Minister Louis Farrakhan, ailing and in seclusion at his Michigan home, has ceded leadership of the Nation of Islam to an executive board while he recovers, saying the movement must prove that it "is more than the charisma, eloquence and personality" of one person.
But those who have watched the Nation evolve over decades believe that the organization — known as much for the dark suits and bow ties of its followers as for its doctrine of black supremacy — will falter without a dynamic figure like the minister in charge.
"When Farrakhan dies, my prediction is the movement will split," said Lawrence Mamiya, a Vassar College professor and an expert on African-American religion. "I don't think this movement can be governed by a board. It runs off the charismatic energy of one person."
The 73-year-old Farrakhan wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to followers that he was anemic and 20 pounds lighter because of complications from an ulcer in the anal area. He had surgery in 2000 for prostate cancer.
"In this period of testing, you can prove to the world that the Nation of Islam is more than the charisma, eloquence and personality of Louis Farrakhan," he wrote. "You can prove that the Nation of Islam ... is more than the physical presence of any individual, and that it will live long after I and we have gone."
Conrad Worrill, of the Inner Cities Studies program at Northeastern Illinois University, traveled with Farrakhan to Cuba, where he was initially diagnosed this year. "It's serious, he needs to recover, but he's not on his deathbed," he said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke with Farrakhan by phone Sept. 24, said the minister had given up oversight "because he wants to devote his time exclusively to physical restitution."
Still, it is clear from Farrakhan's letter that he is concerned about who will succeed him.
He has firsthand experience with a messy transition at the top. He had to rebuild the Nation in the late 1970s, after W.D. Mohammed, the son of the late Nation leader Elijah Muhammad, broke away and moved his followers toward mainstream Islam.
While the Nation has obviously survived, no one can say how successful the revival has been.
A longtime target of federal surveillance, the movement is highly secretive and suspicious of outsiders. At Mosque Maryam in Chicago, the Nation's headquarters, security guards stand watch behind brass-plated doors.
Even researchers who follow the group closely do not know for sure how many members or mosques it has, how much money it takes in or whether it is shrinking or growing.
Yet Farrakhan's popularity among many blacks is clear. The hundreds of thousands of black men he drew to the 1995 Million Man March in Washington are only one example. He is popular with hip-hop artists, who praise the Nation in their music, and a trusted mediator in gang conflict. This support is baffling to many outsiders, who remember Farrakhan only for his most provocative comments, including calling Zionism a "gutter religion" and saying Hitler was "wickedly great."
"The Nation of Islam has always been a symbolically important organization as a cultural symbol of defiance against the American state," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. "At the Million Man March, most of those people were not members of the Nation of Islam. They were supporters of Farrakhan and his brand of critique of American politics."
Farrakhan has haltingly tried to move the Nation toward traditional Islam, which considers the American movement heretical because of its view of Elijah Muhammad as a prophet — among other novel teachings. Orthodox Islam teaches that there has been no prophet after Muhammad in the seventh century.
He has also played down some of the group's more controversial beliefs. The Nation of Islam teaches that whites are descended from the devil and that blacks are the chosen people of Allah. Mamiya said leaders no longer preach that message, although it is still taught in some mosques.
For many blacks, the Nation is known mainly for its local businesses and for social service programs, including health projects such as HIV/AIDS awareness and prostate cancer screening, and an extensive prison ministry. Members of the Nation, whose militia is called the Fruit of Islam, also provide security for housing projects, with some forming independent security firms. Michael Jackson used Nation bodyguards during his prosecution on child molestation charges.
Most of the Nation's income comes from member donations and sales of the movement newspaper the Final Call, although its circulation is not known, Mamiya said.
Membership is concentrated in Midwestern and Northeastern cities including Detroit, where the group has its roots, and Chicago, where Farrakhan keeps a home in the Kenwood neighborhood. The house is a well-known landmark, with its yellow stone exterior, round-the-clock guards and Muslim crescents in the stained-glass windows.
But the Nation has also been trying to expand overseas, with mosques in the Caribbean, in the West African nation of Ghana, and in England and France, Mamiya said.
Analysts agree, however, that the movement continues to see its greatest growth in American prisons. Many members are offenders, ex-offenders or relatives of convicts. Upon release, ex-inmates who want to stay in the Nation may have to undergo boot camp training, including military marching, push-ups and running laps, as a way to instill discipline, Mamiya said.
"In the criminal justice system, African-Americans are overrepresented and this tends to breed a lot of resentment," said Jimmy Jones, a religion professor at Manhattanville College who has worked as a Muslim jail chaplain for 25 years. "An ideology that is essentially a raced-based ideology is very popular in that context."
Mamiya said two men could possibly succeed Farrakhan: Ishmael Muhammad, a son of Elijah Muhammad, who is assistant minister at Mosque Maryam; or Akbar Muhammad, a long-shot candidate who is based in Ghana and "is a kind of right-hand person to Farrakhan."
Ishmael Muhammad did not respond to a message left at the mosque.
To many, the movement may seem like an anachronism — more suited to a time when segregation was the law and any opportunities blacks had they had to create for themselves. But observers say the Nation will have an appeal as long as racism and poverty plague the community.
"As long as there's problems," said Ridgely Abdul Mu'min, who runs the Nation's Muhammad Farms in Georgia, "nothing's going to change."