Laila Muhammad is the Family Counseling Coordinator at Compassion Action, a New Jersey-based foundation. Community work and advocacy are a family legacy for Muhammad: her grandfather, Elijah Muhammad (d. 1975), was the founder of the Nation of Islam movement in the United States. Her father, Warith Deen Mohammed (d. 2008), was voted into the leadership of the movement after his father and led a great majority of its members to adopt more mainstream forms of Islamic faith and practice.
When we visited Laila Muhammad in her office at the foundation, we found her involved in a number of important programs: aid for underprivileged families in the Newark area; a charity drive raising school and office supplies for orphanages in Haiti; raising funds helping patients-in-need get cataract surgery. We spoke with her on the responsibilities she inherited from her family, her involvement in interfaith dialogue, the current problems haunting our world, and how we can move forward from here.
The Fountain: Your family made history in the US. You carry on your shoulders a heritage of wisdom and a struggle for civil rights that will be studied for many decades in the future. How would you describe that heritage?
Laila Muhammad: My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and community members, we call them pioneers. I have really embraced that idea, maybe in the last fifteen to twenty years. Prior to that, I didn’t really understand it. But I also know that it is a great responsibility. Before, I loved my family; I understood that my grandfather, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and my grandmother Clara Muhammad, as well as my father Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, were historical people and leaders, but I didn’t understand the dynamic of it. Sometimes as a child or young adult I was a little irritated, because I had to share my father with people, or because I felt like everybody was watching me. But, God made me know that I am really blessed. Sometimes I am almost afraid and I ask God to make me worthy of this blessing.
Every blessing comes with responsibility. This must be perhaps why you are with Compassion Action. Tell us about it: what is Compassion Action?
Compassion Action is, firstly, a family. I moved to New Jersey in August 2016 because of my job in another organization, where I was doing domestic violence work and life coaching. I had applied to be a counselor at a rehab center, a transitional house for women. It was good, but God knew better!
I had been acquainted with a brother who is also a Compassion Action member. My background is early childhood education, and I really wanted to teach. So, I talked to him about the possibilities of my teaching. He offered me the opportunity to join with Compassion Action where I could teach… So our brother, our family, has opened the door to me. It is such a blessing that I am now in a building with them – where the call to prayer is called, and a friend is welcoming us at the door with greetings of peace. In how many buildings can you have this welcome? … It is so comforting to see that God is doing everything; and when you look back you understand, “That’s why it happened.”
I went for my minor pilgrimage (umrah) twice. When you go around the Ka‘ba, you are not going to make it if you do it on your own. But when you move with the flow of all the brothers and sisters, it becomes much easier. This is how I am trying to live my life: just go as if I am around the Ka‘ba and know that God is going to guide me. My father passed in 2008 – may God forgive him and reward him. He meant a lot to me; he was my daddy, he was my imam, he was my friend, he was my employer. I miss him a lot. I relied on him a lot. Any question I had, I would call him. Then I prayed to God to let me see his guidance. God let me see that my life experience through my family parallels what I see as the understanding and experience of Compassion Action and the Hizmet movement it is inspired by. The ideas and goals are very similar. This is not surprising: if we are both living as God tells us in the Qur’an and as Muhammad ibn Abdullah, then we will be the same. So, I feel blessed to work with this family, and to help families in need.
How would you describe these goals?
The number one goal is to please God and serve Him. We serve God by giving to the world and leaving behind something when we leave… One of our similarities with Compassion Action is that we are both open to people. This was a great part of Imam Muhammad’s work. As you know my grandfather, Elijah Muhammad…was working with African American people. …I think one of my father’s main accomplishments was that he showed the community that came from my grandfather how we fit and how we are a part of the (larger) human family. I think that as Muslims, if we miss that, then we miss what God is asking from us. Because we all come from Adam, we all are one family. If we treat each other and love each other as brothers and sisters, there won’t be a problem.
Going back to your childhood, what are your earliest memories of spirituality?
I can remember two things that always stand out to me. One is that my father always taught me to be a thinker. He and my mother always taught it was OK to differ with them, as long as we did it respectfully. They had a son after my father’s three girls; I was the oldest, and kind of treated like a boy sometimes. I was very comfortable with speaking my mind… I was born a Muslim, but my mother converted; she was raised Catholic. I had lots of cousins who were Christians…I remember once when I was 12 or 13, I was reading the Qur’an, and it was a serious reading because it was Ramadan. I remember reading the verse, “Those who believe (i.e. professing to be Muslims), or those who declare Judaism, or the Christians or the Sabaeans (or those of some other faith) whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good, righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve” (2:62). I also remember that God says, “For each community We have appointed a clear way of life and a comprehensive system. And if God had so willed, He would surely have made you a single community; but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by what He granted to you” (5:48). It was a lightbulb moment for me, but it was also a sigh of relief. Because I really loved, and I still do, my mother’s sisters. I respect them. They were very nice ladies. When I read these verses, I said to myself, “This is a fair God, this is the truth.”
Then I also learned that God judges you on your intention. He knows your intention. That’s just fair. That was spiritual moment for me – to declare my testimony of belief because of my thought process, not because of my birth.
We know you are actively involved in interfaith dialogue. You have just mentioned your multi-faith family background. There are some groups within the domain of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism who oppose interfaith dialogue. What is your take on interfaith dialogue?
The rule is very simple. If we are here living together, why should we not talk? That’s what dialogue is: conversation… I have done dialogue for many years; so I personally prefer a particular type of dialogue. My first interfaith dialogue was with the Focolare movement. Their leader was Chiara Lubich, who passed away in 2008. She and my father met at an event, and their spirits connected… they wanted their communities to meet. And for fifteen years, we have had relationships with each other. Those relationships developed organically. We would go to meetings together, have lunch together, sometimes large summer outings together. Then we began to come to each other’s conferences. I went to Rome three times, the last of which I had the pleasure of meeting Pope Francis. This was an organic growth of getting to know each other. And that’s the type of interfaith dialogue I like. I have been to other types of dialogue, which are very structured, where they tell you, “This is what we are going to be doing; this is the project we will work on,” etc. I believe when it is too structured like that, it gets in the way of the heart… It has to come from the heart so that it can organically grow and connect you.
Considering the rise of governments and leaders in different parts of the world who have authoritarian tendencies, with nationalist and xenophobic discourses, do you think we should fear for our future? Do you think history is repeating itself? Are we circling back to the 1930s?
I don’t think we should fear for our future. No matter what the situation is, especially what is happening in America, Turkey, and in other places, we should be prepared. We should do as a person does when he or she knows it is winter as opposed to summer. You should prepare yourself. Maybe it is not snowing today, but you know where your wool hat is. We should not be reactionary. We should not move on emotion. We should be strategic, and most importantly – and this goes back to the previous question about interfaith dialogue – I think we should form alliances...
It’s been reported that there were more refugees around the world in 2016 than any year prior. People are fleeing their own countries because of war, oppression, or extreme poverty. … What are we expected to do at this point in history? Where is the world heading on this matter?
You know, I am not a political person… But I believe that when things have become really bad, they are about to turn around. We should not fear. We should be open to helping and accepting change… I think we should go through life as we would if this was not occurring. We should work, but first submit to God... I remember my father said many times that work is worship…
Are we going back to the ‘30s? I hope not. But we have to know what took place in the ’30s and study the strategies of how the people survived then, so that we can survive now. We just have to move forward, collectively. This is what is good about this interview and about this new relationship for me with our brothers and sisters in the Hizmet Movement, which is that we collectively do this work. I don’t believe that we can work isolated...
Recently, Islam has been abused by various terrorist groups to legitimize their attacks. However, no group has gone as far as ISIS. Beheadings, child assassins, all sorts of brutality. All committed – or so they claim– in the name of God. How have they made Islam a tool of their violence? What should Muslims do in response?
Being a mother myself, when I think of ISIS, I think of young people. Those horrible behaviors and tragic things ISIS has done… those people have mothers. How do Muslim children become that? As parents, we have to educate our children. We cannot teach them that they are just Muslims. We have to let them read the Qur’an themselves and not just obey imams. Because the imam may be corrupt. That’s what I think happens to a lot of people. They get brainwashed by corrupt people and they really believe they are right. I am not saying this has to do with only imams or Muslims… We just cannot think somebody is a Muslim because they say it. You have to judge people by their behavior. You have to cover yourself with God and move forward. It is very frightening when young people and children are doing this. As I said earlier, we have to be strategic and we should not be reactionary…
As a woman active in social matters, where do you see female empowerment headed? Some perceive Islam as oppressive to women. What would you say to that?
Islam is what frees me. Islam is what gives me my voice. I have never felt disempowered by Islam. Have I felt disempowered by misinformed people, misinformed Muslim men? Yeah. Islam is like anything else; it is made up of human beings. My grandmother would say, “There is nothing bad of Islam; there might be a bad Muslim, but it’s nothing bad about Islam.” Part of the human experience is that people take femininity for weakness. But it is not. All life comes from women. We bear the burden. We carry the child, give birth to the child. The Arabic words “community” (umma) and “mother” (um) are coming from the same root. That’s powerful to me…
What is happening in this world today, I think some folks are trying to take us backward. I am not worried, because we have people like Sojourner Truth, Clara Muhammad, Harriet Tubman, Khadija, and Aisha… We are going to be fine as women. (I think about) our sister Betty Shabbaz and the work that I do with domestic violence. I tell people all the time, “Your situation is really bad. But did you ever hear about what Dr. Betty Shabazz went through?” Of course they say no. “Did you ever think about the fact that her husband was assassinated in front of her, in front of her children, and she was pregnant?” I say, “That’s horrible, right? But then she moved on. She was 27 years old. She was a nurse, and became a PhD. And she raised her girls. We can do it. We can do it.”
Muslims have many problems in their own countries, but also in diaspora. What do you think Muslims should do to better represent their religion?
The number one thing is we don’t think of it as (just) Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “You will not have faith until you love your brother and sister.” That’s the first thing we should do. We should love God. I went to a women’s conference once, where my friend, Attorney Maaria Mozaffar, was speaking. I am saying her name for a reason; I think she is going to be great, greater than she is now; a very intelligent woman. She has this Skinless Project. I went to her conference… Muslims from all different nationalities and ages. She said, “Fall in love with God.” That’s powerful. That’s what we have to do as men and women. Fall in love with God, and then yourself, your family, your community, and just do what you do when you love somebody: take care of them, listen to them, support them, educate them. It is such an evil thought when some people say, “We Muslims do not do the love thing; it is what Christians do.” But our Prophet is saying otherwise. We do the love thing.
For instance, It is very heartbreaking to see what the Hizmet community is going through. Last time I went (to Turkey), I met with people; they hosted us back then, but now they are not even in their country. Because they had to run out, unjustly. I don’t even think you have to say who is right or who is wrong. But we know in Islam, and in a world of civilized people, that people have the right to a trial. How can you accuse people and try them all in the same moment? That’s wrong in anybody’s book. That’s what I stand on… You are taking their livelihood, kicking them out of their homes… that’s wrong. So, I am praying for them. My heart and my arms are open. I am encouraged, because I know that God is in charge, and He has promised the righteous servants victory.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited due to word count restrictions.)