Malcom X, Converts & Moving Past Window Dressing Islam
-The Autobiography of Malcolm X 1
Growing up Muslim in greater white America, Malcolm X was a figure rarely spoken of. This was no different in the insular immigrant Muslim community, borne out of an ignorance of the full trajectory of his life, its own racial attitudes and ethnocentric concerns, and a disinterest in the struggle for black liberation (and indeed most issues facing indigenous minorities). If there was a cursory mention of him, it simply parroted the narrative and assessment of Malcolm that white Christian America defined for them: He was one of those Black Muslims (not a real one), he was dangerous, he ruffled feathers, he was unpalatable to his society—in other words, he was the opposite of what most immigrant Muslims were trying to achieve in their materialistic American dream that promised security. Like most immigrants, trying to gain a socioeconomic foothold in the land and establish themselves was the paramount concern; interest in the local struggles unpopular to their masters, the ruling white establishment—no matter how severe the injustice—was not.
While second-generation Muslims enjoyed the economic comforts of what their immigrant parents had established for them, finding relevancy in the American landscape and forming a distinctly American Muslim identity was the challenge. For me, and I’m sure countless others, the fateful day was when, by chance, I came across The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a teenager browsing in the library. To my astonishment, as I flicked through the pages, a chapter titled “Mecca” caught my eye and I read on. For the first time in my life, there it was, an example of a real American Muslim that rang true. The specifics of our alienation may have differed, but its essence, and the path to rectifying it, was the same. Any notions of cultural dissonance and ambiguity were finally clarified into a vision of who the American Muslim should be—reflections of the spiritual light of the Messenger ﷺ, calling humanity to what is greater than themselves, while freeing them from the yokes of injustice and barriers that prevent them from reaching their God-given potential.
Whether you are “immigrant” or “indigenous”,The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the book every American Muslim needs to have close to their heart. His moving account of the Hajj, in particular, and the ensuing transformation he experiences is required reading. We do him a great disservice however when we limit our conception of him to only the Hajj.Pigeonholing Malcolm to his Hajj experience alone also reflects our tendency to do the same to converts2 in general, as we often ignore their life experience preceding their Islam, even though those experiences fostered their Islam and could, if we allowed it, foster our own awakening. Reflecting on the period of Malcolm’s life after the Hajj is therefore essential because it highlights our need to integrate our role as callers to Islam with the call to justice.
After the Hajj in April 1964, Malcolm travelled extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East (two separate trips spanning a total of six months) forming relationships with leaders while highlighting the struggle of black Americans in a greater global context, calling on the world to support their liberation. Before Hajj, locally at home, he had established the Muslim Mosque Inc. to serve as the spiritual base for Muslims. After Hajj, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a non-religious organization that allowed non-Muslims and Muslims to participate. The two organizations were conceived to be complementary, one serving the spiritual needs specific to Muslims themselves and necessary for black liberation, the other seeking broader cooperation with those of other faiths to achieve that same goal. The flowering of his faith did not make him more exclusive, but rather made his efforts moreexpansive, as the fight for black liberation was a human issue, not simply for those of African descent. True faith expands both merciful love and justice, rather than restricting it.
Several of his contemporaries in the Muslim world hoped however that he would stress calling people to orthodox Islam after Hajj, perhaps hoping his outspoken focus on black liberation would fade away or cease. They failed to understand that truly internalizing Islam as Malcolm did bolstered and guided his effort to serve humanity, first and foremost by addressing the most pressing injustice facing his community—fighting white supremacy. It was a call he would never abandon, as it was inseparable from his very religious identity.3
This attitude is sadly shared by many “born” Muslims in our relationship with our brothers and sisters who have accepted Islam. Like Malcolm, we expect their “Hajj moment”, their entrance into the faith, to mark the abandonment of every concern and struggle they had in their “pre-Islamic” life. “You’re Muslim now, there is no longer racism. We are all brothers. You can forget about the other causes now.” That may not be exactly what we say, but it’s what we mean.
It is this idealization of Muslims that causes us to be blinded to the evident racism both in and outside the community, as well as the real social problems on our very doorstep living in America. Many an African-American Muslim has heard the critique from their Christian counterparts: “You moved from the back of the bus to the back of the mosque.” Yes, this phenomenon is a product of racism, but it also stems from the immigrant Muslim communities’ overall failure to learn from the struggles and culture of those who convert. The thinking essentially is: We were always Muslim. These are the issues that really matter to our tribe of Islam, adopt our cultural identity and narrative to replace your own, and forget everything else. It’s not just racism, it’s our feeling of religious superiority and authenticity, a type of intra-Muslim exceptionalism based on our own cultural standards rather than the overarching Divine message.
This reality on the ground in our communities will always then be fodder for both critics and non-Muslim supporters of Malcolm himself. As powerful as his Hajj account may be for Muslims, skeptics have always called into question the real meaning of his post-Hajj conclusions about race. In 1967, Reverend Albert Cleage went so far as to state that Malcolm could not have been duped by the “window dressing” at Hajj, noting the reality of racism and slavery in the Middle East.4 Others posited that the Autobiographyintentionally idealized the Hajj as a form of religious propaganda. Even some of Malcolm’s own followers questioned his new conclusions about race relations that were reflected in the letters he wrote while abroad.
Was his experience on Hajj not entirely “real” because racism exists in the Muslim world, or could they simply not believe that this type of brotherhood could exist at all, regardless of religious affiliation?
Muslims would argue the emotions and insights experienced by Malcolm were in fact undoubtedly real, based on their own personal experiences, yet this does not negate the fact that racism exists in the Muslim community. When we are in congregational prayer or performing the rites of Hajj alongside people of different colors and cultures, there isreal brotherhood—within that act of ritual worship. This is evident by the fact that the thoughts about these differences between us are absent in our minds as we perform these acts. Even a racist Muslim would not likely be bothered by or even consider the race of the worshiper in close contact with him as he performs his prayer. That these conscious feelings are removed in this ibadah, no matter how brief this may be, is the mercy and beauty that God has blessed the community of Muhammad ﷺ in these rites of congregational worship. We do not pray in parallel, we are connected, at the very least temporarily, as human beings together in worship of Allah alone.
The degree by which we inculcate the universal message of Islam and demonstrate our taqwa (God-consciousness) to the Creator depends on how much we strive to extend that feeling of brotherhood beyond these acts of ritual worship. Malcolm was blessed with the insight to see that this could be extended beyond worship, that Islam could solve the race problem, if Islam was truly practiced as it was intended to be by God and His Messenger ﷺ.
That was, and is, his lasting challenge to the American Muslim community, fifty years later. Making the brotherhood a reality requires that we truly learn about the issues and struggles unique to the life experiences of both our co-religionists from different backgrounds and our neighbors of other faiths. For converts, it means appreciating and learning from the positive elements of their life prior to their testimony of faith. When Hakim ibn Hizam (may Allah be pleased with him), who lived for 60 years prior to accepting Islam, asked the Prophet ﷺ what would happen to his prior good deeds, which notably included maintaining good relations with others, charity and freeing slaves, the Prophet replied, “You embraced Islam with all the good deeds which you did in the past”.5 His very acceptance of Islam, in fact, was the result of the good he had done previously, and he would be rewarded for both.
How then could we ever expect someone to leave or diminish a struggle for which the gift of Islam was its reward? Indeed, it should be the reverse; we must embrace that struggle not only to serve the obligation of justice Islam mandates on us, but to share in the blessings and spiritual gifts from that struggle. Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ made it a point to indicate that he would still fulfill the pledge of Hilf-ul-Fudul, an agreement safeguarding the safety and security of people by the Quraysh before his Prophethood. Good causes remain good causes, regardless of the parties involved, and we must not be reticent to work with anyone. Like Malcolm’s OAAU, we don’t need to require Muslim membership to collaborate.
Our goal must be to actively seek out and support whatever benefits people on the ground, rather than passively react to an endlessly negative news cycle that only serves to paralyze and distract us from the greater good. If those causes happens to benefit Muslims, that is a blessing, but it is never the intent. “And no one has in his mind no favor from anyone for which a reward is expected in return, except the seeking of the pleasure of his Lord, the most High” (The Qur’an, Al-Layl: 19-20). We are only the best community when we enjoin what is just for the sake of God alone, not for the sake of appearances or secondary motives. As Malcolm taught us that is the only way we can cure ourselves of the deeply entrenched cancer of racism. The struggle has to be our own and emanate from pure hearts that implore God to remove this disease and make us beacons of light in the world, so that the spirit of Hajj permeates all our relationships. To strive for anything less would be window dressing Islam.