Monday, July 11, 2011


As E. Ethelbert Miller notes, I don't write often about Malcolm X. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate some of the things he said. For example, I always find myself asking the question that he once put to a reporter about some issue: "Is it good for black people?" If so, then he was for it. I feel the same way.

To be honest, though, I don't relate to or identify with Malcolm during his years with the Nation of Islam when he relentlessly caricatured and criticized black people who were Christians, and publicly represented the racial separatism of Elijah Muhammad. Nor do I identify with the criminal behavior of his pre-NOI youth.

After his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm says in his autobiography made available to us by Alex Haley that his understanding of Islam, namely the Ummah, broadened to include Muslims of all backgrounds and races. This, I feel, was a positive step forward in his spiritual evolution, which was tragically cut short by a rain of assassins's bullets. If he had lived, I like to think that he would have moved in the direction of W. Deen Mohammed, leader of the Muslim American Society, and a person I admired. Or perhaps he would have adopted the stance of one of my old college friends from the 1960s, Omar Abdul-Malik, who was a student leader during the heady days of Black Studies creation at the undergraduate college we attended.

When I last spoke with Omar he was writing a book on Islam, a work he hoped would clarify many misunderstandings. (That book may well be published by now.)Among these, he said, is that our division of cultural experiences into “East” and “West” is yet another false dualism. “Theologically, there isn’t enough difference between Christianity and Islam to even talk about.” When I asked him why he---a college student I knew as a Catholic, then a Methodist back in the 1960s---converted to Islam, he said that if he told people he was Methodist in the 1960s when many young black Americans were leaving the church, they thought he was square; but given the respect that Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had in the 1960s, when Omar said he was a Muslim, people were impressed. “Islam,” Omar told me, “made it easier for me to be the square my Christian parents wanted me to be.” He said Islam gave him a moral life. Ninety-five percent of what his Christian parents taught him was in Islam. So he became a Muslim, a word that literally means, “one who submits to the will of God.” Thus, before the birth of the prophet Muhammad, Jews and Christians often called themselves “Muslims.” At the heart of Islam---Omar said---we find the ideal of brotherhood, and judging others by their deeds. Although the term “jihad” has been twisted by fundamentalists, my friend informed me that what it means is “inner struggle,” a critical self-examination aimed at the goal of achieving peace.

These are spiritual ideals he lives in his own life. Omar put matters this way in a brief sermon he delivered in the Memorial Church at Harvard, entitled, "Christianity and Islam: Two Arrows Shot from the Same Bow":
 "As a Methodist convert to Islam, the son of Catholic parents, having a Jewish brother and a sister who is a Pentecostal, born-again Christian minister, I have been forced by necessity to look for points of agreement regarding faith, if for no other reason than to survive Thanksgiving and the occasional family reunion. My siblings and I agree that our chosen spiritual orientations reflect our individual longings to advance along the road to enlightenment that our parents directed us to as children, and that was extolled by our teachers during our youth at Asbury Methodist Church…Perhaps by retracing the trajectories of our personal religious arrows we can realize the Unity of Faith and discover the Spirituality in Mankind.”

That is the vision I hope Malcolm X, as a Muslim, would have expressed had he lived.


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