Jan - Mar 2011, Other

El-Hajj Malik ash-Shabazz: Retrieving a Legacy Fallen into Dereliction

By Yusuf Rios

December 9, 2009


Often, El-Hajj Malik ash-Shabazz (r) (a.k.a. Malcolm X) is judged by what he said more than by what he did not say. With more frequency, he is only defined by a narrow segment of his life and teachings: a politicized discourse married to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad addressing race relations. Due to this partial reading, the legacy of El-Hajj has fallen derelict and is in need of rehabilitation so that we can transcend the limits of his misread legacy. The life and teachings of El-Hajj as a whole are seldom considered, resulting in little benefit to that segment of the Muslim community which is disenfranchised and marginalized in urban America; this is a segment of society left to negotiate their existence with little economic or strategic support from their Muslim brethren.

Left without emotional and material support, they are forced to suffer the same realities as all others who are disenfranchised by crime, violence, poverty, unemployment, underemployment and dysfunctional institutions of education. Although El-Hajj constantly spoke to this social reality, the Muslim community in America has neglected his legacy by failing to consistently address it. The theme of social justice is almost never raised except in reference to Muslims abroad. As a result, impoverished Muslims in America are seen as socially dysfunctional and backward by choice while impoverished Muslims abroad are looked upon with a charitable eye.

The faulty reading of El-Hajj’s legacy and importing of foreign discourse claiming to represent authoritative Islamic practice has perpetuated the disenfranchisement, illiteracy, poverty and other social problems that aggravate social alienation. Thus, it has been the cause of great damage. A people once liberated by the symbols of Islam now find religious beliefs by Muslims that solidify repression. What is neglected is what is most relevant for Muslims occupying urban space: economic disadvantage and political disenfranchisement. Another way the legacy of El-Hajj has been misrepresented is as an Islamized Marxist discourse on revolution by those who inherited the legacy of Black Nationalism outside of the orbit of the Warith-Deen Community. Here too, the road to understanding El-Hajj is blocked and intellect and emotion have nowhere to turn but to militancy. As a result, El-Hajj is wrongly characterized as a militant violence monger and is regularly contrasted to Martin Luther King.

I propose that we read the life of El-Hajj to understand the process of self-transformation and subtle insights. Understanding the birth of El-Hajj and the death of Malcolm X and Malcolm Little are incredibly relevant to disenfranchised Muslims in the inner-city. Neglecting the metamorphosis into El-Hajj Malik ash-Shabazz has allowed for Islam in urban America to cease to be a source of liberation. There is no doubt that El-Hajj underwent a process of transformation by studying in the school of Elijah Muhammad, but a careful reading proves that eventually, it was El-Hajj who transformed the school of Elijah Muhammad by presenting Islam as a solution to personal change, growth and maturity. Da`wah (inviting to Islam) under the variety of outreach groups and movements in America has failed to convey Islam as this solution, signaling a stark disconnect from the social context of Muslims suffering in Urban America. This disconnect not only betrays the spirit of Islam but it also marginalizes the very legacy of Islam in America, a legacy inherited from El-Hajj Malik ash-Shabazz.

Simply put, his legacy honored the human being, valued education and empowerment, and challenged individuals to engage in remaking the self. He inspired righteousness, intellect and self-determination in others as marks of dignity and virtues commanding respect. We do not need to resurrect our reading of El-Hajj’s legacy, his early psychology of race, or his discourse on political revolution, but we must revive his message of self-transformation, self-correction, self-education and self-determination. We must honor El-Hajj’s emergence in American society and the Muslim world as a leader and educator.

To neglect those aspects of his legacy is an intellectual crime, an act against wisdom, and a betrayal of Islam and Muslims in America, especially urban America. The neglect is clearly present when we see indigenous Muslims failing to embody the positive qualities required for transformation (qualities encouraged and honored in shar’iah, or Islamic law). They scorn the life and teachings of El-Hajj because they are deficient in the very qualities that El-Hajj encouraged in others by his speech and example. With the true legacy of El-Hajj in mind, we can only conclude that a message communicated from the Mosque mimbar (pulpit) that fails to address the needs of the people is bankrupt, clearly misplaced and negligent to say the least.