WHEN LOS ANGELES-born Samir Muqaddin was eight, his family took him to visit relatives in the South. The year was 1948 and the laws of segregation were in full force. For Muqaddin, who is black, it was a shattering experience that left him seething with rage against white America. By the time he came of age in the early days of the civil rights era his anger was at the boiling point. In 1963 he began to attend meetings of the one group he believed capable of lifting African-Americans out of the degradation he so hated--the Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad.
"The Nation represented to me the only people who backed up what they said," Muqaddin explained. "The NAACP couldn't do it and the Black Panthers couldn't even do it. I figured only the Nation could properly watch my back while I resisted the racist culture. These were people who put their lives on the line."
At 54, Muqaddin, a television and video producer in Los Angeles, is no longer angry at white America and no longer associated with the Nation of Islam. Today he is a follower of Elijah Muhammad's son, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, and over Labor Day weekend Muqaddin was one of nearly 10,000 African-American Muslims who, according to convention organizers, attended the group's annual gathering in Washington, D.C. "I was able to get past my anger by seeing a future," said Muqaddin, "and that future was God. That was my way out."
Muqaddin's personal story reflects the route taken by the ministry of W. Deen Mohammed, which claims an estimated 1.5 million followers--converts to a religion they say their ancestors practiced before they were brought to the New World as slaves and forced to accept Christianity. Overseas, Mohammed is regarded as a spokesman for Islam in the U.S. At home he hopes soon to be able to unite African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslims into one ummah, or Muslim community.
While the Nation of Islam under his father taught black separation, hatred of whites and a highly unorthodox brand of Islam, Mohammed preaches racial equality and full immersion as mainstream Muslims in all aspects of American society. "We're identifying with the beauty of America, the ideas of the founding fathers that good Americans cherish," said Yahya Abdullah of Dallas, one of 23 imams, or spiritual leaders, who constitute the loosely organized group's national leadership body.
The ministry's Labor Day weekend convention, its first in Washington, was meant to underscore its arrival on the American scene as a mature religious movement, one that has long since shed its social protest origins and is now intent upon securing its rightful place at America's interfaith table. "We are not a political movement, we are not an economic community," declared Abdullah. "We are a religious community."
Ministry officials repeatedly condemned the racially controversial rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan, with whom they say they are too often confused. They explain their past allegiance to ideas still being taught by Farrakhan as a necessary step in their evolution from downtrodden descendants of slaves to spiritually and morally uplifted individuals.
Elijah Muhammad "did great psychological work in re-establishing our shattered egos," said Imam Faheem Shuaibe of Oakland. "But if you define yourself by race, as a black man, you can only go as far as your blackness can take you."
Farrakhan broke with W. Deen Mohammed after the latter repudiated his father's teachings following Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975. Farrakhan today leads one of three splinter groups that still call themselves the Nation of Islam. He is believed to have no more than 10,000 followers, although he has drawn many more to public talks and garners far more media attention than the noncontroversial Mohammed.
During a stirring two-hour talk September 4 which was the convention's high point, Mohammed urged Farrakhan's followers to put aside their notion of a separate nation and join the Muslim mainstream. …