DETROIT – Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is heading into what's billed as his final major address Sunday, and some Muslims are wondering if the fiery orator — now slowed by poor health — will try to repair old divisions between his movement and mainstream Islam.
Farrakhan's scheduled appearance at Ford Field, home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, will be his first since ceding leadership last year to an executive board because of illness.
The 73-year-old Farrakhan was released last month from the hospital after undergoing a 12-hour abdominal operation to correct damage caused by treatment for prostate cancer. A statement from the Nation at the time said Farrakhan "doesn't see himself coming before the public on such a major stage as we are preparing in Detroit." He might, however, honor lesser engagements.
Fard attracted black Detroiters on the margins of society with a message of self-improvement and separation from whites, who he said were inherently evil because of their enslavement of blacks.
Farrakhan rebuilt the movement in the late 1970s after W.D. Mohammed, the son of longtime nation leader Elijah Muhammad, moved his followers toward mainstream Islam.
Farrakhan angered many Americans in the process.
He became notorious for his provocative comments, calling Judaism a "gutter religion" and suggesting crack cocaine might have been a CIA plot to enslave blacks. He met with foreign leaders at odds with the United States — Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein — prompting the State Department in 1996 to accuse him of "cavorting with dictators."
His closest brush with the political mainstream probably came in 1995, when he attracted hundreds of thousands of black men to Washington for the Million Man March.
Now, back in the Nation's birthplace, there's speculation about what Farrakhan's last major address could tackle. The topic of Sunday's speech, capping a series of meeting that start Friday, is "One Nation Under God."
"We have been told that Minister Farrakhan is going to be making a big announcement at this meeting," though it's not known what he will say, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The Nation and orthodox Islam diverge on several key beliefs. While mainstream Islam holds that Muhammad was God's last prophet, Nation of Islam had taught that God came in the form of Fard decades ago in Detroit.
Farrakhan has downplayed many of those teachings in recent years, adopting some mainstream Muslim traditions and embracing W. D. Mohammed on stage in 2000 after years of discord. Mohammed also visited Farrakhan recently during his recovery, a Nation of Islam official said.
Farrakhan has credited his mollified outlook to what he called a "near death" experience related to his prostate cancer, which he began battling in 1991. A sign of his softer approach came in 2005, at a Washington rally for the Millions More Movement. Unlike the Million Man March a decade earlier, which was for black men only, the rally was open to men and women of all races.
"In the course of his career, I have to say, the external gaze of others generally has not been at the top of the list of what he's worried about," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. But, "it's late in his life, he's ill. There are questions of legacy. All of that tends to soften a leader, encourages them to think beyond self-aggrandizing choices."
In Detroit, some blacks who practice mainstream Islam say a shared history and personal ties with the Nation have united the groups in worship and work. Mitchell Shamsud-Din, a founding member of the orthodox Muslim Center in Detroit who runs its community service programs, is like thousands of Detroit-area Muslims who came to orthodox Islam through the Nation.
"There's a friendship and brotherhood between our two groups," said Shamsud-Din, whose projects include Nation of Islam volunteers.
"We work with Christians, and they believe Jesus is God," he said. "Why wouldn't we work with a Muslim brother who has another difference?"
Nation leaders won't say how many members the movement, now based in Chicago, has locally or nationally — though the Council on American-Islamic Relations and others have estimated it has between 10,000 and 50,000 followers in the U.S. and no more than 1,000 in southeastern Michigan, according to Sally Howell, a University of Michigan researcher who specializes in the local Islamic and Arab-American communities.
Jimmy Jones, a religion professor at Manhattanville College, who is Muslim and studies Islam, was skeptical about Farrakhan's willingness to change. While the Nation of Islam has adopted some mainstream Muslim practices, it remains essentially a race-based movement, he said.
"I think this is an organization that consistently, in my observation, has tried to have it both ways — that is, gain legitimacy with the broader Muslim world and spread a message that is essentially about race," Jones said. "It is not a program that represents what most of the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world would recognize."