Abdul Alim Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's first candidate for Congress and Louis Farrakhan's national spokesman, will not forget his first steps into a hostile world more than 30 years ago: As he walked to the corner school bus stop, a black child in a white neighborhood, he was followed by his father's watchful eyes, trailing him protectively from behind a telescopic rifle.

Muhammad's father, a postal worker who had proudly moved his family into an all-white Pennsylvania subdivision of manicured lawns and neat brick houses, had heard that neighbors planned to force him out through attacks on his children. He proclaimed that he would use the gun if any harm came to them. As Muhammad and his sister left the house each morning, they were warned to keep their backs straight, their eyes focused straight ahead -- to say nothing, to provoke no one.

"I'll never forget it, the day the moving vans came down the street. All of the whites were in their yards and they blocked the street and told {the movers}, 'You've got to take these niggers back,' " Muhammad recalls.

"My father told them, 'If something happens to my children, then something might happen to your children.' He just could not tolerate injustice and he would not tolerate injustice. That's another way I take after him; I hate to see people mistreated or abused."

There is in Muhammad's composed recollection a glimpse of the stoic boy taught to suppress not only his fears but his outrage. That child has become a man hardened by rigid self-discipline and control. Tall and slim, with impeccable bearing, he rarely lets down his guard. He has never erased the memory of his early mistreatment, and he has never quite forgiven it.

Muhammad came of age in the 1960s convinced that blacks suffered from such glaring inequities and prejudices that it was useless for them to turn to the white-controlled American political system for justice. The perception was articulated best by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the fiery Nation of Islam leader who would become his spiritual mentor and who, two years ago, chose Muhammad as his national spokesman.

Now, with Farrakhan's blessing, the 41-year-old Muhammad has changed his approach. Instead of fighting it, he wants to join it. His target is the congressional seat of Democrat Steny Hoyer, the formidable incumbent in Maryland's rapidly changing 5th District.

Muhammad's sudden embrace of mainstream politics (he registered to vote a few months ago) is one of his life's many ironies. Although he grew up surrounded by whites and was educated in respected white-dominated universities, he has devoted his adult life to the cause of black separatism. Trained as a surgeon, he has virtually abandoned the practice of medicine to serve the Nation of Islam. Although cast by his critics as anti-white and antisemitic -- an impression he has fueled with numerous public pronouncements -- Muhammad calls himself the victim of gross misunderstanding. He has engaged in racial rhetoric, he says, only because extreme language has been necessary to drive home his message.

Now, as a candidate in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, he talks of the Nation of Islam's "universal message" and contends that the movement has been most critical of blacks themselves, challenging them in harsh language to reclaim control of their own lives. And in what some Jews say is the ultimate irony, Muhammad now says he will appeal to the politically active Jewish community, among others, and expects to win its support.

Muhammad's unorthodox challenge to Hoyer, chairman of the powerful House Democratic Caucus and a fixture in Prince George's County politics for two decades, has generated more discomfort than any race in the district's recent history.

The 5th District covers most of the county, whose growing black population was last estimated at nearly 50 percent. When the 1990 census figures are tabulated, those numbers most likely will show that Prince George's has a majority black population -- and, the Nation of Islam believes, a radically different balance of power.

The Nation decided to challenge Hoyer, according to Muhammad, because "we don't think there is anything wrong with majority rule. If it's good for Nelson Mandela, it's good for the District of Columbia. It's good for Prince George's County. We just think it's the most natural thing in the world for a predominantly black district, the 5th District, to be represented by someone who is black."

The county's long-dominant Democratic Party leadership has always tried to minimize or even deny the existence of racial politics, arguing that blacks and whites are working together harmoniously on mutual concerns. Confident of reelection, Hoyer has largely ignored Muhammad, refusing at most campaign functions even to acknowledge the existence of a Democratic challenger.

Although their paths have not yet crossed on the campaign trail, reports of Muhammad's movements filter back to Hoyer's camp. There are Muhammad's weekend voter registration drives in the county's black neighborhoods, efforts that have attracted loyal Nation followers from around the country to help knock on doors. There are his public appearances, sometimes with Farrakhan at his side, which have revealed a polished speaking style and brought warm reactions from his largely black audiences. And, most upsetting to Hoyer's followers, there is the national media attention that Muhammad has easily won because of his links to Farrakhan and the David-and-Goliath dimensions of the race.

Muhammad now promises to bring large numbers of previously unregistered blacks to the polls for the September primary, the only real contest in a largely one-party county. So far, county election officials say they have counted 17,894 new voter registrations since last year, a number they attribute to their own get-out-the-vote campaign. The Nation of Islam says it hopes to see an increase of 30,000 voters by the Aug. 13 registration deadline. This is a county, Muhammad's supporters note, that backed presidential candidate Jesse Jackson after a strong grass-roots organizing effort among the county's blacks.

Muhammad has made some black political leaders in Prince George's nervous because Farrakhan has portrayed them as lap dogs of the white establishment. When Farrakhan appeared in Washington in May to endorse Muhammad, his opening salvo was directed at state Sen. Albert Wynn, one of the county's most influential black politicians. Farrakhan derisively called him "Tonto" for describing Muhammad as the "Lone Ranger" candidate in an early newspaper article about Muhammad's race.

Wynn says he and Muhammad patched things up. But black candidates who intend to run on a unified Democratic ticket led by Hoyer have watched with trepidation as some black office-seekers, such as county council candidate Steve Brown, the head of the local NAACP chapter, have aligned themselves publicly with Muhammad in an unofficial black unity issue platform.

Muhammad's campaign also has historic significance for the 10,000-member Nation of Islam. The Chicago-based organization, which also is fielding candidates for a school board post (Shawn X. Brakeen) and the delegate's seat in the District of Columbia (George X. Cure), has never before offered candidates for public office. In fact, Farrakhan has never supported any political candidate in the past, other than his friend Jesse Jackson in the 1984 presidential campaign, and that assistance had decidedly mixed results.

Farrakhan, who has expressed disgust with the moral quality of current elected officials, says the Muslims now have entered politics to ensure the possibility of "good leadership, courageous leadership, incorruptible leadership" at the highest levels.

Muhammad has used the same theme in his criticism of Hoyer, calling him the "consummate insider" who has been "bought and paid for" by unspecified special interest groups. Hoyer's spokesman, Charles Seigel, dismissed the charge, saying the congressman has a "25-year record of representing all the people in the county. His voting record has demonstrated that consistently."

Muhammad's platform, which is more theoretical than specific, emphasizes social concerns such as poverty, crime, housing and drug abuse. For example, he would like to see more federal money in efforts like the Muslims' much-touted "Dopebusters" program, with its goal of eradicating drug dealing and abuse in the black community.

"People are calling us -- the black people of America -- a permanent underclass. They're saying things about our children -- a lost generation," Muhammad declared. "So when you have leadership that has no answers, no solutions, who subscribe to this 'lost generation' concept, business as usual, then we have to reject that kind of leadership. Because if we stay with that leadership beyond a certain point then our extinction is assured."

Mookie to Muhammad A few weeks after Muhammad registered to vote in Prince George's County, listing his address and telephone number, he was taken aback when a reporter called him at home. "Where did you get my number?" he demanded, referring the caller to his campaign headquarters.

"I've always been very covetous of my privacy," he said later, "so I think, personally, there's a little difficulty in always being in the public eye and people listening very carefully to every word that you say and maybe digging into some private affairs."

Muhammad contends that the Nation of Islam has been guarded and suspicious of reporters because they sometimes act as "agents," gathering reams of personal information for purposes that are never clear. But he insists he has nothing to hide from anyone. His campaign, for example, intends to be "fully compliant" with all federal campaign disclosure laws. He also says he has been advised to "be nice" to the press, which he and Farrakhan have attacked frequently for what they call distorted reporting.

Accordingly, Muhammad talked freely during a 90-minute interview about his background, his political philosophy and his allegiance to Farrakhan -- who will play an important role in the campaign, he says.

The interview was conducted at the Nation of Islam's drug clinic in Paradise Manor, a bleak apartment complex off Kenilworth Avenue in Northeast Washington and the latest scene of the urban missionary work that has become the Nation's specialty. Muhammad and his followers believe that through their daily presence and work with drug-dependent residents, the Muslims will rid the complex of drug activity, much as they did at the nearby Mayfair Mansions apartments a few years ago.

On the way to the conference room for the interview, Muhammad stopped first to greet an elderly man seated in the lobby, embracing him and chatting warmly. Turning to the reporter, his eyes turned cold and composed. They would not warm again until he started reliving some of the pleasant memories of his youth, and even then it seemed a struggle for him to keep down his guard.

Muhammad looked stylish in a tweed jacket accentuated by the thin, black bow tie that is standard dress among the movement's male followers. He sat at the head of a conference table, his back ramrod straight, his hands folded, his speech slow and articulate. At his side, wordlessly monitoring the Nation's own tape recorder, was Cure, who in addition to being a candidate for the seat being vacated by District of Columbia Del. Walter Fauntroy, is also the Nation's legal adviser. Under Cure's watchful gaze, he recounted his life story.

Muhammad was born Maurice Peters Jr. in York, Pa., a small city that erupted in protest in the 1960s over charges of police brutality against black youths. His father, who had a long history of involvement in civil rights questions, played a major role in organizing the protest.

Maurice Peters Sr. discovered that York's so-called "Canine Corps" had become an accepted means of quelling disturbances in black neighborhoods, and he went before his church to paint the consequences in graphic detail. "These were kids who needed a father to take them out back and kick their butts," he recalled in an interview, "not a squad of dogs sicked on them." When their protests erupted into a summer of violence, Peters took a lead role in negotiating a settlement with the city's all-white leadership.

When Muhammad was 10, his father moved the family out of a black neighborhood into an all-white suburb named Shiloh. A black maid who worked for one of their white neighbors brought back reports of a neighborhood meeting to force Peters out, a threat he took seriously.

Peters said he armed himself and waited.

"The rumor was they were going to whip up on my kids on their way to and from school, so I prepared myself for that. I would have deeply regretted having to defend myself or my children in a physical way, but I would have done it without any hesitation," the father remembered.

After an early period of tension, the family -- and the neighbors -- adjusted. But their continued ostracism left certain scars. "We have neighbors to this day who never said one word to us," Muhammad recalled, his voice tensing at the memory. "But for the most part, we were accepted."

For a time, Muhammad and his sister were the only blacks in West York High School. He excelled as a musician -- he played the trombone -- and became a National Merit Scholar and the class poet. His friends called him "Mookie," an affectionate family nickname that his father said was Indian for "Little Lizard."

After high school, Mookie joined other young, ambitious blacks in an exodus from the city. "If you were going into anything other than teaching or the ministry, you left York. We were the second-class citizens," recalled childhood friend Julia Mae Hines, now a York school principal.

In 1966, Muhammad enrolled in Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to study poetry. But midway through college, he changed his plans after joining the Nation of Islam. Poets, he said, were of minimal value in a religion devoted to the survival of the threatened black race.

He adopted the name Maurice X, dropping the surname of his slave ancestors and his Baptist roots. He became involved in the college's black separatist movement. His new attitude did not sit well with his father.

"When he came home from college on a visit, having just embraced Islam, his demeanor was that of a put-down. He was rejecting his friends, rejecting me," Peters recalled. But he brought his father a treasured gift, a copy of the Koran. Now, the elder Peters reads it daily, calling himself a "natural Muslim." Yet he rarely sees his son and rejects the preachings of Farrakhan.

Determined to devote himself to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad -- who urged blacks to sever relations with whites and devote themselves to black separatism and survival -- Maurice X searched for a profession in which he could make his biggest contribution to the cause. He switched his major to biology and breezed through the pre-med program in two years. He decided to become a surgeon, the most demanding profession he could envision for himself.

He was accepted at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, one of 14 black students in a medical school of 120. The blacks formed their own study group, and when some of its members faced expulsion for poor grades, the study group confronted school administrators and won the reinstatement of one student.

"We were all very similar," recalled his classmate, Harold Butler, who practices medicine in Cleveland. "The Beverly Hills-type practice was not something we aspired to. We all wanted to practice among urban minorities."

In addition to his studies, Muhammad was involved in a Cleveland mosque as an assistant to its minister, Theodore X. The mosque had dispatched Muslims into the streets to drive narcotics out of the city's ghettos. "After the Muslims went in, you didn't find these criminal elements bothering you at all," said Harlel X. Jones, who now directs a rehabilitation center in Cleveland. He remembers Muhammad as "one of the most decent and honorable black men to ever come through our community."

Muhammad decided to seek a medical residency at New York's Harlem Hospital. He was attracted not only to the hospital's tradition of service to blacks but also to the Harlem ministry of Louis Farrakhan, then a national spokesman for Elijah Muhammad.

Farrakhan had attracted a wide following with his strongly worded teachings of black separatism. Muhammad first heard the bow-tied Farrakhan speak in person in 1974. He was mesmerized: "I realized that this man really had the key to effecting the solution as far as black people were concerned, because the problem exists on a mass level. He was the man who had the capability to act on the scale at which the problem existed."

Muhammad longed to study under Farrakhan while pursuing his medical career. But by the time Muhammad reached Harlem Hospital, Farrakhan had moved to Chicago. So the young doctor's plans were put on hold while he worked 100-hour weeks manning the hospital's emergency room, where gunshot and stabbing victims tested his surgical skill.

He also made an impression at the hospital because of his Muslim activities. Shortly after entering the program, he dropped the names Peters and "X," and legally adopted the name Muki Fuad Muhammad El-Amin. It was Farrakhan who later gave him his current name, Abdul Alim Muhammad, which means "servant of the all-knowing God."

With his medical training complete, Muhammad renewed his plan to serve under Farrakhan, who had emerged as the leader of the Nation of Islam after a split in the organization. In 1981, Farrakhan dispatched Muhammad to lead Mosque No. 4 on Kenilworth Avenue in Northeast Washington. But clearly Farrakhan saw in the young, articulate doctor a larger role.

Controversial Alter Ego Muhammad says he has no idea why Farrakhan chose him as national spokesman, an alter ego status that effectively makes him second-in-command. As such, Muhammad frequently speaks on Farrakhan's behalf. His style, cool and detached, has served Farrakhan so well that many Muslims consider him the most likely successor to the Nation's top leadership post.

When he arrived in Washington, Muhammad, his wife, Alima, and young son, Kush Amir, moved to Prince George's County, eventually purchasing a $91,400 home in Hillcrest Heights. Hoyer, in one of his only public criticisms of Muhammad, recently took note of the address, which is in the 4th Congressional District -- a short distance from the 5th District boundary. Under Maryland law, however, there is nothing to block Muhammad from running in a district in which he does not live.

In 1982, Muhammad briefly worked as a surgeon at Howard University Hospital and Washington Hospital Center. When Nation of Islam duties began to consume most of his time, he halted his surgical practice, and in 1985, co-founded the Abundant Life Clinic, the Paradise Manor drug rehabilitation center near Muhammad's mosque.

Using Muslim discipline and a treatment program of meditation and yoga, Muhammad said, the clinic has worked miracles with hard-core drug abusers. City health officials, however, say the clinic is neither licensed nor regulated as a drug treatment center. But his work with the Dopebusters program has brought him favorable media attention, particularly at the Mayfair Mansions apartments in 1988, when Muhammad's Muslim patrols earned public praise for making the complex safe for children.

Since then, Muhammad has traveled around the country speaking to groups on drugs and black health issues. Often, his appearances have generated controversy.

In 1988, Jewish students at the University of Maryland protested an appearance by Muhammad. In his speech, he criticized characterizations of Farrakhan as antisemitic. "You {Jewish people} are antisemitic, in Palestine killing the real Semites, the Arabs," Muhammad charged, according to the Final Call.

In February, 200 students protested Muhammad's appearance at Yale Law School for a three-day seminar on "Drug Wars." During the speech, he again angered Jews by describing them as slave-traders, a comment he attributed not to prejudice but to "factual history."

And Muhammad set off sparks last year when he criticized Mayor Marion Barry's leadership, reporting to a Muslim audience that he had warned the mayor that "when the people see you, weak and afraid, bowing down to the Jews, they will hate you."

Now, however, Muhammad says he bears no ill will toward Jews and in fact, expects Jewish support in his race against Hoyer.

In the interview with The Post, Muhammad mentioned a February meeting with Rabbi Andrew Baker, Washington-area director of the American Jewish Committee, to discuss his drug treatment program. "On the issues, they don't find that we're some crazy cult that's against Jews," Muhammad said.

Baker, however, is quick to note that when he met with Muhammad, the Muslim leader had not announced for political office. He stressed that there was nothing about the meeting "that should be construed as an endorsement" of Muhammad's candidacy.

Underdog Campaign Political observers give Muhammad no real chance of beating the powerful incumbent. Hoyer, who learned long ago that constituent services ensure voter loyalty, has taken the Nation of Islam's primary challenge seriously enough to have stepped up his own campaign schedule and promotional efforts. His press releases laud his success in funding local projects on the influential House Appropriations Committee, his persistent battles for the long-delayed Metro Green Line, and his fight for social initiatives, such as a new $20 million program for the children of drug-abusing parents.

But the dynamics of Muhammad's underdog campaign have changed the way politics are played in Prince George's County. Many of the apartment doors he has knocked on, he says, have never before been visited by a politician: "No one's given them a piece of literature, no one's given them a call." The message of power at the polls has brought new hope to a class of people who long ago surrendered their political voice, Muhammad believes.

Meanwhile, Muhammad, himself a convert to the system, will be the last to minimize his chances. "I would not run if it were not for the purpose of winning," he declared, somewhat offended by the suggestion that he could fight an uphill battle and lose.

"The winds of change are blowing," he said. "You can't fault the establishment for trying to dig in and hold on. That's only normal. But if they think that they can withstand the forces of change that are all around them, I think they are sadly mistaken."

Researcher Bridget Roeber contributed to this story.