A Piece of History

Wali Waheed was born in Mississippi in 1933 to Christian parents. His family would relocate to Alabama, and then to The Bronx in New York City where he would grow up. When he was older, he moved to New Jersey where he spent most of his life. He moved down to North Carolina a couple of years ago and has been part of the Masjid Ash-Shaheed community ever since. He agreed to talk about his experience with joining the Nation of Islam and living through the Civil Rights Movement.

What drew you to Islam?

In the Spring of 1975, I heard a radio broadcast by W.D. Mohammed that inspired me and would lead me down the path that would eventually end up in taking the Shahadah.

What about W.D. Mohammed’s talk inspired you to convert to Islam?

Many of his explanations about stories that I understood through a Biblical perspective. He talked them with a different Islamic understanding that was more fulfilling to me. But the main thing, the thing that impressed me most, was his definition of “man.” He said “man means mind.” He went on to explain that, and his explanation stripped away the physical flesh of the man, to look at what’s inside the body. His idea that the man is not defined by his race or wealth or social status etc but by his mind. He was calling people to remake the world, and I believed him. I believed if we remade the man to be defined by what is inside him, we could remake the world.

Were you influenced at all by the Nation of Islam before you heard the broadcast?

In the sense that I loathed it. I never heard Elijah Mohammed speak at all. I never went to their meetings, I generally tried to avoid them. But I had heard of Malcolm X and was impressed by him. What I liked about him was his ability to speak with a conviction that was sound and solid and the things that he was saying. He was speaking truth that I could identify with and he wasn’t showing any fear of doing so. He was one of the people that I looked up to most. However, I also was impressed by Dr. King, and I think he had a greater influence because I know now of his coming from a spiritual perspective whereas Malcolm was coming from a militant kind of perspective. Being brought up by a spiritual perspective myself, I identified more with Dr. King.

Once you heard W.D. Mohammed’s speech, did you enter the Nation of Islam?

No it took me some time to get the courage. The image they were showing to me was militant and aggressive, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be seen as a part of that. Took me about a year to join. I read WD’s editorials and listen to his broadcasts for about a year. I studied his material and in 1976 I went through the doors and took the Shahada.

Where do you see the general African Community going?

I believe what has happened with the Nation of Islam is all part of marshalling Allah’s truth forward. Where we are right now is where Allah would have it be in Islam’s evolution. The Nation is a part of history that is not disconnected with any part of Islam’s history and future in regards to political/religious contexts. My belief is Allah is moving his Divine Plan forward. It is the only explanation of what is happening in the world right now.

Did you feel during the Civil Rights Movement that your Muslim identity subjected you to different forms of discrimination than non-Muslim African Americans?

I never felt that my Muslim identity hindered me in any sense. I did experience some discrimination. I don’t know if it was my Muslim identity or a combination of my black and Muslim identity, because my identity was always subject to discrimination. I think my Muslim identity caused me to gain greater respect amongst people in general. Although there was some minor discrimination, it wasn’t the same kind of attitude people showed prior to me embracing al-Islam.

I’ve always had an inferiority complex. I mentioned I was about 42 when I embraced the religion. I didn’t believe that I had the right to go to college or own property, I didn’t think that was for me. Although, there were African Americans with property and going to college. Just for me, the environment I was brought in, from what I had been subjected to, I just didn’t think these luxuries were meant for me.

I’ve always had an idea from the atmosphere I was in that people identifying as white were better than people of darker skin. I grew up with the idea that white is better. Nobody was saying that, but the atmosphere that you’re in was saying that. You don’t realize, but there was a time where you never would have been sitting here with me. If I was at a public place as a child and I needed to use the restroom, I knew I couldn’t go in because of my skin color. So these kinds of things were always shaping how I felt about myself. So that continued in school, where we received separate educations. I went to school in my church, and there was one teacher for six grades. I could give you all kinds of stories, but fast forwarding–at one point I had lost a job I had worked at for fifteen years because of my skin. I was 38 at that time.

So from 38 to 42, I was struggling. And that’s when, around that time I heard W.D. Mohammad’s voice. It attracted and inspired confidence in me. Islam gave me  the security that I needed, and that’s why my answer to you is so long. I’ve always felt my status as a Muslim has been a plus. I knew I could contend with anybody after that.

Did you feel that your faith gave you a previously missing sense of identity?

Oh no doubt about it. It was never clear to me who I was before I came to al-Islam. That situation, that identity crisis, exists with many African Americans. They end up associating themselves with all kinds of groups, trying to find an identity.

But you feel that in general the outlook for you and the rest of the community has become more positive?

Definitely. My entire life, I just wish I could find the words to shed about how miraculous my experience and the growth of the community has been. This community is a wonderful place. I believe it’s going to make a great contribution to al-Islam. You don’t hear al-Islam a whole lot, but the way I understand it is that you can’t remove the definite article. al-Islam is the religion Allah sent to the world. Islam is the idea that many different people have of that religion. I believe this community, NC, and the world will make a great contribution to al-Islam through the bright youth, and through what Allah blessed WD to have an understanding of.