To attend a Louis Farrakhan event, I am told, is to experience one of the most powerful religious speakers of our time. Even to listen to the man or watch him via the Internet, is an experience that is hard to forget. Combining the skill of a classical revivalist preacher and the thrust of the message of nationalism and Islam, Farrakhan, like few other men, can fully captivate an audience for hours on end. He did just that at Sunday's Nation of Islam Saviours' Day keynote address at the United Center in Chicago, Ill.
Farrakhan has been called everything from a heretic to a racist to a true savior for African Americans. His flavor of Islam is built on five centuries of Muslim history in the Americas and for anyone who wishes to truly understand where Islam and the American experience are headed in the next century, Farrakhan is a "must see," "must hear" and a "must read."
To place so much importance on Farrakhan might make many Muslims uncomfortable. After all, he is yet to openly renounce the various elements of practice and belief of the Nation of Islam that separate him and his movement from mainstream Islam. Additionally, there is the problematic issue of accusations that he was indirectly involved in the assassination of Malcolm X.
In recent years however, Farrakhan has gone about the laborious task of remaking himself. Gone is the inflammatory rhetoric disparaging Jews and Whites. Absent is talk of spaceship theories and other controversial Nation of Islam concepts. Replacing these, is discussion of mainstream Islam and conversations between Farrakhan and mainstream Muslim leaders and thinkers. He comes off as someone moving in a direction consistent with an eventual closing of the circle that would fully integrate the Nation of Islam with the with the larger Muslim Ummah.
Sunday's Saviours' Day keynote was another step in this direction -- possibly not as large a step as most Muslims might like, but a step nonetheless. Most mainstream Muslim adherents probably ignored the event altogether. But for those "in the know," Black Entertainment Television's (BET) website was Farrakhan central, with a live webcast of the event. Those who missed it missed an opportunity to hear some much-needed advice on the manner in which Islam should progress in the West in this next century.
There were of course the typical Farrakhan moments. Transitioning from sugary-sweet urgings to tirades of emotional reprimand, the minister spoke to issues ranging from family to his relationship with Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad, who brought some 2 million members of the Nation of Islam into mainstream Islam in the 1970s.
With carefully chosen words, Farrakhan skirted the issue of reports suggesting a complete shift in his thinking and flirted instead with the idea that he had a "broader mission" to fulfill beyond the confines of the Nation of Islam.
What is that broader mission? Who knows exactly? By never actually saying anything profoundly concrete on the matter, Farrakhan left some ambiguity concerning how much he would adopt a mainstream Islamic agenda. It took him almost an hour to explain to the largely African American audience that filled the United Center that he would not abandon causes specific to the plight of Blacks in America. Yet, throughout the speech he alluded to the larger responsibility he and members of the Nation of Islam have in spreading Islam in the West.
"Brothers and sisters, do you know who you are?" questioned Farrakhan. "You have a destiny, you have a mission."
Speaking directly to Muslims about that more general mission, Farrakhan decried the lack of effort being put forth to propagate Islam in the West. "We have the last prophet, we have the last message and we are doing nothing to bring that message to humanity," he said.
Farrakhan went on, quoting from Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures to emphasize the need for a universal following of their common monotheistic and moral teachings. But as he drilled down to the core of what he defined as his personal mission, it became clear that Farrakhan is of the opinion that he, Warithdeen Muhammad and their followers are best suited to bring Islam to America.
"This Koran has to be taught. And you are not the ones to do it," said Farrakhan referring to Muslims not indigenous to America. "Allah never raises up somebody among the people unless they speak the language of that people."
"It's wonderful that you know the Arabic language. I wish I knew it," Farrakhan continued. "I can't read Arabic. I can't write Arabic. Neither can the people of America. So all the Arabic that you know is not going to help you transmit the message of the Qur'an to them unless you can meet them in their language and understand the mentality of America. That is the job of Imam Warithdeen Muhammad and myself. We have that mission in America. And nobody can take that from us."
Additionally, referencing the reprimand Allah gives the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur'an (Suratul Abasa) for ignoring the queries of a blind man while talking to a tribal chief, Farrakhan admonished Muslims for ignoring various segments of the American population. "You don't have the time for the little blind man in the ghettos of America," said Farrakhan. "On us you frown and turn away."
It is this admonition that most clearly points to where Farrakhan plans to exert much of his influence in the coming years and this is something very important that Muslims in American must understand. With Minister Farrakhan working in concert with Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, African American Muslims will comprise the largest and arguably most influential block of Muslims in the United States at the grass roots level.
The influence comes from the person of Minister Louis Farrakhan. This influence exists because like no other Muslim figure in the United States today, he is able to captivate and motivate immense numbers of people, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Do not forget that he was the architect of the Million Man March in 1995 (note that he has called for a Million Family March to take place on Oct 16, 2000), bringing together African Americans from all walks of life and all expressions of faith as well as a host of other concerned individuals of other ethnic backgrounds. And on Sunday, Farrakhan was able to bring together on the same stage, W.D. Muhammad, other noted figures from the mainstream Muslim community, Christian representatives and even a delegation of eight Jewish Rabbis. This man has influence and he is determined to use it.
Unfortunately though, Farrakhan continues to hedge when it comes to the most contentious matters that separate the doctrine of the Nation of Islam from that of Ahl Sunnah wal Jamaa (the greater community of Islam). For instance, in his speech, Farrakhan mentioned the controversial figure, Master Wallace Fard, who is said to have been the teacher of Elijah Muhammad and has been regarded by the Nation of Islam as "The Mahdi," or chosen reviver of the Muslim world as prophesied by the Prophet Muhammad. A recent book by Karl Evanzz suggests, however, that Fard was the alias for one Wallace Dodd Ford, a criminal from Los Angeles. Yet the Nation of Islam continues to honor Fard.
But there is no denying that Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have moved considerably closer to Al-Islam. In a communiqué read by Imam Munir al-Kassem from Canada concerning the 2nd Annual International Islamic Conference hosted this past weekend by the Nation of Islam, it was clear that unity is the overriding principle upon which Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam now stand. The Conference resolved to use this unity to transcend most all differences amongst Muslims and work together for the common advancement of the wider Islamic Ummah. In his speech, Farrakhan was adamant about being part of this work saying that he had a new duty to the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and to peoples of all creeds and colors.
Only time will tell how fast the Nation of Islam moves to integrate with the other Muslim organizations in the United States. In cities such New York the dialogue has already begun with the help of prolific mainstream Muslims such as Imam Siraj Wahaj. But in so many other parts of America, a gulf still exists, perpetuating misunderstandings of the Nation of Islam and hindering the process of its evolution. But Sunday's gathering in Chicago was indeed a watershed event that marks the beginning of what many Muslims hope will be a unification of doctrine and activism that will cement a truly American Muslim Ummah that can work to make Islam a strong and vibrant aspect of the American experience in the next century.
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com