The son of a Garveyite (a follower of Marcus Aurelius Garvey) who remembered throughout his life the brutal manner in which White racists killed his father. Mr Shabazz was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925, the fourth of eight children of Rev. Earl Little, a Baptist preacher from Georgia, and his wife, Louise, a West Indian woman who was light skinned enough to pass for White. Because of his background Malcolm Little imbibed much of the rage of suspicion of White America which his father felt before his murder. Condemned to live in a hostile American society without wealth or effective parental direction, Malcolm Little got lost in the wilderness of sin and crime. He got involved in a number of illegal activities which eventually landed him in jail. In his now famous autobiography, ghostwritten by Alex Haley of Roots fame, Mr Shabazz paints a gloomy picture of life for a Black youth in those days of racial bigotry and Black victimization in American society. He tells us in the book that his life changed after his brother had introduced him to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The message from this leader of the Nation of Islam was designed to de-inferiorise Blacks in the US who had been told repeatedly that their color and race condemned them to eternal damnation in America’s social system. According to Ron Karenga, the prominent African-American activist and essayist during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, there are six aspects to the doctrine of the Nation of Islam, as advocated by Elijah Muhammad. The first and most fundamental “is the posing of Islam as the true religion of Black people and Christianity as the religion of their opposite and enemy, the White people.” The second “is the contention that Allah (God) is in reality a Black man and the Black man is God.” The third is that Black people “are a Chosen People who are righteous by creation and righteous by nature.” The fourth is that “the White man is the devil himself.” The Fifth is that “separation on the social and political level from White was a divine imperative.” The sixth aspect of Elijah Muhammad’s theory stresses “the need for racial and Islamic solidarity throughout the world.” He argued that, in spite of Euro-American machinations, people in the developing countries are destined to unite because they all belong to the Original People.
In an attempt to understand the spiritual journey of Malik Shabazz, we must examine how he related to these ideas of Mr Muhammad and the manner in which his life changed following his encounter with the orthodox Islam.
Malcolm Little, the convert to the Nation of Islam, changed his name to Malcolm X and became a strong and forceful champion of Mr Muhammad’s philosophy. His efforts at proselytization took the message of the Nation of Islam to every nook and corner of the Black community in the United States. Malcolm X, as the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam, was perhaps the most potent force behind the publicity of the Black nationalist religious body in the United States and overseas. His speeches in colleges and universities and on television and radio galvanized a large number of young Blacks in American ghettos. Many of these Blacks would later embrace the NOI philosophy and become active defenders and promoters of their adopted faith. Malcolm X’s activities on behalf of the NOI created a tense atmosphere in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time in US history the civil rights movements was bent on desegregating American life and society. In order to do so a coalition of Blacks and Whites was needed. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, were the advocates of change. They had earlier scored a victory over the segregationists when the US Supreme Court struck down racist laws which mandated separate educational facilities for 40 percent of US school children located primarily in the southern states. Entering the field of struggle around this time, Malcolm X taught Black Americans his master’s message: “Blacks and Whites cannot live together and agitation for integration is suicidal.” This message reverberated in the firmaments of Black debates throughout the lifetime of Mr Muhammad. Although the followers of the NOI were not prominent in Black leadership circles, the visibility and dynamism of Malcolm X gave the NOI more attention than its members warranted at the time. Many analysts of the civil rights movement saw the message of Malcolm X and the NOI as an alternative to Dr. King’s message of change without violent struggle. In fact, on many occasions the White liberals reminded conservative Whites of the ominous future of American should the two races settled their differences violently. This perception of the NOI and its national spokesman, Malcolm X, gave the followers of Mr. Muhammad a bad name and a bad press. The liberal White press such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post dismissed Malcolm X as a “hatemonger,” and a “troublemaker.”
This image of Malcolm X underwent a change only in the last two years of his life. In November 1963, following the assassination of President John F Kennedy, Malcolm X made a statement which soon drove a wedge between him and Mr Muhammad. He was reported in the US press as saying that the slaying of the US President was a clear case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” To Malcolm X the US was a violent society and violence had for long been unleashed against Blacks. When the President himself could be gunned down in cold blood by an assassin you have nothing else to say in defense of America.
Although Malcolm X tried to clarify the meaning of his statement, the NOI leadership saw it as an act of disobedience to their supreme leader, Mr Muhammad. A 90-day suspension was imposed on Malcolm X and the conservative elements who disliked his style of operation saw this penalty as a way of bringing him down. Much speculation has centered on the factors responsible for the conflict between Malcolm X and his teacher, Mr Muhammad. Some analysts like Karenga have attributed Malcolm X’s break with NOI to jealousy and rivalry in the higher echelon of the movement. These analysts believe that the “chickens coming home to roost” statement of Malcolm X was used merely as a pretext to eliminate him; that the US authorities were mindful of these internal rivalries and they used this weakness to heighten tensions in the ranks of NOI. Regardless of one’s interpretation of events around this time, however, the fact remains, that Malcolm X’s future in the NOI was doomed because Mr Muhammad was no longer sure of his loyalty, and his aides in Chicago who were opposed to Malcolm X, took advantage of their proximity to the supreme leader to separate them from each other.
From the perspective of a student of Islam in the US, this development in the relationship between Malcolm X and M. Muhammad set the state for the emergence of a new Malcolm X; that is to say, the break with Elijah Muhammad resulted in Malcolm X’s reexamination of the entire NOI philosophy. Several major changes in Malcolm X took place during the time.
After his break with Elijah Muhammad, he changed his name to Malik el-Shabazz. The Muslim honorific title El-Hajj would later be added to his name after his trip to Makkah to perform the Hajj. The new Malik Shabazz also chose the mainstream Sunni Islam as his religious creed. In doing so he became the vocal denouncer of his former master and his teachings. He confessed to several audiences around the US and abroad that his activities and speeches gave greater visibility to the heretical teaching of the NOI. He told his audiences that now that he has seen the light of true Islam, he would do everything to teach, elucidate and pass on the true teachings of Islam to African-American. This new mission of Mr. Shabazz endeared him to the small minority of African-American Sunnis who had previously seen him as an agent of a diabolical movement and a perpetrator of the greatest sin in Islam, shirk (associating partnership with Allah). By traveling to Makkah for Hajj and by perceiving the collective legitimization of the leaders of the Muslims on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr Shabazz developed a new image in the Muslim world. He, in turn, also provided greater visibility to orthodox Islam in the United States. Although orthodox Islam was know to many African-Americans who embraced Islam because of Mr Shabazz’s teachings and lectures, one could argue that the transformation of Malcolm X into a veritable orthodox Muslim leader created the atmosphere for the development of the various African-American Muslim groups. Three of these groups that have embraced Mr Shabazz as a brother and a hero of orthodox Islam in America are the Darul Islam Movement, the Islamic Brotherhood, Inc., and the Islamic Party of North America. In its tow publications al-Jihadul Akbar and al-Taqwa, the Dual Islam Movement defended Mr Shabazz from the vitriolic attacks of the NOI and other Black nationalist groups who saw Mr Shabazz’s decision to join the international Muslim community as a deviation from the real problems of Black people in the US. Several articles appeared also in al-Islam, a mouthpiece of the Washington-based Islamic Party of North America, and The Western Sunrise, an organ of the Islamic Brotherhood, Inc. based in New York.
The transformation of Mr Shabazz not only put orthodox Islam in the public eye, it also heightened the subterranean conflicts that were raging in the small community of African-Americans who called themselves Muslim. Mr. Shabazz’s embrace of orthodox Islam and the lectures he gave in his last years, together built a bridge between the tiny fraction of Sunni Muslims inside the African-American community and the emerging immigrant Muslim community. Before Mr Shabazz’s trip to Makkah, the immigrant Muslim community was neither well organized nor assertive about its faith in Islam. It consisted essentially of two main groups, namely the assimilated early immigrant families from the Middle East, Southern/Central Europe and South Asia on the one hand, and the international students from Muslim countries on the other.
Indeed the early 1960s served as an important benchmark in the history of Islam because it was during this time that Sunni orthodoxy went public through Mr. Shabazz’s mosque in Harlem, and the international students from the Muslim world began to build up the Muslim Student Association. It was the progressive development of these two ideas that has led to the present situation. Today the ideas for which Mr. Shabazz is known have become concretized in the efforts of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, Elijah Muhammad’s son and successor. Since 1975 Warith Deen Mohammed has transformed the organization of his father into a veritable Sunni Muslim body of believers. This act of restructuring of beliefs and practices within the NOI has led to fragmentation among the old members. There are several successor groupings to the NOI. The first and most important is the one under the leadership of Warith Deen Mohammed himself. Its position on religious and secular matters is stated in the group’s publication, Muslim Journal. The next most important group is the restored Nation of Islam under the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan. The rest of the breakaway groups are led by Silas Muhammad of Atlanta; John Muhammad of Detroit and Khalifa Emmanuel Muhamad of Baltimore. A New York group called Five Percenters is also a competing organisation. Each of these successor groups to the original NOI is now represented in one or more US cities. The followers of Warith Deen Mohammed are the main link between African-American Sunni Muslims and the growing body of immigrant Muslims in the US.
Having said it all, there are several remarkable things about Malik Shabazz that come to my mind as we commemorate his assassination nearly 25 years ago.
He was a bold, articulate and charismatic speaker and was a good example of a man determined to get himself out of the mire of poverty and illiteracy that condemns a majority of American Blacks to a life at the bottom of the society.
He was an African-American whose discovery of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings channeled his pent-up hostilities towards Whites in a manner which led to his self-discovery; and he was a man courageous enough to accept his mistakes, as reflected in his self-reversal on the NOI view that the White man is the devil.
This article was first published at www.icna.org site.]]>