Nations of Islam at War

Two Factions of the Black Muslim Movement Clash Over a Newspaper Route, But the Roots of the Conflict Are Much Deeper

When firebombers lobbed an arsenal of molotov cocktails into a tiny mosque in Washington, D.C., last month, officials in the Atlanta-based Lost-Found Nation Of Islam— a splinter group vying for control of the black Muslim movement— feared the worst. A battle over a newspaper route between followers of Lost-Found leader Silis Muhammad and members of the rival and more powerful Nation of Islam led by Minister Louis Farrakhan had erupted in all-out war.

Arson investigators with the Washington, D.C., Fire Department and agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are investigating a motive behind the bombing.

Black Muslim insiders, however, speculate that Silis, the reclusive 59-year-old publisher of Muhammad Speaks, the Lost-Found's official organ, has been attempting to boost sales in black neighborhoods since it was rumored two months ago that the cancer-stricken Farrakhan— who publishes the more popular Final Call newspaper— was dying. Farrakhan's failing health has reignited a power struggle among splinter groups such as the one led by Silis.

Silis Muhammad: Did his claim to be a "prophet like Moses" spark a 20-year feud?
Silis Muhammad: Did his claim to be a "prophet like Moses" spark a 20-year feud?

But the roots of the current conflict are much deeper. A controversy surrounding an extraordinary meeting 20 years ago between Silis and Farrakhan still rages. Some say a defeated Silis left a faceoff in disgrace. And that, in addition to Silis's relentless quest for political rehabilitation, remains the catalyst for tension between the two sects.

In 1979, Yusef Bey, a captain in the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, arranged a long-sought meeting between Silis and Farrakhan, then the emerging, charismatic chief minister of the NOI.

Many arguments divided the factions: Elijah Muhammad, patriarch of the Nation of Islam, had been dead less than four years when his own son, Wallace, denounced him; declared that the NOI's white founder, W.D. Fard, was not Allah; rejected separatism; and decentralized the theocracy, moving it toward orthodox Islam.

A "holy war," as Silis would later put it, ensued. Farrakhan, who joined the NOI in the 1950s and played a major role in creating the atmosphere that led to the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, broke away from Wallace in 1977 and organized a new Nation of Islam, which returned to preaching Elijah's anti-white philosophy. Farrakhan, who was Elijah's spokesman until "the Saviour" 's death, began to project himself as Elijah's undisputed heir. That angered Silis, who, in a counter measure, proclaimed that not only was Elijah Muhammad Moses but that he, Silis, was "the prophet like Moses [who] came for war."

When Silis wasn't trying to convince a skeptical Farrakhan that he was divinely inspired, he was waging war against Wallace. Under NOI teachings, Wallace is regarded as the "false prophet" sent to test 144,000 of Elijah's followers, who, according to Abass Rassoull, leader of the United Nation of Islam faction, would be "genetically coded to become the actual new rulers" of the world.

For several months in 1979, Silis taunted Farrakhan, accusing him of being afraid to openly condemn Wallace. With tension increasing between the two groups, it was only a matter of time before the spiritual sons of Elijah Muhammad sat down.

Although Farrakhan felt he was being set up by Bey (who is now dead) and Silis, aides recall that he nevertheless appeared at a now defunct Muslim-owned bakery in California. What transpired during several hours of acrimonious debate that dragged on past midnight has evolved into years of internecine violence, allegedly culminating in the attack four weeks ago on the Lost-Found mosque.

Around 1:30 a.m. on April 25, Molotov cocktails crashed against a steel-reinforced door of the mosque, located in the 2900 block of 12th Street in northeast Washington. A janitor, who was inside cleaning, extinguished the flames with a bucket of water, mosque captain Hasan Al-Jihad told The Washington Post.

Al-Jihad charged that two days before the incident, Farrakhan's men had harassed some of Silis's people as they were selling special editions of Muhammad Speaks in a black neighborhood and at a mall. The Nation of Islam did not return phone calls for comment. Minister Khalid Hadi, Silis's representative in New York, says that the firebombing of the mosque "raises suspicion that . . . Farrakhan and his followers may be acting as agents of the government of America to thwart the aim and purpose of Silis," who has criticized Farrakhan for urging his own followers to vote and for considering bringing whites into the NOI.

"We will not be intimidated or moved by acts of aggression and terrorism," vows Hadi, whose organization itself was linked to violence in the early 1980s after several followers were convicted on charges ranging from beating travelers along Interstate 75 to murder. (Says Hadi: "It has never been confirmed that they were members.")

Shortly after the attack, Silis, who lives in east Cobb County about 10 miles from Atlanta, proposed "a treaty of everlasting peace between all factions, branches, and sects" of the black Muslim movement.

"We have no jealousy of Minister Louis Farrakhan's greatness, and there is nothing in this proposed peace agreement that impairs it," Silis said in a statement. "We do not wish to fight him with arms or hostile words," he added.

Farrakhan, according to Minister Hadi, has not acknowledged Silis's call for an end to the violence. Some say that after all these years Farrakhan hasn't forgotten an alleged stunt that Silis pulled under the pretext of unifying the Nation against Wallace Muhammad.

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