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Malcolm: Little to X

Co-authored and based on a lecture by Dr Uthman Lateef 

Certain names throughout history truly define their own medium. Malcolm X is one such individual. Many people become quite captivated when his name is mentioned and conjure up images they might have seen on TV or movies or be familiar with many of his famous quotes, but we must remember that no human being can be understood in simplistic terms; there is always a string of factors, influences, and influencers in a person’s life. The knowledge of his life should not be limited to an awareness of his gripping speeches, his timeless quotes, his bold demeanour, and his unapologetic stance against oppression, for there is a lot more that could be said about him.

There is no future for a person who is oblivious of their past, and Malcolm X played a vital role of that past. The story of this individual, since his assassination on February 22nd 1965, has perhaps resulted in hundreds of thousands if not millions – of people embracing Islam and others solidifying their faith and Islamic identity because of his struggle.

Imam al-Sakhāwi, a reputable Egyptian scholar and historian once said:

من ورخ مؤمناً فكأنما أحياه

“Whoever biographs a believer, it is as though he has brought him back to life.”

This article will endeavour to give a brief overview of exactly that, covering the legacy and martyrdom of Malcolm X, with relevant passages from his acclaimed autobiography co-authored with Alex Haley. For when you study history, you will quickly realise that Islam was often not carried forward by the unblemished souls, but by reformed ones. 

An oppressive childhood

Malcolm X was born in 1925 as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. He was an African American living in a time of entrenched racism. What were the ramifications for a black person living in America at a time of forceful segregation? There would be bathrooms for blacks and bathrooms for whites. In cinemas, there would be particular seats for whites and particular seats for blacks, among many other strategies to separate people by colour.

Malcolm’s father was Earl Little, a Baptist minister inspired by the work of Marcus Garvey. Garvey propagated a message that African Americans would never be able to live in peace and harmony with their white neighbours, and that the only hope of their salvation was to move back to their roots in Africa. Malcolm’s father was a wealthy individual although his wealth was not enough a reason to divert attention from him from white racists When he chose to live in a predominantly white area, his neighbours began to pressurise on him to move to a black district.

Malcolm’s father received constant threats from white supremacists which later led to the firebombing of his home. When Malcolm was 6 years old, his father was tied up, run over by a car, and killed. Malcolm also lost other relatives to violence, including an uncle who was lynched by white supremacists.

In the later part of the 19th century, lynching was an act committed typically by mobs taking black people (from the street, prison, or even their homes) and hanging them in public. This era in America also marked the rise of cinematography and the big screen. A crowd of 3000 people came to witness the lynching of Will Mack in 1909. People would buy popcorn, soda pop, and even take artefacts of the deceased’s clothing after the event. It became a public spectacle to see a black man being lynched. Photographers would be present at these events, snapping pre-lynching and post-lynching photographs, as well as photographs of victims who would be lynched and burnt alive.

In such an environment, one would naturally feel unsafe, constantly undermined, devalued, and dehumanised, with one’s entire sense of belonging and existence questioned. Malcolm’s mother fell victim to this, suffering a nervous breakdown after which she was sent to a mental asylum, causing Malcolm and his siblings to be sent to separate homes.

Although Malcolm excelled in his academic studies, he went to an all-white school and it was in this school that Malcolm experienced a major turning point in his life, one that would go on to shape his future. Malcolm told his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, about his future plans and aspirations of becoming a lawyer. His teacher told the young Malcolm that the legal profession is not a reasonable occupation for a black person, and advised him instead to try to become a carpenter — something more suitable to the station in life in which his colour placed him. Apart from the discriminatory vocabulary, what upset Malcolm even more was that Mr. Ostrowski had encouraged students who were less academic achievers than himself to enter difficult professions. Malcolm concluded that he was being judged on the basis of his colour rather than his capabilities. He subsequently lost interest and ended his formal education the following year, at the age of 15.

When he was out of school, he went to live with his sister in Detroit, and soon took to a life of crime. He was a very young and impressionable man, known as “Detroit Red”. He became a street hustler, gangster, drug dealer, drug addict, criminal, thug, and pimp. He committed crimes, burglaries, and was arrested on three occasions as a result. He spent 6 years in prison from 1946-1952, a time he described in his autobiography as the beginning of his transformation.

An education behind bars

Everyone goes through a transformation in their life. Different factors can cause this transformation: trauma, death, or illness. As you have read above, Malcolm X was affected by a wealth of factors that caused the change that would dictate how the rest of his life would pan out. His behaviour, thought process, and decision-making that led to his imprisonment were also affected.

When he arrived in prison, Malcolm noticed there were different groups in prison, and the person who commanded the most respect was the intelligent one.

He said in his biography:

“As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books. There was a sizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters. Some were said by many to be practically walking encyclopedias. They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.”

In his autobiography, Malcolm spoke of a prisoner known as ‘Bimbi’ who he deemed to be an intelligent, literate, educated, and articulate man. Malcolm attributed to him one of the key moments of change in his life.

“Bimbi seldom said much to me; he was gruff to individuals, but I sensed he liked me. What made me seek his friendship was when I heard him discuss religion. I considered myself beyond atheism – I was Satan. But Bimbi put the atheist philosophy in a framework, so to speak. That ended my vicious cursing attacks. My approach sounded so weak alongside his, and he never used a foul word.”

“Out of the blue one day, Bimbi told me flatly, as was his way, that I had some brains, if I’d use them. I had wanted his friendship, not that kind of advice. I might have cursed another convict, but nobody cursed Bimbi. He told me I should take advantage of the prison correspondence courses and the library.”

His motivation to seek an education is what gave rise to his profound abilities as an orator and public speaker, which would later see him be invited to deliver a speech at the University of Oxford. Malcolm would go onto say that due to this gift, people would assume he has a long list of credentials. In reality, he had nothing to show after his 8th grade of school. The only place he would learn was in prison by learning and re-educating himself.

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

“Without education you’re not going anywhere in this world.”

With learning comes self-realisation, self-discovery, and self-exploration. Learning heightens a person’s ability to connect with his Lord because, as a result, that person will know his Lord.

Allāh says in the Qur’ān:

هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” [1]

And the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

مَنْ سَلَكَ طَرِيقًا يَلْتَمِسُ فِيهِ عِلْمًا سَهَّلَ اللَّهُ لَهُ بِهِ طَرِيقًا إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ

“Whoever travels a path in search of knowledge, Allāh will make easy for him a path to Paradise.” [2]

Our crisis today is that we remain as passive reciprocates of the information we receive. This is a ramification of social and visual media platforms that contain millions of screenshots passing before our eyes daily. Malcolm did not share this fate. Instead, he took initiative. He wrote out the entire dictionary to be familiar with words. He did not disallow himself of education due to his circumstance of being put into prison. Rather, he took advantage of an opportunity he had no control over and came out of prison a new individual.

Malcolm understood that when you read, you transition into someone else’s shoes and become immersed in their experiences, seeing the world through their lens. The importance of knowing your audience, as well as identifying and challenging them, is crucial in the process of enacting social and political reform. Malcolm X spent his post-prison life acting on what he had learnt about history, civilisation, law, and most importantly, black suffering.

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud said:

“Learn, so that after you have learnt, you can act.” [3]

Little to X

The obvious context of the suffering of African Americans is because they were the descendants of slaves. The transatlantic slave trade, which existed from the 16th to the 19th century, involved the transportation of slaves from West Africa by ships mainly to the Americas against their will. Nearly a third of the slaves were Muslims. Some chose the path of suicide by jumping overboard. Others chose the path of insurrection by fighting back against the captains of the ships. There were many small and large insurrections when slaves arrived in the Americas. Those who made it to the Americas were relegated to sub-human entities by being sold as slaves, separated from their families, and deprived of the outward bond of unity.

Here, they were given surnames of their slave masters, losing their identity and personalisation. In different cultures, a name arises from an unseen network of tribal connections that are all involved in giving such names. So in order to gain that sense of self-identity that was once lost at the hands of his oppressors, Malcolm gave himself the name ‘X’, meaning unknown – for his true ancestry was unknown.

The Nation of Islam

It is important to note that there is nothing ‘Islamic’ about the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was introduced to the organisation in prison, with their leader Elijah Poole later becoming Elijah Muhammad, who claimed to be a prophet to black people and introduced them to theological beliefs that do not concur with Islam. Elijah Muhammad taught his followers not to fear the white man because the black man is superior and dominant over the white man. At the time when Malcolm was incarcerated, the Nation of Islam only had 500 adherents. Malcolm used his knowledge to write letters to different people; old friends, gangsters, and Elijah Muhammad himself, who Malcolm would later visit after being freed from prison.

Malcolm quickly grew into a prominent figure for the group, becoming a minister of a main mosque in Harlem. The membership of the Nation of Islam began to grow rapidly; by the 1960s, there were around 75,000 members. A separate military wing called the ‘Fruits of Islam’ taught self-defence classes, existing as a vanguard of resistance against white brutality that black people may face in their day-to-day life. He also set up a newspaper called ‘Muhammad Speaks’ that propagated the ideas of the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm travelled all over the country debating civil rights leaders, including Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The leaders he debated with proposed different solutions to deal with the same problem. Malcolm’s methodology was to make peace with those who want peace, and violence with those who want violence. Turning to violence was not his first call, but he refused to turn the other cheek against degradation, abuse, and murder. He became a controversial figure in the American media for challenging ideas on white exceptionalism and calling for equal alliable rights.

This led to Malcolm being under the close surveillance of the FBI, NYPD, and the CIA, with the latter aiming to infiltrate Nation of Islam. Edgar Hoover, the then-head of the FBI, became concerned about Malcolm X. The FBI plotted to create a rift between the two leaders, Malcolm and Elijah, in order to sow the seeds of discord. In the year 1962, Malcolm X came to discover through the son of Elijah, Wallace Muhammad, that Elijah had fathered six illegitimate children with women in the Nation of Islam. At the same time, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Elijah Muhammad gave an instruction to the Nation of Islam to refrain from making any comments in the media. After a lecture, Malcolm X was quizzed by the media on his thoughts about the assassination, to which he famously replied:

“Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad.”

Malcolm X was referring here to Kennedy’s assassination as a taste of the violence that America had been inflicting around the world. He was plastered in the media as someone who was joyous at the death of the late president. He was also suspended from speaking to the media for 90 days by the Nation of Islam, after specifically being told not to comment on the assassination. During this time, which gave him more autonomy and freedom, he travelled to the Middle East, including the Holy Land. This is what some call ‘the transformative last year of his life’.

Malcolm in Makkah

In the latter years of his life, Malcolm X reinvented himself to an even greater degree. The evolution of his faith and maturity took another direction when he travelled to Makkah for the pilgrimage – the Hajj. This would be the point in his life where he would transition to the truth – orthodox Sunni Islam – after having first transitioned to falsehood in the form of the Nation of Islam. His message and policy would take a noticeable change with him now fighting for justice for all.

 He said:

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

His outreach spread beyond the suffering of only black people in America, although it was his primary concern. During the Hajj, Malcolm X had some of his deepest spiritual enlightenments, as millions have every year when they travel to perform the pilgrimage.

 “I only knew what I had left in America, and how it contrasted with what I found in the Muslim world.”

It was after returning from his pilgrimage to Makkah that Malcolm adopted the title and name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. As Muslims, we need to take heed that other people are watching us and slowly building their perception of Islam through us. This highlights the importance of outward actions and engaging with the outer world, not solely within our inner circles. As the above statement reminds us, even though we may not be as cognisant that there is an outer circle witnessing what is happening in our inner circle, others most certainly are.

When he was asked what impressed him the most about the Hajj, Malcolm replied, “The brotherhood!”

“The people of all races, colour, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God.”

“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colours and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures.”

Despite job offers from Africa to be a head of state, Malcolm chose to return to America with a new vision. He was afire with new spiritual insight and a higher standard of religious observance, still desperate to pursue justice and challenge tyranny.

“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.”

As Allāh says:

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ

“Another of His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours.”

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

“Allāh does not look at your appearances or your financial status, but He looks at your hearts and your actions.” [4]

Malcolm was now moving away from the Nation of Islam and the black supremacist ideology they were upon. He moved towards true Islam – but this was not without its challenges and consequences.

The Last Stand

On his return to America, Malcolm set up two organisations: Muslim Mosque, Inc. (which taught people about Islam) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm acknowledged that he was “living on borrowed time”, openly declaring that Elijah Muhammad was not who he set out to be, and thus alarming the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X appeared to be embarking on an ideological journey with a shift in both his political and spiritual stances. This had the potential to dramatically alter the course of the civil rights movement. Tragically, he was assassinated on February 21, 1965, while preparing to give a speech at a New York theatre. While it is clear that the Nation of Islam was involved in the assassination, many people believe others such as the FBI also had a hand in his murder.

Earlier, in his days with the Nation of Islam Malcolm X was at odds with Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s methodology, the two holding drastically opposing views on the struggle for equal rights. A year prior to his death however in 1964, Malcolm X sent a telegram to Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who was due to hold a march that would have seen members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) causing trouble.

In his telegram, Malcolm X said:

“We have been witnessing with great concern the vicious attacks of the white races against our poor defenceless people there in St. Augustine. If the Federal Government will not send troops to your aid, just say the word and we will immediately dispatch some our brothers there to organize self defence units among our people and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of its own medicine. The day of turning the other cheek to those brute beasts is over.”

Malcolm then sent a telegram to the leader of the KKK warning him that he would bring his men to defend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should the KKK disrupt his rally. He threatened the white supremacists that he and his men would defend King and his people “by any means necessary.”

To conclude, there are many lessons we can learn from the life story of Malcolm X. He was a man who lived by principles of bravery, courage, and resistance. A man who was intellectually disciplined. A man who recognised that the plight and suffering of others are much bigger than one’s own. A man who promoted Islam in a time of great hostility. Malcolm addressed imperialism, racism, and othering – discussions that are still prevalent in our time. The concern of Malcolm X is the concern of us all. He placed self-sacrifice above self-interest. He taught not only moral compassion but also moral consistency. And above all, he applied the hadith of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam):

“The best type of jihād is speaking a word of truth in the presence of a tyrant ruler.”[5]

What separates Malcolm X before all those who predated him – and all those that followed him – is that he did so by any means necessary.

May Allāh have mercy on our brother, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.



Based on a lecture by Dr Uthman Lateef

[1] Al-Qur’ān, 39:9

[2] Sahih Muslim

[3] Fadl ‘Ilm al-Salaf

[4] Bukhari

[5] Ibn Majah

About Hamza Saleem

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