By Tarek ‘Abdur-Rahman
Anyone acquainted with El-Hajj Malik El-Shabaaz – Malcolm X and his life story will know this was a very special man, whom Allah had especially protected and guided in specific moments in his life. Though only an orthodox Sunni Muslim for a short period of time, he had the honour of dying the death of a Shaheed (martyr).
There are a large number of practical & social life-lessons that can be learned from reading his autobiography as told to Alex Haley, which this series of posts will look to shed light on succinctly, though each point could be elaborated on in great length. Part 1 will look at 5 important practical lessons we can glean from his special life.
Lesson 1: Destiny
Malcolm had a rough childhood, where due to systemic imbalances he was swayed into leading a life of crime. This included many years as a drug-dealer, seasoned robber and assisting crime gangs in various projects. There were a number of moments in his life during this stage he almost certainly should have been killed. Yet for some seemingly inexplicable reason he was saved by decisions he himself did not know he carried out.
“I have thought a thousand times, I guess, about how I so narrowly escaped death twice that day. That’s why I believe that everything is written.”
“Sometimes recalling all of this, I don’t know, to tell the truth, how I am alive to tell it today. They say God takes care of fools and babies. I’ve so often thought that Allah was watching over me.”
“All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.”Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
If he had been killed, we would never have had the personality of Malcolm and his contributions for humanity.
Lesson 2: The Best often had the worst of pasts
This is something we saw in the life of Rasulullah ﷺ with ‘Umar (ra). A man who was on his way to kill Rasulullah ﷺ, not only became Muslim a few moments later, but reached the absolute pinnacle of human history.
Similarly when Malcolm was in prison his nickname was “Satan” due to how perverse and ungodly his character and attitude was. Yet Allah (swt) had a special plan for him, to be a force of social change and Da’wah on a cataclysmic scale for American society and the world at large.
“You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone’s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world. It’s easy for me to see and to say that now. But then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going through it. Again, again, I would force myself back down into the praying-to-Allah posture. When finally I was able to make myself stay down—I didn’t know what to say to Allah.”
This also raises an interesting sociological question, why is that people with the worst pasts often turn out to be the best and most brilliant of people later in life?
My hypothesis is that each person has been endowed with a certain level of energy/creativity/intelligence (ECI). Those with the highest units of ECI have the capacity to use it in whichever field they want to exert themselves in, almost always excelling in that field.
“I’ve never been one for inaction. Everything I’ve ever felt strongly about, I’ve done something about.”Autobiography of Malcolm X
Lesson 3: Have hope for the worst of people to change
From the life of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabaaz and many others in history like ‘Umar (ra), Khalid bin Walid (ra), Ikrimah bin Abu Jahl (ra) we have real-life examples of the worst of people reaching the absolute peaks of Maqaam with Allah.
Next time you come across a criminal/the most despicable of people, pray for their guidance, have hope that they can change and try delivering the message of Islam to them. I personally have come across a number of criminals face to face who have robbed me point blank with the threat of violence or stolen from me through deception. Although I do feel anger towards them, I still ask Allah to guide them.
When meeting with Fir’aun the worst of creation, Musa ﷺ was commanded by Allah (swt) to speak with him gently and mildly, perchance he may pay heed.
Lesson 4: The racist system inhibits social mobility for people of colour
During high school Malcolm was a very bright student achieving excellent marks. However one day when alone with his teacher, he advised Malcolm that his aspirations for a lawyer were completely unrealistic for a black man, and that he should consider carpentry instead. This was a huge psychological blow to Malcolm and the decisive turning point in his life, discouraging him to pursue his studies seriously further, and eventually leading him to a life immersed in drug-dealing & crime.
“In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn’t know it. All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man’s American social system.”Autobiography of Malcolm X
Can you imagine the implications and tragedy of this scenario? A young boy with dreams of being a successful lawyer- his hopes crushed due to a society where only white people could ascend and take respectable roles. Leading him to live a life of crime instead, living in the ghettoes, bound to be murdered.
A racist system that does not afford the same rights & social mobility to people of colour invariably leads to a volatile & imbalanced society, destroying the lives & potential of bright youth, carrying the impact downward to generations.
Lesson 5: Your knowledge could inspire others; someone who may achieve much more than you
When Malcolm entered prison he did not care much about learning at all. He had practically forgotten how to read and write. The person to inspire him and plant the seeds of acquiring knowledge and engage in public speaking was an inmate named Bimbi.
“He would have a cluster of people riveted, often on odd subjects you never would think of. He would prove to us, dipping into the science of human behavior, that the only difference between us and outside people was that we had been caught. He liked to talk about historical events and figures. When he talked about the history of Concord, where I was to be transferred later, you would have thought he was hired by the Chamber of Commerce, and I wasn’t the first inmate who had never heard of Thoreau until Bimbi expounded upon him. Bimbi was known as the library’s best customer. What fascinated me with him most of all was that he was the first man I had ever seen command total respect…with his words.
Bimbi seldom said much to me; he was gruff to individuals, but I sensed he liked me. What made me seek his friendship was when I heard him discuss religion. I considered myself beyond atheism—I was Satan. But Bimbi put the atheist philosophy in a framework, so to speak. That ended my vicious cursing attacks. My approach sounded so weak alongside his, and he never used a foul word.
Out of the blue one day, Bimbi told me flatly, as was his way, that I had some brains, if I’d use them. I had wanted his friendship, not that kind of advice. I might have cursed another convict, but nobody cursed Bimbi. He told me I should take advantage of the prison correspondence courses and the library.When I had finished the eighth grade back in Mason, Michigan, that was the last time I’d thought of studying anything that didn’t have some hustle purpose. And the streets had erased everything I’d ever learned in school; I didn’t know a verb from a house.”
Bimbi’s breadth of knowledge which he was able to communicate effectively in speech was the turning point of redemption for Malcolm, ultimately inspiring his voracious appetite for reading and a life of learning and activism.
Bimbi was able to completely inspire a criminal nicknamed ‘Satan’ through his learning and knowledge. This is why our Deen emphasizes the seeking of knowledge to such a degree and passing this knowledge on to others.
Perhaps through you, you will inspire someone who will end up achieving much more than you. The enduring part though, you will receive a full share of all the good they do as a result.