A Thin Green Line

It won't be easy for Louis Farrakhan to move toward orthodox Islam while retaining his Nation of Islam following.

CHICAGO--It was a proud Minister Louis Farrakhan who came to the podium on Sunday at the Nation of Islam's annual convention in Chicago--and an equally proud Farrakhan who left the podium, two hours and 35 minutes later. In what was billed as a pivotal speech in which he would radically shift the Nation's theology to conform to orthodox Muslim beliefs, Farrakhan very subtly drew distinctions between the NOI's seven-decade-old theology and the 1,400-year-old teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

He did this so shrewdly that the man who once said, "I will never bow down to no one but God," did not eat a single piece of the humble pie that might have been placed before him had he very explicitly, item by item, renounced all he had been taught by his prime mentors--Malcolm X and, especially, Elijah Muhammad.

Instead, he managed to convey to non-NOI Muslims that he, too, was a true Muslim while also sending a comforting message to Nation members that he still venerated Elijah Muhammad and Fard Muhammad, the Nation's founder who the NOI calls Allah Himself.

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Moreover, he also managed to hold out an olive branch to Christians and Jews--two communities in which he has many critics, saying both, like Islam, were valid in God's eyes. But don't expect many mainstream Jewish leaders to quickly embrace Farrakhan, who they have called an anti-Semite. While Farrakhan refrained from his characteristic criticism of Jews and Israel, he did allow a group of fringe ultra-Orthodox rabbis who believe modern Israel to be a sacrilege to spew from the Saviours' Day stage their own brand of anti-Zionism and dislike for mainstream Jews.

Farrakhan, meanwhile, reserved his own harsh criticism for Arab Muslims, who he said care more for materialism than spirituality and have not sufficiently aided American Muslims.

Still, in many ways, this was a more subdued, less confrontational Farrakhan than we've seen in the past, a change in demeanor that many attribute to his near-death almost a year ago from cancer. It was also a Farrakhan who seemed eager to embrace a new persona that would place him squarely within the pale of orthodox Islam, from which he has been largely excluded because of the NOI's idiosyncratic theology.

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