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Former 'black Muslims' try to shed separatist image

The Nation of Islam of the early 1960s - with fiery leaders such as Malcolm X advocating separatism, a black nation, and a black Islam in which there were ''no white prophets'' - no longer exists.

Policy changes since the turbulent '60s and '70s have transformed the former ''black Muslims'' into a more orthodox religion. Now called the American Muslim Mission, a part of the international Islamic movement, the religion admits whites as converts. And the mission has developed a new rapport with the non-Islamic world through with projects in education, economics, and land development.

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But even now the Muslims are rocked by conflicts - including a split within the movement and controversy over a committee which seeks to eliminate the image of a white Jesus in community churches. One faction, based in Atlanta, recently called a press conference to announce it wants the US government to help it resettle back ''home'' in Africa or Asia. It also espoused black separatism from ''uncivilized'' whites.

Before the movement's heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, blacks considered it an inner-city sect. It was founded in Detroit in 1930 by W. Fard Muhammad, succeeded by Elijah Muhammad, also known as Mr. Muhammad and the Messenger of Allah, who moved the headquarters to Chicago. It grew slowly, then exploded on the scene during the civil-rights movement as a militant alternative to the nonviolence of Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Muhammad was been succeeded by his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, now imam of the mission.

Revisions in doctrine have led to some disaffection. The top defector is Louis Farrakhan, once a protege of Malcolm X and a leading spokesman for the movement. He has organized the new Nation of Islam, also based in the Windy City , reviving the doctrines of Elijah Muhammad, which he says have been abandoned.

Where are the Muslims headed today? Some scholars claim the movement has taken root in the United States.

''Imam Warith D. Muhammad is destined to become a major force in America and one of the most influential men in the world,'' said religious scholar and historian C.Eric Lincoln recently at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. Mr. Farrakhan is likely to be the heir of the ''original black Muslim'' tradition, he added. ''Neither organization claims the title of 'black Muslims,' however.''

The ''new Muslims'' have outgrown their origin as anti-white ''black Muslims'' in the depressed areas of Detroit and Chicago, says Preston Williams, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School.

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''The American Muslim Mission followers feel that original Muslim goals - education, health care, family stability, and economic development - are being achieved, and they can move with pride into the American mainstream,'' he explains. ''Louis Farrakhan's movement still has room for a unique religious orientation, angry blacks making radical protest because they feel they have no stake in American society.''

The two Muslim groups coexist - the mission as part of the orthodox world movement, the Nation of Islam catering to blacks only. Both are growing, say Dr. Lincoln, long a chronicler of the Muslims, although ''no exact figures'' on membership are available.

Both groups say they have changed their policies to improve relations with whites and Christian religious organizations. Each sponsors syndicated weekly religious radio broadcasts and publishes its own newspaper.

A number of key changes in the American Muslim Mission have been made under Imam Muhammad, including:

* The name, from the Nation of Islam to the American Muslim Mission. The movement identifies with mainstream Islam and Mecca, away from its identity under Mr. Muhammad as a black nation.

* Attitudes toward white people, from ''devils'' to acceptable as members.

* Mosques and temples are now called masjid or Islamic centers. Pews have been removed from the main sanctuary and replaced by carpeting, upon which worshippers sit, bow, and kneel in prayer.

* Various auxiliaries have been dissolved or changed. The once-feared Fruit of Islam, the militaristic security arm of the old Muslims, no longer exists. The newspaper has been changed from Muhammad Speaks to the A. M. (American Muslim) Journal.

* Education - revamping of system. The mission has opened a new college, the American Muslim Teacher College, in Sedalia, N.C., on the campus of the old Palmer Memorial Institute, once a select private school for middle-class blacks in the days of segregated schools. A preparatory school is scheduled to open on the campus in 1984. Non-Muslims will be accepted at both schools.

Imam Muhammad expresses ''humility in a soft-spoken, low-key presence, maintaining key objectives of his father - education, economic development, land development,'' said the Rev. Fletcher Bryant, director of the Florida A&M Religious Activities Center.

The mission's new rapport with the non-Islamic world faces conflict in two areas: legal conflict over the estate of Elijah Muhammad, which could involve mission assets, and reaction over CRAID (Committee for the Removal of All Images that attempt to portray the Divine).

CRAID seeks to eliminate ''the image of a white Jesus'' in churches, says Jabir Shakoor, leader of the Boston CRAID who has been nominated to become national director. ''We are walking (demonstrating) for the removal of images that promote racism.''

He and other speakers insisted at a recent workshop that this movement is not ''racist'' nor ''anti-white.'' Longtime observers suggest that CRAID street demonstrations may be a flashback to the ''black power'' days of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

Zeotha Rafia Hameed of Newark, N.J., CRAID's northeast regional chairman, says the organization has sprouted across the country in the past 18 months - holding a statewide conference in South Carolina, a meeting in Queens, N.Y., a multireligious gathering at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and activities in other cities.

In Boston, CRAID demonstrators have upset the black religious community with recent marches around black churches.

''I grew up and worshipped in the South in churches with stained-glass windows, and never was taught and never saw God as being white or of any race,'' says the Rev. Jonathan Robinson, president of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and pastor of St. Mark's Congregational Church.

The Boston mosque of the Nation of Islam is not part of the CRAID effort and does not support it, says minister Marc X. The Nation of Islam's large-scale goal is to establish The Honorable Elijah Muhammad National Center in Chicago, to include a 1,200-seat auditorium, an ultramodern restaurant, and various businesses, including a bakery plant, health-food store, bookstore, and hairdresser, and ''job training'' classrooms.

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