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Farrakhan's last major speech could come Sunday, some say

Niraj Warikoo
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT - The Nation of Islam is coming home.

Born on the streets of Detroit during the Great Depression, the Muslim group returns to its roots this weekend, holding a convention expected to attract as many as 65,000 people and featuring a speech by its ailing leader - the sometimes controversial Louis Farrakhan. Nation members say the Sunday talk at Ford Field could be his last major address.

Muslims from around the world are expected to attend the annual Saviours' Day convention, including the Arab imam of the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in the world for them. But the Nation has an influence that reaches beyond its membership, with a majority of participants expected to be non-Muslim blacks eager to hear Farrakhan's words.

"It's not simply a Muslim gathering," said Minister Dawud Muhammad, who heads the Nation of Islam's temple in Detroit. "It's for anyone who has a concern about self-improvement being the basis for community development, about coming together to heal our families and healing our cities."

The Nation of Islam and Farrakhan, who is known in the group as the Honorable Minister, have been accused of anti-Semitism, a charge the Nation denies. But the group has converted thousands of Americans to Islam and has become one of the strongest black nationalist groups in U.S. history.

The exact membership of the Nation is unclear. There may be up to 50,000 members nationwide, say Muslim leaders, with about 1,000 of them with the Nation's Detroit mosque on Wyoming.

Its message of black nationalism and responsibility resonates particularly well in Detroit, a city that Farrakhan's national assistant, Minister Ishmael Muhammad, called "the Mecca for black America."

Michael Anderson, 59, of Detroit isn't a Nation member and isn't a Muslim. But he will be at the convention, along his three grandchildren.

Like many in Detroit, he said his life changed 12 years ago at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., with the Nation's call for black men to take responsibility for improving themselves and their communities. Anderson said it helped him kick a drug addiction.

The Nation "has always had a moral influence on the black community beyond its Islamic teachings," Anderson said. "Their philosophy is to do for self, to solve some of your own problems."

For weeks, billboards with Farrakhan's beaming face have dotted the highways around Detroit, and radio stations have offered free tickets and featured interviews with Nation leaders. It's a bigger publicity blitz than usual, given that the convention is often held in Chicago.

Many Christian preachers in Detroit, including Samuel Bullock, president of the Council of Baptist Pastors in Detroit, have been alerting their congregations about the convention at a time of economic uncertainty in southeastern Michigan.

Farrakhan's speech is expected to be the main draw, but there also are a number of workshops, with topics ranging from black-owned farms to family values to an interfaith event at Cobo Hall on Friday evening.

City leaders hope the event will bring peace to communities wracked by violence and despair.

"I predict that if we can get enough of the brothers off the street and into Ford stadium that you will see a different spirit in the city of Detroit," said Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins. "You will see a healing."

Though they share a different faith, Christians often work with the Nation.

At Northwest Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, the Rev. Oscar King III partners with Minister Muhammad to counsel inmates inside Michigan prisons in an effort called the Cross and the Crescent.

King said he sometimes had problems finding fellow Christians to assist him with the program, but the Nation is always willing to help.

The Nation "appeals to the heart and soul of disenfranchised black men and women," King said after a sermon last Sunday in which he urged worshippers to attend Sunday's Saviours' Day speech by Farrakhan. "They help us be better Christians."

The headline of the church program read: "This May Be the Last Time," a reference to the speech by Farrakhan, 73. In January, he left a hospital after a monthlong stay from abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer treatment.

"This is an event that should be attended," wrote Pastor Oscar King III in the program.

In the past, Farrakhan has drawn fire - particularly from Jewish groups, for remarks they deemed anti-Semitic. And some critics also have said that the Nation of Islam doesn't represent orthodox Islam, as practiced by Arabs.

But in recent years, Farrakhan has reached out to other religious faiths. He intends to put forth a message of interfaith harmony in Sunday's speech, said Nation members.

With Islam in the headlines almost daily, this weekend's event also will spotlight the role of the Nation in spreading the Muslim faith in the United States.

In 1930, a man named Fard Muhammad started to preach on the corners of black neighborhoods like Detroit's Paradise Valley, proclaiming that blacks were part of a superior race.

It was the beginning of the Nation of Islam.

Some say that Fard Muhammad was from what is today Saudi Arabia; others say he had roots in the Indian subcontinent. Nation members believe he was God in person and celebrate his birthday with an annual convention known as Saviours' Day.

Elijah Poole - a follower of Fard Muhammad who later became known as Elijah Muhammad - used Fard Muhammad's teachings to build one of the most compelling groups in American history.

Early on, it moved its base to Chicago, the site of most of its Saviours' Day conventions.

In 1975, after leader Elijah Muhammad died, the group split into two factions, one headed by his son, W.D. Muhammad, the other by Farrakhan.

Farrakhan's sect grew to be the more popular one, especially among African Americans, but Muhammad's philosophy was more in line with the Islam practiced by Arabs.

Despite their division, the two factions are coming together for this convention.

On a recent Friday, Minister Muhammad attended prayers at the Detroit Muslim Center, a mosque primarily serving African-American Muslims not affiliated with the Nation and under the leadership of W.D. Muhammad.

Imam Abdullah El-Amin, head of the Muslim Center, embraced Dawud Muhammad and urged worshippers to attend the event and show the world a vision of Islamic unity at a time of sectarian strife among Muslims.

"We know that there are those who have chosen different paths," Muhammad told the congregation. "But many of us have a common root."

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