As Martin Luther King Day rolls by, the question is invariably asked: Martin or Malcolm? Sadly, for many Muslims, the answer is too easy: Malcolm of course! For various reasons, Muslims have accepted the false characterization that MLK and Malcom represented Christianity and Islam respectively. King's “turn the other cheek” philosophy is then understood as a distinctly Christian phenomenon, whereas retribution and vengeance is attributed to Islam. Erroneous analogies are made between the blacks and whites mentioned in Malcolm's speeches with the Muslims and “kafirs” of today. And perhaps most disturbing of all is the adoption by some of the “by any means necessary” approach.
Yet, the reality is that Malcolm X was not an expert of Islam. He was not an Islamic scholar, nor was he knowledgeable of orthodox Islam. Most (if not all) of the speeches quoted by some emotional Muslim youth today are from when Malcolm was not Muslim at all. Rather, he belonged to the Nation of Islam (NOI), a heretical group that–despite its name–has very little to do with Islam; the NOI was created by a snake oil salesman as an amalgamation of masonry, numerology, Christianity, and Islamic symbology. The reality is that Martin Luther King's outlook was far more Islamic than pre-Islam Malcolm's, which is not at all surprising considering the fact that Christianity is far closer to Islam than the NOI is; as the Qurʾān itself testifies: “Closest to the believers…are those who say: 'We are Christians.'”
I love and respect Malcolm X: he was a truly brave Muslim who sacrificed his life for the religion, and I pray that Allāh accepts him as a martyr. But it should be clearly understood that Malcolm converted to Islam only in the last year of his life. Not only did he repudiate his former beliefs, but he made it his mission in life to counter them and those who still propagated them. Malcolm was killed doing that; his assassin was a believer in the old ideology that Malcolm had jettisoned. How then is it that some Muslims today quote Malcolm's words when he was simply the mouthpiece of the same organization that assassinated him? When in fact Malcolm, upon conversion to true Islam, set out to counter those very beliefs? Is it not odd that the same Muslim youth who are so quick to call other Muslims “heretics” are embracing the ideology of the most heretical of groups?
It should also be understood–not as a means to disrespect Malcolm, but as a cautionary reminder to those who would foolishly follow other than the Qurʾān and Sunnah–that even in his last year of life, Malcolm was new to the religion of Islam. He cannot at all be seen as an expert of the religion, let alone one around whom an entire Islamic identity should be based! At the risk of sounding patronizing towards a man who was hundreds of times better than I can ever hope to be, I am confident that had Malcolm lived longer, he would no doubt have matured from an Islamic perspective. Yet, none of this is meant to take away from the profound Islamic legacy of Malcolm X; his work lived on past his death, and culminated in the mass conversion of black people to the religion of pure monotheism…something for which he should be loved by all Muslims. But at the same time, we must be cautious in applying what he said to today's context, or more dangerously, of accepting certain grave theological errors.
Turn the Other Cheek or Send Them to the Cemetery?
Martin Luther King was famous for his “turn the other cheek” philosophy. Malcolm X on the other hand is remembered for a speech he gave before he accepted orthodox Islam, something which was taught to him by a heretical group with beliefs considered anathema to Islam proper. In this speech, Malcolm declared:
There's nothing in our book, the Qurʾān — you call it 'Ko-ran' — that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That's a good religion.
It may be a good religion according to the NOI, but it's not the religion of Islam. Malcolm was 100% incorrect when he claimed that there is nothing in the Qurʾān that teaches Muslims to suffer peacefully. In fact, the Qurʾān repeatedly advises believers to react to insults and harms with patience and kindness as opposed to retribution and revenge. The Book of Allāh orders believers of those who harm them to “bear them in this life with kindness.” (31:15) Even when a Muslim has the right to just retaliation, he is strongly urged by the Islamic religion to take the higher road–the one closest to taqwa (piety)–which is forgiveness and mercy. This concept is so ingrained in the Qurʾān that the loved ones of a victim are highly encouraged to forgive the murderer, instead of seeking justice (i.e. a life for a life). It is unfortunate then that people (including Muslims themselves) envision only Christians as the ones who forgive those who brutally murder a loved one. This concept is not specific to Christianity, but rather is a strong part of the Islamic ethos. The fact that Muslims of today do not act on it is a different story.
Islam does not encourage believers to seek an eye for an eye; it encourages forgiveness for an eye. But Malcolm went even further than an eye for an eye, by claiming that Islam advocates death (“send him to the cemetery”) for simply putting a hand on someone. This is completely forbidden in the Qurʾān, which categorically forbids reciprocation of harm over and above what was done to the aggrieved party. The Islamic concept is this: under certain circumstances, a believer may be entitled to equal recompense, but never over and above; and even in the cases where equal recompense is permitted, it is highly encouraged to forgive instead. And the reward for that is from and with Allāh .
There is a desire by some Muslims to analogize the situation of the blacks in America during the 1950′s and 60′s to the situation of the Muslims today. While there might certainly be some parallels, the analogy is highly flawed. But moving past that issue, the fact of the matter is that Malcolm was wrong and King was right. Integration worked for blacks; the evidence for that is sitting in the White House today. (Of course, one could make the argument that the world needed a Malcolm for Martin to succeed, but that has really no relevance to our discussion here.)
This is not to say that the black community suffers from no problems whatsoever; there are indeed some grave issues. But surely it is clear that the condition of blacks today is much better than had they chosen the path of segregation as opposed to integration; in that alter-universe, American blacks would be living in backward reservations and institutionalized ghettos or Bantustans.
Furthermore, Malcolm himself invited whites to work with him in the last year of his life, again showing the profound changes that took place in him after his conversion to orthodox Islam. Therefore, if some young Muslims wish to analogize the situation of the Muslims today to that of Martin and Malcolm, this would not bode well for their argument, considering that history has proven Martin correct and Malcolm himself repudiated his old way.
Some Muslims have argued that one can simply replace the words “negro” with “Muslim” and “white” with “kafir” in Malcolm's speeches. This is troubling, considering that Malcolm in his NOI days adhered to a supremacist and hate-filled ideology. Let us not then associate that with Muslims, who are encouraged in the Qurʾān to walk the earth in humility, not with the arrogant pride of superiority. Non-Muslims should be treated with kindness and mercy, not contempt and aggression. Allāh dislikes the aggressors and transgressors.
Those Muslims who make such erroneous analogies are quick to call so-and-so Islamic scholar, leader, or intellectual an “Uncle Tom” or “house negro,” just as Malcolm was very quick in his younger years to call certain black leaders as such. But what these Muslims do not know–perhaps because they have never seriously studied the life of Malcolm X–is that Malcolm would later in his life apologize to those same individuals and express regret over his harsh words for them. The manner in which these Muslims use such terms is very divisive, and undermines the Muslim community's efforts.
By Any Means Necessary
The most dangerous of all is the idea of “by any means necessary.” This philosophy could be used to justify Al-Qaeda's methodology. However, in Islam, the ends do not and cannot justify the means. The means are bounded and constrained by the Law of God and we cannot transgress beyond that. Allāh has forbidden us from murder, for instance, and we cannot contravene that order for the “greater good.” Such a thing would destroy the essence of the Shari'ah. One could say “by any halal means necessary,” but then: (1) it suddenly doesn't sound as catchy, and (2) the addition of the word “halal” completely opposes the original meaning intended by the phrase.
We will answer to Allāh for our actions, which will be judged irrespective of the ends. The means are delegated to us, but the ends rest with Allāh alone. So we must pray for Allāh for the ends, and opposing His pre-approved means is a surefire way to be amongst the losers in this life and the next.
The Muslim American view of Malcolm X and his ideology should be updated and clarified. The usage of Malcolm's speeches before he converted to orthodox Islam should be viewed with caution. Even his words after conversion should be checked with the Qurʾān and Sunnah.
Contrary to popular misconception, Muslims do actually believe in forgiveness (i.e. turning the cheek). Martin Luther King's approach towards the condition of his people, in spite of his personal failings that opponents bring up to take away from his legacy, was very close to the Islamic way.
A fellow Muslim colleague asked why there isn't a Malcolm X Day like there is an MLK Day. The answer to me seems obvious: Malcolm's message, at least the one for which he is most known for and which he preached for a good part of his life, was an extremely controversial (and even offensive) one. On the other hand, Martin Luther King's methodology was very uncontroversial (and inspiring). He combated hatred with kindness, much like Prophet Muḥammad [s] dealt with the persecution in Mecca. When the disbelievers assailed him on all sides, the Prophet [s] replied by praying to God: “O Allāh, forgive my people for indeed they know not.”
It is my sincere hope (and I trust in Allāh) that the proper reaction is to deal with the insults and harms inflicted upon us with softness, mercy, and kindness–a Martin not Malcolm response. This is the Islamic way, and it was typified by a non-Muslim in this case. The pessimists may disagree with my outlook, but what they cannot do is use Malcolm's example as a proof. History already proves that Martin was right, and (the pre-Islam) Malcolm was wrong.
This is not to deny Malcolm's profound legacy. Rather, my intention is to question what his legacy was. As a practicing Muslim, I cannot but be impressed by the sheer number of people that Malik Shabazz brought to true Islam, with the Will of Allāh . Malcolm single-handedly crippled the Nation of Islam, by planting the seeds of true Islam in the hearts of the black community. And for that, I pray to Allāh for Malcolm's entrance into the gardens of Paradise.
Nonetheless, I question the ideology that people have attributed to Malcolm. They do him no service by praising or promoting it. He repudiated and distanced himself from it, and he is free from it. It's about time that the Muslim American community matures in its discourse. Gone should be the days when we denigrate Dr. King by promoting the ideas spread about him by white supremacists; what he did in his own bedroom is his own business, and our religion has forbidden us from spreading slander or suspicion. Gone should be the days when we try promoting Martin and Malcolm as the archetypal examples of Christianity and Islam respectively. The reality is that Martin Luther King used a methodology inspired from the Abrahamic tradition that the sons of Ishmael also inherited.