Changes Muslim unity could remake America's religious landscape

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2000

CHICAGO -- Rarely has an American religious group changed its doctrines so radically and so swiftly. And rarely have the implications been so weighty.

To throaty cheers of ''Allah akbar!'' (God is great!) from more than 20,000 followers at his annual rally on Feb. 27, Minister Louis Farrakhan reconciled with arch-rival Imam W. Deen Mohammed and proclaimed the Nation of Islam's entry into the Muslim mainstream.

If the Nation's faith becomes fully acceptable to Mohammed's orthodox blacks and the larger body of immigrant Muslims -- though with the mercurial Farrakhan, nothing can be certain -- a unified and strengthened Islam could gradually remake the American religious landscape.

Orthodox Islam has always abhorred the Nation, believing it distorts the Muslim central profession that ''there is no god but God and Mohammed is his Prophet.''

The Nation has taught that ''Allah appeared in the Person of Master W. Fard Muhammad'' and that this mysterious Detroit teacher was also the messiah of Muslims and Christians. After Fard Muhammad disappeared in 1934 his successor, Elijah Muhammad, came to be revered as the final prophet instead of Mohammed of Arabia.

And despite Islam's brotherhood ideal, the Nation proclaimed that whites are inferior ''devils.'' It advocated racial segregation and demanded that blacks be given their own territory within the United States.

When Elijah died in 1975 he was succeeded by his son, W. Deen Mohammed, who shed his father's theology and transformed the group into the orthodox Muslim American Society of today. Farrakhan broke away in 1978 to re-establish the Nation of Islam with Elijah's heterodox creed.

All that was forgotten Sunday as the imam embraced Farrakhan and addressed his annual festival for the first time. ''Muslims are one community,'' he said, pledging ''peace and love and undying friendship to Minister Louis Farrakhan.''

Calmly repudiating black nationalism, the imam said ''the human family must be one family, as it was in the beginning, all peoples, all races.'' He also insisted that ''the last prophet is Mohammed of Arabia.''

In the remarkable 2 1/2-hour oration that followed, Farrakhan aligned himself with the imam's orthodoxy on those points. Noting that Mohammed of Arabia ''was a white man,'' he said Islam is a faith for all races.

''The imam and I will be together until death overtakes us, and we will work together for the cause of Islam,'' Farrakhan vowed.

Farrakhan's speech presented Fard and Elijah not as God and his prophet but as pioneers in uplifting blacks and establishing U.S. Islam.

However, it remains to be seen whether mainstream Islam will accept such formulations. And the latest issue of the Nation's newspaper still devotes the usual full page to the Nation's old creed.

Farrakhan ''should tear out that page,'' insisted one orthodox observer, Omer Bin Abdullah. ''We have talked to him over and over again. That nonsense should be thrown out.''

Abdullah edits the official magazine of the Islamic Society of North America, the leading cooperative agency for orthodox immigrants. The society's chief executive, Sayyid M. Syeed, and dozens of Muslims from other nations accepted Farrakhan's invitation to participate in the weekend, giving implicit recognition to his newly proclaimed orthodoxy.

''Now the onus is on Farrakhan to show what he has stated publicly. He has to step forward,'' Abdullah said. ''We have stepped forward, and we took a risk to stand with him.'' But, he added, orthodox believers must be patient while Farrakhan seeks to ''educate his people about what proper observance is.''

Farrakhan's speech also sought to embrace Christians, though few attended, and he insisted that Jesus is not divine. He also drew a delegation from Orthodox Judaism's Neturei Karta faction, which rejects the state of Israel as an abomination.

Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, the first rabbi to speak at the annual Nation rally, said the Holocaust was God's punishment for Zionism, hardly a message to help Farrakhan overcome Jewish hostility over anti-Semitic statements of the past.

One of the event's keenest observers was Vassar College professor Lawrence Mamiya, 57, who did civil rights work as a graduate student and has specialized in black religion ever since. He attended Farrakhan's first public rally in 1980 and has been present at 15 Savior's Days and other Farrakhan meetings.

For the past eight years, Mamiya has directed the first major survey of U.S. black Islam, working with a Muslim scholar, Ihsan Bagby of Shaw University, and 15 field researchers. The project estimates there are 4 million U.S. Muslims, a fourth of them black, with 350 predominantly black orthodox mosques and another 75 to 100 in the Nation.

Last weekend was pivotal, he said, but Farrakhan has taken smaller and less public steps toward orthodoxy in recent years. Mamiya cautions, ''With the Nation, you have to wait and see, because we've heard a lot of verbal changes in the past but have not seen the results.''

Mamiya predicted that black splinter groups will perpetuate the Nation's old doctrines, but Farrakhan's charisma will hold most of his flock. He doubts Farrakhan will ever forsake the centrality of W. Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad, even if he changes the underlying theology. And he does not expect Farrakhan to merge with the imam's group, much less simply dissolve into the rest of the multiracial Muslim community.

''There's an openness to whites right now, but his emphasis will always be on blacks,'' said Mamiya, an Episcopalian of Japanese descent.

World Islam will probably be open-minded toward Farrakhan, he said, because since the Million Man March in 1995 it considers him an important player on the American scene.

But in terms of Islamic teaching, Farrakhan's former rival appears to have won the battle. ''W. Deen Mohammed will be considered significant historically,'' said Mamiya. ''He provided the major breakthrough for African-American Muslims to embrace the more universal view of Islam, and to accept all races.''

End adv for Friday, March 3.

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