IMAM E. Abdulmalik Mohammed, the young leader of the Muslim American Society in Baltimore, noticed something missing in the large gathering of Muslims inside Chicago's United Center last week. There were no pictures of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, and none of the "black god," W.D. Farad. Black-and-white images of those men were always standard at the Nation of Islam's most important annual meeting, Saviour's Day.
But not this Saviour's Day.
Abdulmalik noticed something else. When Louis Farrakhan stood to speak, he never referred to the aforementioned Elijah as a "messenger of God." Instead, he quoted only the Mohammed of Mecca, the "Allah sent Mohammed with the final revelation to the world," Farrakhan told the crowd of 20,000. "There is no prophet after the Prophet Mohammed, and no book after the Koran."
That was a wow, according to Abdulmalik.
It meant Farrakhan recognized, for the first time, Mohammed of Mecca as the one prophet. It meant Farrakhan finally was embracing the mainstream Islam practiced by the vast majority of African-American Muslims, including Abdulmalik.
Could Louis Farrakhan, who survived a near-fatal bout with prostate cancer last year, become in his remaining years a man of peace and ecumenical progress, instead of racism and anti-Semitism? Has the world heard his last fiery hate speech?
The background, briefly:
Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is the legacy of Elijah Muhammad. In Nation theology, Elijah's teacher in the 1930s, W.D. Farad of Detroit, is considered divine, and Elijah is considered the final prophet to mankind. Elijah led the Nation of Islam for decades, and he was Farrakhan's mentor. But after Elijah died in 1975, his son, Wallace Deen Mohammed, changed the name of the group to the Muslim American Society and he began to fashion a vision of an upbeat, moderate and progressive religion. That's what precipitated the black Muslim schism.
In 1978, Farrakhan revolted, revived Elijah's teachings under the old Nation of Islam name, promoted black nationalism, anti-Semitism and the belief that whites are "devils."
All these years, the Islam of Louis Farrakhan had nothing to do with the quiet, peace-making, community-building Islam of Wallace Deen Mohammed. "It really had little to do with Islam generally," says Abdulmalik, thoughtful leader of Baltimore Muslims, son-in-law of Wallace Deen and his national spokesman.
Now there's been an embrace -- physically and philosophically. At the United Center on Feb. 27, Farrakhan embraced Wallace Deen, and he embraced the theology of the Mohammed of Mecca. There was no hate speech, no anti-Semitism. (Farrakhan's doctors, including one who is Jewish, were in attendance.) Instead, Farrakhan issued a call for unity. "From this day forward, Imam Mohammed, whatever our small problems, we'll work them out for the glory of Allah," he said.
"Our friendship has not died," Wallace Deen responded, "and it will not die."
The young imam from Baltimore, Abdulmalik, was as surprised as anyone in the audience, though as an intimate of Wallace Deen, he had been privy to signs of change.
Farrakhan, for instance, had instituted daily prayer a year ago -- something that is standard in Muslim orthodoxy. He also had called for his members to fast during the holy season of Ramadan.
Last year, Farrakhan started making overtures to Wallace Deen, his peer, fellow preacher and once-close friend. Both men are 66.
Farrakhan, who always tightly controlled his highly disciplined organization, apparently sent word that his followers could pray with supporters of Wallace Deen. Abdulmalik has seen it himself -- young men in suits, white shirts and bow ties attending the Friday prayer service at the Muslim Community Cultural Center on West North Avenue. That never happened before last year.
All of this sounds lovely. But Louis Farrakhan, the old hatemonger, has fiddled a tune of reconciliation and unity before, hasn't he?
Not to this extent, says Abdulmalik. What happened in the United Center last week was a turning point in the history of Islam in America.
"Farrakhan," he says, "was accepting Islam in its correct practice. I believe he was sincere. His spirit was different. He was a changed man. It was the first time I heard him credit Wallace Deen for his leadership and ability. He said the Imam Mohammed was his leader. I saw his affection and sincerity toward the Imam Mohammed and he wasn't pretending. It was genuine... He had been presenting a picture of Islam that was wrong and he acknowledged that, and that was very significant."
Don't expect Farrakhan to abandon black nationalism, but don't look for him to go to extremes in its name, Abdulmalik says. He's still fixated on injustice in America, and he can't see the racial progress that has been made.
"But now the weight is on Farrakhan," says the imam. Farrakhan's social thinking must reflect his embrace of true Islam. It's up to the bow-tied minister to move his followers to the moderate, progressive Islam of Wallace Deen -- devoted to the Koran, human growth, community life and outreach to the Christian and Judaic worlds. "We're peacemakers," the imam says.
There may be a hard-line group within the Nation of Islam reluctant to accept Farrakhan's embrace of the Muslim mainstream. But Abdulmalik thinks the Nation's younger members are eager for the change. "I saw relief and happiness in Chicago," he says. And he's seen bow ties at Friday prayers in Baltimore.