The World Community of Islam in the West, formerly known as the Black Muslims, is threatened with a serious split because it has dropped its "white devil" theology.
The Honorable Wallace D. Muhammad, under whose leadership the sect has adopted a more moderate religious posture, acknowledged in an interview recently that the changes have not been accepted by some members.
Chief among the dissidents is Minister Abdul H. Farrakhan, a dynamic speaker who enjoyed a strong following in the Chicago-based group. Farrakhan has cut off ties with the sect, and some fear that he may use his popularity to persuade other members to follow him.
Muhammad said he will not reverse the changes he instituted since becoming the sect's chief Imam (minister) after the death in 1975 of his father, Elijah Muhammad. He insisted that he is not worried about losing members.
"W have a more steady membership," Muhammad said at the sect's mosque in Chicago. "This is because we are more religious than racist and nationalistic . . . It's more important to have a healthy and small membership than unhealthy and larger," he said.
Muhammad claimed the sect has 70,000 members, more than when his father was alive, although he said attendance at services is lower because under him the sect no longer is as demanding on its members.
In addition to ending antiwhite rhetoric, changes instituted by Wallace Muhammad include disbanding the Fruit of Islam, the paramilitary arm of the organization; a loosening of the sect's strict dress code; an end to the requirement that members sell copies of the group's newspaper, the Bilalian News (formerly Muhammad Speaks), and sale of unprofitable businesses.
Muhammad said the black-white issue is at the center of the split.
"The real difference (with Farrakhan) is his feeling that a black nationalist movement is still needed. He believes the Afro-American people still need to be separated," Muhammad said.
"What he's addressing is a black nationalist movement with ties to Africa. As long as he feels that way, his position is political, not religious. I believe in the oneness of God, the oneness of man, Muhammad said. As he has before, Muhammad said the fierce antiwhite position used by his father to gain followers once was necessary but now is outdated.
"We've grown up too much for those ideas. This blackness is crippling to ourselves . . . It's hurting an opportunity to get benefits of the civil rights struggle. The shallow blackness is so ridiculous that we have to come out against it," he said.
Muhammad insisted that his father, who preached "white-devil" sermons to his followers, would be on his side if he were still alive.
Muhammad said he was granting interviews - rare when his father was alive - in response to Farrakhan's public statements. He said he suspects Farrakhan of being pressured by other dissidents into drawing followers away from Muhammad.
"There are people who want to see him established as an independent leader. He made statements, he put his position out in local Bilalian(black) newspapers. He spread the message through certain people, through the grapevine," Muhammad said.
"I took that as evidence that he was campaigning for members, (seeking) leadership of dissatisfied members of the community," he said.