When Imam W. Deen Mohammed ascends a wooden podium at the Los Angeles Convention Center here tomorrow, the gaze of 20,000 Nation of Islam faithful will rest upon his countenance for Friday prayer.
The proceeding, an orthodox Islamic ritual known as Jummah, will mark an important milestone for the famously radical group headed by Louis Farrakhan.
Known for his inflammatory black nationalist ideology, Mr. Farrakhan has been seeking a more moderate profile - and reconciliation with the broad majority of African-American Muslims.
It's been evident, in the past two years, in his toned-down rhetoric since a recovery from illness. Now, in a sign of softening perhaps heightened by Sept. 11, Mr. Farrakhan has invited longtime rival Imam Mohammed, who leads the largest group of African American Muslims, to conduct the special prayer this week at the Nation of Islam's annual convention here.
For decades, Farrakhan's much smaller band of followers has largely ignored the Jummah, a pillar of practice for most Muslims. Mohammed's appearance at the dais represents a further step in a detente that could help end 26 years of division between the two groups - at a time when the American Muslims face renewed public scrutiny.
"The fact that Farrakhan has asked Rev. Mohammed to lead the ... Jummah ... at his organization's biggest event will be one of the most important healing gestures in the history of Islam in America," says Imam Faheem Shuaibe, of Masjid Waritheen in Oakland, Calif. "This is the stitching of a wound that has lasted for decades. The only thing after that will be to wait for natural healing."
Mr. Farrakhan is expected to praise and embrace Mohammed, a sign of easing in divisions over ideology going back to 1976. It may also reflect a chastening of heart for Mr. Farrakhan in the wake of Sept. 11 attacks on America by terrorists claiming Islamic faith as a motivation.