CHICAGO, Feb. 27 (AP)--Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on Sunday reaffirmed his pledge to reconcile his breakaway movement with orthodox Muslims, trying to fulfill the expectations of millions of mainstream worshippers.
Farrakhan used the occasion of the Nation's most important annual gathering, Saviour's Day, to embrace W. Deen Mohammed, the leader of the orthodox Muslim American Society and the son of the late Elijah Muhammad.
``He and I will be together,'' Farrakhan said of Mohammed. ``Not for evil but for love - not for hatred, but in good.''
Before Sunday's rally, W. Deen Mohammed had made clear what orthodox Muslims nationwide expected: a different Farrakhan. And Farrakhan spoke directly to the expectation.
``Has Farrakhan abandoned us? Has Farrakhan changed?'' Farrakhan asked the audience of more than 20,000. ``Yeah, I have. Everybody should be changing...but I haven't abandoned you.''
The speech was regarded as one that could make or break Farrakhan's fledgling vow to reconcile with other orthodox Muslims.
Farrakhan had joined with Mohammed at traditional prayers on Friday--the 25th anniversary of the death of Elijah, whose legacy Farrakhan and Mohammed have struggled over.
Elijah led the Nation of Islam for decades, but after his death in 1975, his son led the movement toward orthodoxy. In 1978, Farrakhan broke away to revive Elijah's teachings under the old Nation of Islam name.
In the Nation's theology, Elijah's teacher in the 1930s, W. D. Fard of Detroit, was given divine status and Elijah was the final prophet to mankind. Orthodox Muslims believe the final prophet was Mohammed of Mecca, who founded Islam in the seventh century.
At that prayer service, Farrakhan and W. Deen Mohammed both vowed to bury their differences and work together to unite U.S. Muslims.
Nation of Islam leaders, including Farrakhan's chief of staff, Leonard Muhammad, have insisted that the move toward unification is not new.
In the past few years, Farrakhan has instituted the traditional Friday prayers, observed by hundreds of millions of orthodox Muslims worldwide, and the Nation of Islam also now observes Ramadan, a period of fasting.
Perhaps most important to orthodox Muslims, Leonard Muhammad says that all Nation of Islam followers now adhere to the Muslim creed: ``There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.''
That suggests Elijah wouldn't be regarded as the final prophet by Nation of Islam members--which Farrakhan confirmed on Sunday.
``I love Prophet Mohammed,'' he said. ``I know that he is the end of the prophets...But I don't think Allah would be pleased with me if I disrespected (Elijah Muhammad).''
Lawrence Mamiya, a Vassar College expert on black American religions, conservatively estimates the core membership of the Nation of Islam to be 50,000 to 100,000. He said W. Deen Mohammed's group, the Muslim American Society, has about 200,000 core members. The overall following is thought to be much higher for both.
W. Deen Mohammed said he planned to monitor Farrakhan's future words-- in part listening to make sure he avoids anti-white and anti-Semitic comments.
One Nation of Islam observer said he believes the 66-year-old Farrakhan will continue with the calls for racial and religious unity he has made since his ``near death experience'' last year while being treated for prostate cancer.
``He's thinking about his legacy, and I don't think he wants to leave with the idea that he was a hate monger,'' said Salim Muwakkil, a former Nation of Islam member who is now editor of the Chicago-based political journal In These Times.
``The illness provided him with a very good excuse to be more forthright in his alterations of the doctrine,'' Muwakkil said. ``Before, he had to do it incrementally, as if he were taking baby steps.''
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