Mayfair Mansions was a drug-plagued community in search of men armed with conviction and discipline. The Nation of Islam was a controversial religious group seeking to clean up a tainted reputation and recruit some members.

Since this spring, when the group set up its patrols amid the misery of a Northeast neighborhood drowning in crack, residents and police agree that Mayfair has enjoyed safer streets and the Muslims have won back some of the respect they once commanded. The Muslims also have won some new converts.

Inside the secluded courtyards at Mayfair and adjacent Paradise Manor, where drug dealers and their customers once frightened away local children, the Muslims are heroes. Their once-mysterious manners have become a familiar and sometimes intriguing life style to many residents.

Since the Fruit of Islam, the Muslim group's security team, began patrolling, the dealers have moved out. Now the figures darting around the shade trees in the courtyards are children playing games.

On Sunday mornings, residents awaken to Fruit of Islam members chanting "Mayfair! Paradise!" as they sweat through a rigorous exercise routine that includes jogging around both complexes.

"To a degree, Mayfair has increased our exposure," said Abdul Alim Muhammad, 39, a surgeon who heads the D.C. mosque of the Nation, as some followers call the group. "It's helping us to win converts." Muhammad said he didn't know how many new members have come from Mayfair, nor would he divulge figures on total local membership.

In the Nation -- a group so controversial that many Muslims, including some blacks, do not consider them true followers of the faith -- there are rules to be followed, systems set up for nearly every aspect of life. In compiling this story, a reporter was not allowed to interview members at random. Muhammad insisted on a time-consuming chain of command. Interviews had to be approved by Muhammad; he, in turn, had to get permission from Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam.

Besides himself, the only followers Muhammad allowed to be interviewed were an elderly Muslim couple.

On a recent summer night, members of the Fruit of Islam, resplendent in suits and bow ties, peddled their newspaper, The Final Call, at 14th and L streets NW, along downtown's prostitution strip.

Before the night ended, a fracas broke out between Muslims and police, evidence of the strain between the two groups that has existed since the Muslims entered Mayfair. The Muslims said their intent in distributing the newspaper was peaceful, just part of their commitment to their religion.

At Mayfair, the patrols have awed children, as well as non-Muslim adults, with their robot-like formations, stony stares and immaculate presence.

Members of the Nation's Mosque No. 4, less than a mile from Mayfair at 1615 Kenilworth Ave. NE, have invited Mayfair residents to their Sunday meetings. Muslim patrols hawk The Final Call. Occasionally, a radio or tape recorder in the window of the apartment used as patrol headquarters blasts a speech by Farrakhan or some other Muslim leader.

Most proselytizing at Mayfair and Paradise is subtle, residents say. Although some buy the newspapers, listen to speeches and visit the mosque, most residents do not plan to convert to Islam. They do, however, respect the men who they feel saved their neighborhood.

"They've done a good job out here," said Ruth Holmes, 63, a 15-year Mayfair resident who stood on her porch playing with a 2-year-old girl she was baby-sitting. "They play those speeches, but they're not too loud. I went to the mosque one Sunday. I enjoyed it. I have no plans to join, though. I just go every once in a while to listen. I'm Episcopalian, and I'm going to stay Episcopalian."

D.C. council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) called the Muslims a "strong and impressive element" that helped "restore stability" to the neighborhood.

To join the Nation, a newcomer must study, attend classes and take an oral examination. New members drop their last names, called "slave names" because ancestors got them from slave owners. A Muslim leader under whom a person studies bestows the Muslim name, considered the person's true name. In earlier years, some Muslims changed their surnames to X to indicate that their African names had been stolen by slave owners.

Mosque No. 4 is an old, two-story brick building the group bought last January. The former Mosque No. 4, at 1519 Fourth St. NW, is now called Masjid Muhammad and is headquarters of another Muslim group, which follows Warith Deen Muhammad, a son of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam.

Here, every week, activities include Muslim Girls' Training in budgeting, sewing and nutrition. Women learn "how to take care of themselves, their families and their husbands," Abdul Muhammad said. A Saturday school teaches children Arabic, Islamic history and spiritual lessons.

Males attend the Fruit of Islam class, which Abdul Muhammad calls "manhood training" in physical fitness, self-defense and martial arts training. "You learn how to be a good husband and father, how to become employed and stay employed, career development and salesmanship," he said. "You can't change the community without changing the individual."

On Sundays, the Muslims gather for their weekly meeting, a class that generally lasts three hours. On a recent Sunday, women, most in long white dresses, sat on one side of the room. Children, wearing suits or long dresses, played in an upstairs room. Both males and females are instructed by the Koran, the bible of the Islamic faith, to dress modestly.

A man opened the door and visitors were frisked -- the women by women and men by men -- before entering the main room. Whites are not permitted at the meetings.

"Our mission is to our people," Muhammad said. "It is often misinterpreted as racism. But we are a people who have been deprived of all prophets. We've been taught that all prophets have been sent to white people . . . . Now we are being called upon to learn something that will turn our own lives into paradise."

At the meeting, about 80 men and women listened over an electronic hookup to speeches from the Nation's Chicago headquarters. The speakers included one of Farrakhan's daughters, one of Elijah Muhammad's former wives and Ishmael Muhammad, one of his sons.

"Stop blaming the white man," Ishmael Muhammad said. "You spend too much time worrying about him, and your biggest enemy is yourself."

Abdul Muhammad, dressed in the Fruit of Islam's traditional bright blue uniform of a pillbox-shaped cap, jacket with epaulets and pants with white stripe, stood in front of the Islamic flag, beneath a banner proclaiming, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger." In front of him was a table displaying Clean 'n' Fresh products, which Muslims are asked to sell to raise money.

In a delivery reminiscent of a Baptist preacher at full tilt, he told men to take care of their families, and told women, "You black women are the mothers of the whole earth. You're the mother of the white race."

"Teach Muhammad!" members of the congregation yelled back. "Yes, sir!"

The Nation of Islam traces its roots to 1930, in Detroit, Abdul Muhammad said. Elijah Poole, son of a Georgia sharecropper and a Baptist preacher, preached that he had met the Islamic God Allah who appeared as a silk peddler to bring Islam to the mentally enslaved blacks of North America. Poole assumed the name Muhammad, declaring himself "Messenger of Allah," the man chosen to inform blacks of their heritage, rights and responsibilities.

Elijah Muhammad taught black integrity, economic self-sufficiency, discipline and cleanliness. He came to Washington in 1935 to study Islam at the Library of Congress and to proselytize. He rented a room from Clara and Benjamin Mitchell, a nurse and a carpenter who live today in the Deanwood section of Northeast. Captivated by the slight man who spoke of blacks being God's chosen people, the Mitchells became Muhammad's first converts here.

Their faith has not faltered. They rise before sunrise each day, wash, then face east to pray. They long ago dropped the name Mitchell and are now Clara and Benjamin Muhammad. She is 79. He is 87.

"I tell you, what turned me off about Christianity a long time ago was that talk about getting your reward in the hereafter," said Benjamin Muhammad. "That's slave teaching. Islam tells me I can have something while I'm alive."

Abdul Muhammad's followers at Mosque No. 4 cheer him when he preaches black empowerment, but some orthodox Muslims ignore him.

The major rift between the Nation and the orthodox is the orthodox belief that the prophet Muhammad, an Arab who preached in the seventh century, was the last prophet, or messenger of Allah. Nation of Islam members consider Elijah Muhammad also to be a prophet and messenger of Allah.

In the 1960s, the powerful orator Malcolm X attracted followers and attention to the Nation of Islam. He was later suspended from the group for disobeying Elijah Muhammad by commenting publicly on the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. When Malcolm X himself was shot down in 1965, the men who were convicted of the killing were Muslims.

At its peak in the mid 1970s, the Nation had 200,000 members and a financial empire of $45 million. But membership declined dramatically after Elijah Muhammad died in 1975. Existing splits in the movement widened.

His son, Warith Deen Muhammad, succeeded him and revised some of the teachings, alienating some followers. Warith Muhammad changed the group's name to the American Muslim Mission, later discarding all names. He opened membership to whites. He closed most Muslim businesses.

And he disbanded the Fruit of Islam, which some critics said was made up of ex-convicts and had become a tough, outlaw force that ran some mosques.

Farrakhan eventually declared he was reestablishing the Nation in Elijah Muhammad's original vision. Farrakhan, who has been denounced by clergy of several religions as anti-Semitic -- an accusation he denies -- promotes an economic program that includes making and selling household products, the Clean 'n' Fresh line. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gave the Nation a $5 million interest-free loan to help set up the business.

Some Moslems criticize Farrakhan "because they don't feel he should try to make variations on Islam," said Dr. H.S. Hamod, former director of the Islamic Center and a consultant on Islam. But, he said, the Nation's "dope-busters" role may help unite the Muslim movement and attract new followers.

The Muslim image has long been mixed in Washington, especially since the 1973 incident in which seven members of the Hanafi sect of orthodox Islam, including four children, were slain in their District home.

The Hanafi leader said the murders were retaliation by black Muslims for letters the Hanafis had sent to Muslim mosques calling Elijah Muhammad a "living deceiver." Four members of a Muslim temple in Philadelphia were convicted of the murders.

But by 1985, Farrakhan had revived the Muslim image sufficiently to attract about 10,000 people to the Washington Convention Center.

When Farrakhan spoke at the University of the District of Columbia in March, George Washington University students protesting his appearance said several men who appeared to be members of the Nation of Islam scuffled with them and ripped up their signs.

The patrols have further eased the image problem. "The Muslims came in here and got rid of the drugs," said Betty Adams, president of the Mayfair Tenants Council. "Our kids can get outside. Our seniors are taking strolls."

But Adams thinks the Muslims' good deeds will do little to encourage residents to join the Nation. "They might attract some young men by deterring them from drugs, but it takes a lot to make someone switch from the religion they were raised with."

Still, Abdul Muhammad says the Nation's role in the fight against drugs serves both Muslims and the wider black community.

"Some differences maybe won't disappear, but this may put those differences in their proper perspective," Abdul Muhammad said. "Drug patrolling gives us common ground."

June 1930--W.D. Farad, a silk merchant, arrives in Detroit's "Paradise Valley" section, where he establishes Detroit's Temple No. 1 and meets Elijah Poole.

1933--Farad confers name Elijah Muhammad upon Poole.

1934--W.D. Farad disppears and Muhammad declares that the salesman was Allah and that he, Muhammad, is Allah's messenger sent to establish the Naton of Islam and to teach that blacks are God's chosen people and that whites are evil, unpure devils.

1935--Muhammad comes to Washington and Temple No 4. is establidhed.

1975-- Muhammed dies. There are about 200,000 members of the Nation and its finiancial empire is estimated to be worth $45 million. His son, Warith Deen Muhammed, succeeds him and changes the name of the organization eventually to the American Muslim Mission. He also brings the tesachings more in line with universal Islam, discarding the racial emphasis.

1976 -- Louis Farrakhan reestablishes the Nation to folllow the original teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Some Muslims join him while others continue to follow Warith Deen Muhammad.