If Farrakhan moves toward Islam, he says, traditionalists inside the Nation "will be mad at him. The Nation of Islam always uses the epithet of 'hypocrite' for those who depart from what Elijah Muhammad taught. Nation of Islam hard-liners will oppose what he does."

Farrakhan's associates say he reads the Qur'an and prays daily. But he has not studied with Islamic scholars during the sabbatical. This is likely because he already knows what's necessary to satisfy traditional Muslims. He's been exposed to orthodox Islam for more than 40 years and has traveled through many Muslim countries.

Now largely known to most whites as a hatemonger and to many blacks as an egoist, Farrakhan could be choreographing a revisionist history that will remember him for having the courage to break with the central tenets of a religion to which he's been devoted since 1955.

Indeed, some critics of the Nation of Islam contend that its identity has been so entwined with a single leader--first Elijah Muhammad, who headed the Nation from the early 1930s to 1975, and then Farrakhan--that it often resembles a cult of personality.

Equally strategic for the Nation's future is revamping core theological tenets that have rankled traditional Muslims and calcified its reputation as a racist faith. Chief among these are teachings that whites are "blue-eyed devils;" that the founder of the Nation of Islam, a man named Fard Muhammad, was the incarnation of Allah; and that Elijah Muhammad was a prophet, or "messenger" of God.

Mainstream Muslims see these as apostasy, since Islam holds that Allah cannot assume physical form, that the Prophet Muhammad was the last "messenger" and that the Qur'an posits that humanity was divided into "nations and tribes that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other."

It will also be interesting to see whether Farrakhan adjusts another core belief of the Nation that has maddened traditional Muslims: its claim that a renegade black scientist created whites as a test-tube experiment. The Yacub legend was apparently concocted as a vehicle to boost blacks' self-esteem and to reverse the image once common among whites that blacks are satanic. Thus, the Yacub story was more politically than theologically inspired.

Should Farrakhan renounce it, he will be accepting the conclusion that Malcolm X drew from his 1964 hajj to Mecca: "True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological ingredients...to make the human family...complete."

For much of the past year, though, Farrakhan's cloistering has turned the Nation of Islam into a shell: Until recently, it's received little attention in the media and even in the black community. The Nation's estimated membership of between 25,000 and 100,000 is reportedly stable, but attendance at some mosques has declined, especially at Mosque Maryam where Farrakhan regularly preached.

The sabbatical, said Akbar Muhammad, has "profoundly affected" Farrakhan.

"There's a Turkish saying," he said. "'The eye sees everything but itself.' These months have given the minister an opportunity to look at the Nation of Islam -- and at his own life. He's been able to see how well the Nation has done...without him. And it's done quite well.

"But one of the lessons that's been forced upon us is that, while we feel the void created by the minister's absence, we have been reminded that as a 69-year-old institution, the Nation of Islam must function as an institution and not rely on personalities to carry it through the day," he said.

Until Farrakhan takes the podium in Chicago in February, his intentions remain murky and speculative. Part of the mystery stems from the Nation's longtime habit of shrouding itself in apocalyptic imagery, part from Farrakhan's dramatic instinct--and both contribute to a strong probability that Farrakhan is getting a kick out of mounting curiosity about his post-sabbatical plans.

But Farid Muhammad, a Chicago academic, is not convinced that Farrakhan is obliged to bring the Nation into conformity with traditional Islam. "Pakistani Muslims are not apologetic because they are Pakistanis," said Muhammad, who chairs the department of behavioral and social sciences at Chicago's East-West University. "Iranian Muslims are not apologetic because they are Iranians... Other Muslims should be very hesitant in their demands to Farrakhan, considering the skeletons in their own closets."

Should Farrakhan successfully move the Nation into mainstream Islam, he will do what few imagined he could accomplish: placate Muslims exasperated by the group's insistence it is Islamic.

His next challenge will be to overhaul his image sufficiently so he no longer is saddled with a pariah-like curse that bars him from mainstream American political and religious life. And that may be more difficult than adjusting the beliefs of this homespun American religion that has persistently rattled our national psyche.