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According to recent stories from the Associated Press, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is "gravely ill." According to the reports, Farrakhan was treated for prostate cancer in the early 1990's and has been sick since January with an undiagnosed illness. The Associated Press quotes The Final Call, The Nation of Islam's newspaper as its source.
On March 31, Farrakhan was admitted to Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., but there is little official word about Farrakhan's condition. The Final Call issued a statement that Farrakhan's treatment "continues to be successful and his prognosis excellent." In an AP story released on April 1, civil right leader Jesse Jackson is reported to have stated that Farrakhan underwent prostate surgery on March 31. Farrakhan, 65, is under doctor's orders to take a four-month sabbatical from leading the Nation of Islam.
In a series of news conferences, Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, the Nation's Minister of Health, responded to concerns about Farrakhan's health and adamantly denied allegations that Farrakhan was on his deathbed. He stated that, "The minister's life is not in imminent danger from any medical cause." He further added, "There is no need to expect the imminent demise of the Honorable Louis Farrakhan."
Not since the death of Elijah Muhammad has the Nation of Islam faced a potential crisis in the loss of its leader. Elijah died of congestive heart failure on the eve of the Annual Savior's Day in 1975. He had suffered from bronchitis for many years prior to his death. Louis Farrakhan believed he would replace Elijah Muhammad as the leader of the Nation of Islam and tried to convince several followers that he would take over leadership of the organization.
Farrakhan did not assume leadership of the organization however, and Warith Deen Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad, became the new leader. Warith gradually began making changes and eventually led the organization into orthodox Islam. Dissatisfied with the changes, Farrakhan left the group in 1977 and founded the "Original Nation of Islam." Farrakhan's new organization was based on the original teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
Arthur J. Magida, author of Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation, writing for the Religious News Service, reports that, "Overlooked in recent press accounts of the illness that has severely weakened Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is the debate among American Muslims over whether he may be trying to steer the sect toward Islamic orthodoxy." Magida continues, "While there has been no public statement by Farrakhan that he is divorcing himself from these central tenets of the Nation of Islam, he reportedly told a closed-door meeting here of Nation of Islam ministers from around the country in late January or early February that they should disregard the 'old teachings'."
It is also of note that in February, Warith Deen Mohammed attended jumma, the Islamic Friday prayer service, held in conjunction with the Nation of Islam's annual Savior's Day onvention. This marked Deen's first public appearance at a Nation of Islam event since his father's death. According to Magida, "After jumma, Warith Deen Mohammed told me that he had attended the worship service as a gesture toward Farrakhan since their 'religious differences didn't cause us to lose our friendship.' His presence, he added, was an endorsement of the direction in which he believed Farrakhan was taking the group."
If Farrakhan is indeed taking the group in a direction that would bring it in line with normative Islam, there are many in the organization that would not support him. This could cause a rift similar to what they faced in 1975.
While according to Nation of Islam sources, Farrakhan's death is not imminent; it is a reality that like Elijah Muhammad, he will die someday. In light of this current situation one cannot help but wonder if the Nation of Islam will be able to survive as it is today, or if it will again face the turmoil and restructuring that it did at the death of Elijah Muhammad.