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In the lead up to The Nation of Islam’s rare and recent opening up of the group’s historic Mosque Maryam headquarters on Chicago’s South Side, Minister Louis Farrakhan set the stage for a more inclusive organization while maintaining the NOI’s basic theme of African American empowerment.

“We are taking the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad to a new level and that new level will represent a new beginning and another stage of our evolutionary development,” said the 75-year old minister, noting the NOI is steadily expanding its outreach toward Caribbean, Asian and Latino populations while continuing to champion the cause of African Americans.

The Sunday event at the renovated mosque -attended by an overflow crowd of over 8000 people and streamed live on the Internet-reinforced Farrakhan’s emerging global tone, a step closer to the more traditional Islamic approach of Imam Warith Dean Mohammad, the recently deceased son of Elijah Muhammad who broke with the NOI upon his father’s death in 1975.

What is also emerging-given Farrakhan’s age, his recent battles with prostate cancer and his current internationalist bent-is the likelihood he’s paving the way for his assistant minister, Ishmael Muhammad, to secede him in his leadership of the 78-year old organization.

“The Nation of Islam has always had their own internal politics,” says Scot Brown, a history professor at UCLA with a focus on Black Nationalist organizations. “But if Farrakhan publicly sanctions it [Ishmael’s ascendancy], it will be a very important move in that he is putting legitimacy behind his chosen successor.”

But who is Ishmael Muhammad?

Speculators on NOI’s future leadership have often defined the 44-year old Ishmael by who he isn’t-Farrakhan. Critics and supporters both acknowledge the charismatic and controversial minister-who reestablished the fledgling organization three decades ago, convened the historic Million Man March thirteen years ago this month, and whose support was denounced multiple times by the association-wary Obama campaign earlier this year-is a hard act to follow.

Farrakhan’s impact on the African American psyche has been indelible, as the Muslim leader will long be regarded as a fearless and uncensored advocate for black empowerment regardless of the diverse religious affiliations within our community. Like Malcolm before him, Farrakhan has acted as black America’s ideological bookend, one expected to speak truth to power while reminding us of our unique and often precarious relationship with a country that, at worst, has enslaved and decimated us, and, at most, strives to tolerate and assimilate us.

Indeed, these are large shoes to fill.

However, instead of measuring Ishmael by who he isn’t, let’s examine who he is. The son of Elijah Muhammad and prominent NOI writer, lecturer and spiritual advisor, Tynetta Muhammad, Ishmael has acted as the chief Assistant Minister to Farrakhan for well over a decade and as an executive board member of the organization. He is commonly credited with managing the daily operations of the NOI, especially given his superior’s ongoing health problems.

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1964, Ishmael had little contact with his late and legendary father, a fact, he acknowledges, has impacted him well into adulthood. “I appreciate the few moments and words he shared with me personally,” offered the then 36-year old minister in a March 2001 interview with The Final Call. “But then the teenage years, the adolescent period of human development, were very difficult because I needed guidance… to this day, I still yearn to talk to my father like a son, to have him help me in a few areas that I’m struggling with in my development.”

Prior to being requested by Farrakhan to assist at the organization’s Chicago headquarters, the eloquent and professorial Ishmael resided and studied in Cuernavaca, Mexico for 17 years where he focused on Quranic and Biblical scriptures. The husband and father of seven children speaks fluent Spanish and has traveled extensively throughout five continents.

Given his bilingual fluency, his internationalist perspective, and the NOI’s more inclusive approach-instead of being groomed to eventually fill Farrakhan’s shoes-it appears the Assistant Minister is being prepped to don a different style of footwear altogether.

During Farrakhan’s two-hour address on Sunday, which covered an array of topics including education, race relations and unity among religions, he addressed the plight of immigrants south of U.S. borders by stressing to his largely African American audience that they “are not trying to take your jobs. They are trying to survive.”

While the NOI has had a Latino presence within its ranks at least as far back as the 1970s, its recent outreach via its Latino liaison and its involvement in immigrant rights rallies represents a renewed effort at recruitment. Ishmael, who has consistently talked about unity among all people, has been known to deliver pro-immigrant rallies in Spanish. Farrakhan also renewed a call for many to return to the basic tenets of Islam, a move fully supported by Ishmael and one partially aimed at attracting the large number of supporters of the late W.D. Mohammed.

At an August 2007 event at the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Health, Mohammed -whose public relationship with Farrakhan ranged from contentious to friendly-suggested that Ishmael was prepared to represent an ideological shift and “clear up the destruction of the religion in the Nation of Islam.”

“I think there’s a merger coming, a quiet merging of leaders of the Nation of Islam and leaders in my community,” offered Mohammed, the former head of the American Society of Muslims, an inclusive organization stressing a more traditional interpretation of Islam.

The late Mohammed had also used the occasion to note that student ministers from the NOI had increasingly engaged in joint studies of the Koran with orthodox Muslims. And despite their differences, Mohammed had repeatedly vowed -most notably at his organization’s annual convention in 2002-to work with the NOI to bring about “a united Muslim community in America that would show the true brotherhood of Islam.”

Talk of new beginnings and potential mergers are not surprising to Brown. “The Nation is one of the oldest existing black organizations in the country. To survive, it has gone through a number of changes and will continue to do so,” says Brown, adding “this is a continuation of that historical pattern.”

Given his apparent positioning of Ishmael, and his promotion of the NOI’s more global and traditional “new beginning,” Farrakhan certainly recognizes the value of a united Muslim community in America as well as the necessity of expanding his organization’s mission in these rapidly changing times.

Still, during his recent address, he provided justification for the Nation of Islam’s focus in the previous century on its separatist ideological and its primary concentration on African Americans.

This may have  “turned a lot of people off,” Farrakhan said. “But they don’t know what happened to us.”

Watch Ishmael Muhammad speak here: