A New Farrakhan?

In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies, the U.S. media has focused much attention on Islamic people of foreign descent. But what about the "home-grown" variety—the Nation of Islam? What's been happening in the organization of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Farrakhan?

In recent years, the Nation of Islam has drawn closer to mainstream Islam. For example, in February 2000, at the Nation of Islam's annual Savior's Day celebration, Imam Wallace D. Mohammed of the Muslim American Society joined Farrakhan on the stage and the two men warmly embraced after Farrakhan declared, "We bear witness that there is no prophet after the prophet Mohammed!"

With that statement Farrakhan rejected the theology that had defined the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad and Farrakhan himself. Wallace Mohammed's presence at the celebration—along with Sayyid Sayeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, 4 million members strong and the major group for immigrant Muslims—indicates a willingness of mainstream Islamic organizations to accept Farrakhan's efforts to move closer to orthodox Islam. But two years later the question remains as to whether rank-and-file members of the Nation of Islam are looking to follow Farrakhan in his move to orthodox Islam.

A study by the American Muslim Council indicates that blacks make up one half of all Muslims in the United States and are the fastest growing segment. But these growing numbers of African American Muslims are increasingly adherents to orthodox Islam, not the theology of the Nation of Islam—and many of them are made even more wary by the Nation's history.

THE NATION OF ISLAM has been controversial since its founding in 1930s Detroit. Elijah Muhammad, who succeeded the organization's founder, established himself as the "last messenger of Allah." This murky interpretation of Islam, combined with a nationalistic and separatist theology that extolled the virtues and superiority of the black man, resonated with a dispossessed people. Many urban, working-class blacks found a home in the Nation. Muhammad preached that the white race, through its own wickedness, faced impending extinction, and that the black man would rule. By the 1960s, the Nation had found its most remarkable spokesman, Malcolm X, and its highest profile convert, heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X later denounced Elijah Muhammad as a "racist" and a "faker," which many feel led to his assassination in 1965. Farrakhan, by then the leader of the powerful Harlem mosque, had publicly branded Malcolm a "traitor...worthy of death."

Elijah Muhammad was succeeded by his son, now known as Wallace D. Mohammed, who immediately encouraged members of the Nation to look to a more orthodox Islam. Many black Muslims were moved to join multiracial mosques, and Mohammed integrated these mosques into the renamed Muslim American Society.

In 1978 Farrakhan reconstituted the Nation of Islam and became the most visible Muslim presence in the United States by stirring controversy with incendiary anti-white and anti-Jewish rhetoric. However, his calls for black men to own up to personal responsibility and for black communal self-sufficiency were highly regarded among many urban blacks. Farrakhan reached his zenith on Oct. 16, 1995, as the convener of the "Million Man March" in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of thousands of black men took vows of commitment to family, community, and personal responsibility.

It remains to be seen how all this will play out. Is Louis Farrakhan a changed man? Has his theology—and that of the Nation of Islam—changed to the extent that it's now acceptable to orthodox Islam, implying a more-connected future? Or is it simply that, amidst all the turmoil within the Nation over finances, theology, and the search for Farrakhan's successor—along with his recent bout with prostate cancer—he's just looking for a place to fall?

Larry Bellinger is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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