As I have commented elsewhere, many of the cherished beliefs held by Muslims regarding the life and legacy of Malcolm X amount to little more than sacred myths. And for however much we may have invested in these myths, if we are honest, we’ll have to concede that just as a house built on sand must surely crumble, so too will these myths.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, from which most of the conventional views and beliefs about Malcolm X are drawn, has in recent years come under an exacting level of scrutiny and criticism conforming to the most rigorous standards of scholarship. This new study compels us to reexamine all that we thought we knew about the man American Muslims simply call “the Martyr”.
Did Malcolm X Know How to Pray
(salah) Before 1964?
Malcolm in the Autobiography laments quite pitifully the fact that in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (that’s an important point) the prayers were not made in Arabic, and that he was in fact completely ignorant of how to perform the Sunni Muslim prayer (called salah) until he traveled to Mecca on Hajj in April of 1964. I quote him:
An old Russian Muslim and his wife were not asleep. They stared frankly at me. Two Egyptian Muslims and a Persian roused and also stared as my guide moved us over into a corner. With gestures, he indicated that he would demonstrate to me the proper prayer postures. Imagine, being a Muslim minister in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and not knowing how to pray.
I was angry with myself for not having taken the time to learn more of the orthodox prayer rituals before leaving America. In Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, we hadn’t prayed in Arabic
– From “Mecca” Chapter, Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley
Historically speaking, some senior followers of the late Imam W. Deen Mohammed, especially those who knew and worked with Malcolm X, have always taken great exception to these passages in the Autobiography. For while they’ll readily admit that as followers of Elijah Muhammad they didn’t as a rule make congregational salat, that does not mean they were ignorant of it or did not perform it individually. And they’re in full agreement that if anyone in the Nation of Islam knew how to perform the Islamic prayers correctly, it was Malcolm X. From the day the book was published in November of 1965 they have resisted Malcolm X on this point. The evidence they mount in countering Malcolm is not only compelling but seems to be conclusive.
First there is the Muslim Daily Prayers book, alleged to be written by Elijah Muhammad, which was published by the Nation of Islam in 1956, and can still be purchased from the NOI’s book catalogue. It describes the Muslim prayer from start to finish, illustrating all of the positions along with the Arabic transliterations. Is it possible, they argue, that as National Representative of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X would not have learned the contents of this book? Not likely, but assuming he didn’t, they have other evidence on their side.
They point to the history of their own leader, Wallace D. Mohammed, and the Islamic education he received at the NOI’s University of Islam, an eduction directed and overseen by his father, Elijah Muhammad. Wallace, his younger brother Akbar, and all the students they taught, knew the correct performance of the prayer, and this is well known in the their community. That’s why Malcolm’s statements are so especially galling, because he wants to suggest that the NOI was so Islamically impoverished that he had to travel half way around the world to learn something as rudimentary as prayer.
How could Malcolm say the NOI didn’t teach salat when Minister Wallace lectured on it at Malcolm’s own Temple Number 7 in Harlem, which he apparently forgot was recorded. That is exactly what you will hear on this link, but it requires a little background first.
Recorded in 1959, this NOI program was a response to the media firestorm that had erupted over Mike Wallace’s menacing documentary on the group entitled The Hate That Hate Produced. The entire country had only then learned of the organization and its teachings, and the NOI had to answer charges of promulgating hate. Malcolm had just returned to the United States from his three-week trip to Africa and the Middle East after making preparations there for Elijah Muhammad’s Hajj visit.
One hears on the tape:
- Minister Malcolm X
- Wallace Mohammed
- Raymond Sharrieff, Supreme Captain of the Fruit of Islam and son-in-law of Elijah Muhammad
- Sister Hortense, who taught public speaking at the temple, reading a letter from Elijah Muhammad denying that he teaches hate.
After Wallace demonstrates the prayer, Malcolm thanks him and informs his congregants that the future Imam learned ALL of his Arabic at the University of Islam. Malcolm’s assertions quoted above are interpreted by older followers of Imam Mohammed as a direct swipe at him and them.
But returning to Malcolm’s 1959 diplomatic mission overseas, a journey given extremely short shrift in his Autobiography- only one paragraph – where we’re told he visited Egypt, Arabia (Jedda, not Mecca), Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana (three Muslim countries with the other two having a sizable Muslim minority) is it plausible to think that as the most famous “Muslim” emissary from America Malcolm never once made salat? How could that ever be possible? And why does he give this particular trip to Arabia such scant treatment while devoting over forty pages to his Hajj visit to the gulf, where it is there (if we are to believe him) that HE FIRST LEARNS TO PRAY?
In so doing, not only did Malcolm X subtlety imply that “Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam” did not teach the salaah, but he also unwittingly created the pernicious and debilitating myth amongst black American Muslims that religious authenticity can be secured only “overseas” at the feet of foreigners!
I have discussed this issue of Malcolm’s 1959 trip (while he was still a member of the NOI) at length with Professor Manning Marable of Columbia, University and director of the Malcolm X Project, who wrote extensively about it in his 2006 book, Living Black History.<—READ THIS LINK!!!
I will share some of the insights of those discussions as well as extensive research on his 1964 Hajj trip in my own forthcoming book, From the Back of the Bus to the Back of the Camel (early spring of 09).
The Smoking Gun
The photograph above, which was never seen by the public until May of 2005, was taken while he was still a member of the NOI and offers conclusive proof that the account contained in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, that of his not knowing how to pray the Muslim prayer until the1964 Hajj trip, is not accurate. It is part of the Malcolm X papers held at the Schomburg Center in New York, and is owned by the Shabazz family (Malcolm’s Muslim name). This stunning image, which was displayed at the Schomburg’s 2005 tribune to Malcolm X, shows the Muslim leader in the upper room of his home reverentially and CORRECTLY performing the salah!
The scholars at the Schomburg have dated the picture to be some time in 1963, at least one year before the Hajj. How do they reach that conclusion? It is simply this; Malcolm was one of the most photographed persons of his era, in fact he had his own personal photographer (who probably took the shot). Of the last eleven months of his life, six were spent overseas. For the five months he was here in the United States, there is not even one picture of him clean shaven or wearing the nearly bald head style of the NOI. To my knowledge, he never wore anything less than a mustache, but for the vast majority of that time, he sported a full goatee and kept his hair long, at least compared to his days in the NOI. These changes in his appearance were immediately noticed by reporters, and he was questioned about them at a press conference he held upon returning from Mecca. Because the Malcolm X in this photograph is close cropped and clean shaven, it must mean it was taken before he went on Hajj, proving he already knew how to pray.
Much more to come…