LOS ANGELES - Islam's two pre-eminent African-American leaders, separated by two decades of rivalry before reconciling two years ago, reaffirmed unity Friday in their first joint appearance in Los Angeles.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and W.D. Muhammad of the Muslim American Society offered stark contrasts - one a fiery orator of political polemics and black empowerment, the other a low-key leader who resolutely sticks to religion. Once united under Nation founder Elijah Muhammad, they split 25 years ago over doctrine, with W.D. Muhammad rejecting his father's blend of Islam and black nationalism and moving into orthodox Sunni Islam.
The two men, who together command the nation's single largest group of Muslims - African-Americans - vowed Friday to join forces to build up the black community. Creating an Islamic movement in pluralistic America could be a global model, they said as they began the Nation of Islam's Saviour's Day convention.
"We are going to stick with Minister Farrakhan all the way to the promised land," declared Muhammad as he led prayers before thousands of Muslims at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
For Farrakhan, 69, the appearance with Muhammad reinforced the conciliatory theme he has struck all week: On Wednesday and Thursday, he urged peace among gang members in Watts, exhorted hip-hop artists to sanitize their lyrics and performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto in his second public performance in 42 years. The convention offered several workshops pegged to the theme of healing and reconciliation - such as one on religion that featured panelists of Jewish, Christian, Sikh, and both Sunni and Shia Islamic backgrounds.
Farrakhan set the stage for the conciliatory events with the violin concerto Wednesday, which he said he offered to the public because music "is a universal language ... with the power to bind." He likened the orchestra - disparate elements brought together in harmony for a common musical aim - to the vision he promotes of bridging racial and religious divides.
The minister told reporters this week that the Nation was evolving, just as a thorn-scarred rose grows into "a beautiful flower." He said all major religious movements have started out narrowly and broadened their reach into a universal message, and the Nation of Islam was doing the same.
In recent months Farrakhan has begun moving into the universal message of orthodox Islam. He has been aided by Muhammad, whose followers have helped train Nation forces in prayer, Quranic reading, the art of Friday sermons and other practices.
But major theological differences remain. Just as evangelical Christians view Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses as deviations of their faith, orthodox Muslims reject the Nation's core beliefs that Elijah Muhammad was a divine messenger and that his teacher, W. Fard Muhammad, was God incarnate. Orthodox Muslims reject the idea of human divinity and believe that the Prophet Muhammad was God's final messenger.
The differences have inhibited some orthodox Muslim groups from supporting Farrakhan, financially and otherwise. But Farrakhan seemed to hint Friday that he would begin moving his flocks away from those ideas.
Teresa Watanabe writes for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.