by David Lepeska
Chicago, IL: When Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, staunchly defended Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi recently, he seized headlines for an organization that has made little news in recent years.
In an often-fiery speech on March 31 at Mosque Maryam, the group’s South Side headquarters, Mr. Farrakhan recalled the decades of friendship and millions of dollars Colonel Qaddafi had lent the Nation of Islam over the years.
“What kind of brother would I be if a man has been that way to me, and to us, and when he’s in trouble I refuse to raise my voice in his defense?” Mr. Farrakhan said to cheers and applause from hundreds of the faithful gathered at the mosque.
Mr. Farrakhan, 77, sounded sincere in his efforts to come to the aid of the embattled Libyan leader. But amid a significant drop in Nation of Islam membership, waning popular interest in the movement he leads and growing concerns over succession, Mr. Farrakhan may also be using the conflict in Libya as an effort to return to relevance.
Nation of Islam membership has fallen by as much as half from its estimated peak of 100,000 in 1995, when Mr. Farrakhan rallied nearly a million men, most of them black, to the Million Man March in Washington, according to Lawrence H. Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College. (The Nation of Islam does not give out membership numbers.)
Over the past decade, Mr. Farrakhan’s calls for slavery reparations and his denunciations of the Iraq war and President George W. Bush have gained little attention. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the American news media have focused instead on other Muslim groups led by immigrants to the United States. And in January 2007, Mr. Farrakhan had abdominal surgery to correct damage caused by treatment for prostate cancer, which raised concerns over his succession. He appears to have recovered.
The Nation of Islam in recent years seems to have lost appeal even among black Americans with an interest in Islam. Most who already embrace Islam are likely to join traditional sects led by Arab and South Asian immigrants. Some 35 percent of the American Muslim population of six million to seven million are black Americans, according to a Gallup poll from 2010.
To a core group of supporters, though, Mr. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam still resonate.
“He does not need to get back into the spotlight,” said Edward E. Curtis IV, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of “Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam.” “He has never left it in black America.”
Nation of Islam officials did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
The Nation of Islam, which was founded in Detroit in 1930 by W. D. Fard, is both a black separatist movement and a unique religion. Its theology spurns traditional Islam, and its organizational goals — compiled by Elijah Muhammad, its leader from the mid-’30s — include freedom, equality and a separate nation for blacks.
That message struck a chord during the civil rights era, and celebrity converts like Malcolm X, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali further raised the group’s profile.
Chief among its beliefs is that Mr. Fard was an incarnation of God and that Elijah Muhammad was his prophet. The foundation of the Muslim faith is the incantation, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.”
“The theology of the Nation contradicts the basic tenets of Islam,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islam at the University of Kentucky.
The Nation of Islam under Mr. Farrakhan has other practices that set it apart. It does not follow sharia law, the sacred rules of Islam based on the Koran and the Sunnah, or sayings of the Prophet. Further, it teaches that black scientists created the universe and the Koran, that Earth is over 76 trillion years old and that a great U.F.O. called the Mother Plane will come to destroy the United States.
Those teachings continue to put the group outside mainstream Islam, said Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.
Mr. Farrakhan’s re-emergence since the fighting erupted in Libya is a reminder that in the public domain he is seen as a nationalist leader as much as a religious one, Professor Mamiya said.
“Farrakhan has a different claim on the black community,” Mr. Mamiya said. “He’s never been beholden to the broader Muslim community.”
Mr. Farrakhan’s goal has long been “black liberation,” a choice of words that mirrors Colonel Qadaffi’s pan-African vision. The Nation has been aligned with the colonel for decades, since it received a $3 million loan from him in 1972 to remake a Greek Orthodox church on the South Side into Mosque Maryam, the group’s current headquarters.
The rebellion against Colonel Qaddafi has given Mr. Farrakhan a chance to bring his own agenda back into public debate. During the speech in which he defended the colonel, Mr. Farrakhan also expressed his hope for “a state or territory of our own.”
The speech was a reminder of Mr. Farrakhan’s continued appeal. At the group’s annual conference in 2009, the rapper Snoop Dogg praised Mr. Farrakhan’s speeches and all but converted. “People are still attracted to the charisma,” Mr. Mamiya said.
The question facing the group now is whether Mr. Farrakhan has laid adequate plans for succession. He has mandated that official control of the organization will shift to the Council of Leaders after he departs or dies, but there is no single leader who seems capable of matching the charismatic leadership of Mr. Farrakhan and his predecessors.
Ishmael Muhammad, a council member and son of Elijah Muhammad, is sometimes considered the most likely successor.
“The Nation has always been attracted to charismatic figures,” Mr. Mamiya said. “Whether it’s going to hold or another leader will emerge from the council is a big question.”
That question has become a matter of interest to the federal government. In December 2009, the Justice Department revealed that the Department of Homeland Security monitored the Nation of Islam in 2007, and that its Office of Intelligence and Analysis had prepared a document, “Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risk.”
Charles E. Allen, who was then the under secretary for intelligence and analysis at the department, later softened this view. “The organization — despite its highly volatile and extreme rhetoric — has neither advocated violence nor engaged in violence,” Mr. Allen wrote in 2008. “Moreover, we have no indications that it will change goals and priorities, even if there is a near-term change in the Nation’s leadership.”
Professor Curtis said he believed that in the long term the Nation of Islam would become more about black empowerment and less about Islam.
“Even if parts of its unique theology are abandoned,” he said, “its emphasis on self-help, black pride, economic independence and political self-determination are likely to be incorporated in whatever denominational forms emerge from the Nation of Islam movement.”
Most congregants declined to comment as they left Mosque Maryam on Stony Island Avenue after a recent meeting. But Maurice Mohammad, a longtime member, responded when asked what he thought of the defense of Colonel Qaddafi. “I agree with what our leader says,” he said.
Then a Nation of Islam representative approached, and escorted him away.
originally ran in the NY Times, 10 April, 2011