CHICAGO (AP) Imam W. Deen Mohammed, one of the country's most influential black Muslim leaders, wanted to send a message when he resigned as head of the group he has led for almost 30 years.
Publicly, he told followers of the American Society of Muslims last month that he wanted more time to advance their beliefs. Privately, though, he expressed frustration with imams or prayer leaders who had abandoned his push to embrace the teachings of Sunni Muslims around the globe.
Now leaders of the religious group Mohammed transformed are struggling to determine what role he will continue to play and how, or even if, they should name a successor.
Those closest to the leader insist he will continue as spiritual guide to the nearly 2 million American-born blacks the society claims as members. His Aug. 31 announcement, they say, affects only those who disagree with him.
''It doesn't make sense for him to continue to give them the support of his name and his reputation if they don't accept what he represents,'' said Imam Earl Abdulmalik Mohammed, the national representative of W. Deen Mohammed's ministry. ''He's resigning as being their leader, but he will never resign from being leader of our people.''
Even so, some imams say members of the religious group or the imams themselves should choose a new leader. That decision could cause the kind of rift the movement endured when Mohammed took over in 1975 and shifted followers away from black separatist teachings.
''If he does permanently resign, it does pose a major crisis for the movement,'' said Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Mamiya said the society has been largely driven by Mohammed's charisma, and others may be unable to instill the trust he has won from followers.
Mohammed announced his resignation at the annual convention of the American Society of Muslims in Chicago. He had told the society's imams of his decision the day before.
During his public speech, the 69-year-old Mohammed said he would continue to guide followers and direct his ministry, The Mosque Cares, but no longer would oversee the day-to-day activities of the society.
Abdulmalik Mohammed said the leader privately expressed frustration with imams who failed to learn the tenets of Islam, instead creating their own interpretations of the religion. Mohammed went out of town following the convention and was unavailable for interviews, according to his daughter, Laila Mohammed.
Edward Curtis, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted that this is not the first time Mohammed has said he would step down as head of his movement.
In the 1980s, Mohammed announced his resignation as spiritual leader of his group then known as the American Muslim Mission. But close colleagues soon asked him to reconsider, and he remained head of the group.
''Is he going to be less important as a religious innovator or a spokesman? I doubt it,'' Curtis said of Mohammed's latest announcement.
Mohammed gained a following by working to align the Muslim teachings followed by his group with those of other orthodox Muslims after the death of his father, Elijah Muhammad, in 1975.
His father's organization, the Nation of Islam, had taught that its founder, Wallace D. Fard, had divine status and that Elijah Muhammad was a prophet which is heretical in mainstream Islam.
Mohammed's decision to follow orthodox Islam won him respect from Muslim leaders worldwide but caused a rift among black Muslims in the United States. Louis Farrakhan took leadership of the old Nation of Islam in 1978, and the groups remain separate. The two attempted to publicly mend fences in recent years, but deep differences remain.
Some followers of the soft-spoken Mohammed say their group, while larger than the Nation of Islam, gets overshadowed because its views are more mainstream and its leaders not as visible.
Imam Najee Ali, a Los Angeles activist and Mohammed's son-in-law, said the A
be a call to action for young imams to spread his teachings to black youth.
Ali dismissed the idea that young people might be more attracted to the movement if it merged with the Nation of Islam. He said he can't imagine Mohammed's decision will drive any followers to Farrakhan's group.
''There will never be a merger, and for those who do leave, we wish them well,'' Ali said. ''True believers of Imam Mohammed and the faith that he taught us will never leave.''
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