BEHIND MALCOLM X’s SECOND CONVERSION TO ISLAM
None of what has been published about Malcolm X’s conversion from The Nation of Islam to Sunni (mainstream) Islam discusses the period between Malcolm’s Pilgrimage to Mecca and his announcement of that change which ten months later cost him his life. The diaries, auctioned in March 2002, purported to be of Malcolm X’s last year, may reveal more about his experience in Beirut. [In 2015, those diaries have still not been made available to the writer.] After his Pilgrimage, Malcolm X evaded the press awaiting him in Cairo by flying on to Beirut where he went into a week’s seclusion in an on-campus apartment at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Shortly after the announcement of Malcolm X’s leaving the Nation of Islam, the writer interviewed his hosts and several of those he had spoken with in Beirut, especially an American Quaker scholar on Islam, Graham Leonard. Before those interviews could be published, Malcolm had been assassinated.
Malcolm X arrived in Beirut, totally unexpectedly and utterly exhausted, at the home of the Associate Dean of Engineering, AUB, Dr. Edward Hope (son of the late, revered, Dr. John Hope, President of Morehouse, a founder of the NAACP and of Atlanta University) and his wife, Marion Conover Hope, Professor of Social Work at Beirut College for Women. Mrs. Hope had known Malcolm in Boston and also in New York after his first conversion to the Nation of Islam. Even before going to Beirut, Malcolm trusted the Hopes by reputation: as Americans of deep sensitivity to the Muslim world and as unusual Christians whose spiritual life came out of triumphing over imposed suffering and evidenced itself in service to humanity. There is a network of oral report among Black Americans detailing the lives of those, famous and unknown, who have borne the burdens of racial oppression triumphantly. From this, by brief previous meetings and by the recommendations of Alex Haley and others, Malcolm knew about the Hopes and they of him. That is why he thought of going to Beirut when he didn’t yet have a decision to give the journalists in Cairo.
Seeing Malcolm’s exhaustion, the Hopes fed him and put him immediately to bed where he slept almost uninterruptedly for thirty-six hours, plus twelve hours a day the whole week he was in Beirut. His exhaustion seemed to them intellectual/spiritual as well as physical. On arrival Malcolm had managed to convey to the Hopes that he had many questions to ask about Sunni and Shi’a Islam and wanted to talk to someone in American English. While Malcolm X slept, the Hopes began telephoning friends to find appropriate people for him to query. First they invited an American Quaker, Graham Leonard they knew well who had studied Islam with the British Muslim Dr. James Heyworth-Dunn at the School of Advanced International Studies (now Johns Hopkins) in Washington, at The Kennedy School of Mission, Hartford Seminary with the Rt. Rev. Dr. Kenneth Cragg, Editor of THE MUSLIM WORLD and at Harvard with Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb. AQ knew of the Nation of Islam mainly through James Baldwin’s chilling THE FIRE NEXT TIME, and less accurately through the Press.
When Marion told Malcolm of her choice, he exploded that he didn’t want any “damned American Honkey’” telling him about Islam. He rebuffed all her assurances that “this one is different,” but Marion stuck to her invitation to Leonard for one of her famous “lazy suzans,” oriental lemonade and hors d’oeuvres. Marion told Malcolm to write down some questions and he could just listen from his bedroom to Leonard’s answers. Before the end of the first answer, Malcolm stormed into the Hope’s living--dining room, honing in on Leonard with his razor sharp mind. Malcolm paced around with his finger in Leonard’s face. He kept up his probing enquiry for hours but never once sat down, nor did he shake Leonard’s hand at his departure. At first Leonard thought Malcolm refused to sit because he was an American White; but the Hopes said that, hungry as he seemed to be, Malcolm couldn’t remain still even for a whole meal with them. No one who has faced that jabbing finger and sharp mind ever forgets the energetic probing of Malcolm X!
Malcolm’s first question concerned the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Leonard answered that there is no analogy between Catholic/Protestant and Sunni/Shi’a. Both Sunni and Shi’a believe nearly the same and follow the Shari’ah Law which encompasses all of human behavior. The differences began with questions of the succession of leadership to the Prophet Mohammad. In the absence of guidance from the Qur’an or the Hadith (sayings or action of the Prophet), Sunni Islam followed Arabian traditions of electing successors from among the most appropriate candidates. [Pre-Islam, the Arabian tribes had raided each other constantly, so a leader had to be strong enough to lead raiding parties. On the death of a tribal leader, a minor son was not practical.] The fifth Caliph, Mu’awiya’s son, Yazidi, succeeded him, and the whole reason for the Sunni-Shia’ split ceased to exist.
The Shi’a wanted to follow Persian traditions of blood lines. [At the time of The Prophet, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia were Farsi (Persian) speakers before they converted to Islam and took Arabic as their mother tongue during the life of The Prophet.] Since Muhammad had no surviving sons, that meant succession through his daughter, Fatmeh, and her husband, Ali, first cousin of the Prophet, an early convert to Islam and the violently controversial fourth successor (Caliph) to The Prophet Muhammad. Persian culture later (after the 806 CE conversion of the Persian heartland, with permission to keep Farsi as their language) brought to Shi’ism more emphasis on superstition, also mysticism, and had a paid clergy.
The question of the historic roles of the Caliph, successors to the Prophet in military, civil/legal and spiritual leadership of Islam, interested Malcolm. Throughout those interrogations about Islam, Malcolm X was especially interested in roles of leadership. In the Nation of Islam, the leaders were strong and supported by their congregations, nearly like African-American Preachers in Protestant churches. Malcolm X seemed to be wondering how he would live if he became a Sunni where preachers are not paid. Often in history, the sermon was written centrally and distributed to be read at the Friday noon prayers—the one time in the week that Muslims are enjoined to pray in public. There is no Sabbath day. Businesses close in time for the Friday Prayer and open afterwards. Preachers earn their living as teachers, lawyers or judges. There is no “pastoral” aspect as those functions are handled by families.
Malcolm X was fascinated by the Jurist Consults, a position that does not exist in other religions and that the Nation of Islam had never heard of. The Jurist Consult has studied law, hoping one day to be a court lawyer and even a judge,. Meanwhile, he is paid for opinions about Islamic law, Shari’ah, before an act is done. As Islamic Law covers every aspect of life, a Muslim is in constant danger of breaking it. So a Muslim may consult a Jurist Consult to be sure he or she is not breaking the law. A Muslim does not have a sense of sin in breaking a Shari’ah law, only the realization of a mistake to be compensated for—for the Day O Judgment. Malcolm himself had a very strong sense of sin, stronger than any Baptist preacher. Despite his early wish to be a lawyer, or because of his personal brush with lawyers in his pre-conversion days, he was uneasy with the closeness of Islam to the judiciary. MX did not like the idea of Islam as a legal system. He seemed to be too deeply wed to ideas of sin—right and wrong!
The Hopes next invited Dr. Nabi Faris, a Christian Arab from Nazareth, Princeton PhD under Philip Hitti and long-time Professor of Near East Studies at AUB. Malcolm found Faris too “academic, pedantic and out of date.” Malcolm was uneasy with the idea of an Arab Christian, though the Faris family may have been Christian since centuries before Islam. The Hopes then invited several Arab Muslims from the AUB faculty; but they proved too secular or uninformed for Malcolm, though one was on the board of the Muslim Makassid schools in Beirut. Faris and others spent a great deal of time speaking about the history of Islam. They spoke of the Caliphs: the Rashid, the first four Meccan, (632 to 659 CE), the Umayyads of Damascus (659-750CE), the Abbasids, clearly Faris’ favorites, in Baghdad (750-1258CE). Seven of the nine million living in Mesopotamia were killed by the Mongols (a century before they too became Muslims). There was an interim period in Cairo (c.1259 to 1520AD), a separate dynasty in Spain (c.755-1492 AD) and then finally the Ottomans in Istanbul (1520-1918CE).
History did not answer Malcolm’s needs. The Arab Muslims that Malcolm spoke with seemed to him, he told the Hopes, as secular and lacking in “true religious” qualities as their Christian and Jewish academic counterparts in the United States. He felt that they spoke of some ideal concept of Islam rather than from personal experience. None claimed that he prayed five times a day though they usually went to Friday noon prayers in a mosque. They seemed most concerned to tell Malcolm X how the census of Lebanon had been rigged before the French withdrew in order to keep the Christian minority in control of Lebanon which has a clear and growing Muslim majority. The Hope’s circle of English speaking Arab professionals did not include any Sufis, so far as they knew, or other deeply spiritual practicing Muslims.
After Faris and the Arab Muslims, Malcolm spent time reading Bishop Cragg’s THE CALL OF THE MINARET and taking long walks on the incomparably beautiful AUB campus. Malcolm X attended Friday noon prayers at a nearby mosque where he was recognized. Again he felt a deep sense of brotherhood with “White” Muslims though none of his fellow worshipers spoke English beyond basic enquiries about his health, after traditional Muslim greetings in Arabic. He spent that mild afternoon with the Hopes on their balcony overlooking both campus and sea and beyond to snow capped Sunniin, talking about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm also asked Ed about his father and the founding of the NAACP and of Negro consciousness in the earlier years of the 20th century. He showed more interest in Marcus Garvey than in W.E.B. du Bois. They also talked about the years around World War II when the Hopes had been on the campus of Howard University, dynamo of Black Pride, and when Ed had been a top Negro officer (Lt. Commander, Engineer) in the U S Navy. Marion and Malcolm shared deep impatience with the pace of progress of justice in the United States. Ed Hope emphasized the time needed for more than justice, for some beginnings of reconciliation.
Malcolm X spoke to Marion, not to Ed whom he treated more formally, about his learning of the illegitimate children of Elijah Muhammad and of his being “silenced” for 90 days after the JFK remarks. Marion tried to console his sense of betrayal, first by saying that such was not unheard of among Christian leaders. Then Marion urged him to think of the good works of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X seemed irreconcilable. (Marion never spoke of this until after Malcolm’s assassination, and then only in confidence within her family from whom this writer learned of it decades later.) Malcolm confided in the Hopes that night that he hadn’t yet decided whether to try to bring the Nation of Islam into acceptance by Islam worldwide, to be independent or to join either Sunni or Shi’a Islam or to withdraw into retreat, until he felt ready. Malcolm X was very aware of his role as a leader with little or no leeway to remain indecisive. More practically, Malcolm had lived so selflessly that he had no resources to carry his family for even weeks.
Ed Hope suggested applying for a fellowship for writing. Malcolm spoke to Marion, but not to Ed, of the real danger to his life, not only from the White establishment and dissidents but from within the Black community. Malcolm X’s reasons for not seeking a grant for a year of study and reflection seem to have stemmed from uncertainty about continuing to serve and lead those he had brought into Islam, rather than any premonition of death. He told Marion that leaders at Al Azar had invited him to stay there a year or so, for study of Islam. There was a hint or two that one of the Al Azhar faculty spoke of spirituality and Sufism to him, which greatly appealed to Malcolm X. There were no indications in Beirut why he did not accept to take off a year, except concern to support his family and obligations to those he had converted.
Malcolm wanted what did not then exist, an English speaking Muslim, preferably American, Black expert on Islam who was spiritually sensitive to his recent experience, knowledgeable about the politics of the Nation of Islam and the American Black community. Such a person may not have existed anywhere, but he certainly was not in Beirut when Malcolm X needed him. Instead he had to settle for Leonard who had been away from the United States so long he still used the word “Negro”, though pronounced with the over careful Southern respect of a capital N, instead of “Black” or even “Colored.”
When Malcolm X asked for Leonard to spend most of Saturday afternoon at the Hopes, and agreed to sit (mostly pacing) with him, his questions centered on the financing of Sunni mosques. Surprised that Sunni Islam has no paid clergy, Malcolm asked how mosques survived financially. Leonard explained that most mosques were built by religious bequests from living or dead Muslims, never on borrowed money, and that endowments pay for their upkeep. A large percentage of property and capital in Muslim lands is owned by religious endowments. The former Caliphate had, and most Muslim nations have, a Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) to supervise their assets and distribute their incomes according to specifications which may even include benefits such as occupancy for the heirs of the benefactor.
Malcolm asked who pastored the members of a mosque. Leonard explained that there is no concept of pastoral care in Islam. Arab society, into which Islam first came, has very strong extended families who care for all family members and even those attached to the family, such as in-laws, servants and strays. Families counsel their own members and would consider it a dishonor to have someone from the mosque look after their relatives or to call on them when sick. Leonard tried to explain to Malcolm that most people outside the West, including almost all Muslims, have more sense of group identity than individual identity. Their identity, not just their loyalty, lies in the family and through them in their religious community. He found this hard to understand. Though himself very individualistic, Malcolm cherished community.
Officials of courts (and in Islam all law is religious, in theory; though secular states in the 20th century often pre-empted---through Western type national constitutions and laws---all but personal status laws, which include inheritance, marriage and the divorce provisions written into the marriage contract) are paid from state or endowment funds or from court assigned costs. Religious and legal scholars also teach to earn their living. Malcolm paced a great deal when trying to envision the law-centeredness of Islam compared to the Negro Protestant preacher type leadership of the Nation of Islam.
It was necessary to explain a great deal about cultural differences between America and the countries where Islam dominates. Most of those cultures are family or group-identity oriented, and very few have much sense of Western individualism. Identity in Muslim lands is more group centered. And cultures in Muslim lands are just beginning to be eroded by industrialization, Westernization, consumerism and the beginnings of Globalization. Malcolm X remarked that American (Western?) culture is sick, or at least in crises. He asked rhetorically who would help rehabilitate prisoners, the down-and-out and destitute, with whom the Nation of Islam has done such magnificent redemptive work?
The Hopes thought that Malcolm was interested in the finances of Sunni Islam because questions about the finances of the Nation of Islam pushed Malcolm toward breaking away. They may have learned more from him than he revealed to Leonard. or he knew something from other sources about problems within the Nation of Islam. Leonard believed that the endowment ways of financing Sunni mosques, with no paid clergy, fascinated Malcolm and had been the answers most interesting to him. Malcolm X returned often to the finances of Islam, including annual alms (taxes) being two and a half percent of total worth, NOT just of annual income. He was shocked to learn that the Islamic community could confiscate any capital, including land, if not adequately used by its Muslim owner, in order to put that capital to use for the benefit of the Muslim community. Malcolm liked the Islamic concept that lenders become partners in risk, and profits, with borrowers. No fixed interest, or guarantee by collateral, is allowed under Islamic Law. The lender benefits or loses in proportion to the loan’s percentage of total capital.
Malcolm had a hard time comprehending that Shari’ah Law presumes that the whole world would be ruled under an Islamic community, led by scholarly and pious Muslim elders. The Qur’an, the Hadith and all of Islamic Law makes no provisions for comparatively modern separate territorial nation states, let alone competing Muslim states! The protection of the “People of The Book” (i.e. Jews and Christians) under Islamic Law applies only to those living under the umbrella of the Islamic Community. No mention is made of how Jews and Christians (or Muslims!) outside the overall Islamic community and Islamic Law should be treated!
Other writers described Malcolm as prowling like a predatory cat, but even that doesn’t adequately convey his intense energy, lean, sinewy grace nor his menacing pressure on the person he interrogates. Leonard felt the anger in Malcolm as hatred for Whites. He felt that anger with such physical force that it menaced him to the point of extreme personal discomfort at times. But the Hopes saw Malcolm as struggling to turn that internal anger into positive ways to liberate Blacks in America—NOW. It is easy to speculate, after the fact of his death, that Malcolm X seemed to realize that he had little time. He was extremely impatient to have the rights for Blacks that America promised but had never delivered. Malcolm told the Hopes, bitterly, that inescapable color will always keep African- and Asian- Americans “outside” while Irish-, Italian-, Polish- and even Arab-Americans get assimilated and lose their hyphens. That may explain why he had bought into the Nation of Islam’s demand for a state of their own. What galled him most was the idea that White immigrants to the USA soon enjoyed more rights than Blacks whose ancestors had been there for centuries—mostly working for nothing.
While every Muslim may stand in front at prayers, the title of “Imam” (literally in front) of a mosque or region goes to some revered religious scholar, usually older. Any Muslim may speak in the mosque or give the Friday noon sermon (sometimes officially distributed to be read). In practice elders of a mosque, and they are congregationally run, select the Imam of each Friday’s prayers from among recognized scholars of Islamic law and studies, like themselves. While anyone may give the call to prayer, a few gifted with voices train in that and also in reading aloud from the Qur’an. The ubiquitous recordings broadcast from minarets today, often too loud and full of static to be understood, feature taped expert muezzin from Al Azhar even in the growing number of minarets in village mosques. Except for Friday noon prayers, almost all mosques are always open for prayer, but they are used most of the week for teaching Islam by time-honored “lecture, memorization and testing” methods.
Malcolm jumped to his feet at mention of the Qur’an, showing both excitement at the subject and some disquiet about discussing so central an issue in Islam with Leonard. Perhaps Malcolm relaxed because he admired Leonard’s teacher’s (Kenneth Cragg’s) sympathetic knowledge of the Qur’an. Malcolm X felt puzzled by Hadith, saying that all mankind’s questions could be answered by the Qur’an (while he had many that weren’t) and found some of the Qur’an too historically specific to the times of the Prophet. Leonard answered that the THE BOOK , source of the Qur’an, exists in its entirety only in heaven. The Qur’an is that small portion revealed to mankind in the seventh century via the final Prophet of God, Mohammad. The Arabic of the Qur’an is a highly inflected, semi-poetic, literary form known only to especially educated poets and to those God made his prophets. Its “recitation” by Mohammad, a merchant of no known schooling in poetry, was a major proof of his prophethood to the Arabians of his day. The Qur’an is Islam’s only recognized miracle. Malcolm X was astonished to hear that modern Linguists (and the great Arab mathematician and Linguist, Sibouweh) believed that Qur’anic Arabic was never a spoken language.
To Leonard’s delight, Malcolm X explained to him that though his Arabic was hardly rudimentary he, Malcolm, felt that he benefitted spiritually from hearing the Qur’an read or recited. Few Arabs understand Qur’anic Arabic literally, but those of religious sensitivities feel that they receive direct spiritual benefits through listening to or reading it (or phonetically sounding it out). This may be unique to Arabic, but the vast majority of Arabs do not speak and only passively understand the literal meaning of written Arabic, let alone the very special language of the Qur’an. Instead, they receive some direct inspiration from the hearing of Arabic, especially that of the Qur’an. No exact analogy exists, but Malcolm mentioned it resembled what he felt when he heard Negro spirituals. Leonard said it was something like listening to a great work of music combined with the feeling of sitting in a deep Quaker meeting for worship. This communication directly to the soul may be connected with Islam’s belief that THE BOOK, which is the complete version in heaven, was co-created with God. (This is a controversial concept among Muslims.) The Qur’an which was transmitted through Muhammad is only a small part of that which is in heaven. (This also explains to Muslims why all answers are not in the Qur’an revealed on earth.)
Leonard is not alone among Christians who feel moved by the aural essence (music?) of the Qur’an. Malcolm then honed in on Leonard asking if he felt spiritual benefit from listening to the Qur’an. The inevitable following question to assent to that was: “Why are you then not a Muslim?” Islam teaches that those Christians and Jews (and in practice Zoroastrians), “People of The Book” who do not know Islam, may be excused from not accepting God’s last and completing revelation to man, Islam. The inference is that those who do understand Islam must become Muslims. Leonard was on the spot with one of the most astute and relentless interrogators he had ever met. Marion Hope invited them in to lunch and tried to change the subject to Islamic dietary laws, serving us “leban immo” (literally cooked “in its mother’s milk”---actually it was lamb cooked in cows milk yogurt.). This drastically demonstrates the difference between Muslim Hillal and Jewish Kosher cooking. The main concerns for Hillal are humane killing of animals for eating and restrictions against pork. Kosher laws stick more strictly to literal implications of Semitic restrictions. Back to the point of Leonard’s conversion pursued Malcolm. He could only answer that to that time he found the Society of Friends (Quakers) filled his spiritual needs. Though unsatisfied by the answer, Malcolm had too many questions of his own to pursue the matter of Leonard becoming a Muslim--at that time.
Leonard continued by explaining that the Qur’an is the primary source of Islamic Law. The revelations to the Prophet Muhammad (and Muslims always add after his name, “May the prayers and blessings of God be upon him!”) had been memorized or written down by early followers. The Caliph Othman had them all collected and made four copies, about 650 CE, from which all Qur’ans today do not vary. Two of those original four are said to exist today, one in Istanbul and one in Mecca. The Qur’an may not be translated from Arabic, though its literal “meaning” has been written in English and other languages in recent centuries.
Malcolm seemed relieved that though the Qur’an is central to Islam (Its only miracle), it may benefit him and other American Muslims aurally even though they may never master its Arabic, in the sense of communicating literal meanings. Few Arabs understand it literally but increasing numbers read it aloud [Arabic is written entirely phonetically, i.e., a one-to-one correspondence between its written letters (graphemes) and its sounds (phonemes)]or listen to its reading or recitation. (Written in 1964, the author in 2015 finds this observation eerily predictive of the tremendous Revival of the practice—observation of the five basic duties---of Islam throughout the world in the last decades of the 20th century. Perhaps ten times as many Muslims pray five times a day now, compared to 1950. This remarkable Revival in Islam is little noted among Arabs and nearly unknown in the West.) Qur’anic recitations now often precede the calls to prayer on mosque loud speakers, especially on Fridays. Some Arabs and a few other Muslims still memorize the Qur’an (Four Gospels plus Epistles in size) or significant Surahs (chapters) or verses of it in Arabic and recite passages often. Though only about twenty per cent of Muslims speak any Arabic as a mother tongue, Arabic continues to be the only language of Muslim prayer and the language in which the Qur’an is read aloud, recited and studied. Malcolm X accorded Leonard at least the compliment of ever closer questioning. He struggled with the legalism of Islam and asked more about its spiritual aspects and Sufism.
Sunday evening it had been arranged for Malcolm to speak to a group of Palestinian students at AUB. His dynamic presence and articulate presentation captivated the students. But the first question revealed how long-endured injustices often make a people problem-centric, especially the young. A Palestinian student said: “Blacks are over twenty millions in America, while the Jews are around six million. If Blacks all voted for the Palestinians’ just cause the United States would stop supporting Zionist oppression of the Palestinians.” Malcolm shot back: “What have the Palestinians ever done for the Blacks? Don’t you know that Palestinians are taking over the stores in the slums of American cities and gouging the Blacks?”
Malcolm went on to tell the Palestinians that they had not analyzed well the political situation in the United States. For the first time, many of the Palestinians learned from Malcolm that the Jewish vote is not the main support of Israel in the American Congress. But Jewish lobbies manipulate the many Christian Fundamentalists who believe that “Israel is the will of the Lord.” They believe that the return of the Jews to Israel means that “Jesus is soon coming.” Their votes pressure Congress to give Israel whatever they want. Malcolm was disappointed that the Palestinians did not seem to have grown spiritually from their suffering but sounded weighted down with bitterness and unable to think clearly about their problem. Malcolm showed none of the anti-Jewish bias that the Press claims the Nation of Islam has shown.
Arabs so predominate at the Hajj that Malcolm was surprised when reminded that of the ten largest Muslim populations among the nations of the world, only Egypt (ninth then, probably eighth or seventh by 2015) speaks Arabic as mother tongue—the only valid definition of multi-cultural, multi-racial Arabs. In the seventh century Islamic expansion northward through the Levant and westward to the Loire, converts took Arabic as their first language. As the Sassanid Empire came into Islam those Farsi (Persian) speakers in Mesopotamia took on Arabic, but in the high heartland retained their Farsi. The Turkic tribes kept their Turkish languages when they accepted Islam in central Asia around 806 AD. Seljuk and Ottoman Turks came into the Abbasid Empire, first as mercenary soldiers of the Caliph and then as conquerors of Asia Minor, and Constantinople by 1453CW
Malcolm X had written that only the Nation of Islam changed permanently the lives of his fellow prisoners. He also wrote respectfully of his admiration for Elijah Mohammad. But Malcolm told Marion Hope that the Nation of Islam appealed especially to him as a totally Black religion, not just a “hand-me-down from Whitey,” like Christianity’s many African American denominations. Malcolm X told the Hopes that he had expected to see on the Pilgrimage Muslims from Africa and Asia but had been totally unprepared to find how many of the more than a million Pilgrims could not be classified but as “White”. The Nation of Islam had taught that “Whitey IS the devil”. But those in Mecca he considered White, perhaps the majority, had shown only brotherhood and total equality with every other Haj (Pilgrim; Hajj means Pilgrimage). The Ottoman Turks became Caliphs themselves (1520 CE), adding Sultan to that Islamic title. The Mongols, when they became Muslims (c.1360 CE), kept their spoken languages and adopted written Persian before they captured the Indian sub-continent where they spoke the local Hindi but wrote it with the Arabic/Persian script—creating Urdu.
Malcolm questioned Leonard closely about the conversions in Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Far East which took place without any Muslim conquests. He was surprised to learn that Islam has almost never used paid missionaries. He was flatly incredulous when Leonard stated that almost all the conversions in Africa (where they still far outnumber Christian conversions) came about from the influence of merchants—even when those Muslim laymen were selling African slaves! They both laughed at the American Blacks learning Swahili, the East African lingua-franca of slavers.
The East Indies, Chinese coastal and Japanese Muslim communities grew up around Muslim merchant outposts. Indeed the world trade that so impressed Marco Polo depended heavily on the inviolability of Muslim contracts, regularly using letters of credit and bills of lading from the Mediterranean to the Far East by the thirteenth century, or earlier. The Silk Routes overland left China with the sixth largest Muslim population, mostly central Asian Turks in origin though they now look like their genetically dominant Han neighbors. The Yemeni sailing traders spread Islam throughout Southeast Asia and along the coasts beyond. A few Arab (Yemani) trading families still maintain their Arabic traditions in Indonesia. Even in Bali, most of the merchants are not only Muslim but Arabic speaking. Sunni Islam may be the most lay-run religious group in the world. Malcolm now wanted to hear more about Shi’a Islam and their clergy.
The few Shi’as whom the Hopes knew were completely secular, and Leonard’s contacts were largely politically oriented. Most of the Shi’a community had been brought to the present Lebanon from the Iraq-Persian borderlands two to three centuries ago by the Ottomans to be serfs on the inhospitable lands of south Lebanon. Two large feudal families dominated them and they were considered fewer than the Sunni, in 1964. (A large number have made money abroad and/or become educated at AUB since and it is thought by 2015 that they are the largest community in Lebanon, though maybe not yet an absolute majority except when counted with the Sunni) Iranian religious leaders had sent a very charismatic teacher, almost a Savonarola in intensity of eyes and effect on hearers, especially women, to raise the religious consciousness of the Shi’as. Leonard knew that Imam, Mousa Sadik, who had spoken to his students previously, but he was at the time out of the country. (Sadik disappeared on a visit to Lebanese Shi’a workers in Libya in 1966 and has been presumed murdered by Gadaffi’s henchmen.)
Malcolm X had begun to relax a little with Leonard, after a week, even to discussing some spiritual feelings. But he chiefly wanted concise information, quickly, prearranged for his needs. When Leonard stated that Shi’a Islam had spawned more off-shoots than the Sunnis, Malcolm wanted to know specifics. The Ismailis took the concept of a “hidden Imam” more literally than other Shi’as, investing their hopes, leadership and wealth in one Persian/Pakistani family, headed by an Agha Khan (supreme leader). The Ismailis stick closely together, starting their young in businesses, the profits from which the community shares and prospers.
Many centuries ago a breakaway Ismaili clan, the Allouwis, that had migrated from northern Iran to the Lebanese mountains of what is now Syria, developed the ultimate terrorist techniques. They gave young men unlimited marijuana (“grass,” hashish in Arabic) and women for a period and then withdrew them “cold-turkey.” The head of the clan then assigned them to kill selected enemy leaders, considered heretics. IF they came back successful, they could return to their earthly paradise for a long period of reward (including poppy derivatives?). If they died, they believed they went straight to similar bliss in heaven. [In Islam, when one dies, he or she goes into limbo until the Day of Judgment. Only those who die for Islam go directly to Heaven.] Though they never “worked”, killed, while drugged, they became feared as the “hashshashiin” (those smoking hashish”)—the origin of the word “assassin.” Several Shi’a sects formed in late 20th century in Malaysia, Pakistan and in Africa. They follow extraordinarily charismatic, even sexy, men offering a limited view of Islam, including strong hate of some other group. Islam absorbs them eventually as extreme enthusiasm wears thin, factions split off or their leader dies. It is worth noting that the Assassins, who arose in the time of the European Crusades, killed more Muslims than foreigners. (Bashshar Assaad and his clan that “rule” Syria in 2015 are Allouwi!)
Sufis are most often Shi’a, but not exclusively. Sufis claim that their beliefs, symbols, spiritual exercises and mystic practices long pre-date Islam (Christianity and Judaism as well). Since the advent of Islam, Sufi practices have taken place mostly within Shi’a Islam. Muslim religious orders/communities, not usually celibate, sometimes included trance inducing exercises like the rhythmic dancing of the whirling dervishes. Their purpose, stated simply, involved attempting “oneness with God”. Leonard told Malcolm X that every deeply spiritual and/or service-oriented Muslim he had ever know turned out to be a Sufi, though they maintain secrecy until asked directly by another recognized mystic. Islam does not teach mysticism, and some Muslims consider Sufis heretics because they aspire to be one with God. The puritanical Muslim Wahhabi Saudi government forbids known Sufis from making the Hajj to Mecca.
Malcolm X never fully relaxed with Leonard but continued to ask questions, now more clearly in the religious or spiritual vein than historical or sectarian. To clarify distinctions between a Muslim, a practicing Muslim, a “good” (known only by God) Muslim and a Muslim mystic who seeks oneness with God, Leonard directed Malcolm to Ibn Tufa’il’s HAI IBN YAKZAN (11th century). Hai, an orphan raised by a doe, learned to be a Muslim “naturally” (Haniph). Hai and a Muslim mystic he met when about 21, sought to get “closer to God”, eventually becoming so ascetic they floated away. Their friend, a prince, chose to follow God’s laws on earth, fulfilling God’s will, rather than seeking communion with God. It is the age old question of religion—obedience to God’s laws or communion with God? Malcolm seemed to understand the Sufi distinction but felt ill at ease with mysticism, preferring clear directions, dogma!
A Muslim is anyone who has had the creed whispered in his (or her) ear when an infant or says it with belief when older. He is “practicing” when he (or she) (1) has said the creed, (2) prays five times a day, (3) gives alms to the poor, (4) fasts in the month of Ramadan and (5) makes the Pilgrimage, if able. He is a “good” Muslim when he follows all the Shari’a Law and has a good heart. Malcolm X spoke feelingly about the transforming effects of the practical steps of Islam on demoralized American Black males, like himself, who was converted in prison. He said that the high flown ideals of Christianity, which he said NO-ONE achieves, are far too impractical for everyday life; and the picayune legalities of Judaism left him cold. It was the simple practicality and the spiritual sense of community which had sustained Malcolm X in the Nation of Islam. Since the Pilgrimage, Malcolm X sensed something far deeper but found it difficult to talk about with Leonard. Both were talkers, but Leonard reported that their silences were sometimes more productive than talk. [In all of this article, the writer has used the word God instead of the Arabic Allah. (literally “THE God”). Malcolm used Allah (without pronouncing the heavy “Ls”) but was uneasy with Leonard using it; so he stuck to “God“.
[In 2015, Leonard said that he thought in 1964 that the chief interest of Malcolm X had been in the organizing and financing of Sunni mosques. With the wisdom of hindsight, he now believes that the influence of his answers lay more in some re-assurance to Malcolm X that his spiritual experiences on the Hajj were within Muslim traditions which helped to reconfirm Malcolm’s inner leadings. Leonard feels even stronger today than in 1964 that the presence of the Hopes, with their extraordinary histories, educations, experiences and personalities and Malcolm’s decision to repair to them in Beirut, played vital roles in his momentous actions in the last months of his life. Marion in her constructive assertiveness, Ed in his quiet dignity and the peace and hospitality of their home were uniquely what Malcolm needed in his time of crises of the soul.]
A week after his arrival in Beirut and the day before Malcolm X’s departure to Cairo, on Wednesday, he had relaxed enough with the Hopes to confide in them that he could not decide which path to take. Instead, he would explain to the Press his inter-racial and spiritual experiences on the Pilgrimage and his deep admiration for the Islamic World. He would state his intention to go to see Elijah Mohammad, lest anyone call him an ingrate. Then he would leave it to divine guidance. Malcolm told the Hopes that he deeply yearned to take a long period off for study of the Qur’an and prayer but realized that was impractical, due to his calling to preach and duty to his followers. While Malcolm X had long lived on the edge of great danger, he gave no indication in Beirut that he expected to be killed in the near future. He was gunned down in his own mosque in New York less than ten months after he left Beirut.
In considering today, 2015, Malcolm X’s questions in March 1964, it is important to remember that few people of privilege in the world then thought much about the feelings of the poor, the Blacks and all the other unempowered (That word is not even in the speller of the latest IBM computers!). They were disenfranchised and were not considered important. Few had ever tried to understand them, their needs or even their feelings. In 1964, Martin Luther King was still alive, and Malcolm X was widely painted by the Press as a promoter of violence, by comparison. Writing in 2015 about Malcolm X’s time of crises of the soul in early 1964, distortions in presentation and in interpretation may be unavoidable. Most of what is written here was drafted at that time but edited and revised over the years since. Historians even half a century from now may still be trying to reconstruct the existing feelings and attitudes which colored the questions and answers during Malcolm X’s “street called straight” retreat in Beirut after he had been laid low by a “road to Damascus” experience on the Pilgrimage in Mecca.
Leonard, the Islamic scholar, also a trained psychotherapist, after the Beirut encounter found Malcolm X’s mind brilliant, but limited to deduction and comparisons. Malcolm X had memorized many facts, Qur’anic verses, Hadith and Muslim or Nation of Islam proverbs but seemed severely limited in processes of critical judgment. Leonard concluded that Malcolm needed emotionally the certainty of dogma to provide inner security in his hyper-active life. That dogma, given him by Elijah Muhammad, had served him well during his twelve years as a Minister of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X felt not only bereft of a beloved father figure but even more lost without the dogma he had learned from him and previously taught others so successfully. That dogma was based on “hate the White Devil.”
The Hopes concurred that the quality of Malcolm’s mind approached genius but it lacked the liberating education to free it to deal with change and uncertainty, let alone the unknown. Several years after Malcolm’s death the Hopes, retired and living in the District of Columbia, told the writer that Malcolm X seemed to be seeking a new orthodoxy to fill a void. More recently Leonard remarked that Malcolm lacked the empowering thinking skills for open-ended discussion---induction, inference and analogy. Leonard’s conclusion: Malcolm X needed dogma with all guiding principles set in concrete, preferably God-given. He could promulgate and defend “revealed truth”, but he could not tolerate uncertainty! The palpable anger within Malcolm needed the outlet of fighting the unrighteous enemies of God.
In essence, while in Cairo and Mecca, Malcolm X had experienced the spiritual brotherhood of equally shared Muslim prayer, had sensed a community transcending race and recognized, intellectually and more subjectively, the authenticity of nearly fourteen centuries of Islamic tradition. On completing the Pilgrimage he had not yet integrated these extraordinary personal challenges enough to be able to face a celebrity’s Press, let alone re-chart his plans for return to the USA. We cannot know the trials of his soul or the anxieties in his amazing mind during and just before his Pilgrimage, but this reconstruction of his questions and some of the answers given him in Beirut may be useful in understanding his actions in the brief life left to him after his return to America via Cairo and West Africa in the Spring of 1964. What he experienced with Elijah Mohammad must also remain unknown, but he decided to leave the Nation of Islam and set up a Sunni mosque, for which he was killed less than ten months later.
Graham Leonard PhD, Washington 2015