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Malcolm X would have been 97 years old this week and his message is louder than ever. I want to pay tribute to a hero, who through Islam, changed his worldview and experienced spiritual maturity. He stood up against racial injustices and spoke out for the downtrodden in a powerful and effective way. What can we learn from his life? To be bold, to speak truth to authority, support just causes and not be intimidated. How did Islam influence his thinking?
Malcolm X, also known as Al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz, is one of the most influential African Americans in history. Born in 1925, he was a human rights activist who some considered to be a divisive man preaching racism, others celebrated him as a great black hero opposing the racial injustices of ‘white Americans’. However, after his death, people who are both white and black commemorate Malcolm X worldwide. Many USA cities have named streets and schools in his honour.
Due to his father’s civil rights activism, Malcolm’s family was subjected to frequent harassment during his childhood. His father was killed for his stand against the inequalities of American society and his mother was so grief-stricken she lost her mental health. Malcolm and his brothers had to live in a foster home. So, early on Malcolm embraced the ideology of Black nationalism. Here is how he expressed his views:
“The common goal of 22 million Afro-Americans is respect as human beings. … We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans. … once the miserable plight of the 22 million Afro-Americans is also lifted to the level of human rights our struggle then becomes an international issue and the direct concern of all other civilized governments. We can then take the racist American Government before the World Court and have the racists in it exposed and condemned as the criminals that they are.”
Malcolm was a charismatic orator, he quickly became an influential leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI), but after ten years he left. The experiences he had after leaving NOI turned Malcolm X from an angry man into one who believed that peaceful resolution is the key to resolving America’s discrimination problems.
In April 1964 Malcolm X went on Hajj, where King Faisal had designated him as a state guest and had an audience with the king. On reflecting on this experience, Malcolm X later said that seeing Muslims of “all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” interacting as equals led him to see Islam as a means by which racial problems could be overcome. Malcolm had gained a new perspective. In a famous letter from Makkah, he wrote that his experiences with white people during his pilgrimage convinced him to “rearrange” his thinking about race and “toss aside some of his previous conclusions”.
Just two days before his assassination Malcolm said: “I realised racism isn’t just a black and white problem. It’s brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.”
Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. By who? Why? How? Questions still remain about this period of American history. However, his legacy is longstanding, and he is considered one of the greatest Black American leaders who is attributed to:
“You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”
“There is no better thing than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.”
“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
“Stumbling is not falling. If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”
“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.”
“Truth is on the side of the oppressed.”
“The ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”
Malcolm X grew up in a time when there was hate and violence against black Americans. Without Islam and the beautiful teachings of our blessed Messenger Muhammad (pbuh), there was little hope for him to reform his views. Islam gave him something special; a new perspective on life, humanity and how to live with one another. He appreciated this because, on reflection on his circumstances, he came to the conclusion that to be a Muslim is to acknowledge and appreciate that we are all equal in the sight of Allah – it is our piety and good actions that distinguish us. We too need to live our lives according to this principle. This teaching has been beautifully summed up by our beloved Prophet (pbuh) in his final sermon:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a White has no superiority over Black nor does a Black have any superiority over a White except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.“
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