Is Louis Farrakhan going mainstream? In one sense, the notion seems farfetched. For years he has stuck with an idiosyncratic brand of black nationalism viewed as heretical by mainstream Muslims. Indeed, one of the reasons for his attacks on Malcolm X in the 1960s was Malcolm's embrace of traditional Islam.

But there is now growing speculation--and evidence--that Farrakhan may be on a journey similar to Malcolm's.

The speculation began last year when he instructed members to observe the annual holy month of Ramadan at the same time as other Muslims. For decades, the Nation of Islam observed the month-long Ramadan fast only in December when the days are shorter. (The fast lasts from sunrise to sunset.)

At the time, Farrakhan told his rank-and-file that they "must understand Islam in all its dimensions" and that the Nation had sufficiently "matured" that members could now fast concurrent with other Muslims. He also told Nation ministers to disregard the "old teachings." Henceforth, the only texts that would be valid within the Nation would be the Qur'an and the hadiths, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Implicit in Farrakhan's edict was that teachings and theology he had inherited from Elijah Muhammad had outlived their usefulness.

Also giving credence to Farrakhan's move toward traditional Islam was the attendance of Warith D. Muhammad, one of Elijah Muhammad's sons, at the Nation's national convention last February. It was a jarring sight because Muhammad had disbanded the original incarnation of the Nation of Islam in 1975 so he could lead African-Americans toward traditional Islam. He now leads the Muslim American Society, the largest African-American Islamic group.

Soon after the Nation of Islam's national convention last February, Farrakhan began a sabbatical to recover from cancer treatment and its side effects. The Final Call, the Nation of Islam's newspaper, even reported that Farrakhan, who is 66, had been close to death in the days preceding his Chicago speech. The sabbatical has since been extended twice, and only within recent weeks has he been seen in public.

His initial public appearance came December 12, when he gave his first sermon since last January at the Nation's flagship mosque. Speaking at Mosque Maryam in Chicago before 1,200 people, he said, "Prophets get sick, messengers get sick. Leaders get sick. [The prophet] Job was very sick. It's a trial ... and trials purify."

Ten days later, at a press conference in Chicago, Farrakhan returned to the theme of purification: "When God acts to purify your heart, then your service after such a trial will be greater."

And in a possible effort to reassure Jews and other groups Farrakhan has offended in past years, he said that "only through acts of atonement can we be forgiven for what we have said or done to injure other human beings -- a member of another race or a member of another religious group, another nation or another ethnic group."

As recently as November, in fact, Farrakhan met with representatives of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group at his Chicago mansion. Farrakhan explained that the meeting was "part of God's plan" to ease tensions between Jews and the Nation of Islam.

While it appears Farrakhan is attempting to heal his 16-year-old breach with the Jewish community, he also seems to be changing his views on Islam.

"Age and circumstance change everything," Akbar Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's international representative, recently told Beliefnet. "The minister is not the same man that he was when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1955."

He said Farrakhan will address the issue in his February convention speech--and strongly hinted at a major doctrinal revamping. Anyone, he chided, "who says that change is a 'deviation' [from the Nation of Islam's traditional catechism] doesn't understand life."

Farrakhan now feels more free to shift course, according to Ahmed Tijani, an Islamic teacher from Ghana who lives in Chicago and is close to Farrakhan. Tijani explained that until recently Farrakhan's allegiance was torn between traditional Islam and black nationalism. But, Tijani says, Farrakhan reportedly now believes that nationalism--a staple of the group's beliefs since its founding in 1930--has enhanced blacks' pride to such an extent that it is time to accept the Qur'an's teachings of racial equality.

"Since I've known him," he said, "Farrakhan has helped African Americans gradually and systematically come to Islam. People have to understand that even the Prophet Muhammad did not cleanse his followers of all their impurities in a twinkle of an eye."

Yet Sulayman S. Nyang, a Howard University professor of African and Islamic Studies, cautions that "we should remain cynical" about Farrakhan's moderating his religious views: "We've seen the guy dance toward [Islamic] orthodoxy before and then do an about face