CHICAGO — In an address to members of the Nation of Islam at the end of the sect's three-day convention in Detroit, Louis Farrakhan's main subject was the importance of religious unity and peace.
That message, delivered Sunday, is possibly the last address from the fiery leader, who hadn't appeared in public for seven months and who announced he will be stepping down due to health reasons. It may seem less inflammatory than the rhetoric for which Mr. Farrakhan is sometimes known, but some say it was typical of the direction he has been taking the Nation in recent years.
The organization has played an important role in civil rights and African–American empowerment even as it has been criticized for its separatist and sometimes racist views. Now, it faces perhaps its most critical juncture since the split that occurred in the mid-70s, when Farrakhan took over the Nation and many members left to follow Imam Warith Deen (W.D.) Muhammad.
"As with so many other religious movements, the charisma of the leader is extremely important," says Anthony Pinn, a religious studies and humanities professor at Rice University, who said he can't think of anyone positioned within the Nation at this point to assume leadership. "Whoever takes over after the Minister Louis Farrakhan will have rather large shoes to fill. What the Nation of Islam is able to do will depend to some extent on the weight this person will carry."
Farrakhan has been a controversial and powerful leader for the Nation of Islam for nearly three decades. The sect was founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad as a separatist black religious and political organization and continued for more than 40 years under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan reconstituted the Nation after Elijah Muhammad's son – also known as W.D. Muhammad – had dissolved it and moved toward traditional Sunni Islam.
But membership in the organization – while no one knows the exact numbers – is thought to have dwindled to somewhere between 30,000 and 70,000 today. Still, while more African-American Muslims today may follow more mainstream brands of Islam such as Imam W. D. Muhammad's, the Nation's political power and influence persist.
"Whenever African-Americans bump up against racial discrimination, lots of folks within African-American communities assume the Nation of Islam will have something to say," says Professor Pinn. "It still holds the popular imagination of the United States in significant ways, and it still has significance for African-American communities and will for some time."
Farrakhan helped return the Nation of Islam to Elijah Muhammad's controversial teachings: that the original founder was an incarnation of God, for instance, and that a "Mother Plane" – like a UFO – will eventually descend. Farrakhan also helped turn the Nation into a more outwardly focused group.
"Under Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam was for the membership. Under Louis Farrakhan, it became an American institution," says Vibert White, a former Nation of Islam Minister and professor of public history at the University of Central Florida, who left the Nation in the mid-90s.
Professor White notes that Farrakhan's organizing abilities – which produced the Million Man March in 1995 – are legendary, and that he was able to engage the American public and media, both positively and negatively, in a way that few other black leaders have been able to.
But Farrakhan will likely be known as much for his divisive rhetoric as his oratory and organizing abilities. He has denied being anti-Semitic, but once called Hitler a "great man," and was famous for calling Judaism a "gutter religion."
"Farrakhan's whole movement rested on this hostility" between blacks and Jews, says White. He adds that while Farrakhan may have tempered some of his rhetoric in recent years – and has worked toward reconciliation with W.D. Muhammad – his basic views haven't changed.
"His tone has changed because of a changing society," says White. "But his history has been one of hostile language, inflammatory language, elements of separation and segregation and 'America is the whore of the planet Earth' – he's not going to change those views overnight."
But admirers say he has been too identified with those views, and not enough with his achievements – particularly when it comes to advancing African-American politics and helping to empower black entrepreneurs, cleaning up black communities, and doing positive work for prisoners.
"When he signed on to support Jesse Jackson's bid for presidency in 1984, it was his charismatic speaking on the road with Jesse Jackson that helped popularize the idea of a black person running for president of the United States," says Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front, who has worked closely with Farrakhan over the years and attended his address on Sunday.
Minister Jamil Muhammad, Farrakhan's national spokesman, emphasizes that Farrakhan has not stepped down yet, and has simply ceded some leadership duties to a board of advisers.
"He's announced his intention to function in a different way than he has," says Mr. Muhammad. "But he's in remarkable health.... The question of succession is overblown and overplayed. It is as if the Nation of Islam is thought of as some cult of personality, which we are not."
Possible successors include Ishmael Muhammad – one of Elijah Muhammad's sons and the minister at the Nation's Mosque Maryam in the Chicago headquarters, Farrakhan's son Mustapha Farrakhan, and Akbar Muhammad, Farrakhan's assistant.
But all of them have drawbacks, says White. "There's going to be a fight. [Farrakhan] has had ample opportunity to highlight someone and to train someone and to bring this person to the body to say that when I retire this man is going to lead. He hasn't done this."