Allah's pulpit thumper

Louis Farrakhan makes a bid to unify Islam in America -- and to be its No. 1 evangelist.

Published February 28, 2000 10:00AM (EST)

Louis Farrakhan wants to be Allah's apostle to all Americans.

"Islam is to consume America," he prophesied Sunday in a speech marking Saviours' Day, the annual convention of his Nation of Islam. "Islam is to consume England, and one day, these great nations will become servants of God. If God is going to establish his kingdom at the top of the mountain, who is the top of the mountain? America!"

But before Farrakhan can become the Muslim Billy Graham, he's got to do two things: show Arab-Americans he's a true believer, and convince white people he doesn't want to burn them at the stake.

On Sunday in Chicago, Farrakhan held the Second International Islamic Conference, a bid to bring his rogue sect into the mainstream of world Islam. When he gave his Saviours' Day speech at the United Center, the main floor of the arena looked like a bazaar in Mecca: bearded Arabs in skullcaps, Pakistanis in blocky Nehru caps, Asians in business suits, women hidden inside long white robes. It was the first time Farrakhan had attracted such a cosmopolitan crowd.

The majority of Islam's believers have long considered the Nation of Islam no more Muslim than the Shriners, and refused to worship with them.

"People thought that because we weren't from overseas and we weren't born Muslims, that we weren't Muslims," said Herbert Muhammad, a Farrakhan follower from Hartford, Conn.

But there are significant reasons for the split. The Nation once held that W.D. Fard, the man who developed the church's belief system, was Allah come to Earth. Fard, a silk salesman and ex-con who appeared in Detroit in the 1930s, taught that blacks ruled the world until a mad scientist named Yacub created a race of pale-skinned Satans. He also prophesied an Armageddon wrought by a "Mother Plane" carrying 1,500 bombers designed to plant explosives under the Earth's surface. Elijah Muhammad heard Fard's preaching, the story goes, and started a movement.

Lately, Farrakhan has been guiding his movement toward orthodoxy by sacrificing some of its science fiction-like cosmology. He hopes to bring the Nation in line with the rest of Islam. He's fasting on Ramadan, praying on Fridays and promising to give up the racist rants that repelled traditional Muslims.

Some say the 66-year-old Farrakhan may finally be ready to join the ummah -- the worldwide community of Islam -- because he nearly died of prostate cancer last summer. While he was recuperating, he prayed with members of the Islamic Society of North America, which is dominated by Middle Eastern immigrants. Sayyid Syeed, the society's secretary general, was at Farrakhan's bedside during his illness. This weekend, Syeed prayed publicly with Farrakhan and sat behind him on the dais during the Saviours' Day speech.

Farrakhan has also reconciled with W. Deen Mohammed, son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad and a rival for power when the movement split apart in the mid-1970s. The plodding, phlegmatic Mohammed led his followers toward traditional Islam and disappeared from the spotlight. Meanwhile Farrakhan, one of the most dynamic pulpit-thumpers in American religion, continued preaching black nationalism and came to symbolize his race's rage. Farrakhan once called Mohammed "a cheap hypocrite," but they embraced on stage Sunday, their first amicable moment in 25 years.

"Let me give my special greetings of peace and love and undying friendship to Minister Louis Farrakhan," said Mohammed, who said he believes Farrakhan is a "new man" since his cancer surgery.

Saviours' Day occurs each year around Fard's birthday. It used to be called Saviour's Day, but this year, Farrakhan shifted the apostrophe over one letter -- to emphasize the evangelistic mission of all Muslims, he said -- and renounced any belief in Fard's divinity, or even his equality to Mohammed as a prophet.

In his speech, Farrakhan affirmed that Mohammed is "the final prophet," the Koran, "the final book." Fard, once a god, was now "a man" who "got us started on the road to becoming Muslims." He is still considered a hero for promoting a brand of Islam. So is Elijah Muhammad, who Farrakhan says brought him into the Nation of Islam.

"I don't think Allah would respect it if I denigrate the man who put me in a position to see the Prophet, and be a true servant of the Prophet," Farrakhan said.

Although Farrakhan now recognizes Mecca -- rather than Detroit -- as the birthplace of Islam, he made it clear to the Arabs in his audience that they're not going to lead America's Islamic revival.

Allah has but one evangelist in this country, and his name is Farrakhan.

"Every nation on this Earth has received a prophet," he said. "This Koran has to be taught, and you are not the ones to do it. Allah never raises someone up among the people unless they speak the language of the people. It's wonderful that you know the Arabic language. I can't read Arabic; I can't speak Arabic, but neither can the people of America. So America isn't going to help you unless you understand the language and the mentality of America. That is the job of Imam W. Deen Mohammed and myself. We have that mission in America, and nobody can take that from us."

Although Farrakhan is seizing Islam's pulpit for himself, Arab-Americans have much to gain from an alliance with him: He can attract enormous crowds to hear Allah's word. On Sunday, at least 20,000 people showed to hear the minister, some of them paying $100 a ticket.

Farrakhan's Million Man March drew 400,000 people to Washington, and this fall, he's holding a Million Family March that could be even bigger. Farrakhan also drums up sympathy for Arab causes among his black followers. During his Saviours' Day speech, he condemned the U.S. embargo against Iraq. Arabs also believe Farrakhan can help establish Islam as America's third major religion, on an equal footing with Christianity and Judaism.

"The growth of Islam is moving very fast, a lot faster than expected," said Hussein Shousher of the American Muslim Political Action Council. "We had a lot of people here who have converted to Islam, even some Anglo-Saxons."

Shousher was satisfied that Farrakhan has embraced Islam, and thinks he can be "very effective" in spreading the faith.

Farrakhan's conversion to orthodox Islam may be sincere, but it's hard to imagine him drawing a rainbow coalition to the crescent flag. For 45 years, he's been using whites and Jews as punching bags to rebuild the broken ego of the black race. In Farrakhan's worldview, blacks were the "Original Men," while Caucasians were the devil, and Jews "bloodsuckers."

In a bid to show reconciliation with Jews, Farrakhan brought to the pulpit a posse of Orthodox Jewish rabbis. But their organization, Neturei Karta International, is an anti-Zionist group that is hardly considered mainstream. Rabbi Dovid Weiss offered self-flagellating apologies to the crowd for the existence of Israel, and compared Zionism to "atheism." "All those who say they are Jews who speak ill of Mr. Farrakhan are not Jews," he said.

Farrakhan vowed to continue his mission of black empowerment -- "Black man, I can never abandon you," he said. But at the same time, he's trying to increase his influence by making friends with the people he cursed to build the Nation of Islam.

"His mission is now broadening," said Imam Mikal H. Shabazz of Portland, Ore., a follower of W. Deen Mohammed. "Islam has a multiracial future in this country as long as there are multiple races."

Islam is one of the world's great religions, with a store of beautiful art, architecture and literature. It deserves a bigger place in the American consciousness than an annual Ramadan feature in the local paper. All glory to Farrakhan for leading his flock into the fold, but Islam will need a shepherd without a history of hatred to bring in the seekers from suburbia.

By Ted Kleine

Ted Kleine is a writer in Chicago.

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