Reflections of an American Muslim

Written by Dr. Shahid Athar   

When Malcolm X became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in 1964, 1 was a medical student in a Muslim country where the media was controlled by the West. It portrayed him as a Black, militant leader, preaching hate and violence, deviating from the religion of peace and submission. Thus, when I arrived in the USA in 1969, 1 hardly knew the true nature of this great Muslim leader. For the next twenty years, my state of ignorance remained, although my knowledge of him had improved, collected in bits and pieces. In 1988 a friend recommended his biography to me written by Alex Haley. I bought the book, glanced through it, then gave it to my teenage daughter, who read it cover to cover. Then she suggested that I read it fully, but still I did not,although by then, I had begun to understand and appreciate him a little bit better. Then, strangely a year ago, Malcolm X appeared in my dream. I could not understand why? In the movie there is a scene toward the end, when after returning from Makkah, he is announces the formation of a new organization. He is sitting on a stage with several others. I saw that section of the movie in my dream. He looked at me and smiled. Several weeks ago, I found a copy of a 1989 issue of Message Intemational, an Islamic publication from New York, with a cover picture of Malcolm X. There were many articles about him inside. but strangely I found inside an article by me in the same issue. What an honor for me. I know now why he smiled at me in the dream. I hope that I will be in the company of this great martyr in the life hereafter (amin).

Malcolm X has now touched me personally and my children. My 12 year-old son, Ahmad, saw the movie, felt proud to be a Muslim, and asked me to lend him the biography. Then he went to his principal and said, " I am a Muslim and I want to start doing noon prescribed prayer in school." Dr. Wilson, a great educator, gave him the permission after requesting a note from his parents, which we gave him. Now, Ahmad is the only Muslim student in his school who does daily noon prescribed prayer on time. Masood, my teenager, became sad after seeing the movie and said, "Look Dad, when he started to do something about Islam, they killed him". I told him that he is not dead, quoting the verse from the Quran, "And call not those who are slain in the way of God dead, nay they are living, only you perceive not" (2:154). 1 told him that he may not be with us now, but he has left you and me and many other Muslims to carry on his mission. Now Masood does regular prescribed prayers and started to grow a nice beard. He replaced his L.A. Knight inverted cap (black) to a white kufi. A year ago Masood had won my heart by going to his principal and requesting that the boys rest room in the school should have doors as we Muslims need privacy. His principle was so impressed that he put doors on all the rest rooms.


Islam erases the past as it did that of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second rightly-guided caliph. In Islam it does not matter where or how you begin your journey. What matters is the direction you are travelling, with what intention and where you end your journey. Thus the Tradition of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) goes like this: There was a man who had committed ninety-nine murders, but his intention was to be purified and be forgiven, so he went to a scholar and asked him if there was a chance for him after committing so many murders, to be forgiven. The scholar said "No, your sins are too many to be forgiven." Out of despair, the man killed the scholar too, but his heart was not satisfied. He went to another scholar and asked the same question. This scholar said, "You are living in a society where you are doing these crimes because everyone else is doing such crimes. There is no hope for you unless you leave this society and go to the next city, in which there is pious people living and you live with them and it will be hoped that you will become a good person, give up committing murder, ask for forgiveness and you will be forgiven."

The man understood the point and started his journey toward the city of the good people. He died on the way there. The angel from hell came down to claim the soul of this man and so did the angel from heaven, and they were arguing. A third person passed by who asked these two angels,who were arguing among themselves,why they were fighting. The angel from hell said, "This man has died and I have been told to claim his body because he has not done any good in his life and he has committed about 100 murders." The angel from heaven said, "Although this man has been sinful throughout his life, he had repented and wanted to become good. He was on a j oumey to the city of good people so that he could live among them and be forgiven. Therefore, since his intention was good, he belongs in heaven." The man said, "Let's settle this dispute by measuring the distance from the city he left to where he died and from where he died to the city he was going to. If he is closer to the city that he left, he should go to hell and if he is closer to the city he was going to, then he should go to heaven." The angels measured the distance and found him to be closer to the city he was going to and he was taken to heaven. The story closed.

From the life and struggle of Malcolm X, we learn that after becoming a legal Muslim, by taking the words of bearing witness to the One God and the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH), we must strive to become a practical Muslim by continuing to seek the true knowledge and the truth. Once we discover it, it becomes binding on us to practice it, before we can preach it. Thus we see that Malcolm X, once he discovered the true nature of Islam, he was fascinated by it and denounced all false previous notions he had in his press conference upon returning to the USA after his pilgrimage.

The second lesson we learn from his life is that Muslims should stand up to oppression and injustice. Islam is not a religion which preaches peace by tolerating injustice and oppression. In fact, the greatest jihad is standing up to a tyrant and saying a word of truth. Most of us live in a conspiracy of silence with our establishment. We are afraid to rock the boat in order to preserve the peace. When the leaders of Quraysh asked the Prophet (PBUH) for a compromise, to allow them to have their idols in the Kabah, and in return they would let Muslims preach Islam, Surah al-Kafirun was revealed. What Malcolm X did to Elijah Muhammad, his mentor, was one of the greatest jihads of our time on an individual level. He gave his life, opposing adultery and hypocrisy, while many of us do not have the strength to do so and accept this deviation as a normal way of life in the society as we have accepted homosexuality.

I liked his comparison of the house slave versus the farm slave. As he said in his interview, the house slave lives in the house of the master, gets his leftover food, sleeps comfortably and then tries to please his master whether the master is right or is wrong. In reward the master lets him have some concessions and some comforts of life. On the other hand, the farm slave who lives under the difficult conditions of weather and hardship on the farm, is subjected more to oppression and therefore, once he speaks his mind, he is severely punished. Most of us in our own life are very close to being a house slave as we do not stand up and speak to the oppressor for the fear of losing some of our privileges. Malcolm X was strong enough to admit his past mistakes. Many of us live in the life of secrecy of our past and insist on justifying our wrong actions and words, never to admit guilt and repent or ask for forgiveness.

He was invited by his Creator to visit His house in Mecca. After the pilgrimage, a Muslim can have one of the two best things happen to him. a.) To live a life of righteousness thereafter for the rest of his life. b.) Not to live long enough in this world full of temptations and sins. Malcolm X met both criteria and thus there was no need for him to stay on this earth. His mission was now complete.

However, our mission has not even started yet. The message of Islam has not reached most of non-Muslims in its correct form. We Muslims ourselves are plagued with racism which manifests in our pride, in our ethnic origin, color and language. And even in the form of our silence to wrong-doing and oppression. Sometimes this manifests even in the form of pride in our piety and Islamic work.

As the children in the movie said,"We are all Malcolm X." In a sense, we are all influenced to some degree by the evils of the society in which we live. We are either victims or perpetrators of racism and oppression, and sometime a hypocrite in what we say we believe in and we preach and what we practice in our personal life. The question is when and how we will come out of the state of Malcolm X to be purified by our Creator and become El-Haj Malik El-Shabazz, the prince of Islam in North America. May God be pleased with him and accept his jihad. "Oh you soul at peace, return to thy Lord, content in His good pleasure. Enter you among My bondsman, enter you My garden"(89:27-30).