A Thin Green Line

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

BY: Arthur J. Magida


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Sayyid M. Syeed, for instance, the secretary general of the influential Islamic Society of North America, was pleased in 1990 when Farrakhan professed his belief in the oneness of Allah and in Muhammad being the last prophet--only to discover that the NOI's newspaper, The Final Call, continued to publish a theological platform that other Muslims deemed heresy.

This time, however, Syeed was convinced that Farrakhan's near-death "conversion" to true Islam had steeled him to bring the NOI into the broader ummah, or Islamic community.

Also convinced was Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad (father and son spelled their name differently). Imam Mohammed disbanded the original Nation of Islam after his father's death in 1975 and took its members into orthodox Sunni Islam. Initially, Farrakhan went along with him, saying that Mohammed, "realizing that blackness, if taken to the extreme, would...become self-destructive, brought to us the universal message of the Prophet Muhammad...(and) the Koran, which elevated the community from a nationalist standpoint to the universal creed of Islam." But two years later, Farrakhan broke with Warith Mohammed and reconstituted the NOI and its race-based theology, saying that he had "begun to hate religion...I couldn't preach for the father and the son at the same time...It was killing me."

In the past quarter century, harsh, often chilling words have passed between Farrakhan and Mohammed. Yet, after meeting with Farrakhan several times over the last year, Mohammed, who's Muslim American Society claims some 2.5-million members, came away persuaded that Farrakhan was ready to change the NOI in much the same way he did in the mid-1970s.

The danger for Farrakhan, of course, is that if he does truly align his latter-day NOI, which has at most about 50,000 core members, with the orthodoxy that Mohammed proclaimed in 1975, he may well be seen as implicitly admitting that he had erred. He sought to avoid this concession Sunday by turning to Imam Mohammed during his speech to say he had not charted his own path in 1977 "in opposition" but to assure that Elijah Muhammad would "not be written out of history."

And although he accepted the Prophet Muhammad as the last of the prophets and demoted Elijah Muhammad from being a "messenger," Farrakhan asserted that Prophet Muhammad himself would have supported his efforts "not to forget and disrespect the man who brought us to the Prophet." It was a deft move--an appeal to both orthodox Muslims and Nation followers.

Still, by tampering with the NOI's theology, Farrakhan's risks being smeared by NOI hardliners as a "hypocrite"--the Nation's term for apostates and turncoats, the very term, in fact, Farrakhan leveled at Malcolm X when he broke with the Nation in 1964. On the other hand, if Farrakhan does not soon make a clear, complete, explicit break with the NOI's traditional catechism, including removing it from the Final Call, it could be Warith Deen Mohammed who is labeled a "hypocrite" by his own people for allowing himself to be used to bolster Farrakhan's standing in the Islamic world.

It is that Final Call statement, in fact, which many orthodox Muslims see as the litmus test of Farrakhan's true intentions. Farrakhan, they argue, can make various statements to assorted groups about what he believes. But until the statement is excised, Farrakhan will be seen as wavering and hesitant at best, duplicitous and backstabbing at worst.

Hisham Altalib, for one, vice president of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Vir., is willing to give Farrakhan one-year in which to take the step. "That will prove Farrakhan is genuine," he said. "If it's still there, it will mean that all this is politics."

In the meantime, though, Altalib, an Iranian who came to the U.S. 32 years ago, said he understands that Farrakhan cannot incorporate authentic Islam overnight into the NOI. A certain gradualism is necessary for members to retain a degree of comfort, he said.

But he is pleased that the NOI now fasts for Ramadan concurrent with other Muslims and holds communal prays on Fridays in accordance with Islamic tradition, and no longer on Sundays. Such changes instituted by Farrakhan give Altalib faith that this time Farrakhan means what he says, and that the most charismatic, visible, outspoken, controversial Muslim leader in the United States has finally embraced the same vision of Islam as the vast majority of the 1 billion people around the globe who call themselves Muslims.

And should that come to pass, should Louis Farrakhan, now in his mid-60s, truly come to gain acceptance among mainstream Muslims, will that put pressure on his non-Muslim critics--Christians and Jews--to also reach accommodation with him? That will test not only Farrakhan's sincerity, but also the nation's ability to understand--and open its heart to--a path that Farrakhan has traveled along with a sizeable segment of African Americans.

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