America is Gaza Malcolm X was right.

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“America is Mississippi,” Malcolm X declared at a Harlem church in 1964. Though he was addressing a crowd in New York City, Malcolm X knew that what was happening to black people in the South demanded concern from black people all over the country: “There’s no such thing as the South — it’s America.” At an event hosted by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, he was specifically referring to the Dixiecrat senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee who made legislative decisions on behalf of “the whole house” of America. However, what Malcolm X meant by “America is Mississippi” deserves a deeper investigation insofar as his words rang true beyond the context of law. No matter how far black people managed to migrate from the South during and after Reconstruction, the apparition of slavery still managed to loom over them at every twist and turn — whether the segregation of the train cars they took northward or the urban decay of neighborhoods absent America’s bountiful postwar wealth, there was a hint of the antebellum wherever they went. With a cogent metaphor, Malcolm X explained that, “If one room in your house is dirty, you’ve got a dirty house,” echoing the words of Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.”
In the same year, Malcolm X was exiled from the Nation of Islam for his insensitive remarks about John F. Kennedy’s recent assassination, and his exile prompted him to fulfill his pilgrimage to Mecca and adopt the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. On his journey to the birthplace of Muhammad, he spent nearly half a year touring the continent of Africa — from Ghana to Egypt, Malcolm X was able to observe the ways in which black people beyond the shores of the New World were not unlike those whom he was familiar with in Mississippi. Rather, there were striking similarities between the colonial circumstances of Africa and the plight of African-Americans, an internationalist realization that prompted a political enlightenment in which Malcolm X cast his lot not only with the black people of America but of all peoples of color around the world. While the civil rights movement was narrowly trained on a strict agenda of legal desegregation, Malcolm X looked toward the broader horizon of decolonizing the motherland — America wasn’t just Mississippi but also Kenya at the behest of the Mau Mau, Indonesia where two continents assembled at Bandung, Ghana under the revolutionary guidance of Kwame Nkrumah, and everywhere else freedom was not yet won by those who were under the colonial heel of white supremacy.
Had Malcolm X lived long enough to see the shooting death of Eyad Hallaq — an autistic Palestinian man — by the Israeli Defense Forces at the start of June, perhaps he would have revised his statement once more: America is Gaza. Earlier this month, Eyad Hallaq was walking to his special needs school in Jerusalem before he was arbitrarily stopped by Israeli police officers on the ludicrous suspicion that he possessed a firearm, just like how Tamir Rice — a twelve-year-old boy from Cleveland — was gunned down six years ago on the same violent pretext. He immediately panicked and ran out of fear, prompting a new recruit on duty to fatally shoot him with an M16 rifle while he hid behind a dumpster. Though the state of Israel feigned outrage over the seeming abrogation of standard procedure, their incidents of police brutality are just as common as ours in America. A recent article from Al Jazeera reported that “Israeli security forces have killed 3,408 Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and within Israel” in the last decade alone, and the hundreds of cases investigated by the state of Israel have resulted in the convictions of only five members of law enforcement. Even from over a thousand miles away, the terror of racial caste seems to hardly change.
With the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin just a month before Eyad Hallaq suffered a similar fate at the hands of Israeli police officers in Jerusalem, what has become so painfully clear in the last decade is that police brutality is not an exclusive phenomenon to the United States, let alone the South which Malcolm X considered to be the epicenter of white supremacy under Dixiecrat rule. While cities like Minneapolis have recently erupted into urban battlegrounds between determined protesters and repressive state agents whose militant capacities no longer reflect a standard conduct of law enforcement in America — such as their repeated usage of tear gas, threats of invoking military support, informal declarations of martial law — many have drawn parallels between the escalating civil war in the United States with the bloodshed which Arabs in Palestine have already taken for granted for decades while living under the military dictatorship of Israel. If America is Gaza, then that is because what millions of Americans have eventually come to realize in the wake of George Floyd’s death has long been an assumed reality for both black people and Palestinians who have been living in a state of emergency for their entire lives.
In Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis was the first to consider the problem of police brutality in a global setting. “What we saw in the police reaction to the resistance that spontaneously erupted in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown was an armed response that revealed the extent to which local police departments have been equipped with military arms, military technology, military training,” she told Frank Barat in an interview. “The militarization of the police leads us to think about Israel and the militarization of the police there — if only the images of the police and not of the demonstrators had been shown, one might have assumed that Ferguson was Gaza.” As America has once again elected to relive the “race riots” which she has been well-acquainted with ever since the Watts Rebellion in 1964, the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and more recently the Ferguson protests in 2014, the nationwide turmoil over George Floyd begs the question of whether or not movements like Black Lives Matter must be situated through an internationalist perspective. With the adjacent killing of Ejad Hallaq in Jerusalem so soon after that of George Floyd’s in Minneapolis, such a juxtaposition seems necessary for a black freedom struggle that has never hesitated to venture beyond American borders in search of liberation as Malcolm X did in the last few years of his life.
As Angela Davis suggested, our law enforcement agencies do benefit from the military-industrial complex — and thus the colonial pilfering of the Third World — through the 1033 Program: an enduring policy from the Clinton administration which has authorized the Department of Defense to transfer billions of dollars in military equipment to police departments all over the country since the implementation of the program as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996. At little to no cost to them, police officers have been outfitted with automatic rifles, supplied with tanks, and stocked with grenades — all of which proved to be useful in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore where disobedient masses of protesters would allow their respective law enforcement agencies to put their hand-me-downs to good use. After Michael Brown’s death, an article from Newsweek reported that police officers in Ferguson were “kitted out with Marine-issue camouflage and military-grade body armor, toting short-barreled assault rifles, and rolling around in armored vehicles” which made them “indistinguishable from soldiers.” As Angela Davis remarked in the same interview with Frank Barat, “Soldiers are trained to shoot to kill.”
Likewise, the annexed territories of Palestine are violently governed according to the establishment of barriers and checkpoints, an ongoing proliferation of military personnel who have had horrendous track records of police misconduct toward Palestinians, and the overall suspension of rights based on the criteria of ethnicity alone. According to Ronnie Kasrils — a former member of the African National Congress — the practices of the Israeli government bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the South African government during the reign of apartheid: “Ethnic cleansing, land seizure, home demolition, military occupation, bombing of Gaza and international law violations led Archbishop Tutu to declare that the treatment of Palestinians reminded him of apartheid, only worse.” Even the United Nations recognized that the state of Israel was guilty of having “two entirely separate legal systems and sets of institutions for Jewish communities grouped in illegal settlements on the one hand and Palestinian populations living in Palestinian towns and villages on the other hand.” Though both America and Israel have justified their rule on the faux charge of championing alleged democracies, their usage of cruel discipline in the service of racial doctrine will always call into question the degree to which their jurisdictions are really considered free should one be guilty of the ultimate crime of being black or Palestinian, respectively.
The similarities are not coincidental, however, for the United States is actually a junior partner in apartheid through their egregious funding of the Israeli Defense Force. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, “U.S. military aid has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.” Over the course of the next decade, the United States plans to provide a total sum of $30 billion dollars — mostly consisting of military aid — to Israel alone, including state-of-the-art missile defense systems and fighter jets. If police departments in America benefit from the secondhand technologies of our military through the 1033 Program, then Israel has enjoyed a similar privilege insofar as America’s playthings are currently being deployed against Palestinians. For example, tear gas canisters manufactured in the United States have been consistently been used for crowd dispersal in Israel. In 1989, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that, “From January 1987 through December 1988, the Department of State’s Office of Munitions Control (OMC) approved license applications to export approximately $6.6 million worth of tear gas guns, grenades, launchers, and launching cartridges to Israel.” Of course, there have been no serious attempts at condemning the human rights violations of Israel and withdrawing military aid on behalf of the Palestinians as of late, for doing so would necessarily call into question America’s treatment of their own dissidents.
Not only are billions of our taxpayer dollars being used to finance the apartheid in Palestine, but both America and Israel have historically collaborated with one another in order to exchange hardened tactics of law enforcement. According to the Deadly Exchange campaign led by Jewish Voice for Peace, the two states collaborate through exchange programs which “promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing practices that already exist in both countries, including racial profiling, massive spying and surveillance, deportation and detention, and attacks on human rights defenders.” Though there isn’t substantial evidence linking the Israeli Defense Forces specifically to police departments where police brutality has occurred — such as those occupying Ferguson or Minneapolis — Jewish Voice for Peace nonetheless observed that “Thousands of the highest ranking police officials and law enforcement executives across the country have participated in the exchange programs, which are primarily billed as opportunities for U.S. law enforcement to learn counterterrorism tactics from the Israeli military and police.” In other words, both black people in America and Palestinians under Israeli occupation have lived and died from a similar set of tried-and-true procedures proven to be incredibly effective in times of war.
In an article published by Al Jazeera, Deadly Exchange clarified that, “Among the topics covered during these exchanges, delegates learn how to suppress and infiltrate demonstrations, and how to coordinate with the media over coverage.” They continued to describe the previously mentioned military equipment transfers in even greater detail: “The training also involved sales of ‘crowd-control’ weapons exchanged between the two governments, including US-made tear gas canisters that were heavily used in protests in Oakland, California in 2011 and Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, as well as Israeli surveillance technologies.” While thousands of protesters in America are currently suffocating beneath the clouds of homegrown chemical warfare today, they are breathing in the same toxic fumes which Palestinian activists have been all too familiar with for years. As two countries which have frequently been in confrontation with those whom they rob of freedom — whether black people in Ferguson or Palestinians in the West Bank — America and Israel have much in common with regard to violently quelling dissent. Thus Angela Davis’ astute observation that “one might have assumed that Ferguson was Gaza” was not merely an analogy to globally foreground police brutality as a subset of imperialism but rather a confirmed fact:
“And also it might be important to point out that the Israeli police have been involved in the training of US police. So there is this connection between the US military and the Israeli military. And therefore it means that when we try to organize campaigns in solidarity with Palestine, when we try to challenge the Israeli state, it’s not simply about focusing our struggles elsewhere, in another place. It also has to do with what happens in US communities.”
But if America and Israel are borrowing from the same playbook in order to quell the dissent in their countries, then their respective protesters are also working together — albeit to a limited extent online — in order to further their revolutionary aims. When Black Lives Matter activists were first blanketed in tear gas amidst the “race riots” in Ferguson, Palestinian activists immediately took to Twitter in order to share crucial advice on how to cleanse their eyes of tear gas in less than 140 characters. “Remember to not touch your face when teargassed or put water on it,” Mariam Bogharti, a Palestinian journalist, tweeted. “Instead use milk or coke!” During the same year that Michael Brown was killed by the Ferguson Police Department, the Israeli government launched Operation Protective Edge in order to violently rid the Gaza Strip of Hamas; in the span of the two-month campaign, thousands of Palestinians were killed, many of them being civilians. Thus, at a difficult time when both black people and Palestinians were in upheaval over the war crimes of their respective states, they were able to understand one another and lend support despite being thousands of miles apart — a beautiful convergence of two insurgent peoples struggling for their own freedom at the crossroads of justice where the streets of St. Louis melded into the alleyways of Nablus.

But for the Palestinian-Americans who found police brutality in the United States to be reminiscent of what they encountered back in their besieged motherland, the respective struggles in Ferguson and Gaza were not separate but, in fact, one in the same. In the wake of the former, hundreds of Palestinians from all over the diaspora — including Palestinian-Americans — signed onto a statement from 2014 condemning the murder of Michael Brown and wholeheartedly supporting the fight in Ferguson. “We recognize the disregard and disrespect for black bodies and black life endemic to the supremacist system that rules the land with wanton brutality,” they wrote in a collective tone. “Your struggles through the ages have been an inspiration to us as we fight our own battles for basic human dignities.” Likewise, Bassem Masri — a Palestinian activist who was arrested for his participation in protests on behalf of Michael Brown — wrote that, “In Ferguson, I am reminded of Palestine.” He continued: “When the police used military tanks and checkpoints to imprison the residents of Ferguson, I was reminded of life in the West Bank where I saw the Israeli military use the same tactics of repression … Since the day of Mike Brown”s death, I’ve been tear gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, and physically assaulted by the police.” Sadly, Bassem Masri passed away while documenting the protests.
From Twitter threads about the properties of tear gas to the Palestinian-Americans who marched alongside their black comrades in mourning of Michael Brown, there has been no clearer evidence of how kinship between the oppressed — regardless of racial or ethnic differences — can sometimes be found in beautiful struggle. After reflecting on what responsibility we as Americans have to people of color fighting for their respective freedom in the rest of the world, Angela Davis reminded us that “We are now confronted with the task of assisting our sisters and brothers in Palestine as they battle against Israeli apartheid today.” At the Missouri battlefront where Bassem Masri passed away in his lifelong fight for the freedom of all people, he imparted with us a similar rallying cry: “Until all our children are safe, we will continue to fight for our rights in Palestine and in Ferguson.” War never changes, but neither does the undying love that people of color share for their own independence, and history herself attests to the overwhelming vigor of the latter cause. So long as the activists of America and Palestine continue to salute one another from a world apart amidst the upheaval over George Floyd and Eyad Hallaq, the strength of their revolutionary bond shall never falter — not even as they unjustly languish in prison cells or feel the sting of police batons against their backs.

Had he lived long enough to bear witness to the overreach of Israeli terror over the Palestinian people, Malcolm X would’ve come to the same realization as Angela Davis did when mine-resistant tanks rolled over the streets of Ferguson like they were Hebron or Bethlehem: America is Gaza. However, he was keen as to impart some passing wisdom on the complicated matter before he was assassinated in 1965. In an article titled “Zionist Logic” which was published in The Egyptian Gazette during his continental travels, Malcolm X concluded that “the Zionist argument to justify Israel’s present occupation of Arab Palestine has no intelligent or legal basis in history.” Just like how he decried the ways in which Europe sacked the New World at Tenochtitlan and pillaged Africa from Casablanca to Johannesburg, Malcolm X stood by his conviction that the onslaught of imperialism anywhere was a threat to freedom everywhere, and so he spent the last year of his life in awe of various diasporas — from Latin America to Asia — which were eager for a shared independence after a bloody century under colonial rule. When Bassem Masri set foot in Ferguson and fought his last stand alongside his revolutionary brethren, he died valiantly carrying the torch of internationalism which Malcolm X lit shortly before his passing in 1963 before the people of Detroit:
“They were able to submerge their petty little differences and agree on one thing: That there one African came from Kenya and was being colonized by the Englishman, and another African came from the Congo and was being colonized by the Belgian, and another African came from Guinea and was being colonized by the French, and another came from Angola and was being colonized by the Portuguese … They began to recognize who their enemy was.”
As Aime Cesaire remarked in his famous polemic Discourse on Colonialism: “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.” Like Malcolm X, he believed that the moral upstanding of any given civil society was to be evaluated by those who have been wronged the most, whether they be the downtrodden black folk of Mississippi or the corralled Palestinians of Gaza: “And today the indictment is brought against it not by the European masses alone, but on a world scale, by tens and tens of millions of men who, from the depths of slavery, set themselves up as judges.” So long as George Floyd and Eyad Hallaq have yet to reckon justice by their senseless demises at the hands of tyrants answerable to illegitimate reign, they will always remain at an infinite distance from their founding ideals in the provision of liberty — forever unworthy of any meaningful distinction as the exceptional guarantors of human dignity that they so often claim as a frail defense of their democratic tyranny. May their deaths, and the deaths of countless like them, serve as permanent reminders that the mountain path to Canaan is but a long one made cumbersome by the checkpoints at Ramallah:
“To the tired climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold, the Canaan was always dim and far away. If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place, little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect. In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself, — darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another.”

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. Malcolm X played a vital role in the 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.

The former chief judge of Damascus, Imam al-Subki, once said, “Whoever relates the tale of a Muslim, it is as if he has given him 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. 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