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.