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W. Deen Mohammed Weekly Articles
Reprinted from the Muslim Journal

November 5, 1993

Muslim Journal

An Interview with Imam W. Deen Mohammed and the
British Broadcast Corporation: Part 1


BBC: What about the immigrant communities of Muslims here?


IWDM: We know that Arabs have been naturalized citizens in America in Detroit, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois. But mainly in Detroit. Yemen Street, the street is named after the Yemenite people.

There is a very attractive building on the Southside of Chicago in the African American community that you can see was built to be a mosque. The Islamic inscriptions are still there in the structure.


BBC: What is it used for now?


IWDM: It is used as a theater.


BBC: But that really is not right.


IWDM: No, it is not. I have spoken there twice now and do plan another engagement there. We are trying to draw some attention to it, and maybe one day we will have it as a mosque again, insha-Allah. The Arabs were there 50 or 60 years ago.


BBC: Tell us something about the roots and origin of Islam in the United States.


IWDM: The beginning of Islam in the United States is quite recent, in my opinion. But the beginning of Muslims in the United States we believe dates back to the early voyages of those who explored the West. It goes back to Christopher Columbus, of whom we are told had on one of his ships a Muslim Arab. And there is some documentation for this. There is o book written on Arabs in America from the very beginning. We know that in Chicago where I have spent almost all of my life, Arabs have been in this area for a long time. They tell us that their foreparents were in Chicago 80 years or more. Just as for the Dearborn area, there are many Arabs, they've been there for at least 100 years or longer.


BBC: I was looking at some evidence that some of the Africans who were brought here in chains may have been Muslims.


IWDM: That is documented also. We ourselves began to inquire. One brother among us who is a pianist got interested in our folks who came over here from Africa who were Muslims, and he went and did a study in North Carolina and found evidence that documented some slaves were Muslims.

Since then a very popular man in Christian theology, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, tells us now that he has prepared a book that he feels will be a classic on the history of Islam in America. He says in his documentation that there were well over 300 slaves who were Muslims among slaves brought to America.


BBC: Sadly, it seems to have disappeared under the experiences that the slaves had here. When was it that Islam first became of interest to the African Americans?


IWDM: I would say it was with a man called Noble Drew All. He introduced his idea of Islam and it was preached from centers he called after the Moors as Moorish Science Temples. But it wasn't long after him that another man, a foreigner — Noble Drew Ali was not a foreigner, although we believe he had some encounters with a foreigner and became excited by Islam — the man named Fard came around 1930, while Noble Drew Ali's influence was earlier, starting around the 1920's or earlier. Fard, in my opinion, was the one who introduced a very extreme idea. But because of its extremes and controversy that developed over the years, his idea of Islam drew attention from the media.

Then Muhammad Alt joined the following of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The Muslims became popular almost over night in America. That was much because of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. They were figures that the media liked to focus. After that the name Muhammad became popular. I remember when the name was called Mohamet by everybody except us. Then all of a sudden everyone could pronounce the name correctly.

The better attention on Muslims came from Drew Ali and then from Fard and Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, and then Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight champion. These were very strong factors in bringing about the true picture of Islam. It will sound strange that a man who came with something far from the true picture of Islam would be given credit for bringing true Islam into the country or being a factor for that true image coming to light.

I say that because I know the Honorable Elijah Muhammad had a private side to himself. On his private side, he embraced Muslims from all over the world and wanted them to accept him. He was a lonesome man and tried to justify his teaching of a different idea of Islam when he met them. This would happen with students of the Muslim Student Association or MSA. On occasions some very intelligent and wealthy people from the East would come and visit with him and be his guests at his home. And Elijah Muhammad would be almost apologetic to them and would tell them, "This is how it has to be. This is the way I have to awake my people."

So I am convinced that there were two sides to my father, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. One side was angry with the White world for its evils toward Black people, and the other side was this Muslim man who wanted to be accepted by all Muslims but was teaching a strange idea of Islam.


BBC: What is it about the idea of Islam that has special resonance with Black people in this country?


IWDM: A quick answer would be a need for identity. Slavery set us back and put us in the dark as to who we are and where our roots are. "Blacks" have gone to the African Methodist Episcopal Church to have an identity with Africa. And they still use the name Africa, these "Black" Christians. They had others to join them. There was Marcus Gar-vey who had his nationalistic ideas for Black people and was looking for an identity. In many of the denominations of Christianity, you will find a strong interest in getting their own identity, although they are Christians.

The Nation of Islam and the founder of that idea, Fard, I believe studied the need in our community for a recovery from slavery and then followed or imitated Drew Ali who set up the Moorish Science Temple. He also imitated Marcus Garvey who set up a nationalistic movement, and he also put a strong emphasis on us having our own independent schools and showed imitation of a lot of ideas of Carter G. Woodson
and others.

What we have now is Islam popularized by a combination of influences and people coming together, but it seems that one was more successful than all the others. And that was the Nation of Islam.


BBC: What distinguishes in your view the idea of the Nation of Islam from the true Islam, for example which is your faith?


IWDM: Its nationalistic belief or idea that we are a nation of Black people, not just Muslims, and the attempt by the founder of that Nation of Islam to give us a sense of government and a kind of model of government in what we called the Temple of Islam: The Temple of Islam had its own courts, and all infractions of the laws were brought before the courts and judged there. And you were put out for disobedience or for breaking the laws of Islam. You were put out of the Nation of Islam or the Temple. We had our own courts.

We also had what I call an exercise in militarism, if not a military organization. We had an exercise in military discipline. We had "the Fruit of Islam" with its captains and lieutenants and we would meet once a week and have drills. We were taught to obey our superiors. And I think Fard did all of that to give us a sense of our own government, if not a real or actual government.

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, at one time, attempted to get the American people to support him in his effort to have the American government to set aside two or more states within the United States for African American people. This was not just for Muslims. He was asking for this for the African American people as their spokesman and as their leader. He was assuming that position, that he spoke for all of them and that what would solve the race problem in America would be to give us separate states where we could have our own life under our own people and under our own authority.

This idea of government given to him by Fard, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad sought to pursue it, if not to see it through, to pursue it at least as a strategy. And I think it was more a strategy than an end that was desired.


BBC: Certainly, it had its economic impact. But then slowly, as I understand the history, a number of people and most famously yourself and Malcolm X began to be dissatisfied with that particular version of Islam and started to come to the real Islam. Can you tell me something about the processes which led to that? How old were you when that started?


IWDM: I was very young when I first began to have difficulty with the idea of God as that idea was presented in the temples of the Nation of Islam. I couldn't have been more than 13 years old, and we were taught how to make dua. We were never taught to make sajda. I remember making dua to God, and we were told that God was "Fard Muhammad", an idea very similar to what they have in Christianity — that God is manifest in flesh.

I was seeing "Fard", and it wasn't very comfortable for me. Then I said, "O Allah, if I am seeing .You wrong, please help me." That was me praying within myself. No one knew I was praying except God and myself.

(To be continued)