Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) is by far one of the most influential activists of our time and increasingly so in a period when young Muslim generations have gained ‘a new kind of consciousness’ as Malcolm once said, in light of increasing violation of Muslims civil liberties and Islamophobia primarily in the West, since 9/11.
To many Muslims, Malcolm X holds a great place of respect and admiration as a man who spoke and fought for not only the rights of African-Americans but for the oppressed people of the third world. Even Rosa Parks whose act of refusing to move from a white only seat triggered the civil rights movement, stated that Malcolm X was her hero.
Throughout the active political years of his life with the Nation of Islam until his end, Malcolm X had few but interesting encounters with Sudan and Sudanese. He travelled to Sudan in 1959 visiting Khartoum and Omdurman and 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.’’
In 1962 Malcolm X felt increased resentment from high ranking Nation of Islam members in Chicago for his public recognition and were suspicious that he wanted to succeed Elijah Muhammed. Malcolm sought to deflect these feelings by reducing his media appearances and promote Elijah Muhammed’s cult by defending the NOI against orthodox Muslims. The Muslim community in America looked at the NOI from the outset as a heretical cult but rarely spoke against it outright.
One of the first Orthodox Muslims to publicly criticise the NOI was a Sudanese student at Pennsylvania University called Yahya Hayari. Malcolm responded both private 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 for 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 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 of helped lay the tracks for Malcolm’s searching into 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!’’. When at Mecca, Malcolm befriended a Sudanese called Shiekh Ahmed Hassoun who taught in Mecca for 35 years and would serve 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 is common that Sudanese feel their country is rarely recognised or mentioned some way in contemporary history, however many I believe will take pride in knowing that Sudanese were involved closely in the inspiring picture of 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.