This article was originally published in Sudanese Community and Information Centre – London.
Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) is by far one of the most influential activists of our time and increasingly so among the current Muslim generation that has gained ‘a new kind of consciousness’. In a time where Islamophobia has been on the rise in the West since 9/11 and Muslims are seeing their civil liberties being violated, Malcolm X remains a source of inspiration of strength, critical observation of the establishment and need for greater grassroots mobilisation.
For many people within and outside of the US context, Malcolm X holds a great place of respect and admiration as a man who advocated not only the rights of African-Americans but for the oppressed people of the third world, in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. Even Rosa Parks whose act of refusing to move from a white only seat triggered the civil rights movement, stated that Malcolm X – not Martin Luther King who capitalized on her act – was her hero.
Throughout his active political years with the Nation of Islam until his death, Malcolm X had a few, but interesting, encounters with Sudan and Sudanese. He travelled to Sudan in 1959, visiting Khartoum and Omdurman, he spoke of Sudanese in glowing terms saying, ‘’I was impressed the most by the Muslims of the Sudan. Their religious piety and hospitality are unmatched anywhere. I really felt in heaven and home there.’’
“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.”
In 1962 Malcolm X felt increased resentment from high ranking members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) in Chicago for his public recognition, and they were suspicious of his aspirations of eventually succeeding Elijah Muhammed. Malcolm sought to deflect these feelings by reducing his media appearances and promoting Elijah Muhammed’s cult by defending the NOI against orthodox Muslims. From the outset, the Muslim community in America looked at the NOI as a heretical cult but rarely spoke against it.
One of the first Orthodox Muslims to publicly criticise the NOI was a Sudanese student at Pennsylvania University called Yahya Hayari. Malcolm responded, both privately and publicly, with a letter to the Pittsburg Courier against Hayari saying it’s ‘’difficult for me to believe that you’re a Muslim from the Sudan’’, he further aggressively defended Muhammed and accused Hayari of sounding ‘’like a brainwashed, American negro’’ that had ‘’been in Christian America too long,’’ yet Hayari continued prompting Malcolm.
In the same year, another Sudanese student from Dartmouth College called Ahmed Osman, who attended services at No. 7 Mosque (the active Harlem Mosque that Malcolm himself set up) engaged with Malcolm during a question and answer session. He directly challenged Malcolm on Elijah Muhammed’s prophetic claims and the assertion that whites were literally ‘’devils’’. Osman was ‘’greatly impressed by Malcolm’’ but not by his answer. Afterwards, the two exchanged letters and Osman sent literature from the Islamic Centre in Geneva with which Malcolm was grateful for and requested more. Despite Osman’s insistence for Malcolm to join true Islam, he was unprepared. These engagements between Yahya, Ahmed and Malcolm must have helped lay the tracks for Malcolm’s exploration of orthodox Islam as he would later incorporate their discourses against the NOI.
In chapter 18 of Malcolm’s autobiography edited by Alex Haley, when he discusses his Hajj and the warm exchanges with various Muslims who expressed their solidarity with the struggle of African-Americans in the US, he pointed out a Sudanese “high official’ who hugged him and said “You champion the American black people.” In Mecca, Malcolm befriended a Sudanese called Shiekh Ahmed Hassoun who taught in Mecca for 35 years, eventually served as Malcolm’s spiritual advisor, and later taught at the Muslim Mosque Inc. which Malcolm created four days after his departure from the NOI in 1964. It was Shiekh Ahmed who prepared Malcolm’s body for burial at the Faith Temple Church of God in West Harlem where he lay in state and oversaw his burial.
It’s common that Sudanese feel their country is rarely recognised or mentioned some way or another in contemporary history, however, many should take pride in knowing that Sudanese were closely involved in the inspiring story that is Malcolm X’s incredible life.
Omar Zaki is an active half-Sudanese student with an BA History degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and former Union Secretary for the SOAS Student’s Union. He is currently doing an MSc in Global Politics at the London School of Economics (LSE) with a focus on conflict, humanitarianism and human rights.