Today marks 49 years since the martyrdom El-Hajj Malik al-Shabbaz, more commonly known as Malcolm X. For Muslims in the Anglophone world, and particularly in North America, Malcolm is regarded as a sort of patron saint, a pioneer of Islam into an unfamiliar world. As someone who lives in a culture that has been greatly influenced by Malcolm, my social media accounts were replete with eulogies and remembrances of him on this day. As a result it got me thinking, given Malcolm’s huge influence over English speaking Muslims, and the profound effect of his mentality and outspokenness, have we lived up to the challenges that Malcolm faced? Have our homages to his legacy been demeaned to a simple retweet, or sharing a post on Facebook? Are we doing enough to honour everything he sacrificed for?
The people Malcolm had the most profound effect on were his own qawm, his own people, the African Americans, more specifically those who live in the ghettoes from which Malcolm emerged. If it were not for Malcolm, America would not have Muhammad Ali, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Ameena Williams, Warith Deen Muhammad, and countless others whose stories were told too late to the masses, such as Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, or those whose stories are left to history. But yet in America, despite the great efforts of these people, more is still to be done. Blacks in America are still at the bottom of the social fabric of society, their children are subjugated by the social system, with inadequate state schooling, and by a racist stereotyped cultural system fuelled by television and film that teaches their youth that all they can aspire to be is a criminal turned hip hop lackey, or a sports professional. The cultural influence, given the globalisation of everything American, affects black youth all over the world, including here in the UK. Whereas in Malcolm’s time, blacks were subjugated by a clear-cut apartheid system, today it’s an implicit form of subjugation based on commercialism. Whenever you see a black person on tv or a film, the vast majority of the time it’s a negative portrayal. In a post-9/11 system, this has now been expanded to include Muslims from the whole colour spectrum. It’s from Malcolm’s fight against explicit racism from which we can learn how to deal with the implicit racism we find ourselves surrounded by today.
Malcolm’s greatest asset was he was a non-conformist, he didn’t believe everything he was told, he asked questions, explored answers, he went looking for the truth. When he found the things that were false, he fought against them, this is what the great patrons of African American society did, are still doing, and it’s what we need to take part in in our own societies. Here in Britain, Muslims make up 2% of the population in Britain, but 13% of the prison population, we suffer from domestic abuse, substance abuse and common criminality, to live up to the legacy of Malcolm we need to do something about that, but what? Malcolm is a huge cultural icon, and most of us, if any at all, will never reach that sort of exposure, our honouring his legacy must come through changing the negative aspects of the world around us one small step at a time, just as our spiritual predecessors had done, from the Prophet (ﷺ) to Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, Shah Jalal, Mawlana Rumi and Malcolm X, they sat with the poor, listened to the downtrodden, advised the needy. Our personal effect on the people around us must first be internalised by forming an intention to live up to the teaching of the Prophet (ﷺ) when he said:
Whoever of you sees an evil must then change it with his hand. If he is not able to do so, then [he must change it ] with his tongue. And if he is not able to do so, then [he must change it] with his heart.
Once we have made our intention, we must make a sincere effort to bring these words to effect, this happens by doing simple little things, such as clearing rubbish from an elderly neighbour’s garden or buying a sandwich for a homeless person. If we miss a chance to do these trivial things we must regret the lost opportunity, this is the latter part of the hadith where one regrets an evil with the heart. The next level is to make a solid commitment to an ongoing cause, this in our time comes about in the form of volunteering, whether at a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, abuse counselling, or even a homework or youth club for teenagers. If we do work with teenagers, it must be understood they are at the most formative period of their life, and if you are working with them you have a chance to make them into something great. Tell them to stop listening to commercial music, enlighten them to the realities of fake advertising, advise them to read. Following on from this, if one has children of their own that entails the next step, a lifelong commitment, “emancipate them from mental slavery” as you would the children you volunteer with, and encourage them in take part in your struggle to make the world around you better, so that they carry it on to their own children.
None of us will ever have be Malcolm in the truest sense, but if we make sincere efforts, and strive to carry on the work that Malcolm started, not just in the States but in our own part of the world, we can all become Malcolm X.