Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

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Transcript: The Imam of American Islam, an Interview with Mark Cox

Damarius Johnson
Could you talk about how you went about doing the research to find the picture and then tell the story?

Mark Cox
The reason why I chose that particular figure and to write that particular article about Imam Warith Deen Muhammad is because he is a, I would say, unsung figure in black history. And he’s famous and infamous, when kind of keep that unsung, famous and infamous theme throughout the explanation. So when I say unsung, we don’t realize you know, cities like Philadelphia that have a dominant African American Muslim culture there we don’t really understand like the cause of that for many years, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad was the minister of the Philadelphia mosque what was called temple at the time. And so when the most Honorable Elijah Muhammad transitioned in 1975, Warith Deen Muhammad became the leader of the Nation of Islam. And so a lot of people don’t know a lot about that history outside of black Islam in America. But furthermore, those who are largely a part of Islam in America, they choose a side whether they are pro Imam Warith Deen Muhammad or against Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. So I guess we’ll start off with the good the reason why a lot of people, including myself, celebrate Imam Warith Deen Muhammad is because he took the members of the Nation of Islam and acquainted them with the Arabic language, which is the language of the Quran. And he also took the members of the Nation of Islam into the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which is his tradition, which by and large wasn’t a part of the study in the Nation of Islam, not that it was forbidden, but it just wasn’t featured. And so Imam Muhammad, associating the Muslims with the five daily prayers, practicing Ramadan with the rest of the Muslim world, this has had a lot of, in my opinion, a lot, a lot of positive points because it linked black Americans with the larger Islamic community throughout the world. And we hear about this with Malcolm X with going to Mecca and his transformation. But you know, that put to a period by the assassination that we don’t really go any further about, you know, what would have happened with Malcolm X had he lived? So I think in a lot of ways, Imam WD Muhammad has worked builds upon Malcolm X’s transition to what we call orthodox Islam or mainstream Islam, and how Imam WD Muhammad, in the way that he went about doing it, there’s also a downside to it. So the reason why I chose to write that article is to showcase that yeah, there were a lot of positive things that he did, but at the same time, it was lacking a lot of the cultural empowering language that the Nation of Islam was known for, prior to him taking over and leadership. And so that’s one of the things I wanted to highlight. And then him and Minister Farrakhan, who started the Nation of Islam, again, with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad in 1978, Warith Deen Muhammad and him outwardly appear as polar opposites, but you know, human beings being human beings. You know, he had his community, he has this community. And so to write about how they were able to come together and atone and the year 2000, at Savior’s day, the Savior’s Day celebration, was something I think we needed to know, because here in America, we don’t have sectarian violence, like you’ll hear about in the Middle East with regard to Islam. Even though the two camps are opposed ideologically, they still can settle on the black experience, and the fact that both working on the benefit of black America and black Muslims, and Muslims internationally as well. And so that’s why I chose to write on that topic, because myself, I don’t necessarily have a negative opinion of Warith Deen Muhammad, especially now that he you know, has passed away, I think we need to go back and study what he did to improve upon what he did and to correct any mistakes that may have occurred.

Damarius Johnson
Absolutely, that’s very insightful.