Imam W.D. Mohammed, who succeeded his father as leader of the Nation of Islam but abandoned its teachings of black supremacy and moved thousands of its followers into mainstream Islam, died Tuesday. He was 74.
Sultan Muhammad confirmed his uncle's death, but did not immediately offer details. He said the family planned to issue a statement later in the day.
The Cook County Medical Examiner said 74-year-old Wallace Mohammed was pronounced dead Tuesday. Mohammed went by both Warith Deen Mohammed and Wallace Muhammad. An autopsy was planned for Wednesday.
"Obviously, it's a great loss for the entire Muslim community," said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, where Mohammed led a convention last month. "He was encouraging his followers to accept the best of their humanity and to extend the moral and ethical values of Islam to the general American public."
When Mohammed's father, Elijah Muhammad, died in 1975, his son was named leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, which promoted self-reliance and black supremacy, a belief that mainstream Muslims consider heretical.
Emphasized racial tolerance
Mohammed quickly abandoned that teaching and led the Nation toward orthodox Islam, emphasizing the faith's message of racial tolerance. He had been a friend of Malcolm X, who abandoned the Nation to embrace mainstream Islam before he was assassinated in 1965.
Minister Louis Farrakhan, who broke with Mohammed over the change, separately revived the old Nation of Islam.
No one knows the size of Mohammed's movement, which was decentralized with many leaders and many entities, including The Mosque Cares. However, the number of his followers is believed to be in the tens of thousands.
The movement included not only mosques across the United States, but many business projects, which reflected the continued emphasis on black economic self-reliance that had been part of the Nation of Islam's mission.
The movement's decentralization makes it unclear who will succeed Mohammed.
Jimmy Jones, a Muslim chaplain and religion professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, joined Mohammed's movement in 1979, during the transition toward orthodox Islam.
"He asked the believers to stop reading and learning what his father had taught and start listening to him," Jones said after learning of Mohammed's death from a movement leader.
Mohammed changed his name several times from his birth name, Wallace Muhammad, to Warith Deen Muhammad and W.D. Mohammed. Jones said the renaming partly reflected the imam's struggle to maintain a triple identity: Muslim, African-American and American.
"He was trying to move a community that called itself an Islamic community closer to Islam without losing its roots and trying to situate itself in the context of American culture," Jones said.
Mohammed's businesses included importing clothing, developing skin care products and real estate development. Among the social service work he championed was promoting education, improving access to health care and supporting convicts after they were released from prison.