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Islaam as a Pastoral in the Life of Malcolm X

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a hymn of praise to the soul of man, which can survive in the face of the most corrupting circumstances. This heroic achievement is possible because man is always capable of dreaming of a world of pastoral innocence and of maintaining a measure of spiritual purity even after becoming the most cynical of all cynics.

The pastoral, whether in the Thousand and One Nights or in ancient Rome, is an ideal characterized by simplicity and purity, and is considered superior to the norm or statistical average predominant in a sophisticated culture. The pastoral ideal is used by the revolutionary or visionary writer to undercut and expose a complex yet stagnant status quo. He may not believe that such an ideal actually exists; yet he believes in the possibility of vision and its superiority over fact and reality. In this sense the pastoral mode is as inevitable as history and revolution.

Islaam, for Malcolm, was such a pastoral. It provided him with an idealistic or visionary frame of reference that liberated him from the racist assumptions of his society of which he was the victim, and to which he must subscribe. But why did I choose the term “pastoral” to describe the Islaamic-Arab world Malcolm personally saw, and the Islaamic beliefs he eventually embraced? Arabia and Cairo, after all, do exist, and Islaamic culture is indeed devoid of racial tensions.

This is admittedly true, but the Arab world is not exactly the paradise Malcolm saw. Malcolm did not see the seamy side of the Islaamic-Arab world because he was dealing with totalities. He discovered that as far as he, the Afro-American, was concerned, the Arab-Islaamic world as a totality did not stunt human potentialities. That is why he could abstract his pastoral ideal from this Muslim world. White Protestant America for him was devoid of such human idealistic possibilities. He found it totally destructive.

The Islaamic-Arab world, in spite of all its historical tensions, provided Malcolm with a pastoral vision of a world morally superior to America, at least insofar as human and racial relationships are concerned. By returning to America to realize his new vision through social action, Malcolm showed that he belonged to the tradition of historical revolutionaries who want to alter reality, not by transcending or breaking away from it, but by reshaping it according to their vision of the “good life.”

The structure of the Autobiography as a whole could be seen as the development of Malcolm from being a practical, soulless hustler to becoming a visionary who discovers, through the help of an Islaamic, pastoral norm, “idealistic tendencies” in himself. The Autobiography begins with a reference to the pregnancy of Malcolm’s mother: a clear symbol of fertility and new life.

The father, a preacher of a form of Black Nationalism, is also an emblem of a new national birth. Yet the very second line of the Autobiography tells of the hooded Ku Klux Klan riders who surrounded Malcolm’s house in the night and taunted his father. The very fact that Malcolm survived and that he wrote his Autobiography is a testimony that map, by refusing to sell his soul to the devil of race and materialism, and by maintaining a belief in the superiority of the possible over the actual, can achieve salvation.

At Jaahiliyyah: The Pre-Islaamic Phase
Everything in Malcolm’s society conspired against him and his humanity. Once the father died, the welfare people moved in to convert Malcolm’s little community into fragmented economic units. They looked at the members of the family “as numbers and as a case in their book, not at human beings” (p. 22)! Later in life, Malcolm was once more literally converted to a number when he was sent to jail. His number became a part of him, “stencilled on his brain” (p. 152). Malcolm discovered that the conversion of men into numbers is a cultural necessity for America, because while this country can solve the problem of sending man into outer space, it cannot deal with human beings (p. 268).

If the relationship is between object and other objects, rather than between a man and other human beings, manipulation replaces social responsibility and love. Everyone preys on everyone else. The early part of the Autobiography tells of lust replacing love (p. 121), of white and black men exploiting white and black prostitutes, and vice versa.

It also tells of the legion of gamblers who preferred doing nothing to real human struggle. In their heart of hearts, they discovered that human labour, “slave” they called it, did not really pay in exploitative, manipulative, capitalist America. In the capitalist gospel it says, do unto others, before they do unto you.

The most manipulative of all the characters was the hustler. Malcolm noticed that the ghetto hustler, a product of white racism, had no inner restraints whatsoever because, in order to survive, he was “out there constantly preying upon others, probing for any human weakness like a ferret” (p. 311). The hustler, in competitive white America, could never trust anyone (p. 87), and had to keep on the go, shoving and pushing.

Reduced to the status of a hustler, a gambler, or even an object, man loses what distinguishes him as a human being. In the Autobiography, the many references to man as an animal serve to dramatize the reductive brutality of white society. Malcolm found that white people considered him, at first, a pet canary (p. 26). Later he became, for them, a fine colt, a pedigreed pet (p. 27), and a pink poodle (p. 30). This useless pet became a mere parasite (p. 75), only to become a vulture in Chapter Six.

But not for a moment did Malcolm surrender his innocence, for he knew all along that he became a vulture through living in “this competitive, materialistic, dog-eat-dog white man’s world” (p. 267). Malcolm, with his sharp analytical mind, discovered that this awareness made the ghetto hustler a potential revolutionary. Seeing himself as a victim rather than a victimizer, the hustler had “less respect for the white power structure than any other Negro in North America” (p. 311).

As a matter of fact, Malcolm implicitly suggests that the moral standards of the community of hustlers are in a sense superior to those of white Protestant America. The relationship between Shorty and Malcolm is characterized by a certain warmth totally absent in the rest of the world of dollarism. For one thing, the hustlers form a community. For another, their code of ethics is consistent because it applies to both blacks and whites - an ethical height yet to be reached by these United States.

Bashaa-er Al-Ba‘th or the Emergence of the Pastoral
If even the hustlers of the Autobiography kept their souls, the mass of people showed a remarkable cultural stamina. They did not only survive, but they also had visions in a world of crass materialism. It is ultimately the capacity to have visions of a world of pastoral beauty that saved Malcolm.

The first reference in the Autobiography to any visions of salvation is made in the first few pages of the first chapter. Malcolm remembered very well his father’s favourite sermon: “That little black train is a-comin’ . . an’ you better get all your business rightl” (p. 4). The images used show the stubbornness of the black man in America.

He converts the most mundane of activities, business, and the least poetical of objects, a train, into spiritual symbols. Malcolm also remembered his father invoking the myth of an African Adam “driven out of the Garden into the caves of Europe” and using the cleansing metaphor of the coming storm to describe Africa’s redemption (p. 6). No wonder, with this capacity to resist entrapment in mere matter, that the Negroes, when in church, “threw their souls and bodies wholly into worship” (p. 35). White America did not obliterate their souls the way it did to their white brethren, who, as Malcolm observed, “Just sat and worshiped with words” (p. 35) - a sad sight indeed!

But it was through music and dance that the Afro-American could transcend his agony and achieve specific selfhood and identity. In the Autobiography, Malcolm joyfully asserts that his long-suppressed African instincts broke through when he was dancing (p. 57). References to Afro-American music and songs are just too many to enumerate.

But they stand as some kind of emblem of the triumph of the Afro-American soul and its desire to reach the skies. (The music and the dance are in sharp contrast to the animal imagery which points to the voraciousness of the white man’s culture and its desire to reduce and fetter the Afro-American.) Nowhere is this emblematic significance of music made clearer than in Chapter Five, when a reefer-smoking Negro, hearing Lionel Hampton’s “Flyin’ Home,” believed he could fly and actually jumped from the second balcony, breaking his leg. Both the incident of the temporary “spiritual liberation” and its tragic aftermath were immortalized in another Afro-American song: Earl Hines’ hit tune “Second Balcony Jump” (p.74). Malcolm was detached enough to see the futility and moral inadequacy of this kind of flying, but he was also compassionate enough to see its beauty. Later in life, Malcolm himself would fly like the “boy Icarus,” but with wings given to him by Allaah and the religion of Islaam (p. 287).

The music and the other redeeming elements in the world of the Afro-American preserved his soul and saved him from being crushed by the racist ethics of white America. Though they all implied a degree of rejection of the stagnant status quo, they never liberated the Afro-American completely because they did not provide him with a new total vision which could serve as a total critique of American culture. Islaam, a total ethical system, was for Malcolm both the total critique and the pastoral ideal.

The process of conversion to Islaam began with small ritualistic steps such as the refusal to eat pork in prison (p. 156) and the ablution (p. 193). Yet it ended with the revolutionary adoption of a new system of values.

While still in jail, Malcolm was introduced to the version of Islaam advocated by Elijah Muhammad’s group. He embraced it and felt its moral superiority. But Malcolm went beyond the group’s moral assumptions because of their failure to reject America’s ethical values completely. Although the Black Muslim’s creed did undoubtedly contribute to Malcolm’s liberation and redemption, it was, like the other pastoral elements in his pre-Islaamic life, morally and psychologically inadequate. For this reason let us move on directly to discuss Malcolm’s conversion to “orthodox” Islaam, demonstrating in the course of the discussion the ways in which he transcended the beliefs of the Elijah Muhammad group.

Malcolm showed an intuitive understanding of Islaam and its God. Many Americans have studied Islaam before, but they were satisfied with their culture and its underlying assumptions, while Malcolm was undergoing a moral crisis and dreaming of a better world. That is why after hundred of years of theological studies and European missionaries, no Westerner as yet has captured the essence of the Islaamic God the way Malcolm did. Malcolm, for instance, discovered the egalitarianism and universalism of Allaah.

The Christian God is universal, yet Malcolm knew that He was appropriated by a Western culture that gave Him specific colours and definite cultural attributes. A Harvard seminary student, lecturing on the Christian religion, grew very evasive and embarrassed when Malcolm told him about the real colour of Jesus and St. Paul (p.190). Allaah, on the other hand, remains free from human prejudices and false distinctions. He is the God of all people, in all places, and of all colours. Malcolm reached this conclusion not through theological ratiocination, but through personal experience.

In the Islaamic-Arab world, people insisted on seeing him as an American. Isn’t that his nationality, after all? The Egyptian pilot, whose complexion was darker than Malcolm’s, invited him to the cockpit as an “American Muslim” (p. 324), not as a Black Muslim. A Persian Muslim in Malcolm’s compartment greeted him saying, “Amer . . . American” (p. 329). The astonishment was complete and the realization of the nature of the Islaamic God became final when Dr. Azzam, who “would have been called a white man,” did not act white in the least (p. 331). To his utter dismay, Malcolm discovered that he was the only one who was colour-conscious.

This new outlook signalled the beginning of his total liberation from American values. Malcolm, in a very significant passage, which begins with a reference to the morning, tells us about his reappraisal of the term “white,” and his heroic leap from racist judgments to ethical evaluations (p. 333). The term “white man” loses its racial content because he saw people with white complexions who were genuinely brotherly. He so thoroughly exorcised the devil of racism that when he noticed that people who looked alike stayed together, he could see it not as racial segregation but as a voluntary action of people who simply have something in common with each other (p. 344).

This personal interaction with Muslims enabled him to grasp the revolutionary implications of the Islaamic concept of the Oneness of God. Whites standing in front of the One God ceased to be mere whites and became full human beings (p. 360). He, an Afro-American, also stood before the “Creator of All” and also felt like a complete human being (p. 365). He could achieve this completeness because to accept the Oneness of God means to accept the Oneness of Man (P. 341). Consistent and generous as ever, Malcolm embraced the logical conclusion of his new Islaamic position; later in life he rejected the pseudo-Islaamic myth of the white man being the devil.

In the Christian world, people have to have images and icons to be able to see their gods. In the Islaamic tradition, God can never be represented nor is He ever incarnated in any human or superhuman form. The Muslim prophet is also the Iconoclast, the breaker of statues and images. The reasons are not hard to discover.

To paint an image of God is to impose a human limitation or prejudice on Him. The Islaamic God is universalistic and prefers to remain this way. Malcolm showed his remarkable acumen in his rejection of the elaborate mythical scheme, Protestant in origin, devised by the Black Muslims (p. 368). They believe that God was incarnated in the person of a half-white, half-black man named Mr. W. Fard. The whole idea of incarnation, which has many anti-humanistic and antidemocratic implications, is totally alien to the spirit of Islaam. Malcolm grasped this fact, and pointed out the dangers of deifying the human.

He believed in Elijah Muhammad as a leader not in the ordinary human sense but also “as a divine leader.” In Makkah, on the hilltop, and in the presence of the One and the Unique he realized how very dangerous it is to believe in the “divinely guided” and “protected” person (p. 365). Nowhere in his Autobiography does he talk about the form of Allaah or His personal attributes.

One and Unique He is, but He is never alien to the human self. The Islaamic God refused to endow his prophet with supernatural powers which could contravene natural processes. Mu’hammad stubbornly refused to yield to the temptations of becoming an ordinary, supernatural prophet, and remained a man living among men. If the messenger of Allaah, a casual speaker with Him, is an ordinary human being, then anyone can speak to Allaah.

Allaah tells Mu’hammad in the ’Qura~n that if people asked the prophet about Him, they should know that Allaah is near, and that He will answer all their prayers. Malcolm was almost echoing the ’Qura~n when he said, “Allaah always gives you signs, when you are with Him, that He is with you” (p. 319). It is this humane God whom Malcolm had in mind whenever he reiterated the sentence “I knew Allaah was near” which runs like a refrain throughout the Autobiography, especially in Chapter Seventeen.

The Muslim prophet was not only a messenger of God, but also a political leader of Arabia. He did not only offer a new vision of life, but he also fought for the liberation of slaves. That is why Bilaal, one of his first converts, was at once a religious follower and fighter for freedom. In short, the separation between a religious and ethical ideal, on the one hand, and social and political practice, on the other, is not a Muslim phenomenon.

The Imaam in Islaamic culture still plays the role of the minister and the leader of the community, and his Friday sermon is still both religious and political. The Islaamic view of social action as being inseparable from ethical and religious beliefs was not lost upon Malcolm. It seems to me that this is the single most important point that caused Malcolm to break away from the Black Muslims.

Moving among the Afro-American masses, he discovered that the Nation of Islam could be a significant force only when it is “engaged in more action” in the overall struggle of the masses (p. 289). When his efforts at reorienting the Nation of Islam to social action failed, he decided to build his own organization which would carry into practice what the Nation of Islam preached (p. 315). He was too much of a Muslim to be a mere priest; he could not help being a social activist, like the messenger of Allaah.

One final characteristic of the Islaamic ideal which Malcolm perceived and fully appreciated is its communitarianism. The Islaamic Sabbath is on Friday, Yawm Aljumu‘ah, or the day of the community. Allaah in the ’Qura~n says that His hand is always with the community rather than with the individual. In his first encounter with Muslims, Malcolm immediately felt “the atmosphere of warmth and friendliness” (p. 321). Coming from a racist, competitive society it was almost like stepping “out of a prison” (p. 321). People loved him, and accepted him “as a brother” (p. 322); and they offered him their food and even their beds.

An Egyptian wife, incapable of seeing competitiveness as the sole motivation of man’s behaviour, innocently asks, “Why are people in the world starving when America has so much surplus food?” (p. 322). He who comes from a capitalist, sophisticated society knows better: In America they let the surplus rot, according to the most advanced technological methods, of course! Islaamic communitarianism makes social action an inevitable outgrowth of moral consciousness. Malcolm embraced the communitarian ideal and the ideal of social action. His life after his actual conversion to Islaam testifies to this fact.

Though he left a part of himself in the Holy City of Makkah, and though he took away with him a part of Makkah (p. 349), he refused to degenerate into any form of escapism or desire to “return.” He went back to his people to fight with them for their rights. The separatism of the early nationalist groups was rejected in favour of a more sophisticated concept of return to Africa. The “return,” from that point on, came to mean a philosophical and cultural “return,” rather than a purely physical one.

The physical going back to America, however, was as important as the psychological return to Africa. This dual “return” reveals Malcolm’s commitment to his community and his desire to bring salvation to it. It also reveals his insistence on his dual, complex identity as an African and as an American. He was no mad prophet who wanted to break all historical and human limits.

Having accepted the Islaamic ethical ideal, and having exorcised the ghost of white Protestant America, the new man Malcolm could now discover himself and his real and beautiful soul. The Autobiography reaches its climax when liberated Malcolm, in his new pastoral world, in the Holy City of Makkah, discovers “idealistic tendencies” (p. 333) in him. This is a far cry from the pink poodle, the vulture, and the hustler white America wanted him to be. The Autobiography is indeed a hymn of praise for the soul of man, which can endure and even triumph.

All references are to page numbers in The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley (New York: Grove Press, 1966).
Abdelwahab Elmessiri -

Abdelwahab Elmessiri [‘Abd Alwahhaab Almiseery] is an Arab thinker and writer.Read More >>

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