When the Nation of Islam Leader Embraced True Islam and Abandoned Separatism
On April 13, 1964, Malcolm X left the United States on a personal and spiritual journey through the Middle East and West Africa. By the time he returned on May 21, he’d visited Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and Algeria.
In Saudi Arabia, he’d experienced what amounted to his second life-changing epiphany as he accomplished the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and discovered an authentic Islam of universal respect and brotherhood. The experience changed Malcolm’s worldview. Gone was the belief in White people as exclusively evil. Gone was the call for Black separatism. His voyage to Mecca helped him discover the atoning power of Islam as a means to unity as well as self-respect: “In my thirty-nine years on this earth,” he would write in his autobiography, “the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being.”
It had been a long journey in a brief life.
Before Mecca: The Nation of Islam
Malcolm’s first epiphany occurred 12 years earlier when he converted to Islam while serving an eight-to-10-year prison sentence for robbery. But back then it was Islam according to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam—an odd cult whose principles of racial hatred and separatism, and whose beliefs about White people being a genetically engineered race of “devils,” stood it in contrast with Islam’s more orthodox teachings.
Malcolm X bought in and rapidly rose in the ranks of the organization, which was more like a neighborhood guild, albeit a disciplined and enthusiastic one, than a “nation” when Malcolm arrived. Malcolm’s charisma and eventual celebrity built the Nation of Islam into the mass movement and political force it became in the early 1960s.
Disillusion and Independence
The Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad turned out to be much less than the upstanding moral paragon he pretended to be. He was a hypocritical, serial womanizer who fathered numerous children out of wedlock with his secretaries, a jealous man who resented Malcolm’s stardom, and a violent man who never hesitated to silence or intimidate his critics (through thuggish emissaries). His knowledge of Islam was also relatively slight. “Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam,” Malcolm wrote, “and not knowing the prayer ritual.” Elijah Muhammad had never taught it.
It took Malcolm’s disillusionment with Muhammad and the Nation finally to break away from the organization and set out on his own, literally and metaphorically, to the authentic heart of Islam.
Rediscovering Brotherhood and Equality
First in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, then in Jeddah, the Saudi city, Malcolm X witnessed what he claims he never saw in the United States: men of all color and nationalities treating each other equally. “Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound for the pilgrimage,” he’d begun to notice at the airport terminal before boarding the plane for Cairo in Frankfurt:
To enter the state of “ihram” required of all pilgrims heading for Mecca, Malcolm abandoned his trademark black suit and dark tie for the two-piece white garment pilgrims must drape over their upper and lower bodies. “Every one of the thousands at the airport, about to leave for Jedda, was dressed this way,” Malcolm wrote. “You could be a king or a peasant and no one would know.” That, of course, is the point of ihram. As Islam interprets it, it reflects the equality of man before God.
Preaching in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, Malcolm’s journey was held up a few days until authorities could be sure his papers, and his religion, were in order (no non-Muslim is allowed to enter the Grand Mosque in Mecca). As he waited, he learned various Muslim rituals and spoke to men of vastly different backgrounds, most of whom were as star struck with Malcolm as Americans were back home.
They knew Malcolm X as the “Muslim from America.” They plied him with questions; he obliged them with sermons for answers. In everything he said to them, according to Malcolm:
Malcolm X in Mecca
Finally, the actual pilgrimage began. As Malcolm X described it:
It was that sight that inspired his famous “Letters from Abroad”—three letters, one from Saudi Arabia, one from Nigeria, and one from Ghana—that began redefining Malcolm X’s philosophy. “America,” he wrote from Saudi Arabia on April 20, 1964, “needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases the race problem from its society.” He would later concede that “the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly.”
A Work in Progress, Cut Down
It’s easy to overly romanticize Malcolm X’s last period of his life, to misinterpret it as gentler, more amenable to White tastes then (and to some extent still now) so hostile to Malcolm. In reality, he returned to the United States as fiery as ever. His philosophy was taking a new direction. But his critique of liberalism went on unabated. He was willing to take the help of “sincere whites,” but he was under no illusion that the solution for Black Americans would not begin with White people. It would begin and end with Black people. In that regard, White people were better off busying themselves with confronting their own pathological racism. Or, as he put it:
“Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people.”
Malcolm never had the chance to evolve his new philosophy fully. “I never have felt that I would live to be an old man,” he told Alex Haley, his biographer. On Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, he was shot by three men as he was preparing to speak to an audience of several hundred.
- X, Malcolm. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley.” Alex Haley, Attallah Shabazz, Paperback, Reissue edition, Ballantine Books, November 1992.
Tristam, Pierre. (2021, January 17). Malcom X in Mecca. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/malcom-x-in-mecca-2353496