Muhammad v. Muhammad

Decision Date05 August 1993
Docket NumberNo. 92-CA-470,92-CA-470
Citation622 So.2d 1239
PartiesRobert J. MUHAMMAD v. Debra MUHAMMAD.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Ahmad Muhammad, Lorman, Kennie E. Middleton, Fayette, for appellant.

No Brief for appellee.

Before HAWKINS, C.J., and PITTMAN and BANKS, JJ.

BANKS, Justice, for the Court:

This case presents the always sensitive and problematic issue of child custody between competing parents in a setting colored by the equally sensitive subject of religious beliefs and values. We are asked to determine whether the trial judge's assessment of the issue of custody was impermissibly tainted by his view of the validity of appellant's religious beliefs. We are asked also to find manifest error as to the grant of divorce.


On December 7, 1989, Robert J. Muhammad initiated proceedings in the Jefferson County Chancery Court by filing a complaint against his wife Debra Muhammad for custody of the couple's two children, Radeyah P. Muhammad and Raheem K. Muhammad. Mrs. Muhammad had removed the children from the couple's marital domicile in French Lick, Mississippi, to Flint, Michigan, on October 13, 1989. At the time Mr. Muhammad filed his complaint, Radeyah was two years old and Raheem was one. Prior to October 1989, Radeyah had resided in Mississippi continuously since she was two months old, and Raheem had lived his entire life in Mississippi.

Mrs. Muhammad responded to Mr. Muhammad's complaint by contesting his efforts to get custody, and by filing a cross-complaint for divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Mr. Muhammad subsequently filed his own cross-complaint for divorce. He claimed that Mrs. Muhammad had deserted him when she departed with the couple's children on October 13, 1989.

Hearings were held in this matter on April 2, 1991, and October 30, 1991, because of a discovery issue regarding assets and income that remained unresolved at the time of the first hearing. At the conclusion of the April hearing, the court announced that it would grant Mrs. Muhammad a divorce because she was the only one who put on evidence in that regard. Mr. Muhammad, through counsel, stated that he had no objection. Nevertheless, at the October hearing, Mr. Muhammad, through new counsel, contested the issue anew. On December 5, 1991, the Jefferson County Chancery Court rendered a decision granting Mrs. Muhammad custody of the children and a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Mr. Muhammad was granted reasonable visitation rights and ordered to pay child support in the amount of $200.00 per month. Mr. Muhammad subsequently filed a motion for new trial, which was heard on February 11, 1992. The motion was formally denied on May 4, 1992, and Mr. Muhammad filed notice of appeal to this Court two days later.


Robert J. Muhammad and Debra Muhammad, formerly Robert and Debra Wilson, were married on September 17, 1983, in Flint, Michigan. They resided in Flint until 1987, when they relocated to an Islamic community in French Lick, Jefferson County, Mississippi, known as the University of Islam. The couple had become acquainted with the spiritual leader of the community, Mr. Marvin Muhammad, through teaching sessions that Mr. Muhammad conducted in Flint. Robert and Debra visited the University of Islam twice in early 1987. The first time, they stayed at Marvin Muhammad's house, and the second time, they stayed in a hotel in Natchez.

In July 1987, Debra Muhammad and the couple's two month old child, Radeyah, relocated to the University. With the agreement of Debra, Robert remained in Flint for a few more months before permanently relocating to the University himself in October of 1987. Robert sold the couple's house to Debra's father and sold and disposed of some personal property, including a car. A substantial portion of the proceeds was given to the New Nation of Islam.

A second child, Raheem, was born to Robert and Debra Muhammad on August 4, 1988. Robert and Debra lived together with their two children at the University of Islam until October 13, 1989. While Robert was asleep during the late night hours of that date, Debra took the two children and went back to Flint, Michigan. She and the children were transported by Debra's mother, who had come down from Flint, Michigan, to take them back after Debra had communicated to her by phone that Debra was extremely unhappy with life at the University. Robert still resides at the University.

Robert and Debra had been experiencing marital difficulties before moving to the University. Debra indicated to at least one person at the University that she had tried Islam and moved to the University with Robert in an effort to save her marriage. Debra testified that she had been unhappy in the lifestyle at the University from the moment she arrived there.

The University of Islam is comprised of members of the New Nation of Islam. Members of the New Nation of Islam practice the "Black Muslim" religion. The New Nation and University of Islam are under the leadership of Mr. Marvin Muhammad. To his followers, Marvin Muhammad is known as the "Son of Man." According to Marvin Muhammad, he is to his followers as Jesus Christ is to Christians; he is accepted as their savior in the sense that he provides them with the spiritual guidance necessary to attaining salvation. The chief earthly mission of the New Nation is to unite peoples of the African diaspora and establish a nation outside the United States that they themselves would govern.

Marvin Muhammad and approximately twenty of his followers dwell, work, and practice their religion at the University of Islam. The University operates a bakery, auto repair business, and tailor shop. All funds that are generated from these operations are placed into a common fund under the control of Marvin Muhammad. Any decision to spend money for any purpose is made by Marvin Muhammad. Robert Muhammad has worked as an auto mechanic since arriving at the University. Debra Muhammad worked in the bakery and eventually moved to the position of teacher's assistant at the University's school.

The school, which is unaccredited, educates all of the children who reside in the community. There were approximately ten or eleven children residing there when Debra Muhammad and her two children lived there. The ages of the children at the school ranged from two to fifteen at that time. All instruction was given by a single teacher with the aid of one assistant.

Virtually every aspect of life of the University is impacted by religious doctrine. The social and family structure is strongly paternal. Men are viewed as the maintainers of their wives and children. Women are required to submit to their husbands. The role of the woman is viewed primarily as being the helpmate of her husband. Child care is one of her chief responsibilities. Women make no decisions. They cannot leave the confines of the community without the permission of their husband. Members of the faith are not allowed to ingest alcohol, tobacco, drugs or other intoxicating substances. Neither are they allowed to eat red meat. Although the food supply is adequate in quantity, the diet at the University is fairly limited to beans, broccoli, fish, bread, cauliflower, and sometimes corn. Meals are restricted to one per day for adults. Fasting from these meals periodically occurs. Women are required to breastfeed their children. At least some of the milk and juices received by women through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program go to the operation of a bakery. Mail is subject to being censored.

When Debra Muhammad resided at the University, the twenty or so followers of Marvin Muhammad lived in two houses of two to three bedrooms each. Each family occupied one room in the dwellings. There was one bathroom in the house in which Robert and Debra lived. Each family was allotted daily time segments for bathroom privileges. Only Mr. Muhammad's house was equipped with a refrigerator and stove. There was conflicting testimony whether Robert had a small refrigerator.

In Flint, Debra and the children reside in the house sold by Robert to her father. It is described as a three-bedroom house in a nice neighborhood with ample room for the children. She receives welfare assistance under the Aid to Dependent Children program. In Flint she enjoys familial support from her parents, with whom she lives, and her godmother. Debra was unemployed at the time of the trial but was attending school. She testified that she had made the dean's list the preceding semester and that she aspired to a bachelor's degree in accounting. Debra estimated that in all she had completed two years of college. In her opinion, the education available to her children at the University of Islam did not compare favorably to that available in the public schools of Flint.


In this appeal, Robert raises the following issues:

1) Did the chancery court violate Robert's constitutional right to religious freedom by unfairly considering Robert's religion in awarding Debra custody of their children?

2) Did Debra present an insufficient case for divorce by reason of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, so that the chancery court erred in granting her a divorce on that basis?

3) Did the chancery court err in denying Robert's motion for a new trial?

Debra has filed no brief in response to Robert's claims of error by the chancery court. It has been generally held in this jurisdiction that Debra's failure to file a brief on appeal "is tantamount to confession" of the errors alleged by the appellant. Price v. Price, 430 So.2d 848, 849 (Miss.1983); Green v. Green, 317 So.2d 392 (Miss.1975); Charles F. Hayes & Associates, Inc. v. Blue, 233 So.2d 127 (Miss.1970). Automatic reversal is not required, however; Robert's argument should at least create enough doubt in the judiciousness of the trial court's judgment that this Court cannot "say with confidence that the case should be affirmed." (quo...

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