By now, many have seen the provocatively entitled docu-series, Who Killed Malcolm X? It was captivating. It was emotional. And like most good documentary film, it was controversial. The account of events accepted by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, the brilliant lay historian at the center of the documentary, has been challenged—most notably by Karl Evanzz. The film also initiated fruitful discussion around the religious values of redemption and accountability—What is to be made of someone suspected of wrongdoing who goes to great lengths to change—especially if it appears that someone else might have been punished for their alleged wrongdoing? With the announcement of the Manhattan district attorney’s office that it would consider reopening investigations into Malcolm’s assassination, I expect the intramural conversation to grow in intensity. However, my hope is that the contentious exchange in the periphery doesn’t obscure the unifying force at the center. The wide range of reaction to the series notwithstanding, I think many of us can agree that witnessing six episodes filled with archival footage, photography, and first-hand accounts of early Blackamerican Muslims was a potent reminder of the depth and intricacy of our history. In many ways, we are only just beginning to appreciate the inimitable confluence of factors: political, cultural, and religious that produced Malcolm and by extension the First Resurrection. As the final episode drew to a close, I, like many others, mulled over the particulars of Malcolm’s assassination. However, what struck me as equally ponderous was: How can Blackamerican Islam have a history so rich and unique and not be a greater source of unity and inspiration for American Muslims?
Throughout the history of Sunni Islam, the embrace of the classical tradition and its distinct interpretive language has always been the litmus test of orthodoxy. By accepting this tradition, Blackamerican Muslims have entered into a trans-historical, multi-contextual conversation about the Will of God. This is good. The classical tradition can ground our practice of faith and serve as a counterpoise through which we can identify and critique the false universals of white supremacy. Yet, an orthodoxy embraced with uncritical zeal and hastily gobbled without being well digested can produce the opposite. With the benefit of hindsight, we recognize that conflating foreignness with authenticity was a mistake. We recognize that embracing the Sunnah didn’t entail substituting a focus on eliminating the factors detrimental to Black life for an ersatz globalism which surreptitiously elevated to the exclusive status of “Islamic” the priorities of other segments of the community. Did our enthusiasm for the doctrines, traditions, and heroes of the classical tradition obstruct our view of the pioneers of early Islam in America? The truth is never inadequate. I take exception to any meta-narrative that makes heterodoxy essential for the early community. Nonetheless, to summarily dismiss that community on account of its theology would mean squandering an opportunity to benefit from both its successes and failures. In a very pronounced sense, Malcolm’s life and death highlight both.
The question is begged: The ethics and institutions of the Lost and Found Nation of Islam that a young Malcolm had found so compelling, why didn’t the newly converted community seek to reconcile those with Islam? As a good friend said to me while musing about the documentary, “If only Imam Mohammed and the Minister (Louis Farrakhan) could have seen eye to eye, I could have been building a nation AND knew who my Lord and His Messenger were!” Why didn’t they; the answer lies beyond the scope of this editorial. The more pressing question is: Why don’t we? The American Muslim community is comprised of a greater variety of ethnicities, histories, socio-economic statuses, and modes of religious expression than anything imaginable during Malcolm’s lifetime. If we all shared my religious outlook and civic commitments we would be on the right course! No. Quite the reverse, that level of uniformity is both untenable and spiritually malnourished. What is there to “learn from each other—li ta’ārafū...” if we’re all the same? Be that as it may, for all American Muslims invested in a Prophetic Islam, engagement with Islam’s genesis in this country as an expression of black resistance is essential. I use the term “Prophetic” in conscience; not to discredit any of my brothers and sisters who subscribe to different priorities than I, but to challenge us. It’s difficult to find a template for domestication in the mission of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace). He taught and practiced a religion which emphasized Divine unity and “comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable.” The enduring value of Malcolm, the Nation, and the First Resurrection is that they keep us connected to that legacy of the Prophet (upon him be peace). As such, we must bring the discursive and spiritual tools offered by the classical tradition to bear upon the mission, priorities, and institutional course charted by that community. This is not only an expression of our appreciation for our complete heritage (Abū Ḥanīfah and Mālik and Shāfi’ī and Drew and Clara and Malcolm and Elijah) but more importantly, it symbolizes our embrace of the Prophetic mission. And God and His angels invoke blessings and send salutations of peace upon him.
Watching the sequence of events that led up to Malcolm’s assassination was painstaking. I was aware of J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence measures and the growing tension between Malcolm and the Nation. The tipping point; however, which involved his suspension from the Nation for ill-advised public statements made in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination was covered differently than I had previously learned. Malcolm’s statement wasn’t depicted as a gaffe, faux pas, or unintended slip. On the contrary, Akbar Muhammad, who was serving as an assistant minister to Malcolm that day, said “after he had given an entire address without mentioning anything about the president’s assassination (as he had agreed) a reporter asked him if he had any thoughts about the president’s passing. Malcolm paused, lowered his head, and that minute of silence almost seemed like an hour! He then raised his head…” and made his now infamous remark about “chickens coming home to roost.” Minister Akbar’s recollection makes it clear that Malcolm intentionally broke rank with Elijah Muhammad. In spite of his apparent love and reverence for the man to whom he owed his redemption, his conscience wouldn’t allow him to forfeit an opportunity to make this political statement. It might be tempting to see this as an insubordinate soldier failing to “hear and obey” the command of a superior—and many did in fact see it that way, some even imputed a motive of self-promotion to Malcolm. I see something different though. God said to His Messenger (upon him be peace): “It is by God’s grace that you were gentle with them therefore if you had been harsh and hard-hearted, they would have surely deserted you. So bear with them and pray for forgiveness for them. TAKE COUNSEL FROM THEM IN THE CONDUCT OF AFFAIRS…” [3:159]
I don’t presume to know the modus operandi of Elijah Muhammad in dealing with his followers. However, in this verse God is protecting the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) from one of the greatest liabilities of leadership: suffocation of those around you and stifling their creativity. The Prophet (upon him be peace) struck the most delicate balance between being completely revered and emulated while also ceding space to his followers in which they could benefit the community through their unique talents and gifts. In Malcolm’s case, his taking issue with where that line was being drawn within the Nation apparently led to his intentional defection. There is a lesson in this for American Muslims. We don’t have anyone within our community believed to be divinely inspired so the stakes are considerably lower. Nonetheless, with the enhanced media capabilities of our age, we have seen the charisma of religious leaders amplified. When used in the service of empowering people, charisma is a significant asset for a leader. However, if perceived as suffocating, charisma may force to the margins the greatest asset any leader can posses: The Malcolms.