Minister Louis Farrakhan has big plans. Not only is he shifting
the Nation of Islam away from its black nationalist roots, he wants
to be a leader beyond the group's insular boundaries--indeed, beyond
all boundaries. The 67-year-old Farrakhan provided a hint of those
ambitious plans at the October 16 Million Family March, which he
organized without restriction to race, creed, religion or even ideology.
He welcomed the participation of everyone from the Shrine of the
Black Madonna to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, from
Michael Eric Dyson to Armstrong Williams, from the Promise Keepers
to Snoop Doggy Dogg. Hundreds of thousands of people packed the
Mall in Washington.
To many Americans, Farrakhan's aspirations seem much too grandiose.
But these are no delusions. Farrakhan's stature is high and rising
in the Third World, particularly in Islamic countries. The enormous
success of the 1995 Million Man March, which he conceived and organized,
served to legitimize his claim as America's premier black leader.
That recognition heightened his global status, and he was accorded
lavish receptions (and some head-of-state treatment) during three
"world friendship tours" he made following the march. Although his
globe-trotting adventures were widely criticized at the time, they
have paid off for him in his new guise as a global sage.
His travels also hastened his realization that the Nation of Islam's
either had to be reinterpreted or eschewed. Among the more eccentric
elements of Nation of Islam doctrine are the ideas that white people
were "grafted" eugenically from black people specifically to bedevil
the planet; that Nation of Islam founder Master Fard Muhammad is "God-in-Person";
that UFOs are "manned" satellites of a huge mother ship that will
rescue only righteous black people from the upcoming apocalypse (or
race war); that blacks, who are inherently divine, will need no weapons
in this looming racial conflict because God will smite the seed of
Satan (white people, that is) with natural disasters like earthquakes
and tornadoes. These core beliefs are part of Elijah Muhammad's fundamental
doctrine. Elijah Muhammad, who died in 1975, is the group's patriarch
and is revered as the "last messenger of Allah."
Farrakhan's legitimacy as leader once depended on his fidelity
to Elijah Muhammad's fundamental message. In the 25 years since
Elijah Muhammad's death, however, Farrakhan has established his
own legitimacy, allowing him to make significant changes in the
group's eugenic theology. While careful never to refute the Nation
of Islam's black supremacist doctrine, Farrakhan has meticulously
recast it as metaphorical language. Farrakhan is carefully camouflaging
his heresy in the rhetoric of praise. While declaring undying love
for his late mentor, he nonetheless is systematically undermining
the racist foundation on which Elijah Muhammad stood.
During his speech at the Million Family March, Farrakhan made explicit
his move away from the black nationalist universe that Elijah Muhammad
built. He used a small bouquet of flowers as a visual metaphor for
humanity's many-hued diversity and lamented the tendency to see
threat rather than beauty in our color differences. Race, class,
religion and ethnic affiliation are "false yardsticks used by human
beings to justify their ill-treatment of one another," he said.
Much of his speech struck this theme and it sounded almost banal.
His rhetoric occasionally echoed the kind of "We Are the World"
romanticism that infects na•ve idealists everywhere. But coming
from Farrakhan, those sentiments of racial harmony and religious
ecumenicalism were nothing short of revolutionary.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with In These Times
two weeks before the march, Farrakhan made clear for the first time
his strategy for bringing the eccentric, black-supremacist dogma
of the Nation of Islam into accord with the doctrines of orthodox
Islam. It is a delicate and risky strategy that depends heavily
on his rhetorical and political skills.
It was Elijah Muhammad's theological explanation for white oppression
that distinguished the Nation of Islam from other nationalist groups.
By demonizing whites, Farrakhan explains, Elijah Muhammad sought
to accomplished two things: to force his followers to become more
self-reliant, since whites were genetically incapable of doing justice,
and to provide a psychological antidote to the Christian belief,
widespread at the time, that black people are the descendants of
Ham and thus were cursed by God to forever be the servants of (presumably
white) men. "Elijah Muhammad came to us and he spoke to a special
condition in us that white supremacy gave birth to, which is white
superiority and black hate that created feelings of black inferiority
and self hate," Farrakhan says. "So he preached a message of blackness
as a medicine for our ills."
But Farrakhan adds: "Whenever you are ill and a medicine is prescribed
for you, you take the medicine until balance is achieved in you
and then you put that medicine down."
Farrakhan contends that Elijah Muhammad brought a message specifically
designed for a black people who were severely damaged by white supremacy,
but always pointed to a broader, more universal teaching. "There
are certain things you accept as a baby but you cannot accept as
you mature," he says. "There are certain stories that attract your
mind as a child but as you mature you look back at them and you
see them differently. What I'm suggesting is that the Honorable
Elijah Muhammad knew that the message that he gave us was a 'wake
up message.' Well, I woke up. After you wake up, you need something
to carry you now in the day."
But he adds: "Some of our people are still asleep. And that's why
those who hold on forcefully to the message of the Honorable Elijah
Muhammad, as it was preached before he departed from us, have relevance
and value because there are still many black people who need that
When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, he was succeeded by his son
Wallace D. Muhammad (now known as Imam Warithuddine Mohamed), who
quickly transformed the group into one professing Islamic orthodoxy.
Farrakhan initially pledged fealty to W.D. Muhammad and followed
his lead for two years as Nation of Islam doctrine underwent dramatic
"Imam Warithuddine began a process of tying us to the Muslim world,
but in so doing, maybe in the way it was done and the quickness
with which it was done, many of the old followers of Elijah Muhammad
felt disillusioned, they felt betrayed," he recalls. "In my heart,
I was saying, 'Brother Imam, why are you doing it like this?' These
are changes that would take 20 years to bring about. But because
of the Imam's personal hurt with his father, the break with the
teaching of his father and the acceptance of orthodox Islam was
a radical break that caused many of the old followers to reject
the teachings of Elijah Muhammad with a bitterness and a hatred
because they believed they had been duped."
Farrakhan split with W. D. Muhammad in 1977 and began rebuilding
Elijah Muhammad's black nation, genetic theology and all. Although
he understood the limits of the Nation of Islam's therapeutic doctrines,
Farrakhan says he employed Elijah Muhammad's black supremacist teachings
as an explicit strategy "to attract to me those that love him that
would come with me."
For 23 years he has been attempting to inch the group toward orthodox
Islam, without alienating Elijah Muhammad's loyalists. Against great
odds and with exquisite calibrations, Farrakhan has managed to retain
his legitimacy even as he has increasingly deviated from the racist
teachings of his late mentor. "The Nation of Islam is a delicate
thing," he says, "and you have to be careful how you handle it lest
you ruin everything that you've been building."
There are a number of groups that claim to better represent the
wisdom of Elijah Muhammad and have condemned Farrakhan for unconscionable
revisionism. Silis Muhammad operates the Lost Found Nation of Islam
from his Atlanta headquarters, and Kansas City is home to a group
called the United Nations of Islam. And then there's Khalid Abdul
Muhammad, the charismatic demagogue who once served as head of the
Nation's security and as a former national assistant to Farrakhan.
He was ousted from the Nation in 1994 for using language that was
racist and anti-Semitic, but he has many supporters within the Nation
as well as a small following outside the organization. All of these
groups criticize Farrakhan, to varying degrees, for deviating from
Elijah Muhammad's fundamental teachings of eugenic theology. The
belief in the inherent evil of white people is a kind of the litmus
test for true believers in Elijah Muhammad's peculiar catechism.
Despite his major differences with these groups, and their increasingly
bitter denunciations of his current tactics, Farrakhan refuses to
condemn them outright. "Allah doesn't waste the work of a worker,"
he says. "Whatever people feel and believe, they're free to pursue
their beliefs. But at a certain point, the truth will delineate
those of us who are on a right course from those who may not be.
Brother Khalid [Abdul Muhammad] is a voice of anger and pain and
hurt, and I think he's in pain because I don't think he fully understands
or appreciates my direction."
Farrakhan's reluctance to return their rhetorical fire results
from a fear that his increasing moderation will provoke a major
breach in the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan well understands that much
of his popularity stems from his reputation for audacious, occasionally
outrageous rhetoric and his readiness to speak up for the interests
of black America regardless of the opposition. At the same time,
Farrakhan has grown much closer to his former rival, Imam Warithuddine
Mohamed, whose Muslim American Society also endorsed the Million
Family March. After a two-decade detour by Farrakhan, both men now
seem headed in the same direction. The question, yet unanswered,
is whether that detour was helpful to black progress.
Editor's note: Part two of Salim Muwakkil's examination of Louis
Farrakhan's Nation of Islam will analyze what the significant changes
taking place within the group mean for the black community.