Muslims See Contrasts With Nation of Islam : Beliefs: Core tenets of Farrakhan’s group have historically differed from mainstream Islam’s. Publicity of upcoming Million Man March accents distinctions.
At the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, director Salam Al-Marayati has been fielding dozens of calls in recent days from non-Muslims asking about the Million Man March set for Monday in Washington, D.C.
“They call because the march is sponsored by the Nation of Islam, we’re Muslims, and they figure we must be connected,” said Al-Marayati. “They have no idea there’s any difference.”
In fact, mainstream Muslims such as the Iraqi-born Al-Marayati hold theological beliefs that are vastly different from those traditionally taught by the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, who is the driving force behind the march.
The Muslim community in America numbers between 3 million and 5 million, and includes Islamic immigrants and American converts, most of them black.
But “the Nation of Islam has nothing to do with Islam,” said Muzamil Siddiqi, the Indian-born director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. “They have their own beliefs.”
Officials from the Nation of Islam could not be reached for comment for this story, despite repeated attempts. But three core beliefs have historically set their group apart from mainstream Islam:
* The Nation of Islam teaches that W.D. Fard, the mysterious founder of the sect who dropped from sight in 1934, was God incarnate. Mainstream Islam rejects the idea that God--Allah in Arabic--has ever taken human form, unlike Christianity’s belief in the divinity of Jesus. To associate any person or thing with Allah is, in fact, considered idolatry in mainstream Islam, and it is the monotheistic faith’s one unforgivable sin.
* Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam from Fard’s disappearance until his own death in 1975, called himself a prophet and the messenger of God. Mainstream Islam teaches that the Prophet Muhammad, the 7th-Century founder of the faith, was the Seal of the Prophet, or the last in a line of God’s prophets that began with Adam.
* The Nation of Islam teaches that white people--whom Elijah Muhammad called “blue-eyed devils"--were created about 6,650 years ago by a black scientist named Yakub, who did so in rebellion against Allah. In his book “The Black Muslims in America,” retired Duke University religion professor C. Eric Lincoln said this belief “is the fundamental premise upon which [the Nation of Islam] rests the whole theory of black supremacy and white degradation.”
Mainstream Muslims say race-based beliefs are anathema to Islam.
“Equality of the races is a very strong part of Islam,” said Mohammed Cheema, president of the American Muslim Council, a Washington-based public policy lobbying agency.
In recent years, the Nation of Islam under Farrakhan’s leadership has altered some of its practices to bring them closer to mainstream Islam.
Nation of Islam followers once fasted during the Christmas season. Now, noted Al-Marayati, they fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as do Muslims worldwide.
The Nation of Islam has also adopted recitation of the Shahada, the Muslim creedal statement that says there is no god other than Allah and that the Prophet Muhammad is his messenger.
Assad N. Busool, chairman of the Arabic studies department at Chicago’s American Islamic College, said the changes are evidence that Farrakhan is slowly moving closer to mainstream Islam.
“I have heard him state the Shahada two or three times in open forums, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity,” said Busool, a Palestinian.
While the Nation of Islam does not disclose membership figures, outside observers say the group has no more than 20,000 core followers. Much larger is the ministry of W. Deen Mohammed, a mainstream African American Muslim group with more than 1 million followers.
Mohammed is the son of Elijah Muhammad--but the differences between them are far greater than the spelling of their common name.
After his father’s death, Mohammed repudiated the Nation of Islam’s founding tenets--saying they had outlived their usefulness as a way of attracting African Americans to the group--and adopted mainstream Muslim beliefs.
Mohammed dropped use of the name Nation of Islam, and Farrakhan became the leader of most of those who continued to adhere to the movement’s historical beliefs. There are at least three other small splinter groups that also call themselves the Nation of Islam.
The theological differences that separate Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam from Mohammed’s African American Muslim followers have led Mohammed to denounce Monday’s march.
In this week’s issue of the Muslim Journal, his ministry’s weekly newspaper, Mohammed said money expended on the march “could be best spent on a business growth plan in the African American community for the purpose of hiring more of our African American males.”
In an interview, Imam E. Abdulmalik Mohammed, W. Deen Mohammed’s press spokesman, said “there can be no relationship between W. Deen Mohammed and Farrakhan until Farrakhan accepts to live up to the true meaning of the label Muslim .”
Despite their equally strong theological differences with the Nation of Islam, many Muslim leaders in the United States who are not black have refrained from publicly commenting on the march, while privately expressing concern that an unknowing American public will equate Farrakhan’s brand of Islam with their more traditional religion.
Some, like Cheema of the American Muslim Council, question the march’s practical value. But most--noting the strong support for the event among African Americans--are reluctant to say anything, fearful that their comments will be viewed as unsupportive of blacks, with whom they often feel common cause based on their shared minority status.
“The beliefs of the Nation of Islam are a constant issue in the Muslim community,” said Imad A. Ahmad, president of the Minaret of Freedom, a Muslim think tank studying Islamic economic principles that is based in Bethesda, Md.
“But the Million Man March is a march for self-empowerment, spiritual reflection and atonement for African Americans. It’s beyond being a religious issue. We have no problem with that.”