It has become typical to begin writing about Malcolm Little as a former ‘petty criminal’ that underwent a revolutionary transformation once exposed in prison, through family and fellow inmates, to the Nation Of Islam and the teachings of its leader Elijah Muhammad. As the story goes, Malcolm began to develop a “knowledge of self”, putting in place of his last name the letter ‘X’ to represent the historical experience and reality of people of African descent in America, and establishing a close relationship through personal correspondence with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X became a Black Muslim and representative of Elijah Muhammad in the struggle for the freedom of African-Americans, many of who were unaware of the true history of the peoples they descend from that were kidnapped from Africa and placed into slavery in America. It is absolutely right and important to begin writing about Malcolm in this way, mainly because Malcolm X represents the authentic transformation of a person once considered criminal and in many respects uncorrectable, into a person dedicated to making conscious efforts to end the oppression faced by Black people in America. This is an important message that points toward the real possibility for authentic positive change in places one might not expect. Nevertheless, in my opinion the most remarkable thing about Malcolm X is the transformation he underwent after being forced out of the Nation Of Islam and performing the religious pilgrimage to Mecca as an orthodox (Sunni) Muslim. This transformation, although he would continue to use the name Malcolm X, would also result in his adopting the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He had used Malik El-Shabazz previously on personal documents, but after performing the religious pilgrimage, known as a ‘hajj’, he received the title ‘El-Hajj’ to symbolize his having performed that ritual journey to Mecca.
Besides these multiple names, the person we are referring to is complex for many other reasons, and indeed many of the misconceptions that people have about him are due to their lack of information on the changes he went through in his life. Specifically, his transformation to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, an orthodox Muslim no longer affiliated with Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslim movement, has often received little study, especially by those who have never felt the urge to learn about the man and yet freely offer uninformed opinions despite that. While many ideas he held as a member of the NOI continued to be held by him, El-Hajj Malik stated his feeling clearly in interviews that, “For twelve long years I lived within the narrow-minded confines of the ‘strait-jacket world’ created by my strong belief that Elijah Muhammad was a messenger direct from God himself… I totally reject Elijah Muhammad’s racist philosophy, which he has labeled ‘Islam’ only to fool and misuse gullible people as he fooled and misused me.” The differences in his outlook once he became an independent leader, as opposed to the representative of another leader, can be looked at and further studied, but for the purpose of this writing notes will be made mainly to emphasize El-Hajj Malik, the man who after twelve years of political/religious activity finally began to think, speak, and act for himself. With the above quote it should be clear that El-Hajj Malik represents a philosophy outside of the “narrow” confines of the NOI. Worth noting for this writing, which in part is aimed at denying misconceptions based on his NOI-era thought, is that this period in which he became independent and performed the ‘hajj’ began in early 1964, just one year short of his assassination on February 21, 1965. This is an important point to note, because while he was very active in the NOI, and became known worldwide for his activities with the group, the person he became after performing the ‘hajj’ was explicit in saying that these years were, essentially, wasted years. To truly understand the legacy of Malcolm X, the activities he engaged in once becoming El-Hajj Malik must be looked at closely because they represent his own independent thought and action. To hold on to misconceptions based on uninformed opinions, opinions often influenced by him as a member of the NOI, is to completely disregard the authentically international character that El-Hajj Malik developed as a human rights activist and adherent of orthodox Islam.
In terms of religious affiliation, El-Hajj Malik stated that, “when I left the Black Muslim movement, I realized that what we taught in there was not authentic Islam. My first journey was to Mecca to make myself an authentic Muslim.” He very clearly stated his religious beliefs to the public: “I’m a Muslim, which only means that my religion is Islam. I believe in God, the Supreme Being, the creator of the universe. Which is a very simple form of religion, easy to understand. I believe in one God.” He was also quick to point out that this ‘one God’ was the same God believed in by Christians and Jews, the only difference being that Jews call God ‘Jehovah’ and Muslims call God ‘Allah’—it is the same God, the creator of the universe. After being forced out of the NOI and starting his transition to El-Hajj Malik, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. organization was founded to organize Afro-American Muslims, promote orthodox Islam, and create links with Muslims around the African and Asian world. Inspired by the Muslim belief in brotherhood, yet recognizing the impossibility of practicing brotherhood with others who are themselves unwilling to practice it, Muslim Mosque, Inc. was founded as a religious organization that would directly take on the issues facing Afro-Americans and their allies throughout the world. Through his travels to Mecca and other African countries, in a time when national liberation struggles were a main feature of African, Asian, and Latin American countries, El-Hajj Malik was able to establish a number of contacts in addition to close ties with various leaders. One of the profound experiences El-Hajj Malik had was while in Mecca he experienced first-hand the unity of a mass of human beings regardless of color, class, or national origin. As a religious organization based on orthodox Islam, Muslim Mosque, Inc. would allow for Afro-American Muslims and other Muslims across the world to establish links that could lead to practical action in favor of freedom, without discrimination.
At the same time, El-Hajj Malik and others realized that the problems facing Afro-Americans and other people of color were very complex and went beyond a simply religious framework. For these and other reasons the Organization of Afro-American Unity was formed, modeled in part after the Organization of African Unity on the African Continent. This would be a non-religious organization founded to organize Afro-Americans, lead the struggle in defense of their human rights, and establish links with the African Continent. It needs to be noted that the philosophy held by El-Hajj Malik was one that viewed Afro-Americans as any person of African descent living in the Americas, whether North America, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean. He made clear the links between Afro-American people in the U.S. and the former colonies of France, Britain, Spain, and Portugal, pointing to the common history of forced separation from their African homelands. By emphasizing the need to learn about African history and establish links with the emerging African nations, El-Hajj Malik and the OAAU greatly broadened the Afro-American struggle in the U.S. Arguing that racism practiced in that country was more than a civil matter, and that the U.S. government itself was unable to bring about a resolution, the OAAU and Muslim Mosque, Inc. sought to bring the matter to the United Nations and charge the U.S. with violating laws established to guarantee universal human rights. This is one of the important points to note about El-Hajj Malik: that he was arguably the first to raise the issue of civil rights in the U.S. to the level of human rights that were shared in common with African people all over the world, in the Americas, Africa, or elsewhere. While this lent itself to the development of unity and cooperative action among Afro-American and African people, as was the intent, there was also the desire to work with any other organizations around issues of common interest. The OAAU is remarkable in that it deliberately sought to unite leaders and groups regardless of political or religious affiliation, as was needed to fight against a common oppressor. And in general, the work of El-Hajj Malik and his allies constituted the largest project to unite Afro-American and African people since Marcus Garvey.
This is the true legacy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz: unity against a common oppressor. As a Muslim he recognized that oppression is oppression, no matter who is doing the oppressing, and that for this reason all human beings must be able to unite in defense of freedom wherever it is being denied. As an Afro-American he made a profound effort to develop the Afro-American struggle, broaden its base, and link it to the African Continent. These struggles, in particular through the OAAU and Muslim Mosque, Inc., were able to unite across the boundaries of race, class, national origin, and religion. In addition, influenced by his travels in Africa, El-Hajj Malik also recognized the importance of women in the process, pointing out that, “Where the women are encouraged to get education and play a more active role in the all-around affairs of the community and the country, the entire people are more active, more enlightened, and more progressive.” He summed up the importance of women in the freedom struggle by recalling an African proverb: “Educate a man and you educate an individual; educate a woman and you educate an entire family.” Nevertheless, the most prominent topics before and after his emergence as an independent leader were those of violence and charges of racism. In terms of violence, El-Hajj Malik reiterated his already held belief that the only violence taking place in the U.S. was violence Afro-Americans were victims of, and that because of this fact any response by Afro-Americans was simply a human response aimed at protecting and defending themselves. In terms of charges of racism, he argued consistently that, “I am not a racist in any way, shape, or form, and I believe in taking an uncompromising stand against any forms of segregation and discrimination that are based on race… The yardstick that I use to judge a man is his deeds, his behavior, his intentions.”
In the struggle for justice and human rights El-Hajj Malik made it clear that he believed in fighting for these goals “by any means necessary.” This slogan was never meant to advocate any form of indiscriminate violence but was absolutely in favor of fighting against the criminals that deny the human rights of others. His position was that, “Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I’m concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.” In a debate on extremism and moderation in defense of liberty and justice, El-Hajj Malik made the point that there seem to be two different meanings of extremism, depending on the perspective one is viewing it from. In contrast to the extremism practiced by those who deny the freedom of others, extremism in the form of indiscriminate and cold-blooded murder, he stated that, “I’m for the kind of extremism that those who are being destroyed by those bombs and destroyed by those hired killers, are able to put forth to thwart it. They will risk their lives at any cost, they will sacrifice their lives at any cost, against that kind of criminal activity.” The fight of El-Hajj Malik was always of a defensive nature, in support of liberty, justice, and the securing of human rights. These quotes deny the misconception that he was for indiscriminate violence in support of racist ideals, for they make clear that his philosophy was devoted to intelligent defense of human rights by any means necessary. These means, as he made clear, are in contrast to the cold-blooded means used by oppressors to secure their rule over people in disregard of their human rights.
This brief writing was essentially done to provide notes on El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz so that his legacy could be better appreciated in light of the direction his philosophy took after becoming an independent leader. In part, it was also done to deny some misconceptions held by people that often base their opinions on the direction of Malcolm X as a member of the NOI. While the intent was not to take away from the impact he made during those years, it was hoped that his thought and actions as El-Hajj Malik could be emphasized so as to underline the transformations he continued to go through after being forced out of that group. Arguably, he is the greatest Afro-American leader we have yet to witness. To a large extent, he is responsible for the acceptance of Islam by countless Afro-Americans. El-Hajj Malik would go on to found the Muslim Mosque, Inc. to “help undo the distorted image we have helped spread about Islam” and promote a better understanding of orthodox Islam. At the same time he also founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity to “unite all Black Americans regardless of their religious [or political] affiliation into a group that can fight against American racism and the economic, political, and social evils that stem from white racism here in this American society.” As an independent leader El-Hajj Malik represented a clear threat to the international system of oppression headed by the U.S., and for this reason the ruling class sought the end of his influence. It would, however, be the split caused between him and Elijah Muhammad and the NOI in early 1964 that would bring his downfall, for on February 21, 1965 elements of the NOI, likely in collaboration with police and other elements on a federal level, assassinated him while delivering a speech in Harlem. But as the saying goes, ‘you can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution,’ and while the Black movement has faced many setbacks since his death, his legacy remains and continues to inspire people to continue the struggle. El-Hajj Malik, Malcolm X, secured a number of pages in the history books, and for this reason will continue to guide many people to come interested in defending the human right to freedom and justice for Black and other people of color throughout the world who face the unjust oppression practiced by elements of an international system intent on exploiting them. As long as there continues to be a reason to fight to gain freedom and justice, the legacy of El-Hajj Malik will be there to guide and inspire us. In sum, my hope is that this brief writing was able to give basic information on this historical figure to those interested or in need of such. It is also hoped that this writing provides further clarity and motivation in regards to continuing the struggle for liberation that continues to be necessary.