Imam W.D. Muhammad’s ministry and mission could be summarized in the following three words: Black Souls Matter! Born to the Honorable Elijah and Clara Muhammad of The Lost Found Nation of Islam, he was taught the Islamic sciences of tajweed and hifz of the Qur’an as a child. Privately tutored by orthodox Muslims in other Islamic sciences like hadith, theology and seerah as a young teenager, this really placed a love of Allah and His Messenger ﷺ deep in his heart. It also created a peculiar tension within his household because while his father was teaching Black people how to clean up their lives, it ignored their souls. It was thirty years of internal wrestling. His brother, who was also taught similarly, went to study abroad in Egypt at al-Azhar but Imam Muhammad stayed, because to him, Black Souls Mattered.
In his late twenties, Imam Muhammad began teaching Minister Malcolm X about orthodox Islam and encouraged him to go to Mecca. Malcolm had loved his father, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who he affectionately called the Messenger of God. It was Imam Muhammad who had humanized his father to Malcolm X by confirming Elijah Muhammad's extra-marital affairs and children out of wedlock, which resulted in the separation between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. This resulted in a very belligerent and tense period, fed by the likes of Minister Louis Farrakhan, who, years later, took responsibility for his role at the time by saying that he “created an atmosphere that allowed Malcolm to be assassinated”, by inciting violence against him in print and speeches. Few know this, but Imam W.D. Muhammad’s life itself was nearly taken a few times in his thirties due to this hostile atmosphere. Indeed, it was a battle for Black lives and souls.
The assassination of Malcolm X and Imam W.D. Muhammad’s third reconciliation with his father to rejoin the Nation of Islam after being excommunicated eventually saved his own life and perhaps thousands of Black souls. It was a Treaty of Hudabiyya moment for Imam W.D. Muhammad and Black Muslims in America because within this 10 year period it allowed him time to teach and slowly reform his people. From 1965 to 1975, Minister Louis Farrakhan was the spokesperson and most influential member of the Nation of Islam. However, when Elijah Muhammad died, an amazing victory happened when the community elected Imam W.D. Muhammad as their leader in 1975, instead of Farrakhan. Now 40 years old, Imam W.D. Muhammad immediately claimed orthodox Islam as our religion for the salvation of our souls and worked to rectify the corruption in both our understanding and behavior.
Imam W.D. Muhammad understood the peculiar psychological bondage that held back Black lives in the Nation of Islam, and taught simple theology and behavioral modification. Following the Prophetic narration where the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, "My Companions are like stars. Whichever of them you use as a guide, you will be rightly guided", he chose to use Bilal ibn Rabah (may Allah be pleased with him) as a guide. Bilal became the guiding star to brighten the way to Islam, moving ahead from the trauma of losing the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who had been adored and loved. Psychologically, this was a brilliant move toward reaching his goal of saving Black souls, and it did not matter what other orthodox Muslims falsely charged him with. To Imam W.D. Muhammad, truly Black Souls Mattered and their guidance was first and foremost in his heart.
Thirteen years after the historic hajj of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), and two years after the transition from the Nation of Islam, two important events occurred. First, Minister Louis Farrakhan left Imam W.D. Muhammad’s Bilalian community because of too many changes from the old Nation of Islam, such as white people being allowed in the mosque and American flags being honored in the mosque. Generally, Black Lives mattered more than Black Souls mattered to Minister Farrakhan, but Imam Muhammad graciously bid him farewell with no animosity.
Second, also at this time, Muhammad Ali stayed with Imam W.D. Muhammad as an orthodox Muslim and paid for a few hundred hajj tickets to Mecca for all those who were leaders and helping Imam W.D. Muhammad. My father, Imam Usamah T.D. Ansari was one of those blessed to attend this historic hajj. At the time, my father was the imam in San Francisco, California by night and security guard by day, working without worldly compensation because he too believed in the Black Souls Matter message of Imam Muhammad.
Perhaps if Malcolm X was still alive he would of joined his friend Imam Muhammad on this hajj trip. He would have to modify what he said after returning from his first hajj, you know the quote every American Muslim quotes about Islam erasing racism as if Muslims can use an eraser:
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’—but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.
My father tells his children of a hajj story unlike any other race of people in America who went to fulfill this religious obligation. It begins the same, travelling to New York City to Amsterdam and then to Jeddah. But while the others go on to Mecca, 300 Black Muslims from America go to King Abdul Aziz University for eight days of grueling religious testing. Dr. Ahmed Sakr, the late Tajuddin Shuiabe and another took my father’s group of eight Black imams to test the veracity and authenticity of their declaration of faith. They were drilled on aqeedah, salat, zakat, siyam and hajj for 8 hours a day for 8 days. My father shows me his green certificate that qualified him to make hajj after passing the 8 days of exhaustive religious testing from scholars of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This was unprecedented, but it was practiced with the Black community who came to hajj with Imam W.D. Muhammad. Malcolm X would have seen insincere and uncertain brotherhood practiced against his people of his color before being allowed to practice their religion.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Muslim world leaders doubted that this Black religious leader Imam Muhammad could teach 300 followers well enough to be considered Muslims. They miscalculated, were misguided and did not understand how it was possible to do so in two years. That is because it was not two years alone. My father and several other leaders among the 300 Muslims on this pilgrimage trip were among an early ostracized group of Black Muslims. They were labeled “carpet Muslims” in the Nation of Islam because they learned to pray and read Arabic during the First Resurrection (the period of the Nation of Islam from 1933-1975). My father and these "carpet Muslims" read al-Ghazali, al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and bought anything they found on orthodox Islam from the early sixties onward after listening to Imam W.D. Muhammad to preach true Islam. These leaders studied privately, waited for 1975, and then came out to teach. These were great leaders who cared about Black souls, who learned Islam deeply, like Imam Nurideen in Hartford, Connecticut and Imam Shakir Mahmoud in Boston, others in Atlanta, Texas, Missouri, Ohio and my father in San Francisco. These imams were known to be righteous servants in the Bilalian mode who took no money from the community but rather used the money to become debtfree communities.
Imam Muhammad had others who stayed in, or joined his community who were cut from a different cloth, different because these Bilalians did not put service first. It was these leaders and communities that would continuously sabotage any progressive effort of Imam W.D. Muhammad at every turn. They would also not listen to Imam Muhammad’s encouragement to increase their literacy of Islam to qualify them to teach more effectively. Instead, they relied on their charisma and preaching skills to maintain influence and control over communities. In 1985, Imam Muhammad took a more universal approach to teaching Islam, and for next 10 years worked to strengthen inter-faith relations and decentralized national leadership. From 1995 to 2005, Imam Muhammad, after 20 years of community development, attempted to branch out on several economic development initiatives to establish sustainable growth in our community. He was successful upon his death in 2008, but his community was plagued by poor leadership as it struggled forward. A few models of successful communities do still thrive today. Moreover, several second-generation young leaders of his community are examples of individual success to hearing and answering his call to faith and service.
Imagine the amount of pressure on Imam W.D. Muhammad, who on the one hand was working tirelessly and sensitively guiding his Black people at home out of darkness, but on the other hand, no one abroad believed he could do it or questioned how he was doing it because of the darkness of his skin. This is why he would say often that God supported him alone. Often he would say, he himself believed and supported the ministry of Imam W.D. Muhammad as a follower of Imam W.D. Muhammad. This was to remind those listening that he did what he did in obedience to a calling in his soul out of love for his Black people. It must of felt like he was absolutely dependent on Allah alone in fulfilling his mission and his source of relief had to be the understanding that he was following in the footsteps of Bilal ibn Rabah in his service to the Messenger of God ﷺ. Bilal was the guiding star he chose to follow as the tireless servant, and the community of Imam W.D. Muhammad today is proof that Black Souls Matter to God.
By Bilal Ansari , 06 Apr 2015