LOS ANGELES — When Imam W. Deen Mohammed ascends a wooden podium at the Los Angeles Convention Center here tomorrow, the gaze of 20,000 Nation of Islam faithful will rest upon his countenance for Friday prayer.
The proceeding, an orthodox Islamic ritual known as Jummah, will mark an important milestone for the famously radical group headed by Louis Farrakhan.
Known for his inflammatory black nationalist ideology, Mr. Farrakhan has been seeking a more moderate profile - and reconciliation with the broad majority of African-American Muslims.
It's been evident, in the past two years, in his toned-down rhetoric since a recovery from illness. Now, in a sign of softening perhaps heightened by Sept. 11, Mr. Farrakhan has invited longtime rival Imam Mohammed, who leads the largest group of African American Muslims, to conduct the special prayer this week at the Nation of Islam's annual convention here.
For decades, Farrakhan's much smaller band of followers has largely ignored the Jummah, a pillar of practice for most Muslims. Mohammed's appearance at the dais represents a further step in a detente that could help end 26 years of division between the two groups - at a time when the American Muslims face renewed public scrutiny.
"The fact that Farrakhan has asked Rev. Mohammed to lead the ... Jummah ... at his organization's biggest event will be one of the most important healing gestures in the history of Islam in America," says Imam Faheem Shuaibe, of Masjid Waritheen in Oakland, Calif. "This is the stitching of a wound that has lasted for decades. The only thing after that will be to wait for natural healing."
Mr. Farrakhan is expected to praise and embrace Mohammed, a sign of easing in divisions over ideology going back to 1976. It may also reflect a chastening of heart for Mr. Farrakhan in the wake of Sept. 11 attacks on America by terrorists claiming Islamic faith as a motivation.
"What happened in the terrorist attacks on America made us realize that as Muslims we need to bury our petty differences because there is a bigger picture to consider now," says Akbar Muhammad, international representative for the Nation of Islam. "It has given us a new sense that we must strive to come together for the good of society and future generations of American Muslims."
Beyond America's shores, the gesture is also important as Muslim countries around the globe try to assess America's relationship to Islam, within and without its borders.
"The story of African American Muslims has become key to how America is viewed internationally, both in the Middle East and elsewhere across the Muslim world," says Fathi Osman, an Islamic scholar and for the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation. Of all non-immigrant Muslims in this country, more than 85 percent are black "They are the ones who have planted the roots of Islam firmly in this country, establishing mosques and centers of civic outreach, working in prisons and communities.... And they are also perhaps the most misunderstood."
Indeed, the strident black nationalist rhetoric of Farrakhan - and the media attention it garnered over the years - reinforced one key misunderstanding: the view that the Nation of Islam represents most black Muslims in America.
The group rose to prominence during the civil rights era of the 1960s as a black separatist movement that labeled other religions as oppressors and whites as "blue-eyed devils." But leader Elijah Mohammed died in 1975. His immediate leadership heir, son W. D. Mohammed, abandoned such notions as blasphemy to true Islam, and embraced orthodox interpretations of the Koran, which encourages the universal acceptance of races and genders.
The vast majority of African-American Muslims (now about 2.5 million) followed him into a new organization known as The Muslim Society of America. Only a small percentage - perhaps 30,000 to 70,000 members by most accounts - remain in the Nation of Islam under Farrakhan.
But because of Farrakhan's persuasive charisma and ability to attract controversy and press, the image of African American Muslims as militant separatists persists to this day.
"For many Americans, the Nation of Islam still is the face of Islam in America, and so they associate Muslims with the harmful and even demonic rhetoric espoused by Rev. Farrakhan," says Anthony Pinn, professor of religion at Macalester College. The confusion persists, say Pinn and others, because Farrakhan often reaches out to society at large and to blacks of other faiths, as during his "Million Man March" on Washington in 1997.
To many African-American Muslims, who disagree with Farrakhan and feel unfairly tarred with his views in the public eye, the leader's recent evolution is encouraging.
In recent years, experts say, Farrakhan has lowered the tone of his separatist and black nationalist rhetoric. He has embraced other races, appointed women in high positions, and played down doctrinal differences that were points of division between his followers and those of W.D. Mohammed..
"It is very clear to me that Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are very serious in embracing the love and peace message of Islam and putting harsh rhetoric behind," says W. D. Mohammed in a Monitor interview. Recounting a meeting between himself, Farrakhan, and Christian minister Robert Schuller in December, he says Farrakhan openly repented of confusing the picture of Muslims before the US public, and vowed to discontinue his message of black nationalism.
"The old rhetoric [of Farrakhan] is changing," says Dr. Maher Hathout of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "We will see if his behavior changes as well."