In Surat’l-Baqarah, Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) says what means, “And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah, ‘They are dead.’ Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not.” (Ayah 154). In another ayah from Surat Ali-Imran, Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) goes further and says, “Not only should you not say that those who are killed in the way of God are dead, but you should not think of them as dead or consider them to be dead.” In addition, Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) tells us what is their actual condition, if it is not one of death. “And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision” (Ayah 169) In addition to the realities of the ghayb, or unseen world, which Allah tells us that we cannot perceive except through what He (subhanahu wa ta’ala) informs us of through revelation, there are ways in which many of those who sacrifice their life for the sake of God can in fact, even in our own limited perception, be seen to continue to “live” in the sense that they affect people, move hearts, inspire, and do all the things which are most valuable in life much more so than those of us who continue to be physically alive in ways that can be perceived but are often emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually dead. In the long and gloried, if still often hidden history of Islam and Muslims in this land, there is little doubt that the figure that continues to influence and inspire more than any other, even today, forty-six years after he was assassinated, is Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz).
If one listens to the “conversion stories” of American Muslims, the narratives that people tell, often at the repeated urging of other Muslims, born into the faith, and seeking to find inspiration and/or affirmation from the lives of those who have chosen this way of life, the most common thread, the most oft mentioned individual is Malcolm X. This is true regardless of the ethnic or racial background of the convert (in fact while Black American Muslims may be influenced by family members or others in the community, it is perhaps even more often the case that Muslims of other backgrounds who convert are first influenced by a book or a movie, and therefore, in my experience it may be even more likely for Malcolm X to play a direct and explicit role in their story of finding Islam), regardless of the fact that the vast majority of these people were born after Malcolm’s assassination.
Of course, one of the things that happens with historical figures who continue to remain well-known and influential years after they can continue to speak for themselves is that others seek to speak for them. Attempts are made to co-opt their legacy, either in sincere efforts for good or in selfish efforts for ideological or even commercial gain. This is especially true of Malcolm X, who is not only a historical and political icon but in many ways a “celebrity” remembered by many primarily for his style and attitude. For those who are serious about trying to learn from the life of Malcolm X, the best resource of how he understood his life story and the lessons he wished to be drawn by others from his life remains his autobiography, published posthumously and written with the assistance of Alex Haley. Drawing primarily, though not exclusively on that work, here are five of the major lessons that I think one should draw from the life of Malcolm X.
Do all Things with Beauty and Excellence
The Prophet Muhammad (salallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), as recorded in Sahih Muslim, said, “Indeed, Allah has enjoined excellence (al-ihsaan) with regard to everything…”
One of the things one notices about Malcolm X is that he sought to do everything with beauty and excellence. This was part of the teaching of the Nation of Islam, which placed heavy demands upon its members in terms of their way of life and appearance. Malcolm accepted the teachings of Elijah Muhammad when he was in prison. Upon Malcolm’s release from prison, he was energized to find an atmosphere in the Temple where people dressed with dignity and treated each other with respect and honor. “I was thrilled to see how we Muslim men used both hands to grasp a black brother’s both hands, voicing and smiling our happiness to meet him again. The Muslim sisters, both married and single, were given an honor and respect that I’d never seen black men give to their women, and it felt wonderful to me. The salutations which we all exchanged were warm, filled with mutual respect and dignity: “Brother”…”Sister”….”Ma’am”…”Sir” Even children speaking to other children used these terms. Beautiful!” But Malcolm was dismayed to find that the Muslims were not actively spreading the message but seemed to be waiting for people to come to them. He was outraged that the Temple was not full with all of the people whom he felt could benefit from the message. As Malcolm said, “I’ve never been one for inaction. Everything I’ve ever felt strongly about, I’ve done something about.” Malcolm began laboring constantly to recruit new believers and spread the message. He relied on his own experiences as a street hustler and his knowledge of the people to whom he spoke, and he relied on his boundless energy and commitment to what he believed in.
In the autobiography, Malcolm estimated that there were about 400 members of the Nation of Islam when he entered and 40,000 when he left. While Malcolm was in the Nation, he was completely committed to it and he sought to do everything with excellence. One problem we often have is what Malcolm sensed when he first came to the Temple: that we spend time going through the motions of running an MSA, mosque, or some other organization, but we’re not totally committed to it. Most of us do things half way, enough that no one can really criticize us or say we are doing nothing but not enough that we are actually committing our heart and soul to it. It is only when others see that you believe completely in something and they sense beauty and excellence in your example that they will even consider joining the effort to which you invite them. Why would one embrace something or even want to know more about it when the person who already has it doesn’t seem that sure that it’s worth their time and energy?
Seek knowledge and Be Curious about Everything
“Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.” [Prophet Muhammad (salallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) related by Ibn Maajah]
The hadith reported above is understood to refer to the religious knowledge that is necessary to live from day to day. There can be no doubt, however, that the Muslim is encouraged to seek all kinds of knowledge. God is constantly imploring the human being to study, ponder, and reflect upon the signs of God that are in nature, in history, and in relationships with other humans, in addition to the signs of God in revelation and religious texts. Few exemplify this burning desire for knowledge and this enormous intellectual curiosity the way that Malcolm X does.
Most famously, Malcolm describes how he spent time in prison literally copying out the dictionary page for page because his truncated education had left him without the knowledge and vocabulary that he desired. Malcolm realized that he had found a benefit in his prison education that might have escaped many in the best of schools. “I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity–because you can hardly mention anything I’m not curious about. I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did. In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college. I imagine that one of the biggest troubles with colleges is there are too many distractions, too much panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola and all of that. Where else but a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?”
Despite taking as much advantage as he could of that opportunity, Malcolm was keenly aware that his time was limited and one thing he always yearned for was more opportunity to learn. “My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don’t have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get…..You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree….Aside from the basic African dialects, I would try to learn Chinese, because it looks as if Chinese will be the most powerful political langue of the future. And already I have begun studying Arabic, which I think is going to be the most powerful spiritual language of the future. I would just like to study. I mean ranging study because I have a wide-open mind. I’m interested in almost any subject you can imagine.”
These are amazing and moving lessons from Malcolm X. Be intellectually curious about everything. Be the type of person who is able to engage in conversation about what is going on in the world and who has an open mind. Try your best not to be distracted by all the mindless wastes of time (or even worse those things that are prohibited by God) that are available, and especially for young people and students, do not lose out on a precious God-given opportunity to learn and grow because you are distracted by the boola-boola and all of that.
Be Willing to Change and Grow
“Surely, Allah loves those who turn to him in repentance…” (Surat’l-Baqarah, Ayah 222)
Amr b. Al-‘As said, “When Islam entered my heart, I went to the Messenger of God and said, ‘Give me your hand so that I may pledge allegiance to you.’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) spread his hand, but I withdrew mine. He (peace be upon him) said ‘What is wrong ‘Amr?’ I said, ‘I want to make a condition.’ ‘And what is that? he (peace be upon him) said. I said, ‘That God will forgive me.’ Then the Messenger of God (peace be upon him) said, ‘Did you not know that Islam wipes out what came before it…?’” (Sahih Muslim)
The format of the autobiography is one of tracing the two major changes that Malcolm made in his life. Malcolm himself describes how he first heard about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and how the experience made him understand the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus. “Many a time, I have looked back, trying to assess, just for myself, my first reactions to all this. Every instinct of the ghetto jungle streets, every hustling fox and criminal wolf instinct in me, which would have scoffed at and rejected anything else, was struck numb. It was as though all of that life merely was back there without any remaining effect, or influence….I have since learned–helping me to understand what then began to happen within me — that the truth can be quickly received, or received at all, only by the sinner who knows and admits that he is guilty of having sinned much. Stated another way: only guilt admitted accepts truth…the very enormity of my previous life’s guilt prepared me to accept the truth.”
Malcolm had reached a low point where he was able to completely reject what he had become. This was to profoundly influence the rest of his life, as it prepared him to accept the truth that was offered by Elijah Muhammad, which was that his state was not his alone, but was mirrored in the condition of so many of his fellow Black Americans in his time and that condition was not in any way natural but was the result of hundreds of years of white supremacy and racism. This allowed Malcolm to change his life dramatically in a short period of time and it left him so profoundly grateful to Elijah Muhammad that he himself would say that he “worshipped” him. This would cause Malcolm unimaginable pain when he came to discover things about Elijah Muhammad that disappointed him and led hm to understand that he was not who he had thought he was. This second profound and crushing experience allowed Malcolm to be open to other new truths — to the teachings of orthodox Islam in the spiritual realm and to principles of human rights and international solidarity in the context of a movement for the uplift of African people in the United States.
In reading Malcolm’s story, it is clear that changes like these can be thought of in different ways. One can think of them, as transcendent moments where one literally “sees the light” and makes the decision to abandon what was most important to them before for something new. One can also look back and see how numerous smaller events and growing doubts paved the way for these changes. Malcolm had been exposed to the teachings of orthodox Islam on many occasions before he went to Mecca, but it was only in that experience of the Hajj, after his disappointment and separation from Elijah Muhammad, that he was open enough to recognize a new truth and begin to set off on a new path.
Such dramatic instances of change and repentance, surely beloved to the Creator, are often caused in part by external, often times painful experiences or circumstances, but they require a certain character to take advantage of them. They require the humility to be open to the fact that one might be wrong. Above all it requires complete and utter sincerity. Malcolm demonstrated that sincerity to himself when he turned away from the life of the hustler to the life of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm demonstrated that sincerity to his people when he refused to continue to follow Elijah Muhammad when he realized his message was not completely true and sincere. Malcolm demonstrated that sincerity to his Creator when he completely embraced the teachings of orthodox Islam and plainly and repeatedly proclaimed that truth to be an essential aspect in the way forward for the people of the United States and the world. Such sincerity is necessary to have the profound courage to change. Regardless of whether the changes that we have to make are ones that will put our very life in danger, as they were for Malcolm, change always requires enormous courage, and perhaps even more so when we are trying to make those changes outside of the public eye where it often seems few will notice or care whether we are successful or not. So let us be among those who truly recognize that indeed Allah and the angels are there watching, recording, and rooting for us every step of the way as we try to make those changes and let us be among those who offer support to others we come across trying to make those changes.
Embrace your Responsibility Toward your People
“And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make (the message) clear for them…” (Surah Ibrahim, Ayah 4)
“There was no prophet who was not a shepherd.” (Sahih Bukhari)
Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) shows us clearly in the Qur’an and especially in the life of His final prophet and messenger Muhammad (salallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) that there is a certain common prophetic methodology. The role and responsibility of the prophets was to convey a message from the Creator and to try to nurture and develop the character of the people to whom they were sent. All of us living in this time must try to emulate the prophetic methodology in the way that we try to interact with others. The Prophet Muhammad (salallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) told us that each of us is a shepherd and each of us will be asked about those for whom we are responsible. (Bukhari)
Malcolm X has many lessons to teach us in this area. Malcolm considered himself responsible for all of his people. He thought of his people as especially being the African-American people, because he shared their historical experience and condition, but he always wanted his people to widen and not to narrow their understanding of themselves. Malcolm was a master of speaking in a way that his people could understand, and his people loved him greatly. Peter Goldman said the following about Malcolm’s relationship with the common Black person, “His supreme gift to them was that he loved them, that he believed in their possibilities and tried to make them believe, too. His real legacy was his example, his bearing, his affirmation of Blackness — his understanding that one is paralyzed for just as long as one believes one cannot move.”
Malcolm did not gain people’s love by spending his time just telling them how great they were, however. In fact, Malcolm was extremely demanding on his followers. He demanded the highest standard of behavior from them. He realized that the moral demands that were part of both the NOI and orthodox Islam would prevent many people who liked his political message from following his religious advice. Malcolm was extremely critical not only of many Black leaders, but also of African-American Christianity in general, but yet Malcolm loved his people and his people loved him. The white journalist M.S. Handler describes in his introduction to the autobiography that it “was always a strange and moving experience to walk with Malcolm in Harlem. He was known to all. People glanced at him shyly. Sometimes Negro youngsters would ask for his autograph. It always seemed to me that their affection for Malcolm was inspired by the fact that although he had become a national figure, he was still a man of the people who, they felt, would never betray them. The Negroes have suffered too long from betrayals and in Malcolm they sensed a man of mission. They knew his origins, with which they could identify. They knew his criminal and prison record, which he had never concealed. They looked upon Malcolm with a certain wonderment. Here was a man who had come from the lower depths which they still inhabited, who had triumphed over his own criminality and ignorance to become a forceful leader and spokesman, an uncompromising champion of his people.
“Although many could not share his Muslim religious beliefs, they found in Malcolm’s puritanism a standing reproach to their own lives. Malcolm had purged himself of all the ills that afflict the depressed mass: drugs, alcohol, tobacco, not to speak of criminal pursuits. His personal life was impeccable — of a puritanism unattainable for the mass. Human redemption–Malcolm had achieved it in his own lifetime, and this was known to the Negro community.” Malcolm was thus able to represent the best of his people’s aspirations and to be their champion and spokesperson demanding justice with the level of urgency and emotion fitting to the true condition of his people and the level of injustice committed against them.
One can see the genius of Malcolm’s approach in the fact that Malcolm made it seem completely natural for one to be completely and authentically Black and completely and authentically Muslim. Malcolm did not need to compromise either aspect of his identity for the sake of the other. Malcolm saw no contradiction between his embrace of Black nationalism as a means of asserting the humanity of his people and addressing their condition in this country and his recognition, spelled out clearly on several occasions in the short time he lived after the Hajj of the oneness of humanity and the ultimate role that submission to the Creator (Islam) must play in bringing about true human brotherhood and sisterhood.
In addition to his relationship with African-Americans, Malcolm had a special relationship with younger people of all communities and especially enjoyed talking to university audiences, which were often mainly white. Malcolm encouraged those students to study Islam, and he noted that they were thinking in new ways. Later in life, Malcolm would embrace the role that such people of goodwill regardless of background could play in working for the cause of justice, but he encouraged people to focus their work on their own people, those that shared their experience and background and to resist the temptation to abandon their people. For Malcolm, white people who recognized the crime of racial injustice would be more helpful if they worked on fighting racism within their own community than if they tried to run organizations of African-Americans.
The issues here are complicated and one cannot say that the situation is exactly the same now as it was when Malcolm was alive or when the Prophet Muhammad (salallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) lived in Arabia. But in general, just as the Prophet (salallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) would encourage Muslims to try to teach their own people about Islam, and Malcolm would encourage whites to work on removing racism from other whites, there is a great role for those of us as American Muslims to play in focusing on our own people. Many of us who converted to Islam, or even those born in Muslim families but recommitted to Islam and sometimes skeptical of the corrupted culture of their families and communities seek to escape the hard task of engaging those who are where we were in the past. But this is definitely needed, I mean who else should be doing that job, and who could be more suited for it?
Leave a Legacy
“And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision” (Surat Ali-Imran, Ayah 169)
We end this essay back where we started. One of the greatest lessons of the life of Malcolm X is that it is possible to leave a legacy that will last on this earth long after we have returned to the Creator. To do so takes many of the characteristics mentioned above, along with others we can find in the lives of the righteous people. One of the things Malcolm X talks about in the autobiography is arriving at Hajj and realizing he still needed help with some of the details of making the Muslim ritual prayer. So, for those of us at that stage, you are in good company. For those of us who know how to make salah, who know how to read Qur’an, who know many ahadith and stories from the life of the Prophet (salallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), who have studied fiqh in some detail, the question we should ask is what have we done with that knowledge? How could Malcolm reach so many more people, inspire so many, give up so much, with much less knowledge than we have? Surely, it is a sign of sincerity and of God’s acceptance of his deeds that his life and work has had such a visible impact. One of the problematic aspects of historical celebrities in our time and even of saints and righteous people in general is that people begin to think that celebrating and honoring their memory becomes an acceptable substitute for doing what they did and what they taught us to do. The only really meaningful tribute we can pay to El Hajj Malik Shabazz is to follow his example and do what he would want us to do, and may our Lord who is providing him with his provision, even now, support us in that effort. Ameen.