Fifty-seven years ago today, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (1925–1965), better known as Malcolm X, was gunned down in Manhattan, just days shy of his fortieth birthday. He’d be 96 today.
I marvel at everything he achieved in a life interrupted. But it is a realization of his at the intersection of race and religion that I wish to reflect upon today. First, a little about his journey.
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Soon after, his family moved north due to threats from the Ku Klux Klan. At just 20 years old, he was sentenced to several years in prison for a chain of burglaries. While incarcerated, Malcolm became a voracious reader. His brother had accepted Islam under Elijah Muhammad and encouraged Malcolm to do the same.
Malcolm accepted Islam, trading in his “slave name” of Little for X, symbolizing his lost ancestral surname.
Upon his release, in 1952, Malcolm X quickly became a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam and the Civil Rights Movement, known for his penetrating intellect and fiery rhetoric. But there were fundamental flaws in the theology (and personal behavior) of Elijah Muhammad, a self-styled prophet who taught white hate as a means of Black empowerment.
At great personal cost, Malcolm broke completely from the Nation in March 1964. But he was still a strong believer, possessed of a curious and open mind, now seeking a greater truth.
The following month, Malcolm flew to Mecca to perform Hajj, or the Pilgrimage. What he saw there affected him deeply. As black men and white men prayed side-by-side in complete harmony, his eyes were opened to the true beauty and meaning of Islam.
In his now famous letter to his assistants, entitled Letter from Mecca, Malcolm writes:
“Never have I witnessed such […] overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. […]
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”
(If it seems odd that Malcolm’s crescendo amounted to simply eating alongside white people, we mustn’t forget that at this time in history, young Black men and women were being arrested for daring to simply sit at “whites-only” lunch counters.)
All his life Malcolm lived in an environment that promoted racial hatred—white supremecists on one side and the NOI on the other—yet without hesitation he embraced the universal love and brotherhood taught by Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him.
Malcolm, who by now had taken the name Malik El-Shabazz, saw the truth with his own eyes and he wanted it not just for himself and for black Americans, but also for white Americans and all people.
“I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man – and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.”
“With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called ‘Christian’ white American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem. Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster – the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventually destroyed the Germans themselves.”
El-Shabazz was embarking on a new mission: to spread the Islamic teachings of universal brotherhood and racial equality across America.
Sadly, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was assassinated on February 21, 1965, just months after his return from Mecca. (I pray his soul, ever consumed with truth and justice, will feel a modicum of peace knowing that two men who appear to have been wrongly convicted in his assassination are set to be freed.)
El-Shabazz’s evolution—from self-hatred and inferiority complex; to self-love and a racial superiority complex; to, ultimately, a rejection of all forms of racial hatred and embracing Islam’s teachings on racial equality—is a testament to his ever-improving understanding of Islam.
And so, on Malcolm X’s 57th death anniversary—as America wrestles with intensifying racism and racially motivated attacks and killings—I pray that America draws inspiration from the spiritual evolution of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and heeds his call to action to “understand Islam.”
This article was published February 21, 2022 at muslimsunrise.com.
Last modified: January 2022