The tremendous accomplishments of African American Muslims that greatly affect us all to this day have been largely overlooked in the Shia communities. Last year, Islamic Insights marked the death of Imam Warith Dean Mohammed, who in the 1970s led most of the Nation of Islam followers to orthodox Islam.
An historic era is ending in Muslim America. While there are many Muslims in the West who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, a significant part of the American Muslim history has been indigenous. The tremendous accomplishments of African American Muslims that greatly affect us all to this day have been largely overlooked in the Shia communities. Last year, Islamic Insights marked the death of Imam Warith Dean Mohammed, who in the 1970s led most of the Nation of Islam followers to orthodox Islam. His generation is passing away, but there is still time to learn from its stories and understand how that generation has changed America and the lives of American Muslims.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj, born as Jeffrey Kearse in New York, was raised as a Baptist, college educated to be a math teacher in Canada, and became involved in the Nation of Islam in the 1960s because of what the organization was doing to help black people. He said at the time he was not attracted by Islam itself and did not know anything about it. When Imam Warith Dean Mohammed led his congregation to Islam, Kearse followed and found a love for Islam that became his life's passion. He changed his name and went to Umm al-Qura in Mecca in 1978 to train as an Imam. He founded the Masjid at-Taqwa in Brooklyn in 1981 in a friend's apartment with at most 25 people. It is now one of the most famous American mosques, active seven days a week year round.
Since then, he has become known as a key leader in many of the major American Muslim organizations: Vice President of ISNA for more than a decade, on the Majlis al-Shura council since the late 80's, and on the board of advisors for the American Muslim Council and CAIR.
He was the first Muslim to offer the invocation for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1991. By that time, he had become well-known for his speeches and lectures in the Muslim communities, but also for his Da'wah and outreach activities. The topics of his speeches have usually been very general in their appeal and widely accessible. He is said to have aided the conversions of thousands to Islam and has served as a spokesperson for Islam in the West. Many excerpts of his speeches, whole speeches, and interviews are available on YouTube. He also sells copies of speeches as a Da'wah fundraiser.
He notably spoke out against Desert Storm in 1991 as "one of the most diabolical plots ever in the annals of history," and that may have later contributed to attempts by some to label him as a co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In reality, he was never seriously believed to have any connection with terrorist activities. He was also loosely accused of promoting a violent message to Muslim youth, but those accusations, too, have largely died away, although some people, such as the likes of Daniel Pipes and Stephen Schwartz, maintained that he was "too neutral" about al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and that CAIR has been on the "wrong side of the war on terrorism." Very rarely, he has been associated with Wahabism. The moderate nature of his speeches and actions has led most to dispute such association.
A few aspects of the life of Imam Siraj Wahhaj that he has recounted happily include the dangerous and courageous effort in 1988 when he led his community in staking out and blocking drug houses in the area for 40 days and nights, leading 15 of them to close, as well as being invited by Minister Louis Farrakhan to lead the Friday prayer of the annual National of Islam celebration called Founders Day. Imam Wahhaj noted that when he had been a member of the Nation of Islam, they did not do Friday prayer at Founders Day. Further, in those days, they fasted in December rather than in the month of Ramadan, but now Minister Farrakhan's followers fast in the month of Ramadan. He believes that the dwindling membership of about 50,000 followers is gradually joining those who followed Imam Warith Dean Mohammed to become orthodox Muslim, and their invitation for him to lead them in prayer is one of many signs. As for the former tale of driving drug houses out of business, it is a prime example of the practical efforts of African American Muslim leaders to live Islam, not just preach it, and improve the lives of Muslims by meeting their pressing needs in the communities. Further, his leading the prayer at the House of Representatives is an outcome of the efforts of indigenous Muslim leaders to function, communicate, and even expand in the American and global scenes rather than seek isolation.
In February, Imam Wahhaj was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and MANA held an online fundraiser at HelpImamSiraj.com on Saturday, April 25th to help his mosque and/or assist with his medical expenses. He remains optimistic about a cure but also has demonstrated willingness to happily accept whatever Allah decrees. His illness is a sign of the ending era. The leaders who brought American Muslims from the Civil Rights Movement through a wave of immigration toward legitimized standing and recognition in American society are becoming fewer. Who will be the next great American Muslim leaders, and what will they do? What will this generation of American Muslims do to make its mark, and what role will the Shia play? The stage is set for a torch passing.