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.

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.

Particularly interesting was what Farrakhan said about divine covenants, given that just a few years ago Farrakhan said that the suffering blacks endured in slavery had made them the Chosen People, displacing Jews who insufficiently helped blacks. Sunday, he said both peoples had covenants that remain intact as long as they are faithful to it.

Farrakhan's speech capped a three-day International Islamic Conference sponsored by the Nation. The subtext of the conference was that, on Sunday, a more moderate Farrakhan would be unveiled in his equivalent of the Nation of Islam's State of the Union address.

On Thursday, in fact, the first day of the conference, he told those on hand, most of whom had come from the Middle East, that he no longer believed that Fard Muhammad was Allah, a position which has appalled traditional Muslims because it counters the Koran's teaching that Allah can have no bodily form.

But the real test, these orthodox Muslims knew, would come on Sunday, when Farrakhan would speak to his own people. There have often been major discrepancies between what Farrakhan tells NOI members and what he says to the rest of the Islamic world.

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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