MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Finally today, we want to pause to recognize the passing of Warith Deen Mohammed. He died yesterday in Illinois at the age of 74. The American-Muslin leader was a son of Elijah Mohammad, long time leader of the Nation of Islam.
But Imam Mohammed later rejected the Nation for a more orthodox Muslim practice, leading thousands of African Americans to do the same. And as such, he's probably one of the country's most prominent Muslim leaders. Joining us to talk about Imam Mohammed and his legacy is Salim Muwakkill. He is an editor at "In These Times," that's a progressive monthly newspaper. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Mr. SALIM MUWAKKILL (Editor, "In These Times"): Thank you for inviting me, Michel. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: You made the same journey that Imam Mohammed made. You were originally a member of the Nation of Islam, and then you transitioned with him to a more orthodox practice. How did that come about? Did he - how did he lead that movement?
Mr. MUWAKKILL: Oh, yeah, You know, I think that's one of the largest untold stories in a black history, American history. But, specifically, black history because, you know, Nation of Islam was really very crucial to much of the black movement of the 60s and 70s. In fact, you know, the kind of black nationalist corps, even in the black party, based a lot of its imagery and communications models on the Nation of Islam. And it was solidly in the Black Nationalist Movement, a part of the Black Nationalist Movement.
And Wallace Mohammed had always had - his name was Wallace Mohammed at the time. He became Warith Deen Mohammed when he became an Imam, great in a way. But he was always a little uncomfortable with his father's racial emphasis because he had become in imam with so-called orthodox Islam, a kind of Sunni orthodox.
And he challenged his father's teachings often, and for that, he was often, you know, banished from the movement for a month or two. And then after his - when his father died in 75, he seemed to be an unlikely choice because of his, you know, his previous divisions and disagreements. But at the same time, those disagreements gave him an image of integrity, of religious integrity.
And so, when he had reconciled himself with his father, and his father died, he was really unanimously, you know, accepted as the new leader for the Nation. And it was extremely difficult. It seemed to be an extremely difficult path to change this black nationalist kind of eccentric doctrine that Elijah Mohammad propounded to a more orthodox-oriented Islamic thinking...
MARTIN: But he did it. Forgive me, we only have about 50 seconds left, so just as briefly as you can, what distinguished him as a leader? He seemed very soft spoken to me for a person who had such a large following. What distinguished him?
Mr. MUWAKKILL: Well, that's exactly what distinguished him. He really had an abhorrence for the kind of preening leadership that were so prominent in America, and so he had a low key approach in that. You know, that attitude is kind of charisma. It was ironic kind of magnetism that he had. Because of that, he was really humble, and, you know, he didn't attempt to project himself in a majestic way like other leaders did.
MARTIN: Warith Deen Mohammed died yesterday at the age of 74. Salim Muwakkill is an editor of "In These Times," and he joined us from his office in Chicago. Salim, thank you so much for speaking with us, and I'm sorry for your loss.
Mr. MUWAKKILL: Thank you, Michel.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.