Shakir, Muslim leader, mosque founder, dies


In his nearly 51 years, Imam Ronald Shakir took on the mission of turning lives around.

He gave religious guidance to congregants at Baltimore mosques and took his ministry behind the high prison walls. Then he found time to improve his West Baltimore community.

"He touched me spiritually, and made me believe in myself and in all of the things that I want to do," said Gerald Johnson, 30. While in jail, he took a class that Imam Shakir taught.

Imam Shakir's mission ended Monday, when he died of liver failure.

Yesterday, the day after what would have been his 51st birthday, nearly 1,000 mourners -- including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- honored him at funeral services at the March Funeral Home on North Avenue as an Islamic leader who acted locally and was known nationally.

Imam Shakir, a former member of the Nation of Islam, broke with that sect in 1975 and converted to an orthodox Islamic group led by W. D. Muhammad. He became a local assistant imam and in 1979 was elected imam of the Baltimore Masjid.

Imam Shakir was the founder and resident imam, or minister, at the Masjid Walter Omar on West North Avenue.

Since 1979, he was president of the Upton Community Association.

"It's best not to say how many people he led, but how many people he touched," said Eric El-Amin, a Muslim who said he broke from the Nation of Islam with Imam Shakir in 1975. He called the imam a friend and adviser.

Mourning Imam Shakir, Mr. El-Amin said, "We are with a great void in leadership. But his challenge was to meet times like these."

The imam built respect among Christians and Jews through interfaith work. He served on the Council of Clergy that advises state prison officials on rehabilitation programs for inmates.

"His is a genuine loss to the religious community in Baltimore," said Rabbi Donald Berlin of Temple Oheb Shalom, who had been unaware of the death of a man he said had a "gentle and firm spirit."

"He was an extraordinarily decent human being," Rabbi Berlin said. "He was devoted to his faith, respectful of other people's faiths, and was an enormous influence in helping to create a positive environment for Islamic prisoners in the state of Maryland."

Imam Shakir was born in 1944 in Jennings, La., and was raised as a Roman Catholic. After high school, he moved to San Francisco, working for the U.S. Postal Service while attending night classes at the University of San Francisco.

A draft resister, he nevertheless served two years in Vietnam after being drafted in 1965.

He came to Baltimore in 1967 and received a bachelor's degree from Coppin State College and a master's in education from the Johns Hopkins University.

"It was the furthest thing from my wildest imagination to stay in Baltimore," Imam Shakir said in a 1992 interview.

Here, he had been a teacher, lecturer and salesman. In addition, he had served on the boards of Associated Black Charities, the African American Empowerment Project, the Black Mental Health Alliance and the Legislative Black Caucus.

Mr. Schmoke, as a candidate for Baltimore state's attorney, met Imam Shakir in 1982. He said Imam Shakir questioned him about his views on criminal justice to see if they coincided with those of the Koran.

"He was a strong supporter of mine and a counselor," Mr. Schmoke said.

Kevin Brown, a mourner at the funeral, said Imam Shakir was an "equal rights crusader" who fought for the rights of African-Americans.

"He would not allow black people to fall asleep and think everybody was playing on a level field," Mr. Brown said. "He kept the struggle in sight. He kept black people in the forefront, and proudly so."

What many Muslims feel that Imam Shakir will be remembered for most was his founding of the Baltimore Masjid on what was then Wilson Street in West Baltimore.

He lobbied city officials to change the street's name, and it now is Islamic Way.

He is survived his wife, Gajarah Shakir; three sons, Abayomi Shakir, Muhammad Shakir and Qa'id Shakir; a daughter, Qadriyyah Shakir; five sisters, Caral Kortely, Bernetta Dean, Kathleen LaSaint, Donna Thomas and Gwendolyn LaSaint; and a brother, Acy LaSaint.

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