In the Shadow of Death

A Mystery Virus Triggers Rumors of a Murder Plot Against the Cancer-Stricken Louis Farrakhan and Talk of a Power Struggle Inside His Nation Of Islam

Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, who is suffering from prostate cancer, may be dying. But it is not the cancer that is killing him, according to members of the Minister's Ruling council. Farrakhan, they charge, was poisoned in an assassination attempt by the U.S. government.

If Farrakhan, 65, dies— and it subsequently is determined that poisoning was not the cause of death— he would be the third prominent African American activist to succumb to prostate cancer in less than two years. Kwame Ture, the 1960s activist who popularized the phrase "Black Power," died on November 15 in his adopted homeland of Guinea, in West Africa.

He was 57. Shortly before he died, Ture blamed his death on "an FBI-induced cancer."

Ture's death came on the heels of the passing of Eldridge Cleaver, the fiery former Black Panther information minister, whose prison book Soul on Ice became the seminal work of the Black Power movement. He was 62.

One of the country's most visible African American leaders, Farrakhan has canceled all of his public appearances and faded from view as the Nation carries out an investigation into the alleged murder plot.

"The Minister says he knows who, he knows where, and he knows why; he just doesn't know what [was used to] poison him," says a Muslim insider with strong ties to the NOI's National Board of Laborers, which was set up by Farrakhan to run the organization during his absence. The source demanded anonymity.

He described how, on a visit to New York City in January, Farrakhan rapidly turned from an energetic leader into a man who would fall asleep at any place and time of the day, could not focus his attention for more than a few seconds, and appeared to be totally withdrawn from reality.

Last Wednesday night, shortly after Farrakhan, under tight security, was spirited out of Chicago's Hyde Park, where the NOI's palace is located, the board issued an alert to regional leaders, informing them that Farrakhan would be "gone for four months," the source says.

The Minister's whereabouts have become the main topic of conversation among concerned followers. In Harlem, a Farrakhan loyalist told the Voice that Farrakhan has considered returning to Libya, where he was treated for prostate cancer last year by the personal physicians of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy.

On February 26, after seven weeks out of public view, Farrakhan resurfaced at the NOI's annual Saviours' Day celebration in Chicago. His disappearance had been the talk of the Nation, prompting rumors that he was seriously ill with complications from radiation treatment for the cancer, and that he was dying.

Although he looked gaunt, Farrakhan gave the impression of being in excellent health, and in good form. "[T]hose of you who thought you would come out here to see a weak, fragile, decrepit Farrakhan, I want you to look at this," said the tanned and nattily attired Farrakhan, gesturing and thumping his chest amid wild cheers. "I am here and I'm strong," he declared, "and I will look down on all of my enemies for he [NOI late spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad] promised me . . . 'I [will] make all your enemies your footstool.' "

While some speculated that an assassination attempt might have originated from within his own Nation, Farrakhan fingered the usual suspect. "And if you doubt that I am from God and God is with me, and in me," he thundered, "then I say to the government of America, 'Lose no stone; do everything you can to destroy me and watch my God, Allah, destroy you, and ALL of my enemies!"

Rumors of the murder plot and Farrakhan's failing health heightened fears that an all-out power struggle— not seen since the breakup of the Nation of Islam following the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975— would erupt between hard-liners and moderates in the event of Farrakhan's death (see "The Pretenders").

Although Farrakhan has advocated that the National Board of Laborers should run the Nation in his absence, that body would be led by a point man of his choosing. Some say that such a role should be bequeathed to the supreme captain of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation's elite guard.

"If something should happen to the Minister, the person who immediately takes charge of the Nation of Islam— if it works right— is the supreme captain," says a NOI constitutional scholar who asked not to be identified. Others predict that the supreme captain eventually would break with the board and seize power himself in "a bloody or bloodless" military-style coup.

A recent uproar in the FOI over the possible recruitment of whites into the black separatist theocracy triggered speculation that Farrakhan was about to lose power.

According to an insider, Farrakhan had called a special Laborers meeting in which he planned to announce that he was considering allowing whites to join the Nation, but also would decree that his black disciples must not marry their white brothers or sisters. Usually, when testing reaction to controversial shifts in policy, the supreme captain and his lieutenants would rally to the Minister's side in a show of support.

"He couldn't find any of them," recalls the source. "He kept calling for them to join him on the stage." After the supreme captain and his men eventually took up positions alongside their leader, Farrakhan lashed out at them, charging that he was surrounded by hypocrites.

"He got that kind of talk from the Messenger [Elijah Muhammad], who often said, 'My ranks are honeycombed with hypocrites and disbelievers,' " the source says. "The Messenger would ask, 'How can we make progress with hypocrites on the panel?' And when he really got angry he would say, 'Right out of my own family Allah has made enemies for me among my wives and among my children.' "

The insider says that Farrakhan repeatedly expressed similar outrage to demonstrate his displeasure with errant followers. "He would get angry and just go off," the source says.

"Many times I heard him say, 'I am surrounded by hypocrites! My enemies are everywhere! In my family, you wanna see me dead because you want to take over! You want my position!' He would blast the Laborers and his own family every now and then."

Since Farrakhan allegedly is known for invoking Elijah Muhammad's tactics to ferret out political "hypocrites" within his inner circle, several former NOI members suspect that he might be feigning illness to determine who remains loyal to him. Farrakhan himself had told his followers stories about Elijah— who suffered from asthma and bronchitis— pretending to be near death to find out who was jockeying for position to replace him.

"He said on many occasions the Messenger would be lying there with his eyes closed, listening to different ones around him make plans," says a former military adviser to Farrakhan. "Some would say that he was too weak to make decisions. Suddenly he would get better and the ones who were plotting to take his place would begin to play innocent and loyal again, not knowing that he had seen them in a way that they could never imagine."

Farrakhan, according to the source, improved on his teacher's art of deception to the extent that he sometimes emerged from his act looking emaciated. "You never knew when the Minister's weight loss was due to illness," the source says. "There were times when he would go on a 21-day fast and he would be under the supervision of the elder nutritionist. He would lose 20 or more pounds during those periods and rumors would start flying."

Last month, in Chicago, Farrakhan, in an attempt to quell rumors that he had stepped down from the leadership of the Nation of Islam, seemed only to exacerbate fears among followers. The usually jovial, philosophical, and down-to-earth Farrakhan spoke of his absence in solemn tones.

"I have been ill now for . . . between six and seven weeks," he told a rapt audience of 25,000 at the McCormick Place Convention Center. "Although I am nearing 66 years of age, I have never been ill like this in my life. If it were, or is, a virus, several doctors that were working on me have not found that necessarily to be so. And if it is, it is an assumption."

Farrakhan fell short of airing allegations that he was poisoned. "This illness took me down so fast that I lost nearly 20 pounds in less than two weeks," he added, "and all the muscle mass that I have built in eight years of my weight training had turned to flab. This concerned me greatly. I had no appetite: night sweats, pain, bouts of insomnia. I was anemic, dehydrated, [suffering from] a loss of hemoglobin. But I thank Allah, the healer, for gradually returning my health and my strength back to me."

On this occasion, Farrakhan publicly praised his doctors, Abdul Alim Muhammad and Gregory Muhammad "and the members of my family who care for me studiously and compassionately looked after me."

On March 4, 1998, after returning from a grueling "World Friendship Tour III," during which he had crisscrossed the U.S. and Africa, Farrakhan broke a long tradition of secrecy over the health of Nation leaders, and bared the details of his efforts to combat his cancer.

"Now, I'm gonna say something to you that I haven't said publicly, but I am saying it now . . . because I think we have gotten past it," he told members of the media after a black leadership summit at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem. "You know Brother Farrakhan has been suffering from cancer and I learned that I had the prostate cancer in 1991. I fasted and I prayed, and I thought it went away. Then we discovered it coming back in 1993 or ['94] and I went to a very great doctor; had what they call the seed-implantation therapy, and took these hormones— the kinds of things that they do when you have prostate cancer."

He said that in 1997 a blood test showed that "specific antigens [had risen] beyond the point that is normal." Monthly follow-up blood tests indicated that the antigens had not dropped and Farrakhan grew worried.

After visiting 15 cities in the U.S., Farrakhan detoured to Washington, D.C., where, as he put it, "a great Greek doctor, along with my beautiful black doctors," conducted a series of tests and biopsies and discovered the cancer had spread to the seminal vesicles.

"They really did a job and they put in me about 238 radiated seeds," he recalled. After another "cutting-edge test," Farrakhan was fitted with a radioactive isotope, which, he said, "attaches itself to these antigens" and "everywhere there is cancer [in your body] you just light up."

The tests produced good and bad news. "Something lit up around the aorta, man, and my doctor was nervous, frightened," Farrakhan said.

Undaunted, Farrakhan embarked on the African leg of his tour with Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, never dismissing the fact that he "would have to deal with this ugly fella, cancer, because it's like death is in your body and you can't play with it; it's like a thief in your house with a gun in his hand."

Despite his will to live, Farrakhan felt he would die in Africa.

He began to think about Kwame Ture's own struggle with prostate cancer and how "one of the most marvelous human beings that we have" had "beaten the hell outta death" by continuing to travel, still advocating the Black Power ideology he had championed so forcefully during the 1960s. "Well, I got strength from him, you know, I said, 'Hell, if I gotta go, I'm going out swinging,' " he reminisced.

What happened next in this modern-day allegory, as interpreted by Farrakhan, further convinced the devout Muslim that Allah had found a way to assure him that his life would be spared, at least on the Africa trip.

Upon arriving in the Republic of Mali, a mostly Islamic West African country, president Alpha Konare summoned Farrakhan and his delegation to his palace for dinner. Farrakhan said that Konare unexpectedly excused himself from the dinner table and returned with a bowl of kola nuts and a bleating white ram.

"This is the way we honor our great personalities who come to visit," Farrakhan quoted the African leader as saying. "We give them kola nuts and . . . our prized ram."

The ram was tied to a tree outside the guest house where Farrakhan was staying. "Every morning," he recalled, "I would go and talk to my ram. It's true. I have sheep at my li'l farm and I love my sheep; I will never eat them. Never. Never. Never," he joked.

After meeting the next day with officials and other public figures, Farrakhan eagerly returned to his guest house to talk to the ram, "hold him, pet him, and [then] go to sleep."

On the eve of his departure, a woman approached Farrakhan. "Minister Farrakhan, I'm going to slaughter the [ram]," he recalled her saying.

"No, you can't slaughter the [ram]," Farrakhan pleaded. "Can't you give it away to somebody?"

"Oh no," the woman cautioned, "it was already given by the president to you. So [either] you slaughter the [ram] or you have to take it with you."

"I can't take the ram on this big chartered jet," Farrakhan argued.

Reluctantly, the Minister released the ram. According to the ritual, "they're supposed to slaughter it in your face, but my face [couldn't] take it," Farrakhan recalled.

"So they took my ram out of my sight and slaughtered it," he added. "That afternoon, there was my ram on the table. And my wife and the delegation tore that ram up. I couldn't eat one bit of that ram."

As Farrakhan departed Mali, bearing gifts from government officials, he remarked that of all the gifts he had received the most cherished was "the gift of the life of my ram." Farrakhan broke down crying.

"Big man crying over a ram," he chuckled. "Supposed to be a tough guy, you know. But I began to think spiritually of Abraham and his son and how the son was willing to die if it pleases God," Farrakhan explained. "I went to Africa thinking that it would be the last time that I would see Africa and maybe I didn't have much longer to live. But I just wanted to be sure that we [African Americans] would be alright. And because I was willing to die, as it was in the story of Abraham and the ram, God at the last minute took Ishmael off the altar and placed the ram on the altar in his place."

As the tears gushed out and cascaded down his face, Farrakhan told his Malian friends, "The ram died in my place that I might live to continue to do this work."

Additional reporting by Karen Mahabir


The Pretenders

Several members of the Nation of Islam hierarchy are being rumored as possible successors to Minister Louis Farrakhan in the event of his demise. Among the front-runners are:

Mustapha Farrakhan,the minister's son, who is assistant supreme captain of the Fruit of Islam. A former military adviser to Farrakhan says that Mustapha, a handsome, poker-faced soldier who shadows his father's every move during lectures, "is ambitious enough" to aspire to the leadership. "Although he is the assistant supreme captain, the supreme captain really is his assistant," the ex-adviser claims. "He does not have the depth of knowledge but he's stood next to his father long enough," the adviser adds. In a power struggle, Mustapha would command the support of the supreme captain, Abdul Sharrieff Muhammad, who is a loyal friend.

Donna Farrakhan,one of the minister's daughters, who is the sister captain of the FOI.

Leonard F. Muhammad,the minister's taciturn chief of staff and chair of the National Board of Laborers, who is married to Donna. Considered a diplomat and a conciliator, Leonard, according to one source, is "not the power-hungry type."

Ishmael Muhammad,Farrakhan's assistant minister at Mosque Maryam in Chicago, and the son of the late Elijah Muhammad. Some say that Ishmael is destined to fulfill Elijah's prophecy that one day he would rise up to continue the work of his father. "Farrakhan has been grooming him," a source says. "Even though people were angry, he just pushed him out there and he made him grow and grow and grow. People are saying, 'This is a boy, he can't counsel me.' "

Rasul Muhammad,Ishmael's brother, who is the seventh regional minister, based in Miami, and the former head of Detroit's prestigious Mosque Number 1. Some say the brothers don't get along. ("You can feel the tension sometimes between Rasul and Ishmael," a source says.) Rasul allegedly fell into disrepute after he shunned a number of black Muslim women he had been dating and took, as one insider put it, a "white-looking Mexican girl" as his wife. After black women in the mosque nearly revolted, Farrakhan reassigned Rasul to Miami.

Jabril Muhammad,the former Bernard Cushmere, is a trusted Farrakhan adviser, whom the minister credits with "removing the scales" from his eyes and guiding him back to Elijah Muhammad's original teachings. Jabril writes a weekly column entitled "Farrakhan: The Traveler," in The Final Call, the NOI's newspaper. He is the author of several studies on Black Muslim prophecy, including The Jesus Book and This Is The One, which features a historical interview with Elijah.

When the Nation of Islam split following Elijah's death, and Elijah's son Wallace assumed control, Jabril reportedly threatened to expose Wallace as a hypocrite for denouncing his father as a racist. Jabril claimed that he had sensitive predictions about Wallace's future based on interviews he'd conducted with the prophetic Elijah.

According to a popular Nation legend, shortly before Jabril and Silis Muhammad— who now heads a splinter group called the Lost-Found Nation of Islam— were to confront Wallace, Jabril was arrested on trumped-up charges in Arizona. "He didn't get the chance to foil Wallace's takeover," a source says. To this day, Farrakhan's followers still hold Wallace's camp responsible. (Wallace has consistently refused to respond to these charges.)

Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad,the NOI's minister of health and one of Farrakhan's personal physicians. Alim attracted national attention in the early '90s for advocating Kemron, low-dosage alpha interferon, as a cure for AIDS.

Benjamin F. Muhammad,Farrakhan's chief representative in New York— the former Ben Chavis, who was forced to resign from the NAACP in 1994 after he was charged with secretly diverting $250,000 of the organization's funds to settle a sex-discrimination suit. Farrakhan came to Benjamin's rescue, first appointing the Christian minister co-convener of the historic Million Youth March and later converting him to Islam. Benjamin has since become one of Farrakhan's most trusted advisers. Not fully accepted within the Nation by some because they fear he may take the group mainstream, Benjamin has opened doors previously closed to the allegdly anti-Semitic Farrakhan. Although the cloud of scandal has not yet lifted from this militant former member of the Wilmington 10, Benjamin is considered a formidable potential successor to Farrakhan. Peter Noel & Karen Mahabir

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