CHICAGO — The Nation of Islam, long known for its promotion of black nationalism and self-reliance, now is calling attention to another core belief that perhaps isn't so well-known: the existence of UFOs.
When thousands of followers gather in suburban Chicago this weekend for the group's annual Saviours' Day convention, one of the main events will include a panel of scientists discussing worldwide UFO sightings, which they claim are on the rise.
The idea of seeking the divine in the skies is deeply rooted in the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, whose late leader Elijah Muhammad detailed in speeches and writings a massive hovering object loaded with weapons he called "The Mother Plane" – although religion experts, Nation of Islam leaders and believers offer very different interpretations of what exactly happens aboard the plane, its role or how it fits into religious teachings.
It's one of the group's more misunderstood – and ridiculed – beliefs, something organizers took into account when planning the convention, which starts Friday and ends Sunday with Minister Louis Farrakhan's keynote address.
"There's enough evidence that has been put before the world and public," Ishmael Muhammad, the religion's national assistant minister, told The Associated Press. "There have been enough accounts and sightings and enough movies (documentaries) made, I don't think you would find too many people that would call it crazy."
During last year's Saviours' Day speech, Farrakhan for the first time in years discussed in detail a vision he had in Mexico in 1985 involving an object he calls "the wheel." Using charts, photos and drawings, he spent almost four hours describing how he was invited aboard and heard Elijah Muhammad speak to him. Farrakhan says that experience led him to inklings about future events.
Farrakhan, 77, has said the wheel, with its great capacity for destruction, contains the "wisdom to purify the planet," but has harmed no one so far. He also claimed there have been governmental attempts to cover-up proof of the wheel, which he says many call UFOs.
Nation of Islam leaders often quote Biblical references to the prophet Ezekiel – along with Elijah Muhammad's teachings – when it comes to the wheel. In his book of articles on the subject, Muhammad described a planet-sized manmade vessel that orbits earth and is purported to be loaded with 1,500 planes or wheels, words that have since been used interchangeably. Their purpose is unclear.
Some experts have made comparisons to the Biblical concept of Rapture, which teaches believers will be taken up to heaven, while everyone else will remain on earth for a period of torment, concluding with the end of time.
Why the Nation is turning more attention to the wheel now isn't certain. One explanation could be an attempt to keep longtime Nation of Islam followers happy after recent years during which Farrakhan has haltingly tried to move the group toward more mainstream Islam and pushed for the inclusion of other groups like Latinos and immigrants, said Jimmy Jones, a religion professor at Manhattanville College in New York.
The history of the highly-secretive group – which doesn't release membership or the number of mosques – has been marked by splinter groups and fracture.
"This is a way that the Nation of Islam defines itself," said Jones about the wheel's significance.
But Ishmael Muhammad, who is widely considered a potential successor to Farrakhan, said reasons for the recent interest is simply that it's a core belief.
He said the theme of the convention, which commemorates the birth of the religion's founder and is expected to draw more than 10,000 people this weekend, is about scientific analysis. Another session is about natural disasters and what those events mean religiously.
"It is written, that these things would happen," he said about Scripture. "We should prepare for such calamities."