I heart Madina
Nation of Islam nears a crossroads
By Neil MacFarquhar
Monday, February 26, 2007
DETROIT: Louis Farrakhan, the former leader of the Nation of Islam, has given here what was billed as his last major public address, with his extended illness throwing into sharp focus the question of whether the group will shift toward more mainstream Islam to survive once it loses its central charismatic figure.
There had been some speculation that Farrakhan might use the farewell speech to lay out a plan shifting the Nation's teachings or to name a successor.
But Farrakhan, 73, looking fairly robust for a man who emerged from major surgery just six weeks ago, spent most of his two-hour address Sunday denouncing the war in Iraq and calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush.
"If you don't want to impeach him, censure him, say to the world something went wrong with our leadership and we repent after our wrongdoing," Farrakhan said.
He also appealed for religious unity in the speech before thousands at Ford Field, home to the Detroit Lions football team, capping an annual convention of Nation of Islam members.
It was his first major speech since August, when health problems forced him to turn over control of the Nation of Islam to an executive committee.
Farrakhan's health problems stemmed from radiation seeds implanted a decade ago to combat prostate cancer, said Ishmael Muhammad, the organization's national assistant minister. The treatment obliterated the cancer but also damaged nearby organs.
Given his age and health problems and the lack of an obvious successor, questions loom large about the future and direction of the Nation of Islam.
Members dismiss the notion that the organization's viability is linked to one man. But academic experts and black Muslim leaders believe that without Farrakhan's leadership, the Nation — which has been divided by religious rifts in the past — will shrink even more dramatically unless it shifts toward mainstream Islam's beliefs.
The 77-year-old Nation of Islam once enjoyed a near monopoly over interpreting Islam for African-Americans, using the faith as a vehicle to promote black separatism.
But it now competes with sects that branched away and with groups ascribing to the more traditional and inclusive Islam followed by millions of Muslim immigrants and their offspring.
Along with a significant block of former Nation members, many of these Muslim branches oppose key aspects of the Nation's beliefs, including its emphasis on black separatism.
A shift away from separatism began in 1975. Elijah Muhammad, the Nation's leader for more than 40 years until his death in 1975, was succeeded by one of his sons, Warith Deen, who broke with his father over the issue of Islamic orthodoxy. Following Warith Deen Muhammad, this branch embraced diversity and moved toward traditional Islam.
Although members of the two branches now profess to respect each other, and display less public animosity, they still spar over their beliefs.
Imam Muhammad Siddeeq, an Indianapolis cleric and senior aide to Muhammad, said that for the Nation of Islam to survive, it must turn more toward mainstream Islam.
"In the final analysis they have no option but to move in the direction we are or to just dissipate or disappear," Siddeeq said. "This community is going to reconcile itself to pure Islam and reconcile itself to being American citizens who are part of a multicultural society."
He echoes many others in arguing that the Nation should abandon some of its teachings. Among other teachings, the Nation holds that the group's founder, W. Fard Muhammad, was the Mahdi, or savior, sent by God to Detroit around 1930 and that space ships hovering above the earth will eventually play a major role in smiting sinners and rescuing the righteous.
"Those are ideas for kindergarten, a trip to Oz," Siddeeq said. "Those are not ideas for people living in the real world."
The Nation of Islam's national gathering, held during the weekend in Detroit in conjunction with Saviours' Day, had much of the feel of when Elijah Muhammad first preached that blacks should be economically self-sufficient and should be awarded up to 10 states of their own as reparations for slavery. He said God was black, as was original man.
"We can never abandon what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us, because we have yet to be proven incorrect," said Ishmael Muhammad, 42, who said he was among the youngest of Elijah Muhammad's 21 children.
Ishmael Muhammad said that the Nation's social reform message still resonates.
"There are a few black politicians and a few millionaires and a couple billionaires, but the fact is that our people are dying," he said in an interview. "Our struggle to integrate and be accepted has left the masses behind."
Ishmael Muhammad has sometimes been named as a possible successor to Farrakhan, as have a couple of Farrakhan's sons, but none enjoys the same wide following as Farrakhan.
Ishmael Muhammad responds that the era of charismatic leaders is over — that one main goal of the Nation was teaching people to be self-sufficient, particularly in their relationship to God.
He also said that he expects Farrakhan to be around for "many, many years to come."