calling it a necessary step in the evolution in the psyche of African Americans. For a people who had been degraded into a status of inferiority for centuries, believing that they were gods helped level the playing field, he maintains.

In his talk Sunday, Mohammed, who now leads a Chicago-based nonprofit the Mosque Cares, said his father had “prepared” the community.

As a result of the huge religious migration away from the Nation of Islam, many scholars believe African Americans are the single largest ethnic group of American Muslims today. (Louis Farrakhan would resurrect the Nation of Islam, though it would be far diminished in size.)

Sunday’s talk was notable for the remarkable absence of Muslims of immigrant descent. Though American Muslims often say that Islam has no racial bounds, most Bay Area mosques parallel the demographic patterns of Christians – segregated by ethnicity or race. The Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara is the most notable exception.

Hatem Bazian, a UC Berkeley lecturer, appeared to be the sole prominent figure in the immigrant Muslim community who showed up. Bazian gave a speech before Mohammed’s talk about the promise that could be had if the two communities worked together.

But the absence of immigrants left some bitter at the slighting of the American Muslim most beloved to Muslims of African American descent.

“We are once again disappointed by our brothers who are immigrant Muslims,” said Imam Abu Qadir Al-Amin, who leads the San Francisco Muslim Community Center. “Don’t call on me in the future.”

E-mail Matthai Kuruvila at mkuruvila@sfchronic

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