“As-salamu alaykum”, Malcolm X, barely forty years old, greeted his audience at the familiar Audubon Ballroom in New York on February 21st, 1965. These Arabic words mean ‘may peace be on you’. Only a week ago he had escaped an assassination attempt with his family as his house was firebombed in the dead of the night. The very next day, he had exhibited nerves of steel by attending a public event in Detroit. He had shown such courage despite constant death threats because he knew his cause was worth the risk.
Now he was in front of an audience once again, offering them peace. At this moment, as Malcolm X suddenly got distracted by a commotion from the back of the hall, three people from the front row stood up and shot at him using revolvers and shotguns. He was shot 21 times and died in a hospital a short while later. The courage and fortitude shown by Malcolm right up till the moment of his assassination is inspirational to many. And it’s courage he found by following the true path of Islam.
When Malcolm was born in 1925, the US was still coming to terms with the end of slavery, which happened officially in 1865. Black people were becoming aware of their rights but white people were still not ready to accept them as equal citizens. Malcolm got the hardest lessons about racism right at home as his family was threatened, harassed, shot at and their house was burned. His father was murdered by white racists when he was six (Malcolm X – An Islamic Perspective, n.d.). Such a disturbed childhood led Malcolm to dropping out of school. With limited opportunities, such energetic black youths had little choice but to turn to the street, which lead to criminalization of many. Malcolm was convicted of burglary and sentenced to prison for a maximum of 10 years at the age of twenty.
During his time in prison, he started reading regularly, as he understood the power of knowledge. He also became very impressed by the religious movement of the Nation of Islam (NOI), although, despite its name, the NOI had little to do with mainstream Islam. NOI gained popularity because it provided an organized outlet to 400 years of African Americans’ anger and frustration. Along with a sense of moral righteousness it preached complete independence from whites and formation of a new black state in the US or even a return to Africa. It insisted on self-reliance and separatism. It went as far as to actually teach racism by preaching black supremacy, prohibiting intermarriages and calling the whites “blue eyed devils.”
So strong was the message that in Malcolm’s later words, “I was a zombie then―like all [NOI] Muslims, I was hypnotized.” After being released from prison he formally joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Malcolm X as his family name ‘Little’ had nothing to do with his family but was actually a product of slavery. He established himself as a masterful speaker and impressed many with the NOI’s message. He also established many of the NOI’s temples and rose quickly in the organization becoming second only to the leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm’s devotion to NOI was tested severely when Elijah Muhammad was accused of extramarital sexual relations with his secretaries (Malcolm X, n.d.). He finally had enough when the leader accepted the accusations and tried to justify them by comparing it to the stories of other Biblical prophets. In 1964, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam formally and encouraged by some friends learned more about the true Islam and started following the Sunni traditions. His journey was finally on the right path.
It was also in this year that he went for the Hajj (pilgrimage to the House of God in Makkah) and the curtain was finally lifted from his eyes. He saw people from all parts of the world, of all colors and races, worshiping together. In his words: “I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around… we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white…”. He felt that the true teachings of Islam can remove the racist attitude from a person enabling him to look at another person and not see his color or race but as an equal human being. This was something inconceivable in his experiences in life up until that point.
He returned from the pilgrimage, ready to spread the truth. It was tragic that after just a year of Malcolm’s conversion he was assassinated. He did not get much of a chance to spread the true message but he left behind an example of courage and peace for all. What he learned from Islam can be understood from his quotes:
“I am not a racist… In the past I permitted myself to be used… I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of any one race. I can state in all sincerity that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.” (Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, 2009)
“…only when mankind would submit to the One God who created all―only then would mankind even approach the “peace” of which so much talk could be heard… but toward which so little action was seen.”